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Managing to Solve An Elegant Puzzle with Will Larson

Episode 20

At Stripe, guest Will Larson received his first official management training by an employer. It taught him about different management styles, problem-solving, and more. But most employees don’t get management training, which can cause problems down the road. Marcus and Will discuss this, plus what it takes to handle leadership roles.



Show Notes

  •  Most coders don’t aspire to be managers
  • “There’s that idea that really if you think about the consequences and the kind of statefulness of these human systems that you’re working with, you can come to understand them in a way that you can’t if you look at them as causal”
  • “This is where systems thinking is so powerful, which is if you look at it casually you’ve solved a problem, if you look at it from a systems perspective you’ve created a problem, and you really have to have the slightly longer-term view and just to recognize that you are burying yourself when you take many of the quick easy ways out”
  • “The joy of senior manager is these problems are really hard to solve but you actually can finesse most problems into like a problem statement where everyone like is happy”
  • “So I’ve been thinking about the idea of forced change a lot recently.”
  • “A lot of incident programs have the same problem where they learn about the gaps but then you have to find the space to improve upon them”
  • We’re still learning: Most Silicon Valley companies are still very young
  • “There’s still a ton of scarcity for kind of the folks at the top of the market.”



Speaker 1: Welcome to the Programming Leadership podcast where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high performing software teams.


Marcus: Hello. Welcome to Programming Leadership. I’m Marcus and today I am exceedingly excited to have Will Larson, head of foundation engineering at Stripe with me today. Welcome, Will.


Will: Thank you so much for having me.


Marcus: Will, you are a manager now. You have been an engineer, you’ve got a marvelous book out called An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management. When you were little, did you want to be a manager?


Will: I don’t know if anyone really wants to be a manager when they’re little. I think when I was certainly very little I had no idea that management was a job and I think when I was early in my career on what I guess you might call a junior engineer, I had no idea I wanted to be a manager either and really I think like many folks ended up in management at the very first case because no one else was foolish enough to raise their hand at a certain moment as opposed to like a sincere personal need to become a manager or something like that.


Marcus: Now was this like a battlefield promotion? Did you “take one for the team”? Lean into the pitch and you thought okay, I’ll do it because no one else wants to? Or like how did it happen? How did you go from being an engineer to doing whatever it is that managers do?


Will: So there’s this process I use called like a directly responsible individual selection process and part of what I’ve learned from running that process over and over is this idea of scarcity and there’s certain projects that have a scarcity to them where people want them and there’s certain projects that might happen very irregularly but there’s no scarcity because no one wants them. I think management roles are also like that. I think there’s some companies that are doing really well and kind of the role of manager is defined in a way where everyone really wants this opportunity to become a manager, and I think you see that particularly as you start talking about like manager and manager roles. There’s like the scarcity where folks are just so excited to get that opportunity and people are like really competing.


Also, on the other end, there are kind of companies that are not doing so well. Maybe they’re shrinking a lot, maybe they’re perceived to be extremely political. Maybe some folks on the team are not the easiest folks to work with and in those cases management cases are not scarce and so you know, sometimes you have to get very lucky to get a management job and sometimes you just have to be a little bit foolish. For me, it was much more the latter case where we were laying off folks, we were losing a lot of the senior team. This was back when I was at Digg, and they just needed someone who would be willing to feel responsible for the team. One of my super powers kind of for better and for worse is I’ll feel responsible for anything, even if it’s not something I should feel responsible for and so I was a good choice in that regard.


Marcus: It seems like you kind of offered up two ideas, and let me see if I can reframe that or if I can understand it. So sometimes engineers may not want to step into management, even though there’s lots of availability, and I’m thinking of one of my clients who’s like I know these people could do a great job but I just can’t get anyone who really wants to do that, but then you also describe the scarcity at the … Maybe at the director level. Like oh, I’ve got a taste for this management thing and now I want to go upwards. Is that about right?


