Mega Book Report (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1 of this Mega Book Report I wrote brief reviews for books I found helpful in my career in software team management. I don’t always read work-related books, though. After mentally challenging books, I take a break and indulge in some “leisure reading”. For me that’s usually a history book with an occasional sci-fi and literary classic thrown in the mix. Here are my favorites that I read and enjoyed over the last two years.

Leisure Reading

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

As a fan of history, this book blew my mind. It was definitely my favorite book of 2016. I judge the quality of a book by how annoyed my friends are when I keep recounting stories from the book. I kept talking to people about this one. There was an epic battle between Neanderthals and Sapiens 70,000 years ago? And we lost? Whoa. The author’s ambitious scope covers thousands of years, as he draws some challenging conclusions while reflecting on our past. I re-read the epilogue several times, wondering about the promise and horrors that await our species in coming decades. If you enjoy history books, read this one.

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark

Described as "a story of wealth, ambition, and survival", this book is action packed. Entrepreneur and German immigrant John Jacob Astor sought to extend his global fur trading empire by establishing a trading base in the newly charted regions of the Pacific Northwest. Two parties were sent, one over-land party comprised of French Canadian canoeing experts, and the other across the oceans via ship. The men leading the two groups used contrasting leadership styles, one being a strict authoritarian and the other favoring democratic agreement. Both groups tragically suffered major casualties. Fighting through doubt, starvation, insurrection, and attack, the founders of Astoria had a tough job. The book was adapted into a two-part play at Portland Center Stage scheduled to conclude this winter. Read it now before seeing it live!

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Weatherford, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota's Macalester College, argues that while Genghis Khan has been depicted by western historians as one of civilization's greatest villains, his empire’s policies had many positive social effects. I went into this book knowing hardly anything about Mongolian history, and was fascinated by the story of Khan’s conquest of neighboring Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European kingdoms. Especially interesting was the economic progress made when Mongolian rulers fostered trade between nations across the world, and the isolationism and stagnation that occurred when Khan’s empire collapsed.

The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov

Considered a classic of science fiction and one of Asimov’s best works, this trilogy explores the collapse of a great galactic civilization. Scientist and “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon predicts society’s downfall using advanced math, and creates a group charged with protecting human knowledge. It’s a fun thought experiment about dealing with the apocalypse, and reasoning about free will when our actions are accurately predicted by simulations.

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

This book describes stories of ethically questionable techniques some humans use to gain build power, with stories from history as examples. If you’re shocked by the behavior of  characters in “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards”, this book might lead you to believe their Machiavellian plots are typical human behavior. Reading this book and listening to The History of Rome podcast, I was surprised to learn how far people will go in the pursuit or protection of power. Here’s a summary of the 48 laws. It can be fun to identify the “law” used when corporate or political power struggles become public. I’d encourage some lighter reading after this book, to guard against cynicism.

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

After reading the “The 48 Laws of Power”, this infamous book of political advice by Machiavelli seemed fairly tame in comparison. I went in expecting to read amoral advice, but ended up finding it filled with the history of turbulent times in post-Roman Italy, and some practical recommendations for new rulers. Ascending to power can be dangerous, and it does seems sensible to consider one’s reputation and public perception during the transition. The introduction in my copy included a letter Niccolo sent his friend while he was writing “The Prince”, and this except stuck with me:

“When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the robes of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I enter the courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”

Machiavelli felt reading history was like a two-way discussion with the ancients. I’m fascinated by current events happening today, but love the fact that books let us to listen in on conversations that go back several millennia. Which book will you open next, my friend? What questions will you ask?

Epilogue

I’m always on the lookout for my next favorite book. If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them! Bonus points for books in my favorite categories: management/leadership, business stories, history, sci-fi, general non-fiction.

Mega Book Report (Part 1)

I love books, but am not a particularly fast reader. Because of my slow pace, I’m picky about which books I read, relying on advice from peers, Goodreads ratings, and annual “best book” lists. Earlier this year I saw Jeff Marten’s post “My 2016 year in books”, and ended up reading Shoe Dog based on his recommendation. It was so good! To pay it forward, I compiled this list of books I read and enjoyed over the last two years.

Career Path Books

I found these book helpful in my role as a software development team leader. We read the first three in New Relic's management book club.

High Output Management by Andy Grove

This was on my “to read” list for a while. It’s widely considered a seminal work in the category tech management literature, and for good reason. Grove's writing is very persuasive. Written in the 80’s, some of the examples are a bit dated ("email will be huge!”), but I found the historical context interesting. Human nature is surprisingly consistent through the decades, despite the endless waves of tech innovation. Grove’s advice on tracking team indicator metrics and conducting performance reviews were two tips I immediately put into practice. This question from the book resonated with me: “Are you trying new ideas, new techniques, and new technologies, and I mean personally trying them, not just reading about them?"

Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

I discovered that I was fascinated by business strategy while reading this book. It explains ways to critique your company’s annual strategy, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Rumelt teaches strategy at UCLA’s school of management, but also has decades of experience consulting in the private sector. The case studies in the book are great business history. They illustrate how difficult it is to understand your competitive landscape in the moment (everything is clearer in hindsight) and design a focused, effective strategy. I found it both entertaining and educational to read about companies whose strategies achieved “success" (e.g. Starbucks, NVidia, IKEA, Cisco) as well those that didn’t pan out (WorldCom, Enron, GM). It’s a solid intro to strategy, providing a vocabulary for discussing the subject. Spoiler: good strategy includes a diagnosis, guiding policies, and a set of coherent actions to carry out.

