March 28, 2010

Book Review: Linchpin

I started reading Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin about the same time as I began reading Rework, which I reviewed in a previous post. So, my reaction to each book will naturally be flavored by my experience with the other.

While Rework is a short, quick read, Linchpin is much more substantial, although still an acceptable 230 pages or so. While Rework shows us how a business can be run effectively with unconventional means, Linchpin tells us how to be successful and unconventional individuals.

The best summary of the message of Linchpin can be found on page 174:
You must become indispensable to thrive in the new economy. The best ways to do that are to be remarkable, insightful, an artist, someone bearing gifts. To lead. The worst way is to conform and become a cog in a giant system.
This is, at some level, rather obvious. Seth spends a lot of time explaining the gift economy and the lizard brain and what he means by making art. And all of this is pretty good stuff. But what it all comes down to is this: If you want to succeed as an employee, as an employer, as a person, you need to stand out from the crowd by exceeding expectations and giving freely your best work, even if less will do. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but worth repeating.

As Penelope Trunk of Brazen Careerist says:
He is right. Of course. Seth is always right. The problem with all of Seth’s books is that he sets the bar so high with every one of them.
Another problem with his books is that he rarely tells you how he thinks you can achieve those very high bars.  Just that you need to meet them. Somehow. This is a problem that Seth himself mentions in Linchpin.
One of my favorite negative reviews of my book Tribes:
"Godin doesn't explain how to go about doing the actual hard groundwork of leadership. He makes it sound like anyone with an idea and  a cell phone can rally thousands of people to their cause in minutes if they just realize it's not hard"
My response: Telling people leadership is important is one thing. Showing them step by step precisely how to be a leader is impossible.
Linchpin works the same way. He tells you that being indispensable is important, and why, but stops short of telling you how. That would be impossible. Which makes Linchpin much more of a "get off your butt and do something" inspirational-style book than a "here's a bunch of things you can do to make your life better" self-help book.

March 13, 2010

Book Review: Rework


Rework

Rework is the latest batch of short-and-sweet business wisdom from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the people behind 37signals (Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, etc.).

A very quick read, Rework is essentially a collection of short blog-like observations about how 37signals runs their (small) business, and how they think you could run a business too if you wanted to. Most of these observations have been expressed by the 37signals team in some form or another already, and those who are already familiar with their philosophy of Signal vs. Noise will find few surprises.

Even so,  these things need to be said, and they need to be shared, and I'm glad Jason and David did.

The book in many ways is the authors thumbing their noses at the Harvard MBA "here's how you need to run a real business" crowd. They say "no, you don't have to do it that way" with passages titled:
  • Ignore the real world
  • Planning is guessing
  • Why grow?
  • Mission statement impossible
  • Outside money is Plan Z
They advocate counter-intuitive concepts such as:
  • Underdo your competition
  • Don't write it down
  • Pass on great people
  • Let your customers outgrow you
And they encourage individualism and honesty with sections like:
  • Don't copy
  • Own your bad news
  • How to say you're sorry
All of this is good, if not at least partially obvious. But it's almost as if, in publishing them in book form, the authors are giving entrepreneurs business starters permission to act the way they would like to act, but can't because all of the other business books say otherwise. This is the book that says "We did it this way, and it's working fine for us. Ignore what the suits tell you, and you can do it this way too." 

The best pieces of advice, as far as I'm concerned, are the ones where the authors ask us, the readers, to go a bit above and beyond just making money with our businesses, and make the world a better place. In the section "Out-teach your competition", the authors write:
Teach and you'll form a bond you just don't get from marketing tactics. Buying people's attention with a magazine or online banner ad is one thing. Earning their loyalty by teaching them forms a whole different connection. They'll trust you more. They'll respect you more. Even if they don't use your product, they can still be your fans.
Similarly, they advise to "Emulate chefs" like Julia Child, Mario Batali, and Bobby Flay, who share their recipes and techniques with the world with positive effects:
As a business owner, you should share everything you know, too. This is anathema to most in the business world. Businesses are usually paranoid and secretive. They think they have a proprietary this and competitive advantage that. Maybe a rare few do, but most don't. And those that don't should stop acting like those that do. Don't be afraid of sharing.
The ideas of respect and  trust, honesty and sharing, appear many times throughout the book, and it's obvious that the overarching feeling the authors are trying to get across is something like "Cut the bullsh*t, be serious, be honest, and be yourself". Hardly anything new, but good advice nonetheless.

While Rework is about 280 pages long, several of the pages are hand-drawn sketches, illustrating the written ideas. Many of them are quite clever.

As explained in Signals vs. Noise podcast Episode #9 (All about Rework), the decision to add the illustrations came late in the editing process, after the authors (in typical 37signals style) cut their written content in half to simplify it, and then found they didn't have enough words to create a book of the right size to fit nicely on a bookstore shelf.

