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A clever blog post title is a wonderful thing. What’s interesting is that I couldn’t improve on Adam Grant‘s book “Originals” title. In my previous post, I said that that book wasn’t for the individual looking for themselves. This one is, kind of.

The book begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw,

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

or as Max Planck said,

New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.

Thats’s it. 250 pages and a slew of references.

To be fair, to leave things there would trivialize the book.

There is an odd sense of wandering I got from this book. At one moment, it speaks to those who seek out the creatives. This felt like an art collector was speaking. At another, it focuses on the hardships of being a creative. Just when you think you’ve got a sense of that, there’s a shift to the economics of utilizing creatives and then thrust into the environment which produced them.

All of these chapters could have been the basis of books in their own right. At the end of the book I had the sense that I’d read a primer on the human equivalent of livestock breeding of prized but temperamental Mishima cattle.

I would recommend this book to technology leaders as a reminder of how the world advances (not improves, mind you, but advances) and how to leverage the creatives. I also recommend this book to those who swim against the current. Appreciate that creatives are looked upon by many as a rare resource to be cultivated and value-extracted. Know that although most people will never understand that drives you, these people server to keep us growing.

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It’s been quite some time since my previous book review. As a result, I have a stack of books to review. Ironically, the first book is “The Motivation Myth” by Jeff Haden.

I always felt bad for Luke Skywalker when it came to his Jedi training from Yoda. “Do or do not, there is no try.” How is someone “too old to begin the training” expected to unpack that? As someone whose spent the better part of 40 years either learning about, implementing or teaching others how to do bleeding edge tech, I get the “shove them out of their comfort zone” thing. That being said, I also know that when dealing with creatures who learn by metaphor that you can’t expect someone to suddenly jump from 2D to 3D and be effective or even successful.

This book is a gentle reflection on why the concept of motivation (perhaps a better word would have been inspiration) has limited application in the sphere of accomplishment.

Each chapter is leads the reader confront a different myth regarding task success. It’s not some stoke-able flame, lighted path, aspirational mumbo-jumbo, or guru-led excursion through the swamp that accomplished tasks through you. It’s you, your hard work and preparation. Seneca the Younger said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Success is what happens when preparation meets execution.

At the end of the day, this book will benefit those who lack the mentors in their life to kick them in the ass every now and again. Self-doubt is inevitable, but action paralysis is not. Plan the work. Work the plan. Or as Gene Krantz (Failure is Not an Option) would say “work the problem.” Prepare, plan, execute, repeat.

Should you read this book? If you lead or mentor others, yes. It serves as a reminder that in a world of warm fuzzies, people have by-and-large come to expect success to come from outside themselves. We need to have high expectations for ourselves and others. If you are expecting that this book will make you as an individual successful, look elsewhere.

 

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The book Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda was recommended to me. This is unusual in that I’m typically the one recommending books to others.

This book follows the creation of the iPhone as seen through the eyes of the author, who was a software developer at Apple at the time. There are many interesting aspects to his story, to his interactions with the movers and shakers within Apple including eventually with Steve Jobs, and to the creative dynamic that made the iPhone possible at all.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the world of Apple’s alpha and beta hardware, as well as that of many other technology firms as an engineer at firms working with Apple. I’ve also been on the other side of the fence, designing, developing and managing hardware and software, and their associated beta programs. It’s a challenging environment.

I’ve also had the opportunity of presenting my work to those holding the levers of power who had, shall we say, a less than gentle manner of showing disapproval with those thing not meeting with their standard of quality. There is an interesting combination of exhilaration and dread surrounding such presentations.

Elaborating on the details of the book in this post wouldn’t serve to encourage the would-be reader. If you are a follower of the history of Apple or technology, you’ll find things that will expand your view of the period and the dynamics surrounding it. You should also come away with a bit of insight into how Jobs looked at features. At least within the scope of the work that Kocienda presented him.

As a first outing, Kocienda does a reasonable job of painting a picture of the time and place that was Apple before they changed the world of mobile phones. The book is illustrated, which is unusual in a day and age of contemporaneous photography. I can’t imagine there not being numerous of photos from the proto-iPhone during its gestation. The pace of the book is decent and he conveys a sense of presence in the narrative. I felt that it could have been tighter, although that would have reduced the already roughly 200 pages of prose even further.

All-in-all, the book is well supported by references and is approachable by those not of the software tribe. You should be able to dispatch this one in a few hours. It’ll be joining my other volumes on the history of technology of this period.

 

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I always find myself impressed at how nation-states and their leaders exhibit repeating patterns of behavior. This is expertly explored through space, time and scale in John Lewis Gaddis‘ latest book On Grand Strategy.