Managing Humans by Michael Lopp

Michael Lopp made a name for himself by blogging about engineering management under the pseudonym "Rands”. The book is more of a packaging of his best blog posts than a cohesive narrative. In our management book club, some people disagreed with Lopp’s opinions and conclusions, but we appreciated his efforts to answer “What does a software engineering manager do? What should they do?” Despite my initial objection, I found some of his descriptions of diametrically-opposed engineering personality archetypes (e.g. Completionists vs. Incrementalists, Mechanics vs. Organics, Old Guard vs. New Guard) to be helpful in understanding the behaviors and motives of my co-workers. This book is recommended reading, especially for new managers living through start-up drama.

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock

Google built a reputation for being a great place to work, and that is no accident. Laszlo Bock, who led Google’s PeopleOps team for 10 years, describes their journey of innovation in this space and the rationale behind their approach. After becoming a big company, Google hired data scientists to run experiments testing the effectiveness of their employee perks and management approaches. They open sourced their findings on re:Work, a site describing best practices for managers. Bock makes a good case for a career path in PeopleOps, and the benefits of caring about your workforce.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

This book details six techniques used by sales folks, or “compliance professionals” as Cialdini calls them. These tactics leverage, or you could say exploit, universal principles of human psychology such as seeking approval from an authority, and the desire to be consistent with our past statements. The book opens a window into the black magic of marketing, and why certain ads are effective. I’m now better at identifying tactics salespeople use on me. I notice the theory of reciprocity used frequently, which is when you give people something (often of small value), then ask for something in return (often of large value). These approaches can be used for evil, or just to boost your persuasive communication at work.

Honorable Mention:  The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (read this one prior to starting a new job)

Business Stories

I discovered this genre recently, and am now a devoted fan. These are often told chronologically like fictional stories, a great format for info-tainment.

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

This book should be required reading for computer science and electrical engineering students. Weighing in at 560 pages, it covers a lot of territory, from Ada Lovelace's notes describing an analytical engine, to the traitorous eight forming Fairchild Semiconductor populating the Silicon Valley with their “Fairchildren” spin-off companies. As technologists, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and this book is the story of those giants. Isaacson has a gift for humanizing the legendary innovators by detailing their feelings of failure, struggle, and self-doubt. He also works to dispel the myth of the lone genius by describing innovators that found success by teaming up with collaborators with drastically different skills and personalities. I was surprised about how many of these stories I didn’t know, like the long and unlikely partnership between government and academia that created the internet, and the fierce competition among scientists to invent the transistor. Amazing, and inspiring.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Being a native Oregonian, it was fun to read about Nike’s humble beginnings in Portland. Phil grew up in the Eastmoreland neighborhood, and Portland is the backdrop to many events in Nike’s history. Phil begged for loans at banks downtown and taught accounting classes at PSU. He is very humble, self-deprecating, and honest in his memoirs. I was impressed by his search for purpose as a young man as he traveled around the world learning about other cultures. It's inspiring to hear very “successful" people describe their feelings of intense uncertainty, doubt, and fear. Without knowing that, we might assume their path to success was easy.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

My personal and professional lives were increasingly impacted by Amazon’s services (Prime & AWS) this year, but I didn’t know much about the 23-year-old company. Author and former NY Times journalist, Brad Stone, covers Jeff Bezos’s background as a gifted youth raised by his Cuban immigrant stepfather and self-sufficient Texan grandparents. After reading about Amazon.com’s fast and furious startup days in the 90’s, I was exhausted. The book includes several great anecdotes, like employees so busy that they forgot where they’d parked their car days before, and Jeff’s biological father’s career as a traveling unicycling polo player. I’d recommend it for people trying to understand Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s history, motives, and ambitions.

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Change the World by Brad Stone

After enjoying Brad Stone's journalistic style of narrative storytelling in “The Everything Store", I read his follow-up business book chronicling these “sharing economy” companies. Uber and Airbnb started eight years ago, while I was worrying about being laid-off during the great recession. Obviously, their story isn’t done yet, and they continue to create major controversies. Some of the most interesting topics to me were how they tackled rapid international growth, the history of Lyft, and the two CEO's (Travis Kalanick & Brian Chesky) frequent meetings to discuss strategies for disrupting their respective industries (hotels and taxis). In retrospect, Uber’s story is a cautionary tale about fostering an aggressive company culture for too long.

Honorable mention: The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim (fictional story, but it feels real) 

Next Time

Wow, that’s a lot of reviews. I’ll stop there and add my favorite “leisure reading” books from the last two years in a follow-up post. Do you have a favorite book you read recently? I’d love to hear about it!

How to Select Software Engineering Tools without Inciting Team Rebellion

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how we choose the tools we use to build software, and how important those choices are. I figured it might help others if I wrote down my own thought process for selecting development tools, so I published this post on Medium: "Choose Your Weapon: How to Select Software Engineering Tools without Inciting Team Rebellion".

This was my first post on Medium where I received help from others using their editing tools. Reviewers can add private comments using the same mechanism that reader use to make public comments. I received some great ideas from Tyler Fitch, and wording advice from my wife. The collaboration features worked great, although my wife missed the power-tools for tracking changes offered by Microsoft Word. This is also the first time I wrote the whole post in Medium, instead of saving drafts elsewhere then pasting it in, so I must really trust their editor.

Thus concludes my obligatory annual blog post. At this point I'm just writing on Medium and using my blog for editorial. Am I doing it wrong? Also, if you have any thoughts about selecting development tools, I'd love to hear them :)

My Advice to These High-School Interns

Last month I gave some advice to high-school interns at a "speed networking" event organized by Saturday Academy. I summarized my recommendations in this post up on Medium:  "My Advice to These High-School Interns".

Do you have standard advice that you give to students interested in tech careers? I'd love to hear it. I feel like programming can feel a little overwhelming when some people start considering it as a career, and a little encouragement can go a long way.