Category Archives for Book Reviews

Book Review – Crucial Conversations

Ever find yourself in high stakes situations where even the slightest miscommunication can bring everything crashing into the ground? If so, Crucial Conversations has you covered. Crucial Conversations is a book about how to better navigate high stakes conversations. Unlike most business books, Crucial Conversations is packed with actionable information.

Why bother?

Why is this an important skill for developers? People think software development as a process where people in a windowless basement turn pizza and caffeine into software. The reality is that software development is more about communication than technology. We build software in teams. We build software for people. We need to figure out what those people want. We need to be able to have honest conversations when things don’t go as planned (which is always). Creating a free flowing dialog is absolutely essential to creating valuable software.

Beyond building software. Developers who want a lucrative career find themselves in high stakes negotiations. These include, project scope discussions, salary negotiations, and job role discussions. Learning how navigate these situations can add thousands of dollars to your lifetime earnings. Not bad for a $10 book and a few hours of reading time.

Main Ideas

Everyone has high stakes conversations. These include high pressure negotiations, impassioned arguments, and delicate interventions. Crucial conversations come in many different flavors. What links them together is that the results of these sorts of conversations have an out-sized impact on your life. Screw up one of these and you could be feeling the pain for years to come.

The key to navigating crucial conversations is to keep a free flowing dialog between the participants. To create free flowing dialog, maintain psychological safety. The primary goal of someone in a crucial conversation is to create and maintain a psychological safe space where both parties can express themselves without fear of anger or retribution. If everyone can get everything onto the table, you can usually figure out the correct path.

To cultivate psychological safety, you need to control your own emotions. Many people cast their own stories into “victim and villain” narratives. Playing the victim causes other people to get defensive. This defensiveness erodes psychological safety. Without psychological safety, people retreat to “silence or violence”. They either shut down or defend themselves with hostility. Usually emotional and verbal hostility, but sometimes physical hostility. Responding to a conversation with silence or aggression is “the fool’s choice”. Avoid the fool’s choice at all costs.

The book describes many techniques to maintain dialog. I’m not going to list them all out here, but a few include:

Shared Purpose
People generally have some shared goal in the conversation. Reminding people of that goal can inspire mutual cooperation.

Contrast and Clarification
Use contrast to clarify what you want. Prevent misinterpretation. Everyone has a plethora of cognitive biases. It’s easy to misinterpret wants and needs in high pressure situations. Contrast what you actually want with what people think you want.

“Start with Heart”
Figure out what you actually want from a situation and take your ego out of the equation.

Related Concepts

Radical Candor
Radical candor is where you are willing to challenge people directly, but with a high degree of empathy. It’s the useful alternative to being a wimp or an asshole.

Find out more about it here: https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/

Cognitive Distortions
People have a variety of intellectual distortions. These are also referred to as cognitive biases. Watch out for cognitive distortions in yourself or others. There are dozens of these, but Psychology Tools has put together handy chart detailing some of the major ones:

Web site – http://psychologytools.com/unhelpful-thinking-styles.html
PDF – http://media.psychologytools.com/worksheets/english_us/unhelpful_thinking_styles_en-us.pdf

Ego is the Enemy
A big part of being a better negotiation is learning how to disarm your ego. Lots of people forget their mutual goal and try to “win” an argument. This is usually waste of time. Focus more on your goal and less on yourself. Ryan Holiday has a fantastic book about this.

Ego is the Enemy (Amazon)

Conclusion

Being able to successfully navigate tough conversations is an essential developer skill. Crucial Conversations has a variety of techniques to better navigate high stakes conversations. For the sake of yourself and everyone who has to work with you, work on your communication skills.

Crucial Conversations (Amazon)

What We Need More of is Hubris: A Review of Zero to One

What We Need More of is Hubris: A Review of Zero to One

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

– Peter Thiel

According to Peter Thiel, an amazing future lies ahead. All we have to do is build it. Unfortunately, cultural shifts have steered us away from audacious, grandiose, and truly innovative projects. We need to stop focusing on making slight improvements to existing technology (going from 1 to 1+n) and start making new things (going from 0 to 1). In short, we need more of the hubris that America has had in past decades.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is an excellent book by the self proclaimed contrarian and billionaire Peter Thiel. It’s about building startups and thinking big. Zero to One will inspire you and make you think. It’s one of the few business books that can’t be re-written in five pages.

Contrarian Truth

Zero to One starts off with a big question:

What important truth do very few people agree on?

This is a tough question to answer well. Most people come up with something widely believed, like the healthcare system is broken, or an opinion, like how chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla. The key is to find something that is both true and unpopular.

For example, think about the housing crisis. Right before the crisis, the important truth was “the housing bubble is about to pop”. Most people thought the good times were going to last, but some people saw the impending crunch. They used that knowledge to make a lot of money, while the rest of the country lost their shirts.

Finding these contrarian truths gives you an insight into the future. An insight that can you can use to build a business or make an investment. Think of how many truths we take for granted today that were science fiction a few decades ago.

  • We can prevent most infectious disease.
  • It is possible for humans to land on the moon.
  • We will have enough food to feed everyone on the planet.
  • The Internet will connect the world with each other

These things were once considered impossible, but now are obvious.

Here’s a few contrarian truths that I think about on a regular basis:

  • The world is a becoming a much better place for all humanity, despite what the news tells you.
  • Deference to authority is not a good tool for solving social problems.
  • The first human to live past 150 years old is probably alive today.
  • Most people won’t drive cars in 20 years.

So when looking for business opportunities, you should ask yourself: What valuable business is nobody building?

Zero to One vs. The Lean Startup

a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future.

– Peter Thiel

Since the .com bubble popped, the startup community has moved towards the Lean Startup model.

