Mega Book Report (Part 1)

[This post was originally published on my blog, martymatheny.com]

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 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 People Ops 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!