At Basecamp, we have a monthly automatic check-in called What are you reading? It’s a great way to discover new books by recommendation of what your colleagues are reading, but it’s also a great way to recap what you read over the past year.
So here are all my answers to that question on the 13 books I read in 2016. This starts with what I read in January and ends up with December.
The Halo Effect: Lovely take-down of Good to Great, Built to Last, and other These Are The Secrets To Business Success stables. It focuses mainly on critiquing the bias that lead to the great companies being models on leadership, customer-focus, etc by pointing out that high-flying companies are always seen in a positive light on those attributes, but when they hit trouble, those same companies with the same approaches are cast in a negative light. This is as much media critique as anything. Note: It starts kinda slow. If you’re sold on the basic concept of the halo effect, you can well skim through the first handful of chapters where this case is being built with repetitive examples.
Being and Time: This is German philosopher Heidegger’s main work. I’m only just starting on it, but it’s incredibly obtusely written, yet also instantly illuminating. He starts by spending 20 pages defining how to properly pose the question of “being”. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the core questions of life that we all take for granted most of the time.
Amazon Web Services in Action is the first technical tutorial book I’ve read in a long time, but time well spent! Great to get a full tour of the latest with AWS. Leaps and bounds are being made. AWS Aurora is really interesting. So is AWS ElastiCache for Memcached + Redis. We will do very well to explore how we can use more of AWS going forward.
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama. It’s an epic tome and tour of human progress through the construction of political institutions and systems. It explains a lot of why we are so quick to devolve into tribal affiliations, and why the advent of the state was one of the chief achievements of human evolution. It dives into why some areas, like Western Europe, has developed more stable states, while others like Afghanistan or Africa still struggles. It’s told in a relatively plain language, but does go deep on a lot of minutia of kinship systems and so forth that are interesting but makes for a very long tale. I can recommend the Audible version as well. A solid 23 hours of listening 😀.
Fans of Hardcore History would find a lot over great crosslinks and overlaps with the topics and stories that Dan Carlin covers. It also gives a historic foundation to understand things like Game of Thrones. I thought The Unsullied was a really clever idea from GoT, but it so happens that a slave army like that was actually employed by several regimes throughout history. The Mamluks started as such an army, until they ended up running Egypt, and subsequently defending Islam from both the crusaders and Genghis Khan.
What’s really interesting about such a broad inquiry is how it compares and contrasts different regimes under the lupe of system theory. The use of the Mamluks, and other slave armies, came to be because rulers couldn’t overcome the tribal and family allegiances of their own citizens. Those systems had a tendency to descent into graft and nepotism as a matter of biology (leaving offspring with inheritance and security).
That then ties into later political institutions, like the rise of the Catholic Church. The whole purpose for celibacy came as another way of dealing with the same problem of priests and bishops trying to form dynasties around inherited positions. So the solution was the sledge hammer of “hey, if they can’t have a family, they won’t have allegiance to their own blood over the church”.
Where it all ties back is to give a historical foundation for understanding current events. The separation of church/mosque and state, corruption/elites, traditions for rule of law, and why places like India, China, the Middle East, and the West all ended up with such different notions based on millennia of institutional development.
Some times you wish he wouldn’t go into as much detail, but at the same time it also gives the whole story a gravitas that’s hard to argue with. (Although readers of The Halo Effect will smirk at the option that just the depth of research necessarily gives legitimacy to the formulation of theory.) And it’s fun when you hear about things like the Domesday Book, as covered by In Our Time, put in a broader context.
It’s an epic work. I have a hard time even comprehending how one person could digest that much original source material, make sense of it all, and arrange it in a logical progression to explain something so broad. Inspiring accomplishment.
Errors by Gerald M Weinberg. This is a compilation and refresh of the Weinberg’s six-decade work on understanding software quality and the organizations that produce it (or not). I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that at least a quarter of everything I think I know about software management and quality comes straight from reading the works of Weinberg. He is as profound as he is approachable. A rare combination!
I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in software quality (and who isn’t?!) to give this a try. It’s a good introduction to the topic and doesn’t require much in terms of prerequisites. If this then strikes your fancy, Quality Software Management is the gold series.
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. This volume picks up where The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to The French Revolution left off and dives straight into contemporary analysis, including critiques of especially the American political system. Can’t wait to dive deeper!
In between the two, I took a detour to listen to Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This is the business-oriented intersection of Punished By Rewards meets Flow. The metaphors are some times a bit stretched (from Motivational Operating System 2.0 to 3.0!!), but it’s none the less succinct, overwhelmingly compelling, and reassuring.
The central thesis is that motivation relies on three core components: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. As well as just how important intrinsic motivation (I like the work for the sake of the work) is for creative work compared to extrinsic motivation (I do work because there’s a bonus if I do). It recites countless scholars and studies on motivation and just how harmful a lot of traditional management carrots and sticks can be. Strongly recommended, and it’s a short read/listen.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. What a wonderful mirror for much of the contemporary bullshit around startups. The book details his ~2 years working for HubSpot, and the ridiculousness and mismanagement that entails. From calling people who are fired “graduates” to pumping up sappy acronyms for culture like HEART while being utterly brutal with work environments. It’s a cautionary tale of how too much AWESOME!! and CHANGING THE WORLD!! indoctrination can make you utterly blind to the mundane realities of work.
You do have to get past the curmudgeon filter a bit, though. Lyons has a tendency to fall into the “everyone is so stupid, I’m the only one who sees everything” hole at times, but I’m inclined to forgive him given the ordeal. And he does counter that with a fair dose of introspection and self-criticism.
The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley. It’s part Andy Rooney curmudgeon (or, crank, as he calls it), part tour de force of philosophy (especially Stoicism and Buddhism), part neuroscience picks, and part stand-up comedian observations, all reflecting on How To Live A Good Life, in the grand sense of the phrase.
It’s really good and right in line with many of the philosophies we project with REWORK and SvN. I particularly enjoyed the epic rant on POTENTIAL as the new grail for everything in life and business.
I’ve been listening to it on Audible, which has the added bonus of a Scottish reading, which is just perfect for the tone.
It has a bit of a dip in the middle, which ironically mirrors the conclusion’s focus on the U-shape of enjoyment through life, but finishes unbelievably strong. This is philosophy on how to live a good life without being dense or obtuse. Funny, approachable, profound.
On the philosophy track, I’m about a fourth through The Daily Stoic. It’s meant to provide a Stoic quote for every day of the year to provoke pondering. I don’t really hold to the once-per-day timetable, and some times the “modern contextualization” is a bit trite, but it’s great to have the hardest lessons presented repeatedly from different angles and different texts. Good stuff.
Throwing rocks at the Google bus by Douglass Rushkoff explores the ills of a society focused so exclusively on endless growth. It’s a little bit of a leftist polemic piece that likes to play both sides of the equation whenever it suits the argument, but there are some real nuggets here, and a capture of the sense that Things Aren’t Broadly Working Out For A Broad Enough Number Of People.
An Introduction to General Systems Thinking is a book I first read maybe 15 years ago. I’ve recently come to think about what books I had read in the past that had the biggest impact on my thinking. And this was right up there. Systems thinking teaches you how to find the significant variables, how to ignore that which doesn’t matter at the scale you’re examining, and generally how to think clearly about the world. That’s obviously a great help for any programmer, but it goes far beyond that. It’s just as important to be a clear thinker in business or any other matters of complexity. So I’m giving it a re-read, which is also reminding me what a fantastic writer Gerald Weinberg is. Just 👌