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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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The latest trend seems to be reading what the rich and powerful read. I regularly peruse these lists of recommendations and occasionally an interesting title catches my eye. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is one of those books.

For a while now this book has been in my ‘highly parallel reading queue.’ This is to say that my usual method of reading consists of a bookshelf of a hundred or so books that I’m somewhere in the midst of reading. From this bookshelf, a subset of about 20 find their way to a smaller bookshelf. These will be read randomly a chapter or so at a time until I’ve worked my way through them and have to reload from the primary bookshelf. Occasionally, as with my last reviewed book, I’ll do a cover-to-cover in a burst, but that is the exception. I’ve got some books that I’ve been reading for the better part of 30 years (75% footnote material).

Needless to say, by the time I’ve finished a book there has been a fair amount of reflection and integration that’s taken place. The material in The Sixth Extinction is fairly heavy stuff. It’s not that the science is particularly difficult or that the writing requires you to keep a tablet handy for side exploration (I love side exploration). The thing is that if you have a decent understanding of the history of the planet (so far as we have come to understand it) and appreciate the impact that man can and does have on the biosphere, then by the time you finish the book, you’ll come away with a sense of profound sadness.

I’m a fan of John Brunner‘s work. He had a way of making the large scale personal. He also had a habit of killing off all his main characters within the first ten pages of his books (yes, this is a bit of hyperbole). In many of his works there is a sense that things aren’t going to work out, but you keep pulling for the hero anyway.

The Sixth Extinction is a methodical tour of the effects of the age of man (Anthropocene epoch). It takes us around the world, unblinkingly moving from one die-off in progress to the next. It puts a face and a context to each creature we’re introduced to. If the books thirteen chapters were made into a season of television, it would be the most stunningly depressing series ever. Whereas Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos appealed to our better nature and James Burke‘s Connections left us asking if we were any more than cogs, The Sixth Extinction ends with rats inheriting the Earth.

This may all sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s one of those mirror books that is a distinct departure from all the wishing that we lived back in 1950’s America or how can we become millionaires by eating the same breakfast as Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg. We need to read books that show us the big picture. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

Many books on bad situations leave us with a call to action. Realistically though, the damage has been done. The question is one of how long it will take for all the dominoes to fall. For the vast majority of people, asking them to look further than their tribe is near unto impossible. Asking people to consider the planet, therefore, represents an intractable problem.

Read the book, if for no other reason than to come away with a greater appreciation of the impact of man on the planet.

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There’s been a lot of churn lately over the price of Bitcoin. There’s also been much talk about uses (commercial and otherwise) for the blockchain technology that underlies it. I’ve taken an interest, as of late, in the subject and I found a promising source of information in the Michael J Casey, Paul Vigna book The Truth Machine.

If you’re looking for a book on how to write blockchain software. This book isn’t going to be of much interest to you. If you have interest in the history of the technology, its applications and societal impacts, you will find it to be a solid read.

Bitcoin and  Ethereum, and the like are discussed with enough depth to provide non-developers a good sense of use cases. This is after all the point of a technology. Otherwise you’ve got yourself shelfware. All the major players are discussed running the gamut from crypto-anarchists to Wall Street bankers. I find the dynamic of these two extremes battling over this technology fascinating.

One definitely comes away with the sense that the technology is still very much a work in progress. Personally, I find it unfortunate that the public sees it as another get-rich-quick methodology. This loops back to the volatility of the Coin markets.

Another, and arguably more important, takeaway is that the systems currently in place do not scale (or at least have yet to be proven to scale). That Bitcoin can process six transactions per second in a world where Visa processed ten thousand is quite telling.

The underlying problem of who’s in charge comes to mind. Without some form of human governance, poor programming will result in bad actors taking advantage of the system. Nowhere does the book address the issue of longevity. The thing about paper (or animal hide for that matter) is that it has a permanence that has proven itself outside of our advances in storage technology. If we did move to a blockchain-based system of ownership tracking, what happens when another, better one comes along? What will the impact of quantum computing be in a world where work is proportional to CPU expended? What happens when people decide that it’s easier to steal the resources used to mine the coin?

