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Part 3: An Elegant Puzzle Book Discussion w/ Will Larson

Published 7/10/2019

In today's episode ,we release part 1 of a three part interview with Will Larson. Will is an engineering manager at Stripe, and he recently published a book titled, An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management.

In this part 3, we discuss focus and how Will built depth in your career journey.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
It's easy. I've certainly been very anxious at times in my career about how do I get to the next thing the right thing but But there's so many different paths to follow that will get you there that that honestly I think just as you said focusing I'm doing some some good work building some depth Just do that over and over and you'll get someone really really really good That was Will Larson on the last episode of Developer TeaIf you haven't listened to the last two episodes I encourage you to go back and listen. This is a three-part interview with Will Larson Will is an engineering manager at Stripe and he recently published the book an elegant puzzle It's all about engineering management But I encourage you if you are an engineer of any level or if you're a manager Regardless of if you're an engineer or not There's tons of value to be had in this book lots of practical advice on how to structure teams and the limitations on team sizing Go and check it out my name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer TeaAnd my goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective and purpose in your careers Let's get into the interview with Will Larson I totally agree with that with that advice and kind of digging in and You know taking the time to kind of be mindful right and and Slow down a little bit the the world seems like it's moving fast But that doesn't mean that you have to imitate the fast moving pieces most of what you see is staged You know not not in the sense that it's a conspiracy, but rather in the sense that people are only putting forth the things that they've polished that they've taken the time to Make ready for presentation and it's easy to believe that everyone has it together and everyone is a learning at this rapid pace and that you're going to be Eclipsed that that you know you're never going to actually be able to keep up But if you slow down and you set your own pace right and you take time to To focus on the things that are important to you That's actually a much more rewarding way to approach a career and you'll find that that's actually what successful people are probably doing to They're they're not learning every single language on the market. They're not you know Predetermining their entire career path They're also faced with those same kinds of hard questions of should I try this manager roll on or not? We all have those same kind of constraints or time is the same. We all need to sleep. We all need to eat we all have bills to pay and To kind of identify with that humanity and slow down a little bit Take things a little bit more peacefully. I think that's you know one of the messages of this show is as to approach your career From kind of a more mindful position and I think that can that can really help Reduce some of that anxiety and reduce some of that need that feeling of I've really got to just kind of grind everything out And instead you can replace that with a more reasonable approach So I actually don't know any kind of long-term managers or engineers who've been in the industry for 10 plus years and like haven't gone through like at least one bout of burnout I think you know it's Epidemic is is a loaded term but Really learning to pace yourself. I think it is one of the core life skills and unfortunately I think it's typically true that you only Understand how you need to pace yourself as you've really kind of get to the extremes of kind of messing it up a couple of times But I mean it's it's still true that I just can't work at the pace I once did before kind of some of the vows of burnouts that I've experienced in my career And I think hopefully people can learn that earlier and earlier and then kind of replicate that Failure mode less less frequently than than the current generation of kind of soft-grinching errors and managers seem to have Yeah, I think that's I think that's very important The idea that that burnout can actually have a lasting effect and also that you know you are a human and You can't treat yourself as though you're going to output at some specific point, you know for the rest of your life That's you know there's there's this term and machine in manufacturing Called utilization rate right and we've tried to apply this to humans to bad effect The idea being that you know the higher the utilization rate you get out of machine the more you get for your money essentially and Humans don't work that way and it's important to kind of respect that about yourself and about others Especially if you're in that kind of managerial role Will I'd love to ask you a question kind of a couple of final questions here? Is there anything that you kind of are more Have a kind of a higher degree of Passion for in terms of what you want to communicate to managers You what do you think that managers are largely missing what pieces of the puzzle do you think they really need? the most in your experience? Well, my personal vision for what I'd really like people to be thinking about more is that I Think sometimes as a manager who can kind of feel like a little bit of a cog But but really what I found is that individual managers can have a profound effect on kind of the quality of the Environment on the consistency on the fairness and creating an organization that Rewards people who kind of behave the way that you want People to behave kind of rewarding the people whose culture Is the culture you want to have around you and I think this is like our biggest opportunity to create like a legacy is and to create something of deep meaning is Looking at these people whose lives we just have such profound impact on How do we make sure that we're kind of there for all of them and how do we think about how we're not just there for our team But kind of the overall organizations that we that we live in and how can we make that a little bit better? Each day not just waiting for authority not finding reasons we can't but just finding these small little ways to To