As the year wraps up, I wanted to reflect on some of the best books we read this year.
As a small company, our culture is ever evolving, but one area of Simple Thread I’m happy with is our focus on continuous learning and sharing. Every organization pays lip service to the idea of learning, but at most places, when it comes down to schedules and priorities, those lunch n’ learns never seem to happen, presentations get delayed forever, etc.
I’m quite proud that, at Simple Thread, we have an hour-long learning discussion every Friday, well, almost every Friday. We’re not robots, but the times the call gets canceled are the exception. That consistency provides space for cross-pollination among teams and lets us do things like read and discuss books together, with everyone, during work hours.
Team Discussion Books
Don’t Make Me Think (Steve Krug) – This is a foundational text on usability – and for good reason. With simple examples, it lays out the principles of information design and user experience. This is one of those design books that everyone should read. Developers and product managers will benefit as much as (or maybe more than!) designers. The lessons of empathy are universal.
The Pragmatic Programmer (Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt) – A timeless software development book is a rare treasure. Anyone connected to software development can learn valuable lessons from it. Some examples are dated, but the principles are as relevant as when Dave and Andy wrote it in 1999. Back then, their ideas seemed revolutionary. Re-reading it again this year, I was amazed to realize how many of their crazy ideas have become standard best practices.
The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman) – Another classic focused on human-centered design. It covers how product design often ignores the needs of users and the principles of cognitive psychology, with problems ranging from hidden controls to lack of feedback and unreasonable expectations. It shows that good, usable design is possible and lays out simple rules for creating products that satisfy customers. It’s also a very fun read, which helps the medicine go down. 🙂
Accelerate (Gene Kim) – In Martin Fowler’s talk “The State of Agile Software in 2018” he said “My favorite book of the year so far, I think it’s going to be the best book of the year, is “Accelerate” by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim. (And I say that with great sadness because my book’s going to come out this year, but I’m hoping for number two).” As soon as I read that, I knew I was going to have to grab a copy of Accelerate… and I was not disappointed.
My business partner Al often likes to remind me that just because an outcome seems intuitive, doesn’t mean it is correct. We hear almost every day about how DevOps will save us all and how in order to be a high performing team, you must adopt DevOps strategies into your workflows. While most engineers will anecdotally agree with that, and it seems intuitive, there hasn’t been a lot of data to back it up.
Accelerate seeks to change that. The authors analyzed 23,000 survey responses from a wide variety of companies and found a number of strong correlations. They bucketed the resulting companies into high performers, medium performers, and low performers. They found that high performers, versus low performers, had…
46 times more frequent code deployments
440 times faster lead time from commit to deploy
170 times faster mean time to recover from downtime
5 times lower change failure rate (1/5 as likely for a change to fail)
High performers outperformed medium and low performers on every metric! So high output actually correlated to lower defects and less downtime, which is counter to the argument that moving slower makes things more stable.
Another interesting finding was that technology choice wasn’t a great predictor of the performance of organizations. They found that organizations could achieve similar outcomes with mainframes and packaged software. There are many more great findings like this, far too many for me to talk about here.
If you’re trying to make the case for adopting DevOps practices within your organization, Accelerate will provide you with more than enough data. Even if you’re working in an organization that is already well down the road of adopting these practices, it is still a book worth picking up because having data to back up your practices is always a good thing.
Weapons of Math Destruction (Cathy O’Neill) – In this book the author tells a fascinating tale about how she became increasingly concerned about the uses of “big data” algorithms and about how careful we need to be that we don’t create systems that employ algorithms that are opaque, affect individuals in life-affecting ways, and perpetuate our own prejudices, or the prejudices built into our data. She explains how algorithms can create feedback loops that can perpetuate injustice.
One example of this she uses is an algorithm that tells police officers where to patrol. If there is an area with higher crime, the police will be sent to those areas, which means that they will make more arrests in those areas which will in turn cause even more police to be sent to those areas. This feedback loop can cause increasing harm to communities that are already struggling. Other examples she uses are an algorithm that filters out candidates from minimum wage jobs or scores teachers based on student test scores. She lays out how these algorithms are flawed and unaccountable, causing harm to countless individuals.
By the time you finish this book, you’ll have a much better appreciation of how careful we need to be trusting our decisions to algorithms, and why one of the biggest pushes in data science over the last few years has been towards the explainability of models. We must understand the algorithms that we are handing over these critical decisions to, and we must have ways to audit the outcomes of them.
