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Archive for October, 2017

Whenever I take long trip I try to bring a book to read. When I went to CppCon 2017 in September, I brought Ray Dalio‘s Principles. Ray founded the world’s largest hedge fund. His company Bridgewater, is the exemplar for his book. [29 April 2018 Note: I’d actually completed the book during that trip, but got distracted by other things. I let this linger for far too long.]

At this point, I could assert that having created an organization a large and successful as Bridgewater would be justification for following the methodology he espouses. After all, isn’t that what we do, chase success is search of our own? If your desire is to leverage Ray’s book for that, you’ve failed before you’ve even started.

The information you will find in Principles is slow burning. Everything about his methodology requires tremendous time, effort and attention to detail. Let’s look at how the book decomposes:

In the first part (of three), he gives his personal backstory. This takes about 120 pages of the 550 or so page book. That’s a lot of exposition for a book ostensibly about life and work being able to be systematized. Then again, this isn’t a “here’s a fish” kind of book. If someone is going to purport to present a set a principles leading to success, you need to establish that you actually have the chops. And those chops don’t come from those whose success is inherited or the result of random chance. As has been said in many forms, “you learn nothing from success, but you learn everything from failure.”

The second part (about 150 pages) is devoted to life principles. The takeaway here is that work success is an extension of who you are. Your work, as opposed to your job, is not a coat to be put on, like some bulwark against the financial storms of life. To many his life principles are quite Machiavellian. While having clear goals is the basis of any true achievement, and root causing problems and designing solutions around them are in service to that end; both not tolerating problems that stand in your way and doing what is necessary to achieve results fall into the ruthless bucket. In no way am I opposed to his principles. In fact, I wouldn’t have personally accepted his work principles had he not been ruthless in his personal ones.

The third part is the thing we came to see, it covers his work principles. Here again, we see the division into thirds. They are culture, people and organization.

In the area of culture, first and foremost are the dual concepts of radical truth and radical transparency. On this foundation is having meaningful work and relationships. Next, and where I’ve seen many companies fail miserably, the culture needs to accept mistakes but demand that people learn from them. Once things are spun up, you have to keep everyone in sync. This goes back to the ideas of radical truth and acceptance of mistakes.

On the people front, you must hire the right people. Hiring the wrong people will kill your company eventually. In that vein, who the people are (life principles) is more important that what they know. People with a good foundation can be built upon. Those without can’t. Finally, you must constantly refresh people’s skills. This rigorous regime of renewal is not something that everyone can embrace. When people don’t … well, we’re back to Machiavelli.

Lastly, he addresses the organization itself. In many ways, his approach to the organization is identical to that of a person. The same issues of goals, problem tolerance, evaluation and improvement apply. That may sound like I’m short changing that part of book, but given Ray’s premise that work is an extension of the self, it’s only natural that the organization is an extension of the people working there.

This book is one you will either embrace as an affirmation, or reject as too demanding. As to why I don’t believe that there’ll be any middle ground, the title says it all. You either see the material in the book as principles or you don’t.

I, for one, do.

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The early years of computing were a like a Renaissance dance, lots of people who somehow manage to get to dance with each other at least once. A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age gives us yet another place to stand and watch that dance.

Claude Shannon is one of those people who fundamentally changed the way we look at the world. The problem with fundamental change is that we tend to be on one side or the other of it. Today we speak of information theory as though it’s as obvious a concept as making paper. Kind of the same way we obsess over software developers being able to write code to sort numbers or reverse linked lists. At some point, the fundamental reality of the existence of high-quality libraries and data structures will make these queries as relevant as requiring people to explain a tape sort. But I digress.

He was a researcher, tinkerer, teacher, juggler, and for all appearances didn’t seem attached to labels. He had Vannevar Bush looking out for him. As an MIT professor, he had Danny Hillis and Ivan Sutherland, among others, as doctoral students. He worked with Alan Turing during World War II. And the box-switch-thing that turns itself off. That was him.

Reading the book, you get a sense of possibilities explored. So often people either dismiss or defer possibilities. He literally had a basement full of them. If only he’d know Ron Popeil, every home might have a few of them.

I don’t know how well he would fare in the world today. In his time, Bell Labs basically paid to have him around. He had cachet. He also helped focus people’s ideas. He brought this sensibility to MIT with him as a professor. We get so terribly wrapped up in being hyper-specialized, in know the what but not the why. To often we come across the proverbial Gordian knot and turn away. People are either unwilling to try, or believing themselves to be special, simply act as though the problem does not exist. (Treating people poorly and flaunting violations of the law fall into this category.) Few people are willing to question the fundamentals. What do you need? What do you have?

The interesting people are those who solve problems and help other people solve problems, not by merely telling them what the answer is, but by enabling them to see that solutions can come from places that aren’t necessarily rooted in the past ways of doing things.

In our day and age, when we focus on special skills and special languages and special hardware, it would behoove us to remember that there is no best skill or language or hardware. There is only the universe of problems. It is far more valuable to be able to help others see the shape of the solution than to be an individual capable of providing a answer to a well-defined question whose value will in time expire.

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