Reading List: Rework

I just finished reading Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson and found it to be a very interesting treatise on what “right” can look like for a small business.  The authors do a great job of deconstructing the assumptions around “corporate” behavior, and the alternative work environment they describe seems almost Utopian.

Whenever I read books about behavior and organizations, one of the mental filters I try to put the ideas through goes something like: “Would this work for a non-profit volunteer group?”, “Would this work for my local McDonalds?”, “Would this work for a government agency?”.  I don’t do this in order to find flaws in a model, but rather to understand it better, to identify assumptions, and to see what truths in the model might be universal or transferrable. The main blocking point to pulling some of the ideas in the book into any organization would be that there needs to be a baseline of mutual trust and respect that might be lacking in some arenas.  With that said, I think many of the lessons on decision making, planning, and communication can be helpful wherever they are applied.

To a certain extent, the advice in the book is prescriptive and not necessarily transformative.  This is by design, and I see a lot of great ideas for avoiding pitfalls that many entrepreneurs, managers, and employees fall into. It’s hard to find any direct critique because the tone is very conversational and easy to read, and instead of telling the reader what they should do without any real backing, they simply describe what has worked for 37Signals. It’s folly to argue with a set of behaviors that have shown to be successful over the years.

If I ever find myself starting a small business, or working at one, this will be a definite periodic re-read.  As it stands now, I’m trying to absorb how these ideas fit into my personal sphere of influence.

The book is available from Amazon

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Reading List: Ruby on Rails Tutorial: Learn Web Development with Rails (2nd Edition)

Over the past several months, I very slowly worked my way through Michael Hartl’s Ruby On Rails Tutorial and just wrapped things up last weekend.  As someone who has worked in many different programming languages over the years, I found this to be a great survey on how Rails can be used to build functional web apps.

The majority of the book is spent methodically building out a basic Twitter clone.  I like the way that concepts like MVC and TDD were introduced, but I question whether I might have been a bit lost if I wasn’t already familiar with them.

The writing style was very easy to follow, and I liked the predictable flow of Write Tests, Code, Test, Repeat.  I do wish that whomever curates the Kindle version would eliminate all of the “Click here to view code image” links, but that was only a minor distraction.

The author rightly states in the intro that a basic understanding of HTML and CSS is needed.  If you’re starting without that baseline, a lot of the sample app is going to seem like magic, and relying on magic is a bad way to code.  As it stands I feel like a lot of the Ruby code in the book was a bit on the mystical side, so I’m probably going to find a good Ruby book for my next technical read.  If you want to take a look at where my sample ended up, you can see the code at: https:/github.com/hallihan/rails_tutorial and I’ve got the sample running on Heroku at http://yamf.net.

Overall I’d say that if you’re familiar with other web frameworks like ASP/ASP.Net, PHP, JSP, etc. this is a great book to introduce the Rails framework.  I’d probably recommend diving into a Ruby book first if you have the interest.

The book is available from Amazon

Reading List: Linchpin

During some recent travel I had enough time to read Seth Godin's Linchpin, cover to cover in one sitting.  Well actually it was two sittings back to back with a layover in Dallas Fort Worth, but close enough.

Looking back, I almost wish I had stretched this over several days since the concepts take a bit of time to bake. Godin appropriately points out early in the book that the ideas will meet with resistance in your mind. In fact, one of the main premises in the book is this idea that we are all basically of two minds. Our creative social mind, and a nicknamed "lizard brain" that resists risk and sometimes sabotages our ability to put forth our best effort. My lizard brain was on full alert as I crammed through the book, but strangely that helped me to at least validate some of the theories in the book in real time.

This book is different from the other Godin books that I have read in that it wasn't prescriptive in how to accomplish a goal, reach an audience, or spread an idea. It was more of a manifesto, a plea for the reader as an individual to be different.  The different that Godin is pushing for requires breaking the rules of conformity and abandoning the repeatable cookie cutter factory-like methods that so many industries cling to in the name of quality.  He asks the reader instead to focus on human interaction and emotional nuance and makes a compelling argument that this will allow the reader to stand out, do more, and become indispensable to the organizations they serve.