Will: Yeah, that’s totally right and I think folks are pretty rational, like sometimes they have misunderstandings which cause their rational behavior to make less sene to you as like an impartial third party observing kind of the behavior, but folks are pretty rational so I think they … You know, if you’re asking folks to take on a management job and they’re all like yeah, I’d love to help but maybe next year or maybe never, they’re probably picking up on something very real and conversely like when folks really think they want to be these directors, I think it means that the company has created this like very clear status around being this director directing the work of others and that really people desire it and want to be a part of. There’s probably also beliefs about the compensation that you get in these roles and so on and so forth.


Marcus: I picked up on a nuance of the way you said director who does a lot of directing, and yet, I mean at least from my experience, the best managers don’t manage too much and the best directors rarely direct.


Will: Truth. It’s true. I actually would love to go study the roots of the term director because it’s a pretty funny word and title if you really think about it. I’m not sure where the phrase comes from.


Marcus: We’ve got some engineers, do you think that most engineers … Do you think that they’re … Like the idea of becoming a manager just really isn’t very appealing to them for one reason or another?


Will: I think it really comes from the company that you grow up in or the first like two or three companies that you grew up in. I think the first six years of your career are really formative in a bunch of different ways and if you see some role models of folks who are managers, who are really supporting you, who really care about you, and are building you up or your team up, I think a lot of folks like look at that and that resonates. That’s something they want to be part of and want to contribute to, and I think some folks you don’t see that, you see managers as folks who are just kind of getting in the way or changing their minds or not giving you kind of the recognition and autonomy you so clearly deserve. I think it really just depends on what you see early on.


I can remember my first manager in technology. I think I had one one on one in two years and it was largely a don’t ask/don’t tell style of management where as long as he didn’t know something was going wrong, he just assumed it was going okay, and that was not a role model that I aspired to follow.


Marcus: Well, you know you call your book … I want to turn over to your book, which by the way, is beautifully designed. I love the illustrations, the cover, I mean it just feels … This is a classic tome that I’m going to hold onto for the next 20 years and you call it a system of engineering management. What’s behind that title for you?


Will: So in terms of systems, the most important idea here is kind of systems thinking and kind of Thinking In Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows is kind of the core book, maybe you have a copy on your bookshelf behind you somewhere.


Marcus: I do.


Will: It’s a great one. So to me, there’s that idea that really if you think about the consequences and the kind of statefulness of these human systems that you’re working with, you can come to understand them in a way that you can’t if you look at them as causal. Promotions are a good example. If you look at everything causally, it’s like hey, so and so wants to get promoted, they’re not quite there but they’re really advocating for it so I’m just going to go ahead and promote them, and it’s just like … So they’re promoted and it’s like this causal thing. Yeah, you know, they wanted it, they demanded it, I promoted them, it’s kind of over. But then like the way I found that is much more realistic to look at it is now you have this stock of kind of unjust promotions and it kind of accumulates and that it changes the behavior of the subsequent promotions in a very real way where I think the systems thinking helps you understand the reality far better than many other mental models that you might choose to use in this case.


Marcus: And in this case a stock can be thought of like a stock of water in a reservoir, right? Not like the stalk of a flower.


Will: Yep, yep, and not a stock on the stock market but actually yeah, the …


Marcus: Right.


Will: Right, a reservoir is the perfect metaphor.


Marcus: And so what you described there is that when you make a decision, a very local decision, to do something okay, just this once, the person is agitated, maybe you feel they’ll quit and they’re very important to the company, you want to retain them, so you take a chance and you promote them. That seems like a good local decision but I think what you’re describing is that local decisions over time sometimes have surprising effects.


Will: So there’s a chapter in the book which is work the policy not the exceptions, and this is an idea that I’ve learned through heartbreak a couple of times where it’s so tempting as a leader to do the quick and easy thing that solves your current problem because you have so many problems and you just want some of them to go away, and the thing that’s hard but that I’ve consistently learned to be true is that by doing the quick and easy thing, two weeks from now you have more problems. And this is where systems thinking is so powerful, which is if you look at it causally you’ve solved a problem, if you look at it from a systems perspective you’ve created a problem, and you really have to have the slightly longer term view and just to recognize that you are burying yourself when you take many of the quick easy ways out.


