An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson

I am glad I stumbled upon An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson last week while listening to a podcast. I immediately took audible monthly subscription to read it. While listening to the book, I felt as if Will Larson has been talking to me over a fireside chat and sharing his long experience about how he learnt leading engineers and engineering teams after many trials and errors. I had so many aha moments that when I finished the audible this morning, I ordered the physical copy of this book from Amazon. I suspect I am going to refer back to this book every now and then to make my work life easier. I highly recommend this book to all engineering leaders.

Here are some of the notes I took along the way.

  1. There are 3 major management levels.
    • Line Management – Usually managers and senior managers under this category who manage a team of engineers. Each such managers should have 6 to 8 direct reports. In a 100 company organization, a line manager needs to have at least 5 reports. Some companies have TLM (Technical Lead Manager) positions where engineering manager is supposed to be hands on. TLMs should have no more than 4 direct reports.
    • Mid Level Management – Usually Directors and Senior Directors under this category who manages team of teams. They should have 4 to 6 managers as direct reports. In a 100 company organization, each such director needs to have 20 dotted (direct and indirect) reports.
    • Leadership – VP of Engineering or CTO are under this category. They manage a whole organization. In a 100 company organization, they should have 40 people within their dotted reports.
  2. No engineering team size should be less than 4.
  3. A team takes a long time to gel together. So don’t dissemble them easily.
  4. It takes 8 engineers in a team to support 2 tier oncall rotations.
  5. An untrained engineer (for example, new hires) is one-third productive of a trained engineer. An untrained engineer may take about 10 hours of time per week from a trained engineer.
  6. Each interview takes about 2 hours of time from each engineer to prepare, take interview, debrief etc.
  7. Only trained engineers should be in oncall rotations.
  8. Almost every platform team is working on a critical scaling rewrite.
  9. Most teams work well when it has 8 engineers. For more than that a new team should be spinned off.
  10. If your engineer is taking more than 3 interviews a week, it’s an act of mercy to give that engineer a month off every 3 or 4 months.
  11. From Accelerate, 4 measures of developer velocity to track –
    • Delivery lead time – time from creation of code to its use in production
    • Deployment frequency – how often the code is deployed in production
    • Change fail rate – how frequently changes fail
    • Time to restore service – time spent recovering from defects
  12. Feedback loop of systems upstream/downstream impact –
    • code review rate
    • deploy rate
    • defect rate
    • recovery rate
    • debug rate
  13. There are  4 sources of staffing teams –
    • team members who are ready to fill the position right now
    • team members who can grow into the position in projected timeframe 
    • internal transfers from within your company
    • external hires who already have the skills
  14. Communication is company specific
    • start with conclusion while presenting to senior leadership
    • provide a narrative of where you are and where you want to go
    • prepare for detours
  15. How new managers get stuck – 
    • only manage down, 
    • only manage up, 
    • never manage up, 
    • optimize locally 
    • assume that hiring never solves a problem 
    • don’t spend time building relationships 
    • define their role too narrowly 
    • forget that their manager is a human being
  16. How experienced managers get stuck – 
    • do what worked in their previous companies
    • spend too much time building relationships
    • assume more hiring can solve every problem
    • abscond rather than delegate
    • become disconnected from ground truth
  17. How managers of all levels of experience get stuck – 
    • mistake team size for impact
    • mistake title for impact
    • confuse authority with truth
    • don’t trust the Team enough to delegate
    • let other people manage their time
    • only see the problems
  18. How to partner successfully with your manager – 
    • you need them to know a few things about you
    • things you need to know about them
    • you should occasionally update the things you know about each other
  19. Tasks can be handled in three ways –
    • close out
    • solve
    • delegate
  20. Measuring teams –
    • retention rate
    • referral rate by cohorts
    • attendance rate for recurring events and team lunch
    • quality and completion rate of coffee chats
  21. How to interview for director candidates –
    • Partnership – partnership to peers and teams they manage
    • Execution – support team on operational excellence
    • Vision – can they present a compelling, energizing vision for their team and scope
    • Strategy– can they identify the necessary steps to transform the present state into their vision
    • Spoken and written communications – can they convey complicated topic both in written and spoken forms while remaining engaging and tuning to their audience
    • Stakeholder management – can they make executives and other key stakeholders feel heard
  22. Three sources for candidates –
    • referrals from existing employees
    • inbound candidates via your job site
    • sources candidates that you proactively bring into your funnel
  23.  An engineering manager should spend time cold sourcing (for example via LinkedIn) weekly one hour.
  24. Sprints are running well if –
    • team knows what they should be working on
    • team knows why their work is valuable
    • team can determine if their work is complete
    • team knows how to figure out what to work on next
    • stakeholders can learn what the team is working on
    • stakeholders can learn what the team plans to work on next
    • stakeholders know how to influence the team’s plans
  25. A rigorous process should have some level of redundancy
  26. Every team needs to have a clear set of directional metrics and easily discoverable dashboard
  27. A use snapshot of team snippets each sprint will have –
    • what they are doing
    • why they are doing it
    • what they are planning to do next

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