Godin rounds out his argument with anecdotes of modern successful linchpins, historical perspectives about why the current career landscape encourages cookie cutter behavior but actually favors certain types of rule breaking, and even gives some basic evolutionary neurology backing for his theories.

This book is a great read if you are looking to stretch your mind a bit about what it takes to stand out, be successful and make a difference.

Reading List: Outliers

It took me two attempts to get through Outliers.  The first time I started reading this book, I had trouble getting past the fact that everyone focuses on the “birthday” success factor when talking about the book, and outside of sports I tend to think that other factors are more important to success.  I’m glad that I decided to re-tackle this book on the plane because the latter part of the book covered some of my own preconceived ideas about success, and added several new facets as well.

If you have heard of Outliers have most likely heard the correlation between professional sports “stars” and their birthdays.  Basically Gladwell highlights a correlation between those who are the oldest players  in a year-group, and those who grow up to be successful athletes.  This correlation is provable across many different sports, and Gladwell argues that the attention these players get from being just a bit better due to physical advantages means that they get more playing time, more praise and more practice, and that this cascades and accumulates, ensuring that they have more opportunity to excel and become experts.

The later part of the book brings in many other factors that drive “Outlier” like success.  There are a few other circumstance type drivers, such as the year when someone is born, or the historical experiences that a culture shares.  Gladwell also points out several Outliers that had happenstance advantages, such as being given a unique opportunity at a key point of personal development.

Gladwell revisits the idea of “time spent practicing” later in the book, but in more of a comparative way instead of the “10,000 hours to excellence” that was highlighted earlier in the book.  One such comparison was academic achievement in different countries, compared with the lengths of their school year.  This highlighting of marginal differences was much more compelling to me than the first part of the book.  I also appreciated that the end of the book discussed some ways we can eliminate the biases that our “normal” way of life imparts on us.

The last running theme that struck a chord with me was that success is not a matter of personal will, but rather a mixture of will, chance and opportunity.  I do paradoxically wonder what happens when more people are given the knowledge of what it takes to become an Outlier, and they set their will toward making it happen.

Reading List: Pleased But Not Satisfied

This small book by David Sokol holds some interesting perspectives about managing change, from one of Warren Buffett’s chief lieutenants.  A lot of focus is placed on the Plan, Execute, Measure, Correct cycle, and after reading this book, it’s very easy to notice the absence of the “Measure, Correct” portion of the cycle in many change initiatives.  Too often as leaders, we have a tendency to stick to the plan simply because we are committed to our decisions. 

Sokol makes judicious use of personal and business anecdotes to highlight the points he’s making, but doesn’t belabor the reader with too much domain specific detail.

If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s an excellent quick read.

Buy from Amazon.com

Reading List: Googled

Ken Auletta has written a great book about the changes that are happening in advertising and in media, against a backdrop of Google’s rise to prominence, with some interesting insights into the Google culture.

Auletta seems to have enough proximity to some of the major players that he paints a vivid picture of the personalities and motivations of high-level Googlers, specifically highlighting why Google is different from most major corporations.  It would be interesting to hear an inside opinion of how accurate the portrayals were.

This book is a worthwhile read, whether you are involved in the tech industry, media, or even as a consumer who wants to understand more about why and how “free” really works on the Internet.

Reading List: Sway – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Sway is one of those books that makes you think about human behavior in an entirely different way.  By running through some common scenarios where people behave in seemingly inexplicable ways, and identifying some common themes, Ori and Ram Brafman provide perspectives and tools to help identify and avoid irrationality.  The story-telling reminded me a great deal of the styles of Malcolm Gladwell or Steven D. Levitt.  Anecdotal evidence was backed by some more rigorous analysis that made the ideas both compelling, and personally believable.

After reading this book, I settled on a new definition for Irrational Behavior: Acting in a way that is counter to or wasteful with regard to your true goals.

Just because someone doesn’t do what you want, doesn’t make them irrational, but when they start making choices that move them away from what they want, they have entered the realm of the irrational.