I was talking recently with a group of folks about inclusion diversity initiatives and there’s a very similar parallel here where a lot of practices that make it hard for folks who are underrepresented minorities or women to be successful are very efficient practices, hiring only from your friend group, hiring only from a university you’re familiar with, always going back to the same two or three people for the critical projects because you already trust them. It’s slow and hard to do it a different way where you have to be broader, not just go with what’s familiar, but if you do the quick and easy thing you get the results that you would expect, a less diverse team, a less inclusive environment, and then you have more problems than you started with. It feels like you’re solving a problem but you’re usually actually just creating more when you try to hack it in the people stuff.


Marcus: You know, I remember reading Jerry Weinberg’s book called Are Your Lights On? I don’t know if you’ve read that book but he talks about sometimes when we deal with problems we’re just pushing the problem forward in time. Maybe it won’t be our problem anymore, and sometimes we push it to someone else, but that seems like an example of well, I feel like I’ve “solved” it today because I promoted the person and they’ll stay but what I’ve done is I’ve created a set of problems that I may not even see for six more months, but once I do they feel … Well, sometimes they seem like they come out of the blue so I really like that you point out that they’re not just hitting us blindsided if we’re watching for them.


Will: Although I believe he also wrote kind of Secrets of Consulting and one of his rules from Secrets of Consulting is that problems are infinite so if you believe that problems are infinite and whenever you solve one you just have a new top problem, then maybe the entire premise of worrying about solving problems doesn’t matter at all, we can just not worry about it.


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Lots of their attendees may not carry the title “Architect,” but they are either aspiring architects or like I was doing the work of a software architect, either as a manager or even as a company owner. Now they’ve got a special networking experience called architectural Katas. Doesn’t that sound cool? Where you get to practice being a software architect, attendees break up into small groups and work together on a project that needs architectural development. This conference is going to be co-located with the Velocity Conference this year, which presents an excellent opportunity to increase your cloud-native systems expertise. You can get access to all of Velocity’s keynotes and sessions on Wednesday and Thursday in addition to software architecture for just 445 Euros. Listeners to this show get 20% off most passes to software architecture when you use the code MB20 during registration, that’s MB20 where do you find out more? You go to for this special offer. That’s We’re thankful that they’re a sponsor of the show.


Marcus: Absolutely, problems appear to be here to stay and in fact, the word problem is a framing of a situation. What’s one person’s best day is another person’s worst day, so I think whenever a client says well, here’s the problem we want to focus on, I like to find out why that’s a problem and if it’s a problem for everyone or when did it start being a problem. The whole topic is pretty fascinating because it’s all just how we think about it.


I think you mention this in the book as well that when someone’s promoted into management they’re often times not given a lot of training. What kinds of training would you advocate for for an engineer who takes a team lead manager role?


Will: The best manager training I’ve ever encountered is the onboarding program for managers at Stripe. It’s just actually good, which is surprising, because you do a lot of training classes, you’re like yeah, that wasn’t that good, but this one’s like quite good and I took it when I was already moderately deep in my management career and I learned a lot doing it and it was interestingly my fourth job as a manager, I believe, but the first time I got any formal training within my kind of company for management. It was just really good. They went through a bunch of different styles of management, the different techniques like a formal kind of structure for coaching, like adaptive leadership and like a bunch of different kind of styles, and it was just like great. It was small working groups and different managers across the company and we just learned from each other and interacted in these kind of long running groups that like learned to problem solve together. It was fantastic.


But that I think should be like maybe the norm for every new manager and I think to me that was just incredibly powerful, but at a minimum having a couple of folks to just like run situations by and a role model to copy. There is … You know, cargo culting has a really bad reputation. It’s like copying something without understanding the motivation for why you’re doing it but copying the right role model is like really a good starting point for like most problems you’re taking on. I jokingly call this benchmarking, where it’s just like you look at a few reasonable things and just like do that.