make things better and to me. I think that is what I found makes some of the best managers that I've gotten to work with I couldn't agree more. I think managers have the perhaps the biggest impact on the experience the work experience for Engineers and really in and almost every discipline Managers that going to have the kind of a lever a high leverage impact on on that working experience Okay, I have one more question for you. Well What is one thing that you wish more people would ask you about? I think I Think something that I've really learned a lot about and really feel quite passionate about That I don't get to talk to people that as much as I'd like to is how we go from kind of talking about inclusion and diversity as a challenge Like what are these specific actions that we've taken that have actually like made things meaningfully better? And so a lot of the book covers several of these things that have like moved the experience for folks that I've gotten to work with and made it a more Consistent a more kind of equitable environment with like more access to opportunity and I think this is such an important topic And so often we kind of get stuck on This is a problem, but what can I do and really I think there are just so many clear things that you can do clear project clear access to critical projects ensuring that you show up to kind of communities and Represent with your time where your priorities are So just two but there's just so many things we can do that that actually matter to folks and actually make results and I think this is a conversation I'd love to be having more and more With people across the industry. This is something I've been thinking a lot about recently partially because I'm taking a class kind of an online course and models and It turns out that Well, the course is called the model thinker or I guess that's the name of the book, but it's Scott Pages course on the subject and In the course he discusses this this idea of kind of micro actions and macro systems so our our individual actions that may contribute to a larger effect that we wouldn't have necessarily predicted and I think it's important that we think about diversity and inclusion from both of those angles From both the kind of the micro interactions that we have The kind of one-on-one interactions or even within a team But then also thinking especially for people who are in some managerial role where you're shaping the environment in some way Thinking about how all of those micro interactions Actually culminate to a macro effect what what is happening at a at a broader scale and one of the explanations he provides is Basically an interaction model where you have people who are generally okay with their neighborhood being diverse Right people who essentially look different from them. They want 40% of their neighbors to look like them Right, so this seems reasonable at first glance it seems that these people are okay with Having diverse neighborhood they also want to identify with the people who are who are like them as well and And it turns out that that actually creates a segregation model and you wouldn't expect it by looking at that individual Value set you wouldn't expect it by looking you would kind of try to apply this 40% across the board But because of the way that you know everything aggregates together There's unexpected results, right? So I think We should be At kind of a company level we should be looking at how those Individual actions and interactions end up aggregating at the company level. I think you're right that For example one of the powders of small actions About inclusion but what really anything is that they set the clear signal that it's a priority And then that causes other people to make larger actions and to make their own small actions Where sometimes the small things are just Creating the precedent creating the visibility the awareness even if they don't do a whole lot themselves Showing the time that's been spent. I think it can have huge impact particularly when it's like senior folks doing it and each thing a Senior folks person senior person does really kind of amplifies Across an organization Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. That's another thing that I learned when I was in a manager role that The kind of the voice of a manager the voice of a leader is often repeated This is something that's unique for people who are leaders when you say something It's very likely that whatever you said will get repeated and Unfortunately often it will be embellished not necessarily on purpose, but Meaning will be drawn From from whatever you say and so and that's that's not just you know vocalizing explaining It's not just about your words, but it's also about your actions and what do those actions mean people are looking at the leaders To to understand you know, what is this company? What are our values collectively? What is our culture collectively and we take those cues in particular from leadership? I think that's exactly right. I definitely have the experience. I'm sure I'm sure you have as well Where someone kind of parrots back to you something that Someone said a few years ago as a reason not to do something or a reason they're doing something You're like well, like I know the person who said that I know they're thinking about that and that's like no longer what they believe today But because there is this kind of meme that's propagated can be quite hard kind of untangle You things that are clearly no longer true. Essentially were never even true to your point about embellishment But that have just become part of like the the organizational lore Yeah, lore is a big deal right because it's driven off of this illusion That a manager a leader whenever they say something they've thoroughly Thought out, you know Whether or not they actually believe it They they know exactly what they're saying at all times They know how people will take it and they intended and Very often that's just simply not the case and leaders have the same kind of Communication breakdowns that people who are not leaders have And so yeah, I've seen that happen as well where one phrase in fact. I've done this before When I was a manager and particularly young in my managerial career I I walked up behind one of the people that I was working with a good friend of mine friends even to this day um And I said something along the lines of that code is is terrible Which is the worst thing by the