This Is Marketing (Seth Godin) – Designers, engineers, managers, basically anyone who doesn’t think of themselves as a salesperson (and maybe a few folks who do) think of sales and marketing as such dirty words. They think it is about trickery and manipulation. While not exactly a novel idea at this point, Seth makes a very persuasive argument about why “traditional” content marketing is broken, and how the typical approach of spamming tons of content out into the world doesn’t work anymore. You need a story worth telling, and you need to build it in a way that just a few people will really benefit and care about it.
He coins the term “Smallest Viable Market” and how you should focus all of your energy on that one group of people. He talks about doing the hard work of showing up, day after day, year after year, and engaging with that community and teaching that community in order to build something that lasts. For me, this book reinforced the need for us to really understand who our customer is, and continue to focus all of our energy on teaching and engaging, not trying to just sell sell sell.
A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) – Not typical a business book, but I now recommend this to anyone I know who has to interact with people on a regular basis (so everyone). This book was recommended to me by Mark Rickmeier at Table XI. I am eternally grateful, because this is now one of my favorite books of all time. It is an true account of Bill Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian trail with a lazy, and later reluctant, hiking partner.
My love of this book might come as a surprise to people who know me, especially give the fact that I have zero interest in ever hiking any large part of the Appalachian trail. Even if you can’t stand the idea of hiking (the book will only reinforce this for you), the memoir is a hilarious tale about two middle-aged individuals with polar opposite personalities, who manage to hike about 800 miles of the roughly 2200 mile long Appalachian trail.
It is an absolutely wonderful case study on perseverance, failure, planning, and human nature. If you think you’re going to read a story about two guys who hike the beautiful Appalachian trail and write a book about how wonderful nature is, and how restorative hiking the trail can be, you’ll be in for quite a surprise.
Essentialism (Greg McKeown) — As a sales person, I am often challenged with how I spend my time or let others choose how my time gets spent. This book isn’t about new systems of how to do more in less time, it’s about doing only the right things. It’s about regaining control how I spend my time professionally and personally in order for me to create the biggest impact possible.
Angel (Jason Calacanis) — Angel investors take asymmetrical risks; most of those investments fail but a very few turn into massive wins that pay back the failed investments AND make those investors lots of money as well. While Simple Thread is not startup investors, we do regularly work with startups. In order to hack the process of “what makes a good startup for us to work with?” I’ve used Calacanis’s most important qualities in investments and applied them to our potential pool of product development partnerships.
Shoe Dog (Phil Knight) – I loved this book, primarily as a beautifully written story and only secondarily as a business book. It’s the memoir by the main founder of Nike, which is an inherently interesting business story. What sets it apart from business tales is the honesty, the messy chaos of the journey. It’s a wonderful story told wondrously – with the help of my favorite ghost writer… actually the only ghost writer I can name: J. R. Moehringer.
The Phoenix Project (Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford) – This is an interesting one, a business novel in the tradition of The Goal. I’ll be honest: it took multiple tries for me to get into it. It was recommended to me so many times, and being somewhat familiar with the theory of constraints and much of the reference material, I wanted to like it. But it just didn’t hold my attention.
That all changed when I tried listening to it as an audiobook. Instead of being annoyed by the storytelling contrivances, I was able to enjoy it as a parable, and surprisingly, I find myself thinking of it often. It’s a great primer on how to identify bottlenecks in IT processes, how to manage work in progress, etc. If you’re involved in managing any type of software efforts, you should check it out.
Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker) – Okay, you don’t actually need to read this. You just need to prioritize sleeping more. However, if you’re anything like me, that’s easier said than done. There’s always some good-seeming reason to stay up late or get up early. It turns out sleep is more important than we thought, and improving your sleep hygiene is urgent. In this book, Walker makes a persuasive argument that we are experiencing an epidemic of sleep loss that he calls “the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century.”
EDIT: I should note that this book has been criticized for overstating the case and making claims about sleep that aren’t true. So I advise reading with a skeptical eye, which actually holds true for most pop-sci books in my opinion.
My own sleep journey is still ongoing, but regardless of this book’s flaws, I am starting to believe that the single best tactic you can use to improve your decision-making and productivity at work is simply to get a good night’s sleep, every night. Not exciting but true, it seems.
Our backlog of reading in 2020 is growing by the day, but we’re always happy to talk books. Please share any recommendations or books you’re looking forward to reading.