I think if you have that role model you can not do a ton of like intentional practice but just copy what they’ve done well and get pretty good to a certain baseline before you have to go deeper into it to understand like the reasoning behind all of it. So either structures but at a minimum like a real role model and then some folks outside of your company you can ask when you don’t understand why your company is doing something weird and not have to expose kind of all of your anguish to your own manager immediately. You want to pace that out over the first six to twelve months.


Marcus: You know, I actually went through my … When I became a manager I had a similar sounding manager training program that I went through and it was actually led by my boss with about ten other individual contributors who had been moved into the TLM role in the past few moths. It took us a whole year. We met every two weeks for a year, went through the curriculum, and I found that those people I went through it became my best allies for literally the next ten or twelve years that I worked there. Do you find you have kind of a special relationship with the people that you went through the course with?


Will: Totally and I think it’s very similar to that. I remember reading this book maybe six or seven years ago, it’s like the Talent Pipeline or something, and I’d only worked at these smaller startups so I worked at Yahoo, which is kind of large and was not on the upswing at that particular moment, then a bunch of startups, and this book talked about all these like huge corporate practices. They were like you take people who are high potential and you put them in challenge roles and you rotate them intentionally through all these challenges to build them. I was like this is amazing. It turns out these like dinosaur companies actually know how to do things and we, these innovative, novel startups like don’t know how to develop people very well and like taking more of their practices is something that I think we just should do more and more over time.


Marcus: Yeah, this was a manufacturing company, started in the 60s. It was 30,000 people when I joined. I mean, it was big and they had this formal manager training program. I’ve talked to people and they said well, how did you get any value out of that as a software engineering person? But because it was led by my boss who was the director of software engineering, all the conversations were about software, all of the application, so I never really thought it didn’t apply, even though the books weren’t like the tech leader’s guide to this or that. Yeah, maybe those young whipper snapper companies do have something to learn, I’m not sure, but I kind of wish it was more popular.


Will: I would be a huge proponent of that. To your point, I may be not sitting in the best seat to articulate this having just written like an engineering management book but I do think most of management is actually like pretty general. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about the book is like someone from a recruiting team or someone from like an HR team saying like oh these things all apply to the work we do as well, and I think that’s just true so I don’t think you need the … To your point, like the software engineering manager’s guide to like one on ones or something. A lot of it’s pretty general and like really … I think even maybe the humbling thing is I think sometimes you go into it thinking engineering management is this like unique profession and then you talk to kind of folks on like an operations team, on a sales team, and like the managers are all basically having the same problems you are. For me, that’s like one of the eye opening experiences, that it’s actually like a pretty common set of problems across all the different functions.


Marcus: I definitely remember, and now when I talk to people, if I get ten managers in the room together and they’re willing to open up, there’s just a tremendous amount of overlap in the challenges they’re facing and in some ways that seems to be reassuring to them because it does feel so darn lonely. I liked what you said a minute ago about don’t go ask your boss what everything means or how to make sense of stuff up front and that seems wise because otherwise we risk looking like an idiot maybe, so Will, when should you go talk to your boss?


Will: This is an interesting question and one of the immense privileges as you get further into your career is you get to work with primarily like more and more experienced managers where kind of what they come to you with are like really novel like hard problems where it’s not like I don’t know how to do this thing, it’s the constraints to these two teams working together appear to be impossible to solve, like how do we finesse this really tightly. That’s like to me like the joy of senior manager is these problems are really hard to solve but you actually can finesse most problems into like a problem statement where everyone like is happy.


That’s like a lot of fun because you can take a situation where like two teams no longer want to communicate with each other and you can often get to the place where they are working together well because like these aren’t bad people, these are like organizational frictions playing out through kind of the pathos of like two teams, right? That’s one of the fun parts of kind of getting more senior is getting to work with more senior folks as well who have just like really interesting problems and trying to solve them together.


In terms … Particularly when you’re starting out as a manager though, I think it’s … I’m a big believer in kind of limiting work in progress and so I think it’s what are my top two problems to kind of focus on with my manager and kind of work through those two and then you know, once you … To our previous point, like once you solve one of those, promote another one into the queue. I think it can also be interesting early on to just list all of the problems you have with your manager and have them help you figure out here are the two that actually matter and let’s just like postpone dealing with all of those.


