Takeaways: An Elegant Puzzle (Will Larsen)

100% skimmed

The High Growth Handbook was my first exposure to Stripe Press. It’s a compendium of concise pull quotes from founders, VC, and leadership powerhouses from startup land. They cover broad topics like HR, Hiring, Growth Stages, et al. I loved it ❤.

It was no surprise then, as a reader of Larsen’s blog, and as a fan of Stripe engineering, that I was elated when I heard about An Elegant Puzzle.

It’s not prose as much as a compilation of essays, so I skimmed it, then returned to a few areas of interest. As my teams grow, and career develops, this is a book I’ll refer back to for more insight.

I knew not all teams are created equal, and I had been through a few forming–storming–norming–performing exercises at this point. Larsen took it a step further and applied a sort of engineering-specific twist on this model that really sung to me.

⭐ I took another look at the teams around me, and felt like I saw them with new eyes. This new framing was shared with my peer group, and Larsen’s diagnostic suggestions helped us resolve a few cloudy issues (esp. re: debt repayment).

Larsen also successfully visualized the benefits of consolidating effort. Answer this: Should your team make 1% progress a day on 10 things, or 10% progress a day on one thing? The answer is to consolidate your effort and focus more energy on fewer things, get a return on some things sooner, and some things later. If you’re a fan of systems thinking, this may be very exciting.

If you’ve read Product Development Flow, or The Goal, then you’re familiar with the concept of slack. This was a moment when Larsen reinforced this idea in the context of engineering utilization, and it just felt super good to read. One of those moments of familiarity in new territory.

  • Takeaway #4: Finding managerial scope

This section doesn’t read the way you think. It’s a rejection of the job-hunter goal of “join a small team ➡ hire a large team ➡ become successful”. Larsen says instead, pursue scope. Take on larger problems instead of counting rungs as headcount. “There is a lot less competition for hard work”.

⭐ This was helpful to me in my last job search, and led me to seek out meaningful challenges without getting clouded by headcount. It’s hard to ignore when that’s an early question in the interview process. “Have you been a manager of managers?” “How many rolled up to you?”

  • Takeaway #5: Roles > rocket ships

“Working at a company isn’t a single continuous experience” he says. It’s a roller coaster of stability and rapid change. If you’ve read The Alliance, Hoffman says to think about your career like “tours of duty”, and I found Larsen’s words aligned with that.

⭐ When things slowed down for me at Drift, and my rapid growth became more like a limping limbo, it was time for me to own my career narrative once again, and set out into the tech world.


✅ Way back when, I pre-ordered this book. I was so excited to open it up, and it turned out to be the book I wish I’d written (and had the experience to write).

Larsen is a strong strategist and distillers of ideas down to simple, interactive parts. If you’re in engineering leadership or ops, this is ambrosia. He’s even working on a new book based on his StaffEng content.

There are so many things in this book that reinforce hard-learned lessons and make me feel more capable (and less rogue) than ever.

Did I mention that Larsen is high on my wish list for the podcast. 🤩


Inquiring minds want to know

Was StaffEng low-key inspired by me? Probably definitely not, but maybe?