The Effective Engineer

by Edmond Lau

Cover image

Publisher: Effective Bookshelf
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 0-9961281-0-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 222

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Silicon Valley start-up tech companies have a standard way of thinking about work. Large chunks of this come from Google, which pioneered a wide variety of new, or at least not-yet-mainstream, ways of organizing and thinking about work. The rest accreted through experience with fast-paced start-ups, engineer-focused companies, web delivery of products, and rabid turnover and high job mobility within a hothouse of fairly similar companies. A key part of this mindset is the firm belief that this atmosphere has created a better way to work, at least for software engineers (and systems administrators, although heaven forbid that one call them that any more): more effective, more efficient, more focused on what really matters.

I think this is at least partly true, at least from the perspective of a software engineer. This Silicon Valley work structure focuses on data gathering, data-based decision-making, introspection, analysis, and continuous improvement, all of which I think are defensibly pointed in the right direction (if rarely as rigorous as one might want to believe). It absorbs bits and pieces of work organization techniques that are almost certainly improvements for the type of work software engineers do: Agile, Lean, continuous deployment, and fast iteration times.

In other cases, though, I'm less convinced that this Silicon Valley consensus is objectively better as opposed to simply different; interviewing, for instance, is a puzzle that I don't think anyone has figured out, and the remarkable consensus in Silicon Valley on how to interview (basically, "like Google except for the bits we thought were obnoxious") feels more like a social fad than a sign of getting it right. But every industry has its culture of good ideas, bad ideas, fads, and fashion, and it's quite valuable to know that culture if you want to work in that industry.

The Effective Engineer is a self-published book by Edmund Lau, a Silicon Valley software engineer who also drifted (as is so common in Silicon Valley) into mentoring, organizing, and speaking to other software engineers. Its purpose, per the subtitle, is to tell you "how to leverage your efforts in software engineering to make a disproportionate and meaningful impact." While that's not exactly wrong, and the book contains some useful and valuable tips, I'd tend to give it a slightly different subtitle: "a primer on how a Silicon Valley software engineer is expected to think about their work." This is a bit more practical, a bit less confident, and a bit less convinced of its own correctness than Lau might want to present his work, but it's just as valuable of a purpose if you want to work in the industry. (And is a bit more honest about its applicability outside of that industry.)

What this book does extremely well is present, in a condensed, straightforward, and fast-moving form, most of the highlights of how start-ups and web-scale companies approach software engineering and the SWE role in companies (SWE, meaning software engineer, is another bit of Google terminology that's now nearly universal). If you've already worked in or around this industry for a while, you've probably picked up a lot of this via osmosis: prioritize based on impact and be unapologetic about letting other things drop, have a growth mindset, reprioritize regularly, increase your iteration speed, measure everything constantly, check your assumptions against data, derisk your estimates, use code review and automated testing (but not too much), automate operations, and invest heavily in hiring and onboarding. (The preceding list is a chapter list for this book.) If you're working at one of these sorts of companies, you're probably currently somewhere between nodding and rolling your eyes because no one at work will shut up about these topics. But if you've not worked inside one of these companies, even if you've done software engineering elsewhere, this is a great book to read to prepare yourself. You're going to hear about these ideas constantly, and, if it achieves nothing else at all, The Effective Engineer will give you a firm enough grounding in the lingo and mindset that you can have intelligent conversations with people who assume this is the only way to think about software engineering.

By this point, you might be detecting a certain cynicism in this review. It's not entirely fair: a lot of these ideas are clearly good ones, and Lau does a good job of describing them quickly and coherently. It's a good job for what it is. But there are a couple of things that limited its appeal for me.

First, it's definitely a primer. I read it after having worked at a web-scale start-up for a year and a half. There wasn't much in it that seemed particularly new, and it's somewhat superficial. The whole middle section in particular (build tools for yourself, measure everything, be data-driven) are topics for which the devil is often in the details. Lau gives you the terminology and the expected benefits, but putting any one of these techniques into practice could be a book (or several) by itself. Don't expect to come away from The Effective Engineer with much of a concrete plan for how to do these things in your day-to-day software development projects. But it's a good reminder to be thinking about, say, how to embed metrics and data-gathering hooks into the software you write. This is the nature of a primer; no 222-page book can get into much depth about the fractal complexity of doing good, fast, scalable software development.

Second, there's a fundamental question raised by a book like this: effective at what? Lau tackles that in the first chapter with his focus on impact and leverage, and it's good advice as far as it goes. (Regular readers of my book reviews know that I love this sort of time management and prioritization discussion.) But measuring impact is a hard problem that requires a prioritization framework, and this is not really the book for this. The Effective Engineer is written primarily for software developers at start-ups, leaves the whole venture-capital start-up process as unquestioned background material, and accepts without comment the standard measures of value in that world: fast-deployed products, hypergrowth, racing competitors for perceived innovation, and finding ways to extract money. That's as deep into the question of impact as Lau gets: increases in company revenue.

There's nothing wrong with this for the kind of book Lau intended to write, and it's not his fault that I find it unsatisfying. But don't expect The Effective Engineer to ask any hard questions about whether that's a meaningful definition of impact, or to talk much about less objective goals: quality of implementation, craftsmanship, giving back to a broader community via free software contributions, impact on the world in ways that can't be measured in market share, or anything else that is unlikely to lead to objective impact for company profits. At best he leaves a bit of wiggle room around using the concept of impact with different goals.

If you're a new graduate who wants to work at Silicon-Valley-style start-ups, this is a great orientation, and likewise if you're coming from a different area of software development into that world. If you're not working in that industry, The Effective Engineer may still be moderately interesting, but it's not written for that audience and has little or nothing to say of the challenges of other types of businesses. But if you've already worked in the industry for a while, or if you're more interested in deeper discussions of goals and subjective values, you may not get much out of this.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-05-02

Last modified and spun 2016-05-03