As a manager you have like a portfolio of risk and you’re just like not solving all of it all the time, sometimes you just have to like hold the risk for months or years because you’re dealing with more important problems and that’s uncomfortable but that’s like part of management, is just like holding the risk and kind of being the owner of it for the company.


Marcus: It sounds like what you’re saying really assumes a foundation that somebody has a good working relationship with their manager, that they trust them, that they feel safe. Yes or should people do this that maybe are a little nervous?


Will: So a couple of thoughts. I’m a believer in transparency in part because I think there’s like some sort of like imperative and ethical component but largely because I have like functionally no chill and just don’t know how to not not share things, particularly upwards with my leadership. I’ve gotten better at this over time, learning to self censor, but it took a while and still not like showing up in my strengths section of my performance reviews each time.


One, I think you just have to kind of recognize like who you are and what you’re capable of doing and I do think if you don’t have a trusting relationship with your manager, figuring out how to get there is then your number one problem. You don’t necessarily have to share it … In fact, telling someone you don’t trust them is typically the fastest way to not have a trusting relationship.


Marcus: Right.


Will: It’s pretty hard to recover from that. It’s like a blow to the ego because like if you’re a manager you want to believe you’re at least an okay manager and having someone that works with you that you’re responsible for tell you that they don’t trust you at all is pretty damning and hard to come over. But if you’re in a situation like you were describing, I think you have to filter but ultimately it’s going to be a hard situation to succeed in.


One of the privileges of working in technology is that often you have a lot of flexibility about the role that you’re in and you’re not typically stuck in like one or two jobs where if you leave this one job there’s only one other like local job you can go to. You typically have a lot more flexibility there and so I think exercising that if you have the opportunity to do so, to not stay in roles where your manager doesn’t have a trusting relationship with you. It’s so transformative when you and your manager are on the same team versus when they are kind of holding you accountable in like a non-collaborative way and just finding that good relationship can really change your life.


Marcus: Yeah, I’m a big believer in the idea of in groups and out groups, and I have definitely been in the out group with some people I’ve worked for and felt like there were other people on the in group and that actually I think makes things worse is when you … I mean, it kind of reminds me of high school, where I was never in the in group and always wanted to be as though I were peering through the window into something that looked really desirable. I don’t know, has that ever happened to you?


Will: Some people don’t really enjoy working with each other and sometimes that’s for really good reasons and sometimes there’s just like a friction between … Sometimes for example there’s just like an intimacy kind of friction where one person like really needs to have like a pretty high level of intimacy with the folks they work with and the other is just not comfortable with kind of having like any level of intimacy with their co-workers, and those two folks will through no bad meaning just like not ever connect or work real well with each other because they need things from each other that … Like their boundaries are incompatible in a certain way. I’ve definitely seen folks like that where they just can’t quite make it work and often never can quite articulate why. It’s just kind of this like latent anxiety working with each other.


Marcus: Yeah, it’s almost like it becomes really transactional. If you have what I need or I have what you need we can exchange expectations. I find expectations are often times really unclear. There’s delegation but not really negotiation about how or when things happen and generally it is hard I think to turn a situation like that around, especially if you’re on the bottom of the power hierarchy. I don’t know.


Will: The thing that works though is spending time together, it’s really hard, I think. To your point of in groups and out groups, human’s desire to form a group and the way you trigger that is by spending time together and ideally spending time together when you’re not both stressed.


Marcus: Right and in a hurry. Yeah, it seems like … And actually this brings me to the next topic I wanted to ask about. I have the impression, even today I’ve spoken with two different organizations, and both of them appear to have time as a limiting factor to their own growth. Not just really revenue growth but growth of excellence, growth of ideas, growth of people, that the amount of time they have just feels like it’s vanishing. Time to think is really lost. Do you see that as well or I don’t know, is time that scarce?


