jml's notebook

Review: An Elegant Puzzle

My boss suggested I read An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson.

It's a really good book! Unlike Fournier's The Manager's Path or Lopp's Managing Humans, this book is structured to provide you, the jobbing manager, with a bunch of useful tools that you can use in your actual work.

The scope is broad. It covers hiring, org structure, culture, strategy docs, on-call rotas, and more.

The style is cool, measured, and nuanced. Larson brings an engineering mindset to management challenges and seems to pull it off.

You won't find much in here about inspiring a team, giving tough feedback, firing people gently, or really much in the way of the more emotional I was going to say 'human', but fuck that. Thinking dispassionately is human too. side of management. I think this is OK and maybe even deliberate. You need to do those things no matter what kind of team you are managing, whereas the scope of the book is firmly fixed around engineering management.

I have two gripes about this book.

The first is that the title is a blatant lie. There is nothing elegant about this puzzle. It's a mess and the solutions are messy and nothing in the book pretends otherwise.

The second is that the author constantly refers to his own blog via endnotes. Sometimes, he even uses terms that he has defined in those blog posts as if you were expected to have read them. This seems like madness to me. If you are writing a book, put the words you want in the book into the book. If there are words that you have elsewhere that are needed in the book, put them in the book too.

Neither of these gripes should stop you buying the book.

I would suggest getting a physical version. Much like 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing, this is a book that's meant to be flipped through and consulted, rather than read straight through (as I did).

If you aren't genuinely interested in software engineering management, you probably won't get much out of this book. It's not like, say, Slack or The Mythical Man-Month, in that there's very little in here that you could use to beat your own manager over the head.