way that a manager can say to somebody in particular if other people are Can over here it and I remember Uh, you know that whole him holding on to that moment for a really long time even after I had apologized Uh, fairly profusely for my misstep I knew pretty immediately that wasn't an effective way uh to help and You know what what would have been taken when I was an IC as oh who cares right who cares will will write the code And will kind of ping back and forth and share our opinions That was taken more as a judgment of that person and that can be of a very long-lasting Uh kind of scar on the relationship And and that experience that's you know, that's just a symbol of how effective Uh, your actions and words are when you're a leader and and going back to our previous discussion That high level of responsibility, right and and why it's so important to be more intentional As a leader with what you say and what you do I think intentional is right but but also just the level of consistency required to be a senior leader Where because these things kind of amplify so much We're even if you're just having a bad interaction one out of a hundred interactions You can be then defined by that and so to me something I've been thinking about a lot is as you get more senior The consistency of the basics that you have to have Just your ability to have you know Interview like 300 people and have all of them have a good experience with you your ability to have You know like 600 coffee chats with kind of co-workers and have all of them have like a good experience with you Your ability to have 15 hard performance conversations and for no one to feel like it's a personal attack but instead kind of objective fair and just like even small kind of misses or kind of to our earlier conversation about One bad thing outweighing like all the goods when you're thinking about kind of metrics for incidents or whatnot Do the same thing is equally true for kind of our interactions as we start to leave a a wider wake behind us in our seniority A hundred percent agree with that the the same kind of mental Uh hooks apply in the opposite direction not just when We as managers are evaluating the performance Uh of our direct reports, but also Uh when people are are watching us and those moments those individual speeches uh those minutes in time Uh, I like to think about that as you know, there's there's seconds that we remember even Uh those seconds become incredibly important and you know This is With a group of people who Uh, they are not intentionally trying to walk away from that right with we have to We have to recognize that this isn't this isn't something that that you know The average worker is going to try to create a system to properly evaluate leadership They're going to continue evaluating leadership in that normal human way of remembering those one out of 100 events Yeah, it's funny. I think that is the right way to evaluate us right or where I think It's funny part of designing these performance systems is like we kind of think about how should we be evaluated? Um, and it's it's interesting. So Stripe like most companies has these kind of biannual kind of cultural reviews Where we kind of have people kind of Rate themselves on a bunch of different questions like you know, how likely are you to work here in three years Um, and also leave comments and I think One of the interesting things is as you start reading these comments from increasing a large groups Is there are people who are frustrated um about stuff you're doing that you didn't think anyone would ever be frustrated about You're like, but I just did this very reasonable thing uh, and so I think Really leadership at scale and a large organization builds this level of stuff awareness That I think almost nothing else can maybe maybe therapy is like therapy and leading a large order or like two great ways to just Build this level of awareness about the things you've done that you thought were not controversial or thought landed really well And then seeing kind of a long tail of feed the accurate like nope Well actually a bunch of people are pissed about that when you like didn't even notice at the time that anything didn't didn't work Yeah, that's great advice and um definitely I think a lot of leaders find out that therapy is perhaps a better Avenue or faster avenue to to finding self-awareness that maybe you can use in in your career Um and and I have you know that's I say that in just but I absolutely Uh believe that Therapy and things like therapy are really helpful um to to virtually everyone But particularly if you are Someone who is who's in this kind of position where a lot of eyes are on you and a lot of stress is put on you then then abs you know be quick to To kind of dive in and dig in to understand yourself and become more self-aware. I think that's a um, you know rather than allowing the the leadership Failures that you may occur that you may experience Uh rather than those being your teacher go ahead and seek it out Uh kind of actively on the front end You know working working on ourselves is really core. I think There's never this place where you get to where you're like I'm done like I've been on I've done the work. I think um, you know societal norms have evolved a lot since since I was a child and have evolved a lot and like really important and wonderful ways But you know, we have to learn to like internalize these these changes We have to be thoughtful about things that we did when we were growing up that like word choice like um using guys as a quote-unquote Gender neutral term and kind of getting that level of mindfulness about kind of the words that we use and just continuing to evolve like how we interact um how we present and not Getting comfortable with how things used to work, but instead being continually present and how things are evolving and how we make people feel when they're around us and That ongoing work and investment in ourselves as I think one of the things that is kind of defining for effective leadership Yeah, and I think uh, I mean, it's true In an ongoing way because we're not in a static environment right Uh, we're continuously learning more about culture around us and our place in that culture and because we continue to grow There's still always more to learn and so digging in and uh, you know, you mentioned Using guys as as terminate. I'm probably I'm pretty sure I'm guilty of that on this episode Uh, so so