The Lean Startup model goes as follows:

  1. Target an existing market with competitors or take something that already exists and apply it in a new context. ie. rip, pivot, and jam
  2. Build a small version of your product. (a Minimum Viable Product)
  3. Release that product and gauge it’s traction
  4. Evaluate the tests and either:
    a. Make small incremental changes to improve the product
    b. Pivot into a new product
  5. Release the new version and test again
    … repeat 4-5 until out of money or you have a killer business.

The beauty of this approach is that it’s a scientific way to build a business. No one knows exactly what’s going to work, so you run as many tests as you can to get to a market.

Thiel doesn’t agree with this method. He advocates something a little different. His philosophy is that startups should make big plans and carve out their own monopoly. They can do this in one of two ways.

  1. Make a 10x improvement over an existing product. (Google did this with search)
  2. Make a totally new product segment.

In my experience, I have noticed that most big companies fall into the category of 10x improvements. Even companies that are credited with creating new markets, like Apple, are usually just improving existing technology. MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, and smart watches all existed before Apple took them to the next level. When I think of companies that made something new, I think about Pirates of Silicon Valley

He also mentions that head to head competition always results in a drop in profits. Look at any commodity market and you will notice that profit margins are razor thin. To avoid this, you need to stay so far ahead of the competition that you can charge enough to make a healthy profit. This profit can then be used to build moonshots or attract the best employees by giving them a world class working environment. Google is a great example of this. Thier monopoly status allows them to treat their employees like royalty while trying to tackle large problems.

To build a monopoly, Thiel advocates starting small and dominating a niche market. Be the big fish in the small pond. I think the bootstrapping community has this down on the small scale. They advocate niching down your product so that it serves your target audience perfectly. The primary difference with Zero to One is that once you master that small scale niche, you then expand your reach. Facebook is a great example of this. It started off with just one college and spread like a zombie plague from school to school. I remember the day when Facebook arrived at my school. Nearly everyone on campus was signed up within a week. It was insane.

Honestly, I think Thiel overstates his contrarian-ness here. While his criticisms of the lean model are legitimate, his alternative is very similar. Start small and blow up. I like how he focuses on sales, which is a dirty word to most developers. The importance of selling is often understated in the Valley. Even the best product will fail is no one’s heard of it.

Fail to plan or plan to fail

Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances… Strong men believe in cause and effect
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Indefinite attitudes about the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance
– Peter Thiel

One of the major themes of Zero to One is the importance of making plans. One of the biggest problems with our society right now is this indefinite attitude towards the future. America used to be a country of big ideas. Even normal people felt they could come up with something big and pitch it to the public. Today, people who think big are often attacked. Ambitious initiatives, like seasteading and life extension, are regularly attacked by lovers of the status quo. If people like Tim Ferriss or Peter Thiel are indicative, having detractors is evidence that you are doing something right. People who change the world are going to make some enemies.

Conclusion

The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.
– Peter Thiel

The best part of Zero to One is that it will make you think. Unlike many business books, which can be summarized in a page or two, Zero to One is packed full of interesting and useful information. It’s one of my favorite business books and I think that it’s a good book for developers who want to build something great.

Book Review – Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Book Review - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Being an adult is hard.

People are constantly vying for chunks of your attention. As you become more successful, you have to weigh lots of options. There are dozens of competing commitments and everyone is so busy trying to fit them all in. It’s maddening.

According to Greg McKeown, it doesn’t have to be this way. In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he lays out a case for eliminating the unimportant things in your life, creating boundaries, and focusing on the important few over the trivial many. I recently listened to this book and found a lot of actionable advice.

This book is especially useful for people in the technology industry. We have to deal with lots of stress and constant change. It can be painful to keep up. This book provides some guidance on how to focus and get better results with less stress.

Summary

Less, but better.

The main point of the book is that life is a series of trade offs. You can make these trade-offs yourself or you can let other people make them for you. To control your destiny, you need to figure out what’s essential to you. Then, you can focus on these few essentials and eliminate everything else.

The book divides the process of focusing on the essential into three phases:

Explore

Block off time for exploration and play. Because you’re only going to focus on a few important things, it’s important to explore what’s available. Essentialists spend more time exploring because they don’t go “all in” on every task that comes their way. They have more time and incentive to explore.

Eliminate

Come up with a clear purpose for yourself and use that clear purpose to eliminate extraneous things from your life. Use extreme criteria to reduce the number of options available. Set boundaries for yourself and others. Learn to say “no” gracefully.

Execute

Build systems that reduce the friction of doing essential things. Build smart routines and prepare for setbacks. Focus on small wins to stay motivated.

In addition to the three steps, Essentialism offers specific techniques on how to achieve simplicity in your life. One example is zero based budgeting. Most organizations budget based on last year’s numbers. Zero based budgeting starts everything off at zero. Starting from a fresh place may lead to a budget that is more in line with the priorities of the organization.

Why should you read this book?

Technology professionals have to deal with tidal waves of information while balancing competing interests. Becoming an essentialist can make balancing those interests a lot easier. The essentialist philosophy has many practical applications to software professionals.

Here are some examples:

Requirements
In any given project, people want more features than there’s time to build. Essentialism illustrates the necessity of trade-offs and highlights the need to prioritize.

Career Skills Planning
Essentialism makes a strong case for being a “jack of all trades, master of one” approach to skills training.

Writing
Both code and prose become better with the elimination of extraneous items.

Lean Software
The Lean Software movement displays a solid grasp of focusing on the essentials.

Conclusion

Essentialism is a great read for any software developer or technology professional. It’s made me reevaluate my life and focus more on the essential. I highly recommend it.