Review: An Elegant Puzzle

An Elegant Puzzle by Will Larson (Goodreads Link)

Without burying the lede, An Elegant Puzzle is one of the best books that I have read on management. Though the book specifically tailors itself to Engineering Management the systems-based approach makes many parts of it applicable to other teams that are focused on complex problems.

Will Larson's background at Yahoo!, Digg, Socialcode, Uber, and now Stripe. Gives you a great view of the experiences that he has cultivated to put this book together. Large companies, Small companies scaling up, Medium companies scaling up extremely fast this array of environments is what he tested these ideas against. Often the ideas are presented as what worked for him and not as a blanket solution to every management problem, or he presents multiple options and highlights his favorite.

Including Sections on:

  1. Organizations

    The basics of team sizing, organization, and productivity. Cast into stone Larson explains what how to manage team growth while keeping productivity high.

  2. Tools

    In the Tools sections, he tackles things like metrics, working with (or being) product teams, documentation, system rewrites, and presenting to senior leadership.

    In your current position, you may not be facing each of the items he covers in the tools section, knowing them before they occur will be of high value for you. Or at least creating a mental pointer to the reference.

  3. Approaches

    These are the ideas that you will see affecting every other aspect of the role you take on as an engineering manager.

    • Work the policy not the exceptions
    • Saying no
    • Your philosophy of management
    • Ways engineering managers get stuck

    I will be rereading these sections regularly until I have my own definitions that have worked for me to refer to instead.

  4. Culture

    There are often no hard facts in designing culture, no single action that works without a doubt at every single company. In this section, Larson sets Opportunity and Membership as two primary elements for designing an inclusive organization, then presents many ideas to be experimented with that he has seen and used in the past.

  5. Career

    This section covers topics from personal career to hiring.

    The hiring funnel laid out in An Elegant Puzzle is

    Identify → Motivate → Evaluate → Close → Onboard → Impact → Promote → Retain

    Normally companies stop after the Close or Onboard step when people accept the offer and join the company. By extending the funnel out you start to get better metrics on retention that are connected to the entire journey of an employee when they were at the company.

    He touches on each of these steps in the funnel with hand-on actions that can be taken immediately in most companies. From cold-sourcing, interviewing internally, creating career ladders, and more.

Though the sections had to land in the book linearly, feel free to mix and match and change the order. Each section and subsection stand on its own likely due to the decade of blogging that Larson did before publishing the book.

If you as a person managing engineers on an individual level or at a larger scale want one reference to use as a playbook this would be the first one to turn to.

P.S. The Hardcover is beautiful and will look great on the shelf.

As will any other book from

Write More

By encouraging, or even requiring, members of any team to write and record more we will be developing a few different skillsets.

  • Reflection: The ability to understand and share what you have done and learned in the past.
  • Understanding: The ability to deeply know the topic you are discussing.
  • Quality: Creating solutions that you will want to share in the future.

Reflection is the first skill. Finding something that you have done recently in your career that you can be proud of and want to share is easy when you actually take a look, it is likely that you have done more than you realize. The problem is that we often do not stop to take a look because we have so much to do right now and are only looking forward. Without looking back and feeling proud we experience more burnout. Without looking back to be critical we can make the same mistakes we have always made. And without looking back at ourselves we cannot grow.

Understanding is important, by writing more we are forced to prove our understanding. Writing will force the author to move into a state where they can clearly explain what they are talking about. The author is moving to a point of being able to teach their topic. When a person gets to this point it is much more likely that the next time they come across this topic they will make stronger decisions that are founded on more deeply ingrained knowledge. Especially because the writing that you created serves as a record and as an extension to their brain. You and your team become more resilient in your knowledge base and will make better decisions together as it grows.

There are probably other skills that you develop through writing, though the last one I want to touch on is quality. If you are in an experience where you can see your team making mistakes, maybe even ones that have already happened, or you can see the team not performing at the level of which you know they are capable. It is your responsibility to continue to encourage quality. How does writing improve quality? It is more common to see a change in quality in the attitudes of an author after their first piece has been written. They want to make the next thing they work on good enough to write about. They will hopefully want to build something that they feel happy and proud to share with the world.