there is no arrival point even when you do have that self-awareness um, you know I've done a lot of these episodes and I'm very self-aware about some things about my grammar for example, right? But there's also going to always be more growth that can occur That is just about accepting some of your some of the ways that you Uh, tend to to fail the some of the ways that you are Uh, you generally have a weaknesses, right? And then finding ways to deal with those Not necessarily always becoming better in those areas that may not necessarily be the best strategy for you But instead finding ways to to to make up the gap where you need to Maybe that means we're lying on someone else You know, certainly and we're not talking about uh, uh, uh, you know allowing a weakness of insensitivity towards others to continue. That's something that you absolutely can work on Uh, but sometimes we have a profile of skills and we should be focusing on ways to complement other people With the things that we're good at rather than always trying to figure out, you know How can how do I have to get better at this particular weakness? I totally Totally agree. I think There is sometimes this desire to like I'm bad at this thing that Or I don't like doing this work So hire someone else to do it for me and I think you can go a little bit too far that way sometimes where I think you can kind of Not do work you need to be doing and kind of justify it by saying you've delegated it There's kind of abdication versus um delegation and kind of I think important to be thoughtful about that But there there are certain things that that I've just found that I'm not very good at and I just don't Because of like what personally is important to me a good example of this is I Really believe in kind of doing great work and then kind of being quiet about it On like the work as its own reward And then I think that puts me in a spot where I'm not very good at kind of getting recognition for the org that I'm that I'm leading So how being more mindful about that Um, it conversely like I'm quite introverted so at the end of the day like I have no desire to kind of go to a team off site I just want to go home And so there they're I never scheduled these sorts of like bonding off sites that people really love and really get a lot of value out of And so there are certain places where just like recognizing where how you're wired is preventing you from kind of being um Naturally good and finding compensating kind of mechanisms to make sure that you don't just not schedule off sites not just kind of um Forget to tell anyone because you think it's kind of vain to kind of talk about the accomplishments or something like that Yeah, I think that's I think that's an excellent point and uh and knowing where that line is knowing What things can we be more mindful and intentional about and what things do we truly you know Never expect to really change about our core our core cells you don't expect to suddenly overnight no longer be an introvert and and you don't expect to suddenly I may not expect to suddenly overnight um stop being the kind of uh Question asker right and the investigative type where I'm always looking for you know that the Kind of uh an alternative way of looking at something and that can be a strength and it can be a weakness just like introversion can be a strength and a weakness Well, I really I could keep on talking to you. I realized we've gone way over our plans time at this point But uh, I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss this and I'd love for you to take a moment and do the thing You just said you're not very good at doing And talk to us a little bit about your book where I where we can find it and who is you know, who is it really for who should be Going and buying this book today So in an elegant puzzle you can find it on amazon's easiest place to get it um, it's you know about 250 pages of advice on how to lead effective thoughtful and just kind of engineering groups And it's not just about leading as a manager I think there's lots of ways to lead and and almost everything in there I think is gonna resonate to kind of a tech lead a team lead um, a senior engineer who's kind of considering making a manager transition um Really it's about decision-making and these are typically organizational decisions, but but really I think I hope Um, and so far the feedback I've gotten from folks who have read it who who come from kind of the pure technical track Um, I've gotten some value out of it. So an elegant puzzle By Will Larson and I I I've been really really just like super excited by the feedback so far. So Uh, a lot of people think it's a good book and hopefully hopefully readers or listeners I suppose will will as well. So yeah, I thought that was uh, that was very well done And I think you talk perfectly Uh, perfectly balanced about your own work that you're proud of so uh, uh, absolutely agreed this book is excellent uh, for developers Really of almost any level who are interested in you know, building effective teams um, so it's it's got kind of an official uh, official endorsement uh, on this podcast for sure Uh, and just to be clear, Will and Stripe have not You know compensated me in any way for this for this interviewer or the discussion on the book Um, well, thank you so much for taking the time to to talk with me on the show Likewise, thank you so much for having me. I think these are such important topics and just getting the opportunity to chat about them with you has been fantastic Another huge thank you to Will Larson for joining me on Developer Tea and thank you for listening to today's episode If you found this interview helpful or valuable in any way even if you found one thing that's going to change your career in some positive way Then I encourage you to subscribe and whatever podcasting app you use this show is totally free That always has been where four and a half years into making this show And if you come out with something that's going to to impact your career in a positive way I believe that it's a worthwhile trade that that bit of time that you spend listening to this show And of course this show wouldn't be possible without spec.fm go and check it out spec.fm This is a network of podcasts including this one Built for designers and developers who are looking to level up in their careers go and check it out spec.fm Thank you so much for listening and until next time enjoy your tea