Will: So I’ve been thinking about the idea of forced change a lot recently. When all of your work that you’re doing is work you’ve chosen to do, then not doing work is easy, you just like stop doing it. But when all your work is driven by some sort of external force, like maybe a regulator with GDPR or a financial institution, like the strong customer authentication in Europe or something like that, you can’t just … We’ll just take those massive finds as not really like an agreeable decision to make and so I think some companies really do have this flexibility just to be like we’ll do it next quarter and very have like both the ability to but also the leadership support to do that. Some companies I find the quantity of external kind of forced requirements are so high that there’s really very little room to execute on the required work, let alone kind of the additional work or the optional work like you know, growing as like a team or a leader.


Marcus: Yeah, the person I was talking to today has a background in higher ed and they were just noticing … They’d worked at these colleges and they said boy, at colleges everything takes a long time to decide but we really think deeply from all perspectives about what data should gather and what does it mean and they’re like from the outside it looks like we’re wasting a lot of time but we find that that’s a value we have, as like let’s really think about it. Then we come to the … I come to the private sector and everybody’s in such a hurry. It’s just like management seems to believe that pressure is what gets people going and there’s just always a lot of change and “motivation” through pressure.


Will: I don’t know if you’ve read Slack, I think by Tom DeMarco.


Marcus: Tom DeMarco. About twenty years old now.


Will: Yeah, it’s pretty wild, like some of these best books are not new and I don’t know, but you kind of think about these artists who die when no one cares about their work and then become famous years later and I certainly hope Tom DeMarco is still alive and well but I wonder what the …


Marcus: He’s on Twitter.


Will: Is he? Great. Probably. But I wonder what the reception was for his book when it came out and I’ve been thinking about that a lot as I think probably a lot of these books that are so foundational for me and maybe for you, that probably like no one … Maybe no one read initially when they came out.


Marcus: Yeah, I remember reading that book and it just advocates … I mean, Slack, which is not a chat app, which is kind of funny because Slack gives me the opposite of slack and anyways, but yeah, I highly recommend Tom’s book. Maybe we’ll have him on the show if he’ll come on. I’d love to have a little retrospective and talk about what kind of feedback you got, but the idea of doing less and of thinking more and of like … I guess the whole idea of an agile sprint. The word ‘sprint’ inherently seems like it’s anti-slack.


Will: I don’t know if you read Escaping the Build Trap by Melissa Perri. It came out I think about a year ago and it’s a product management book and it really focuses on most companies measure projects completed, they don’t measure results and interestingly, this is not a book that’s saying anything about kind of the efficiency versus effectiveness kind of narrative that DeMarco’s Slack has but basically it really is and I thought that was one of the great books I read over the past twelve months. It really focuses on how because it’s so hard to measure results in a lot of cases or companies don’t have the kind of practices.


You think about what Amazon will be famous for long term and it’s their rigorous focus on measuring themselves harshly in a continuous fashion and how powerful that is to like support incredibly good operational execution, and I think that’s one of the things I took from that book and that’s one thing I’ve been trying to think about myself as well, like how do we move from this project based performance evaluation to this actual results based. That’s intimidating because you might not do well even though you get a lot of great work done, but it’s also what matters.


Marcus: Yeah. You know, I want to go back to Systems Thinking and Slack for a minute because it does remind me that the longer the feedback loops the harder it is to evaluate the effect of our actions, and I feel like one of the core ideas of Slack is that stepping back and asking those reflective questions. I mean, most people I know have a team that does a retrospective and most people I know say their retrospectives don’t generate change, that they say they don’t really do much besides just are like kind of an airing of grievances and it’s because maybe partially they’re just time boxed in and we’ve got to get to work and this is a waste of time.


Will: I completely agree. A lot of incident programs have the same problem where they learn about the gaps but then you have to find the space to improve upon them and if you don’t find a way to budget that in, learning the same thing repeatedly doesn’t further you and you have to actually find a way to take the learnings and use them, and that just takes time which when you’re busy means learning stops.


