The Effective Engineer

Edmond Lau has experience working at Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Quora and Quip and shares his learnings for software engineers in The Effective Engineer. He talks about the mindset an engineer needs to have by focusing on high-leverage activities, optimizing for learning and prioritizing regularly. Here are some personal highlights:

  • To be effective engineers, we need to be able to identify which activities produce more impact with smaller time investments. Leverage is a useful framework for analyzing the effectiveness of different activities. Leverage = Impact Produced / Time Invested
  • Three questions to ask ourselves about any activity we’re working on:
    1) How can I complete this activity in a shorter amount of time?
    2) How can I increase the value produced by this activity?
    3) Is there something else that I could spend my time on that would produce more value?
  • When you get the important things right, the small things often don’t matter. Make sure effort you invest is proportional to its expected impact. Don’t try to get everything done. Focus on what matters and what matters is what produces value.
  • When companies pay you for cushy and unchallenging 9-to-5 jobs, what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. An environment that iterates quickly provides a faster feedback cycle and enables you to learn at a faster rate.
  • To invest in your own growth, you should carve out your own 20% time. It’s more effective to take it in one-or-two hour chunks each day rather than in one full day each week. Study code for abstractions written by the best engineers at your company. Ask yourself if you would’ve written similar code. Make sure you’re on a team with at least few senior engineers whom you can learn from.
  • Engineers need longer and more contiguous blocks of time to be productive than many other professionals. Employees take an average of 10 to 15 minutes to return to focused activity after handling interruptions.
  • Effective engineers invest heavily in iteration speed.
  • What’s the scariest part of this project? That’s the part with the most unknowns and the most risk. Do that part first
  • When you’re the bottleneck for a project, you lose your flexibility to work on other things.
  • Creating a feedback loop is necessary for all aspects of a job.
  • Overtime is almost always followed by an equal period of compensatory undertime while the workers catch up with their lives.
  • The engineering practices that work for Google would be overkill at a startup or small company.
  • A well-designed architecture supports additional growth by adding more of the same type of components, not by introducing more complex systems.
  • Slowly failing systems muddy the sources of code errors, making it difficult for us to discover what went wrong. A valueable technique for shortening that feedback loop is to make your software fail fast.
  • The higher you climb up the engineering ladder, the more your effectiveness will be measured not by your individual contributions but by your impact on the people around you. You’re a staff engineer if you’re making a whole team better than it would be otherwise. You’re a principal engineer if you’re making the whole company better than it would be otherwise. And you’re distinguished if you’re improving the industry.
  • You get more credit than you deserve for being part of a successful company. Secret to your own career success is to focus primarily on everyone around you succeed.

Overall, the book is a good reflection of engineering culture in Silicon Valley tech companies, you may be familiar with most of the ideas if you’ve worked in one of these large tech companies before, but you may still find new ideas so it’s worth checking out …

August 25, 2015

Modern Romance


Modern Romance is comedian Aziz Ansari’s book on dating, relationships, love and marriage. The book compares today’s relationships with the past and presents interesting research findings along the way:

  • Geography had an important influence on marriages in the past, people used to marry their neighbors
  • Average age of first marriage used to be 20 (women) and 23 (men) in 1960s, whereas today it’s 26 (women) and 29 (men). People are getting married later
  • People used to look for a “companionate marriage” where each partner has a defined role in the household. Today people are looking for soul mates where the expectations are higher
  • “When a guy called and asked you out back then, it was a very special thing. You felt special and it was very flattering that he gathered the courage to do it.”
  • 20% of heterosexual couples meet their spouses online. This number is 70% for homosexual couples
  • In online dating, writing a standard message and then copying and pasting it to initiative conversations is 75 percent as effective as writing something more original each time
  • 90% of your fate as an online dater depends on the photos you pick. For men, the most effective photos are ones with animals, followed by showing off muscles (six-packs etc.). Men fare better when they are not smiling and are looking away from the camera
  • “Instead of trying to date so many different people and getting stressed out with texting games, I was really getting to know a few people and having a better time for it. Initially, we’re attracted to people by their physical appearances and traits we can quickly recognize. But the things that really make us fall for someone are their deeper, more unique qualities, and usually those only come out during sustained interactions.”
  • In the United States, 20 to 40 percent of heterosexual married men and 25 percent of heterosexual married women will have at least one extramarital affair during their lifetime.
  • In today’s romantic climate, many people are plagued by the upgrade problem: singles constantly wonder whether there is a better match, an upgrade.

Overall, I found the book to be a light read with interesting information. If you’re interested in this subject, definitely give it a shot!

August 4, 2015

sarp centel

Sarp is a software developer. He writes about technology, books and software.
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