The engineering mindset | Will Larson (Carta, Stripe, Uber, Calm, Digg)

The engineering mindset | Will Larson (Carta, Stripe, Uber, Calm, Digg)

Will’s background (00:00:00)

  • Will Larson has a background as a software engineering leader at Carta, Stripe, Uber, and Calm.
  • He is the author of two essential books for engineers and eng leaders: An Elegant Puzzle and Staff Engineer.

Changes in the field of engineering (00:04:12)

  • The engineering field has experienced significant changes over the past few years, especially in terms of hiring practices and team management.
  • There has been a shift in the amount of time spent on hiring, with managers now devoting less time to interviews and more to other competencies.
  • Engineers and engineering directors are now facing challenges such as leading the team, determining the right team allocation and sizing, as well as handling team cutbacks and consolidation.

We need to stop treating engineers like children (00:06:27)

  • There is a shift in the way engineers are treated within companies, with a move towards putting engineers into senior leadership roles and holding them accountable for their work.
  • A previous trend of coddling engineers and avoiding holding them accountable is being replaced by a new approach that allows engineers to tackle real challenges and be placed in senior roles.

Systems thinking

  • Systems thinking involves considering stocks (things that accumulate) and flows (the movement from a stock to another thing)
  • It includes understanding how a system and reality can be in conflict and the importance of reconciling the two
  • Systems thinking can help in understanding where mental models are wrong and how to improve them
  • It's important to strike a balance between learning and taking action
  • An example of systems thinking applied to hiring is explained using a hiring pipeline model

Implementing systems thinking in hiring

  • Creating a model of the hiring pipeline with potential candidates, different inflows, conversion rates, and offer stages
  • Identifying problems in the hiring process such as lack of confidence in candidates, low acceptance of offers, and insufficient candidates coming in
  • Using historical data to identify areas for improvement and avoid making arbitrary changes without evidence
  • Emphasizing the importance of taking a complex problem and working through it systematically

Engineering strategy

  • Many companies lack a written strategy for any function, including engineering.
  • It is important to realize that there is always a strategy, even if it is not written down.
  • Writing down the strategy allows for improvement and debugging of its application.

Examples of engineering strategies

  • An engineering strategy should include a diagnosis, guiding policies, and actions.
  • Examples of engineering strategies include using only in-house data centers at Uber and running a Ruby monolith at Stripe to focus on building innovative features.

How to get good at strategy

  • Recommended books for improving strategy include "Good Strategy, Bad Strategy" and "Thinking in Systems."
  • There are several engineering strategy-related books available, but there is still a need for a comprehensive one. The speaker is working on releasing a book on engineering strategy in the future.

The importance of writing about things that excite you (00:26:48)

  • Writing what you want to write allows for writing with energy and avoids negative energy
  • Writing for personal interests rather than for financial gain or a schedule leads to more productive writing
  • Writing an entire piece before starting with a publisher can help anticipate their concerns
  • Writing what is interesting to oneself and not for any specific audience can lead to a dedicated following

The biggest risk to content creation is quitting too soon (00:32:40)

  • The biggest risk in content creation is quitting too soon due to burnout, not missing the initial wave of popular topics
  • Consistency and sustainability over the long term are crucial for success in content creation
  • It's an infinite game, and content creators are not competing but rather working together to grow and maintain high standards of content.

How to make time for writing

  • Finding topics directly related to work can create alignment and efficiency in writing
  • Energy management and deliberate scheduling are key to finding time for writing
  • Excitement and passion for a topic can drive the motivation to make time for writing

Tips for aspiring writers

  • Focus on creating high-quality artifacts to showcase deep thinking rather than maintaining a consistent blog
  • Emphasize on publishing content and not worrying excessively about the quality
  • Disregard unnecessary feedback and focus on producing content consistently

Building productive relationships between product managers and engineers

  • Understanding each party's incentives and needs is crucial for alignment
  • Clear communication and honest dialogue can help navigate misaligned incentives and find compromises
  • There are usually compromise solutions that address everyone's needs when incentives and true needs are understood

Giving the same performance rating to EMs and PMs

  • EM/PM pairs are given the same performance rating, except in cases of clear non-performance
  • This approach drives a level of shared incentives and the right perspective
  • Calibrating together ensures exceptions are addressed, but on average, both receive the same rating
  • Involving design managers could be beneficial for design-led companies
  • EMs balancing team expectations is a common source of friction, particularly in growth teams
  • EMs are often seen as unreliable partners due to invisible constraints and differing priorities between PMs and EMs

Measuring engineering productivity

  • Measuring engineering productivity is a common and challenging question for engineering leaders.
  • Benchmarking based on funding allocation is a mechanical and unhelpful approach.
  • Talking to engineers directly can provide insights into team effectiveness.
  • Aligning engineering evaluation to business and product goals is essential.
  • The book "Accelerate" suggests four metrics for evaluating engineering teams: lead time, incident remediation time, failure rate, and a fourth unspecified metric.
  • The use of these metrics should be for diagnosis and improvement, not as definitive measures of success or failure.
  • Educating stakeholders on the limitations and nuances of these metrics is crucial for a more sophisticated understanding of engineering performance.

Defining company values (00:55:53)

  • Values should be honest and applicable to the organization's work
  • Reversibility is important - values that can't be reversed or applied are not useful
  • It should be clear who doesn't fit with the values, as everyone fitting is not useful


  • Companies should be honest about their values
  • Values should be applicable to the organization's work
  • The importance of clear criteria for who doesn't fit with the values is emphasized

Failure corner: the Digg rewrite (01:02:10)

  • Digg needed to compete with social networks and decided to do a complete rewrite of their platform
  • The decision to do a complete rewrite caused significant issues and challenges
  • The team worked under intense pressure to get the site fully functional
  • They faced technical challenges, but the experience provided valuable learning opportunities
  • Despite the heroic efforts, the company ultimately declined, leading to layoffs and a tough business environment

Will’s upcoming book, The Engineering Executive’s Primer (01:11:05)

  • Will Larson has a new book, "The Engineering Executive's Primer," coming out in February
  • The book is targeted at engineering executives and those aspiring to be one, and also useful for anyone working with engineering executives

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