Dovetailing beautifully into my previous post’s assertion that I am an experiential gestaltist, Gaddis’ work takes us from Persia to Greece, China, Spain, England, France, Russia and the Americas. The book deconstructs battles and their attendant strategies, the motivations of their commanders, and the moods of the peoples involved.

From the outset, Gaddis presents us with the metaphor he will return to time and again. That of the fox and the hedgehog. These represent the approaches of alert outward-directed probing with stealth and of unwavering belief and inward-directed defense of that belief.

He shows that time and again battles are lost because leaders lack the ability to see changes in the situation before them. This may manifest in populations simply abandoning territory as was the case in both Xercesattack of Athens and Napoleon‘s of Moscow. Forcing your attacker to extend their supply lines should give pause to any commander, and yet, time after time we see overconfidence leading to defeat.

We see how Elizabeth skillfully balances force and guile to turn a seemingly weak position with respect to the attacking forces of Spain’s (God will make it work out) Philip. Like Xerces, Philip believes that his forces cannot fail. Less so because of their intrinsic numerical advantage and more because of his steadfast belief in his divine mission. His confidence extended to failing to provide adequate direction to his various forces and ignoring losses due to bad weather. Elizabeth, on the other hand patiently and judiciously used her limited resources.

The British colonies in North America are examined and we see the interplay between the colonials and the empire. As the United States are forming, the choice to kick the can of addressing slavery down the proverbial road of history is in full display as they draft their Declaration of Independence and Constitution. We jump to the American Civil War where leaders are struggling with the consequences of being at once a nation based on democratic ideals and yet built on slavery. They were very well aware that the monarchies of Europe still looked on them as an untenable aberration. A hypocritical one at that.

And we see into the churn that formed the backdrops of both World Wars. Also, how England worked to engage the United States and how others tried to prevent its engagement.

Throughout it all, we are presented profiles of leaders who are either able or unable to navigate the ambiguities of the realities before them. There are those without a compass, unable to achieve goals because there are none. There are those whose compass is trusted to the exclusion of the terrain. They find themselves, like those today blinding following navigation apps, ending up going off cliffs and ending up in lakes. Knowing where you are going is important, but if you fail to allow for the terrain and weather conditions, you will not do well.

On the whole, the book provides us a valuable mirror. It is amazingly timely given that we are in a period where our leaders seem again poised to engage in actions demonstrating that they have failed to either study of learn from the teaching of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Augustine and Machiavelli. Their message could be described as success is found in following the middle way, embracing both certainty of mission, preparation and proper respect for the fluid nature of engagement.

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Sometimes you can spend years trying to find a book that you can recommend to someone who’s asked you a question. My latest read, The Software Craftsman: Professionalism, Pragmatism, Pride is one such book. A recent volume in the Robert C. Martin book series, this volume by Sandro Mancuso is not what it appears to be. And that, is a good thing.

When you look at the other books in the Martin series (Working Effectively with Legacy Code, Agile Estimating and Planning, Clean Code, The Clean Coder, Clean Architecture, …) you see topics decomposed and methodologies expressed by which the title’s subject is achieved. That’s not what you get with The Software Craftsman. In my case, that was a very fortunate turn of events.

This is not to say that the journey of the software craftsman is not discussed. It is and in a reasonable amount of detail. But an equal amount of time is given to the ecosystem within which the craftsman practices. These parts of the book are not for the consumption of the craftsman or aspirant, but for the owners of the firms who employ (or should employ) them.

The book does well in describing the trials and tribulations of a member of the craft; from the point where they realized that they aspired to more than the dichotomy of coder / architect; to the creation of the volume itself. It lays bare this false dichotomy within the broader context of the entire point of software development. That being to produce value to the customer and income to the creator. Within that context, there is the easy path of whatever works and the hard path of building a thing that no only does what it is supposed to, but does it in a way which is both high quality and highly maintainable.

At it’s core, this is book about philosophy. In a landscape of Google and go; and compile it, link it, ship it, debug it; this is a thoughtful volume. It makes the point that I’ve never seen in print, that the individual software developer is responsible for their own career development. Not their manager, not their company, but they themselves are responsible. Heady stuff this.

As to the remainder of the book’s material, it’s more a wake up call to upper management. There you’ll find discussion of recruiting, hiring, retaining, shaping change and showing ROI. I know of very few who could look at this volume and come away unmoved.

It might be the separation of authority and responsibility, the hire for what we needed yesterday, the CYA so we get our bonus, or the factory worker mentality encouraged by so many firms today. If you can read this book and not get something out of it, you’re part of the problem.

Truly quality software is designed, built, and tested by passionate individuals working together toward the creation of something which will well serve the customer. Everything else is just code. Any 10 year-old can be taught to write code. I know, I’ve done it. Do you want your life’s critical systems to be build by 10 year-olds? Of course not, that’s a ridiculous question. How about people who are just doing it because they make a better than average day’s wage?