Marcus: Yeah, Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, you know it’s funny because I’ve read that not too long ago and he really admits in there okay, we have never found an organization that actually does all these things to the level, it’s all pretty theoretical and the book is quite old now, over 20 years old but it makes me think that that idea of even desiring to become a learning organization with the systems thinking and personal mastery and those other things, I feel like that somehow also got lost, maybe a little bit like DeMarco’s book did.


Will: I think I worry that the fact that these companies that are the most prestigious companies and you know Silicon Valley in the United States are actually quite young and I think they just haven’t gotten to the point of being able to learn systematically because their initial practices were good enough. Recently we hired someone who worked at Nintendo which is apparently like a hundred plus year old company, like I don’t know what they used to do but it’s been fascinating kind of learning about the perspective and how you change management works at a company that’s been trying to manage changes for you know I guess three or four generations is quite different than seven years.


Marcus: What’s something that stood out? I’m really curious.


Will: I think the thing that stood out for me is that they’re actually running like a pretty modern technology stack and that they are through … particularly in their world, on the game side as I understand it, they actually have these generational opportunities through each kind of platform they put out or each game they put out to actually do investment choices and to take kind of strategic risks about we will try to change this one thing in this new game or this new platform where they actually just have this kind of repetition, this like heartbeat to their business that allows them to like pace change in a really kind of interesting way.


Marcus: I’m going to have to read up on that. I bet there’s probably some interesting articles out there. Okay, I want to do one more shift of topic. I’m curious your thoughts back to systems thinking and stocks, I’m old and so I’ve been programming a long time and I feel like the stock of working programmers, that is the availability of working programmers, has really risen in the past ten years to the point where companies, although everybody seems to be hiring, they’re also getting a lot of applicants. Do you feel like the increased stock of programmers, that is we have a lot of them available, have caused companies to treat them more like replaceable resources than maybe twenty years ago they were considered? Or maybe you see a different effect from having a greater stock of programmers available.


Will: One might say that there are tiers of company and they’re kind of the companies like the thing companies, Facebook, Apple, you know Netflix, Google, who I think have always been able to get access to kind of the premier kind of candidates and I suspect for them their experience hasn’t changed a whole lot. There’s still a ton of scarcity for kind of the folks at the top of the market. They still can’t hire enough folks with like the right skillset, so I think the experience there has not changed but then I think as you look all the way down the market, you’re going to find folks who are doing you know kind of things like oDesk, which is not so different than the gig economy in terms of you look at the experience of how they’re measured, kind of this analytics driven, compensation, it’s not a lot of control.


They’re independent contractors but in theory they’re supposed to control how they do the work with the platform, sort of really don’t give them much flexibility and they’re very anonymous in their experience there. My belief is that we’ll see a continuation of both kind of the top and the bottom and that there’ll be a little bit of everything in between. Maybe one of the questions that is like a little bit unclear is in theory our tools should be getting so much better that we need fewer programmers, right? That we can just all do more and that’s not obviously happening. It’s interesting to think about and I still think the computer sciences, I don’t know, maybe it’s 80 years old as a research kind of separating from mathematics, but we’re still just so early in an industry in how we do anything that I just think it’s hard to guess about the future because I just think it’s changing so rapidly and what we think of as the status quo is just like a blip in like a much larger trend.


Marcus: I remember hearing somebody tell me that the ancient Egyptians knew more about agriculture that we know about computers, and like of course, they did it for thousands of years and we haven’t hit a single century yet, so yeah, I think we are really young and yet it’s moving so fast it doesn’t feel young. In the moment, when you can look back over twenty years, certainly to me doesn’t feel like it’s just happened. I like that you say I remember the promise of tools that would build software for you, Power Builder and 4GL, like there was a lot of those promises made. When I was in college I was told, “Well, you probably won’t have this job long because the software will write itself soon.”


Will, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you and your book online?


Will: Yeah, so find me, I’m on Twitter. Lethain or also that .com, or search for An Elegant Puzzle. It’ll pop up on Amazon. I’m all over.


Marcus: Thank you so much for joining us today.


Will: Alright, thank you so much.


Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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