When these three things are true it can have a significant impact on your department and even the organization as a whole. If outsiders see engineers writing about how proud they are of what they get to create, it will draw in other engineers who want the same feeling and will more quickly exhibit these traits.

Though I am speaking of engineering it is not limited to that. Any department or field that you want to be perceived as an expert in you have to know intimately (Understanding), create amazing work and content (Quality), and be able to share it with the world so they know (Writing and Reflection).


Seeing the after-image
Of a bomb dropped
15 years past.
And I still feel the wound
That is left in me.
I covered it up
It "healed" over.
And I never forgot
Or forgave
The people on the other end.
Doing their best
Living their life
In a perspective I could not
And did not try to understand.
You feel betrayed when
In the crossfire of
A team mate.
Trust is gone, yet there
They stand.
Beside you.

Those events happened
I'm not asking for repression.
But now it's my turn to move forward.
Because though you cast the first stone,
I betrayed you too.

When I turned around

And became a wall.


You tell me I know this.
I'm falling through space
looking into a void of the
unknown. With my knowledge
behind me, I could turn
see it and remember.
But I can't.
I'm racing forward, upward, downward
sense of direction lost while falling
with no gravity.
As you follow me into the unknown you see
light between us, you see me ahead.
So when I show you the
vast darkness consuming me
every second, it scares you.
Since you see only the light.
Belief flickering between light and dark,
as what you hear from me conflicts
the signals you receive
from your own mind, and you don't know
who to believe.


The old saying "canary in a coal mine" is not just a farce. From 1911-1986 canaries were used to detect carbon monoxide and other poisons in mines. Since they are highly susceptible to airborne poisons if they became ill or died it was a pretty strong indication that the miner needed to high tail it out of there.

Though we don't use canaries anymore, we have carried this saying into our vernacular, nowadays a canary can be anything that helps you avoid an ill fate. When people in an organization become the canaries they are often assessing risk and sometimes even assessing difficulty. Having people who are looking for risks and finding chinks in the armor is extremely valuable, they sit in the wings of a team providing warnings. Even so, there must be a balance between warning and willingness to commit to new solutions and make progress.

If we do not have people assessing risk in the organization we will be stumbling into things blindly, making plenty of horrible decisions along the way. Canaries are part of the way that you can take what has happened in the past and apply it to the future, their hindrance and resistance to change are often seated in their experience. Listen to them and you will improve your solutions as a result.

Most often a canary is a person on the team whose questions and statements take a negative approach towards a problems

  • This is why we can't do X?
  • My reservations about why?
  • If we do X, we would also have to do Y?

These questions are tremendous, the downfall comes when teams are looking for consensus or the canary is the loudest voice. There is always a wrench to be thrown, always at least one question that can stop the plan from being perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect plan and they will set out to prove that the plan being discussed falls into that category of imperfection.

To find balance in listening to our canaries and making progress. One of the things we have to do is focus on the problem and show that we understand it, before allowing solutions to be proposed. Doing this will help canaries adequately poke holes in the solution as it is built and know that risk is being reduced as the solution grows.

We also need to ensure is that if there are multiple solutions available we do not look for team consensus and let the canary prevent any action from being taken if there are actions that would be good for the team or organization. If this is the case, at the beginning of the discussion have the team appoint a decision-maker, if you appoint the canary that's on you, the decision-maker will be responsible for listening, understanding the problem, then processing everyone's solutions and arguments. This allows a team to make progress while reducing risk since everyone has the opportunity to be heard.

Being a canary is helpful and if you are one, first thank you. Second, you serve your team better when being the canary is a mode of thinking that you can hop in and out of when needed. You being critical when necessary is helpful, being critical all the time is often not helpful and brings the team down. I end this coming from a place of recent experience. On a project at work that I did not feel was adequately planned or resourced, after the decision was made my job should turn to support the people and the project whether I agree with it or not (If a project is unethical that is a different story, keep shouting, for example,