I hope you’re intrigued. At the very least, I hope you’ll reflect on your own views of the responsibilities of a software developer. At fewer than 250 pages, you can read this book in one or two sittings, but reading the book is only the starting point.

 

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The book, The Character of a Leader: A Handbook for the Young Leader, is an odd beast. There aren’t many non-fiction books I’ve read where the author uses a nom de plume. According to the Amazon description the author Donald Alexander is an executive officer within the United States intelligence community. Presuming this to be true, they’re desire is to provide a foundation for aspiring leaders and not their own aggrandizement. I say aspiring here because a leader isn’t a title or rank, but rather a state or behavioral characteristic. Leaders can at the same time be led. They are also in a constant state of self-education.

The author argues that a leader is grounded in a set of core characteristics and beliefs about themselves and others. This position is opposed to those who believe that one can be an effective leader and hold that there are no absolutes with regard to attitudes and actions (moral relativism).

Given the books short length (about 120 pages of main text), it struck me as unusual that the introduction was about 15 pages in length. Why not simply incorporate it into the body of the work? My view is that this device allows the author to create the questions that the main text then answers. In a way, it is as though a student approaches a teacher and in asking questions inspires the teacher to assemble a lesson for all their students. I look at it this way because that’s what I have done in similar circumstances. It’s not usually the case that people coming to me with questions realize that their questions are of import to others, but it is the obligation of those of us who people approach with such questions to “spread the wealth.” Noblesse oblige, if you will.

The book is divided into sections defining a working definition of leadership, leadership and character, leadership traits, expectations, becoming a leader, and the fundamental obstacle  to leading (tribalism). It concluded with a call for leading with integrity.

No one who has been in a position of leadership will be surprised at either the structure of brevity of this book. You could put the totality of the facts conveyed onto a business card (I’d’ve said index card, but no one knows what an index card is anymore). But just like a PowerPoint, you don’t need to write every word you’ll speak on the slides (they’re not really slides anymore either). This book is a touchstone. For those newly recognized leaders, this book is a cross between a travelogue and a cautionary tale. For the former, the inclusion of additional material would simply be superfluous. For the later, it might convey the idea that the actions of a leader are paint-by-number, whereas in reality the are very much free-hand.

There are numerous quotes by and about leaders from various periods in history. These both build the case for the author’s assertion that character is essential to being a leader and provide jumping off points for further exploration of specific aspects of leadership.

I am impressed at the tightness of the narrative and the compelling argument made by the author. They strike me as one of those individuals that I would very much enjoy learning from and working along side.

 

 

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I spend much of my time these days doing long-term strategic research and planning. Part of that time is spent identifying areas where technology training is warranted. The ways and means I use to create and present training materials have been developed through years of trial and error. In the midst of one particular line of research into a non-training-related area, I found Building an Innovative Learning Organization by Russell Sarder.

The book is relatively short, about 220 pages, but in many ways, you really don’t need more than that to cover the concepts of training. While it’s true that it would take far more to cover all aspect of training, from organization by-in, to facilities, to choice of materials, to length of courses, etc., those are details. And the details are as pointless as ornaments without a tree if you don’t have the fundamentals in place. That’s where this book shines.

Yes, there are all the requisite elements of a business-oriented book (voices from industry, outcomes of research, anecdotes, and the like). Not to mention the mound of acronyms tossed in for good measure. But, I expect those. This book asserts that learning should be a systemic attribute of any thriving company. As such, learning must be part of the culture of the company for it to be successful. You cannot slap training on the side and expect that you will have any serious ROI to the company. It would be like thinking that buying Girl Scout cookies or Boy Scout popcorn has a substantive impact on the members of either organization. Yes, it does provide financial support for programs, but it’s not “the program.”

Training needs leaders, resources, people interested in learning, and a purpose (lest we forget why we do training in the first place).

Training has a structure and that structure is not one-size-fits-all. People have varying modalities of learning. Even the best material won’t work well for everyone. This is were that whole (materials, time, place, etc.) details thing comes into play. But, again the focus of the book is to lay out the challenges and considerations, not specifics.

Finally, you need to see that training produces results. This can be fiendishly difficult to measure, so it’s vitally important to set expectations before doing the training. Being happy is not considered a valid measure of ROI for the company.

As mentioned earlier, the book is replete with references and for those who create training material or even those who want to create an environment within their company where can be effective. It is a good starting point. For those who have been involved in training for some time, the book can serve as a reference that can be used to educate management in the scope, cost and investment (they’re different) necessary to create a learning environment that will have long-term benefits.

Overall, a decent read. I found the interviews with CLOs (chief learning officers) incisive. As with all organization-level things, there are no easy answers. And you do get what you pay for. You’ll dispatch this book in a few hours and then find yourself going back over it later.

 

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