I only have a few issues with the book.

First, for a book on a complex technological subject, I expect extra fact checking. I noticed two rookie mistakes in this department. ASIC is defined as ‘Application-Specific Integrated Chips’ whereas it should be ‘Application-Specific Integrated Circuit.’ It also doesn’t require quotes. In the realm of techno-history, the authors attributed Public-Key Cryptography to Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. This is of course incorrect. That distinction belongs to James H Ellis (at least until the NSA owns up to when they started using it). Although his work was once classified, it have been publicly recognized for some time now.

Second, the book wanders off the path of techno-history and into the realm of  conspiracy theory and political opinion when they introduce ‘speculation’ of hacking in the MH370 incident and spend the bulk of the last chapter on the latter.

On the whole, I found the book to be a very good and current survey of the landscape of blockchain technology and its history.

 

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I just finished reading Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. As with his previous biographies, this one is just as well-researched and presented.

Leonardo is one of those one name people. Long before Prince, Madonna or Usher (funny how they’re all designations of some sort) the name da Vinci was attributed to only one individual. All this fuss over a distracted, self willed, person who started far more things than he finished.

Yes, he was a prima donna. Yes, he tended to tinker over a thing far after the commissioner expected it to be complete. Yes, he was distracted by, well, just about anything. But, what a mind.

Best of all, he just didn’t seem to give a damn. About expectations, glory or money. Which is not to say that he didn’t care about comfort. He liked pretty things (and pretty people). But one gets the distinct impression that what he really wanted was to have a patron (patron sounds so much nicer than sugar daddy) who would appreciate the quality and not quantity of his work. He wanted the freedom to explore the universe (such as it was in the late 15th and early 16th century).

He loved pageantry. He loved to learn, to teach and to collaborate. He was a self-promoter who appears to have been not really up to the task.

He was always stretching, always reaching beyond his understanding. He was always reinventing himself.

People would commission him based on his past works. Many times this lead nowhere for them. With da Vinci, they should have been thinking about what he might do rather than what he had done. How poorly would he fare in today’s world where people are hired to essentially give repeat performances. This being especially true in the technology sector. Kind of like wanting to visit an exotic land where you stay at Holiday Inn, eat at McDonalds and everyone speaks English. Or in perhaps more relevant terms, you invest in a startup that’s going to change the world with a guaranteed return and no risk.

Leonardo was the definition of the deep bench. It wasn’t until the end of his life that he found in the king of France a person who got that you don’t “hire” a Leonardo for what he does, but rather for who he is and how he changes those around him. I find it quite disappointing they expectation that people have of being assured an immediate return at a cut rate. This is the measure of mediocrity in both the individual and business worlds. People want to be given a fish and have no patience to learn how to fish themselves. How much better would the world be if we sought out and nurtured those capable of creating a multiplier effect?

He was also very human. He could be unreliable and ill tempered. His relationship with his relatives was the stuff of reality television.

Isaacson does an excellent job of putting meat on the bones of this icon of creativity.

I’ve read quite a few treatments of da Vinci’s life s one is by far the best. So many seem to be intended to ride the tide of get-genius-quick that is so pervasive today. Nothing like everyone being above average. He didn’t become the man come icon overnight. He became who we know over a lifetime, with the attendant work. As Isaacson noted, he is seen as a genius rather than a craftsman because, but certainly not solely, of his habit of not releasing his work until it was perfected. Granted for most people this would be attributed more to OCD than genius (and with good reason).

Isaacson’s narrative style is engaging and I hope that someone takes the time to translate it to a long-form, visual format.

Overall, I came away with the sense that da Vinci was a real person who inhabited a real world. I can’t say I’d’ve liked to have lived there, but it’d’ve been fun to visit.

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