Rather than add words that would dilute the message, they hired Mike Rohde of Rohdesign to provide the illustrations, thus simultaneously giving Rework bookshelf-friendly dimensions and a great style. Mike later wrote a blog post about his experience illustrating Rework. Interesting stuff.

I certainly recommend picking up a copy for yourself and spending a few hours absorbing Jason's and David's advice. If you would like to get a peek at the contents first, head over to the book's website. Here are some of my favorite passages:

"Why don't we just call plans what they really are: guesses."
 "Let's retire the term entrepreneur. It's outdated and loaded with baggage. It smells like a members-only club."
 "There's a world of difference between truly standing for something and having a mission statement that says you stand for something."
"The problem with abstractions (like reports and documents) is that they create illusions of agreement. A hundred people can read the same words, but in their heads, they're imagining a hundred different things."
 "We're all terrible estimators. (...) That's why estimates that stretch weeks, months, and years into the future are fantasies. The truth is you just don't know what's going to happen that far in advance."
"We all know résumés are a joke. They're exaggerations. (...) Worst of all, they're too easy. Anyone can create a decent-enough résumé. That's why half-assed applicants love them so much."
"If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer."
"When you treat people like children, you get children's work. (...) When everything constantly needs approval, you create a culture of non-thinkers. You create a boss-versus-worker relationship that screams, "I don't trust you."" 
 Finally, a trailer for the book:



March 07, 2010

More than functional

I listened to Episode 10 of the Pluralcast podcast the other day, in which David Starr discusses "Reading Code" with Alan Stevens:

A few weeks ago at the MVP Summit in Redmond, I was fortunate enough to run into Alan Stevens, a man my wife refers to as “your southern-gentleman-vegan-hippy friend.” Alan shared with me some new ideas he has around the act of writing (songs or literature) as a metaphor for good practices of software development. The basic idea is that we write a line of code once, and read it many times. Why aren’t we optimizing for the reading part?

The discussion they had struck close to home with me, as it resembled discussions my wife and I have occasionally. She is a fiction writer, and we commonly discuss her craft and how it relates to my craft of software development. In the podcast, Alan Stevens talks about his process of writing code in a way that resembles how he writes prose.

March 04, 2010

The most innovative municipal IT Department in the country


The most innovative municipal IT Department in the country is here in Scottsdale, Arizona, at least according to the Public Technology Institute:

Public Technology Institute: 2009-2010 Technology Solutions Award Winners

Building on our success from last year, the City of Scottsdale Information Technology department has won six more Technology Solutions Awards (more than any other municipality in the country). We had three projects designated "Winner" in our population category, and three more projects received "Significant Achievement" designation. All of this during a year when the economy caused severe budget cuts in our city, across the state, and the throughout country. It's a great feeling to be involved with such quality work and such good people.

Here is a list of our winning projects, summaries can be read on the PTI page linked above:

  • The BIG Map (Winner: Sustainability)
  • Tax Audit Lead Finder (Significant Achievement: Sustainability)
  • eSubpoena: Creating Efficiencies in the Criminal and Civil Subpoena Process (Significant Achievement: Public Safety Technology)
  • GIS Disaster Recovery Implementation (Winner: Geospatial Information Systems)
  • Employee Self Service Portal (Winner: Web and E-Government Services)
  • QuickPay Utilities Application (Significant Achievement: Web and E-Government Services)

The importance of cultural literacy

I believe, as do many others, that being a great developer means more than having great technical, code writing skills. I believe this is true because I believe developing great software takes more than simply writing great code.

Even the most technically precise, supremely optimized, highly cohesive, loosely coupled,  well documented,  easily understandable, utterly attractive code can form the basis of an application that nobody wants to use, particularly if the application was developed without taking into account the needs and desires, likes and dislikes, of the intended audience.

Crafting a well-rounded software application requires something more: “soft skills”, the skills required to be able to converse with, empathize with, relate to, and work with other people, be they your customers, your coworkers, or anybody else who has a stake in the successful outcome of the software you are developing.

As David Starr of Elegant Code recently pointed out, soft skills are actual skills, and they can be learned. He points to an “effective communication pattern” that developers can learn as if they were learning a software design pattern. And there are lots ways for people to learn communication skills, with methods and techniques for:

  • Establishing personal contact,
  • Active listening,
  • Reducing emotional tensions with the partner,
  • Defending one’s opinion, position, or point of view,
  • Discussing organization and administration,
  • Public presentations.

I feel, however, that for such training to be truly effective, one must supplement the methods and techniques with some homework. That homework, in the context of interpersonal communications, I’ve learned to call “cultural literacy".