[book review] The effective engineer

The effective engineer” by Edmond Lau is a strange book. Edmond writes about things which are apparent and should be know by everyone. Does such a book bring any value? I feel it does. Even though Edmond’s ideas are obvious, I think I needed someone to tell me that.

This book gave me the confirmation I needed to make sure that my ideas were right. When I was thinking about “what do I expect from a good engineer?”, my expectations were similar to the topics described by Edmond.

What I did not have was a list of actions. Edmond Lau dissected the traits of an effective engineer into skills and gave the readers something that resembles a to-do list or a checklist.

High-leverage activities

The core idea described in the book is “leverage.” In this context, “leverage” is defined as focusing on activities that are the most important (with a friendly reminder, that “urgent” does not mean “important”). According to Edmond, effective engineers focus on value and impact. He even calls it the single most valuable lesson that he has learned in his career.

“Focus on high-leverage activities. This is the single most valuable lesson that I’ve learned in my professional life. Don’t confuse high-leverage activities with easy wins.” — The effective engineer

The author suggests asking yourself the three questions every time you are supposed to work on a task:

  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?

Does it look similar to Gary Keller’s question: “What’s the one thing that you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” It seems to be common wisdom. Why do we keep forgetting about it?

“Optimize for learning

The chapter I loved the most, was the “Optimize for learning.” This idea is based on the question: “What will you learn today to improve yourself by 1%?”

The reader must remember, that the best answer to this question is not only the thing that is best for you right now but also a learning goal that gives you the highest leverage in the long-run.

The author suggests carving out your own 20% of the time you spend at work and dedicate if for improving yourself.

First, I thought that it is not possible without someone’s approval. Now I think that I have been making a mistake for the last few months because 20% of the work time is just 96 minutes a day. Seems to be a lot, but perhaps it does not need to be 1.5 hours of continuous time.

What if I could use the “in-between time” productively? The time between meetings, the time while waiting for deployment, the time when the tests run.

There is going to be a lot context switching and interruptions, so the only thing that can be efficiently done during such time is reading and notetaking. It does not look like a lot, but it is still a good use of time that would be wasted otherwise.

In the best case, that may be enough to have one additional Pomodoro dedicated for learning every day. 25 minutes of uninterrupted time does not seem to make a huge difference, but that adds up to 2 hours every week. Two hours is enough to write two blog posts like this one.

In summation, that book may not teach you anything new, but it gives you “a little push.” The author summarizes in one book, things that a software engineer is supposed to know already. The book may motivate you to try something new or be used as reference material. Either way, it is a good investment.

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