Category Archives: Books

Reviews of books I’ve read and perhaps mention of books I plan to read, am reading or am considering reading

Program or Be Programmed

The industrial age challenged us to rethink the limits of the human body: Where does my body end and the tool begin? The digital age challenges us to rethink the limits of the human mind: What are the boundaries of my cognition?

It’s tragically ironic that the tagline for Douglas Rushkoff’s book incorporates an Old Testament reference to the Ten Commandments, since Rushkoff writes in his introduction that the Jewish race has, since the time of Moses, merely promoted an “enduring myth” where the contents of those stone tablets is concerned.

Regardless, Rushkoff’s perspective is fascinating and worth some contemplation:

  • Are we just learning to use programs or are we learning to make programs?
  • Do we favor the distracted over the focused, the automatic over the considered, and the contrary over the compassionate? Why?
  • Do we merely grant our kids access to the capabilities given to them by others, or do we empower them to determine the value-creating capabilities of these technologies for themselves?
  • Do we pursue new abilities, or do we fetishize new toys?
  • Are we optimizing our machines for humanity, or are we optimizing humans for machinery?
  • Do we think and behave differently when operating different technology as we do given different settings?
  • Are we allowing computers and networks to discourage our more complex processes–our higher order cognition, contemplation, innovation, and meaning making–in addition to copying our intellectual processes (i.e. our repeatable programs)?

…and these are questions that arise after reading just the introductory chapter…

Apparently Rushkoff’s book grew from a short talk he has given on the subject, and there is substantial commentary to wade into just on the talk alone. [1][2]

Contemplation. Something that can all to easily become sacrificed on the altar of busyness. Something to fight for, protect and prize. Warmly embracing why.

Here’s to a 2011 that is more focused, considered and compassionate!


(Re)Balancing atoms and bits

Several years ago, I blogged about how I winnowed atom-based content at that time. When I consider my increasingly digital life now, I smile at how out-dated that post seems.

Maybe some day I’ll let go of my hardcopy altogether and go 100% digital.

Almost two years after my winnowing (paper-based) content post, I briefly waxed sentimental about personal content management. Judging by that post’s imagery, I’m not sure how much “evolution” had actually occurred. I do know that the binders of paper were eventually tosed outright, but even a quick glance at my current technical library at home tells me that I have far from reached any “evolved” state.

As a visual person, I tend to value what I can see and tangibly interact with. Books present a particular challenge to me. A good book, in hard cover format especially, is immediately available to give to someone else as a loan or a gift (e.g. from one generation to the next). The same book in electronic format is more subject to the winds of technology (e.g. will there be a reader for this format? what all is required to actually read the book in terms of supporting hardware and software? etc.). On the other hand, if I took the time to bookmark or otherwise annotate paper, this could distract subsequent reading by others–electronic metadata should be more distinctly layered and separable from original content.

Given the choice between hunter or gatherer in a shopping context, I’m definitely a hunter. Put me in the middle of a men’s department or clothing store and I’ll happily panoramically scan the selection, deciding in mere seconds whether there is something for me (to killpurchase), or not. (Thankfully, my wife is my primary wardrobe consultant; so, my hunter instincts are necessarily balanced and muted. :-) ) However, as much as I may be a hunter over clothes, I am a serious gatherer of books and music. Places like Barnes & Noble and Borders love guys like me.

So, you might think that my struggle over books (i.e. physical or digital) is a struggle I have with music, too. Perhaps, but I think that my music-as-content evolution is a bit more “advanced” and, therefore, may be informative.

Although I still buy physical CDs more than digital downloads, all of my music is immediately rendered in digital format and almost entirely consumed digitally thereafter. Going “essentially digital” has enabled me to take full advantage of classification software (e.g. MusicBrainz, freedb, etc.), playback software (e.g. Apple iTunes, Microsoft Zune, etc.), recommendation engines like Pandora, etc. and also various playback hardware (e.g. an Apple iDevice, laptop, PC, etc.). If I read the liner notes for an album, I do so once (typically after unwrapping the CD). From then on, interaction with music is based on bits rather than atoms (the occasional CD play through my high fidelity entertainment system notwithstanding).

Perhaps with the advent of The Undesigned Web, software like Instapaper, and hardware like iPad, etc., my interaction with reading material will tip to become predominantly digital. Certainly, as I use the Read Later feature of Instapaper, I find it to be a digital equivalent to my paper-based content winnowing approach from years ago. (Tapping into familiar workstreams is always an effective catalyst to change my behavior.)

…if I did go digital my office would be too Spartan.

Actually, I think another contributing factor to my attempt at balancing the gathering of atoms with gathering bits instead is the fact that there is limited physical space to house either. Today, it’s not really a concern over becoming Spartan, it’s about using limited wall and desktop space to display physical items of the greatest value (e.g. family photos, art, sculpture, etc.).

Just like I’m able to visualize the “height” (or “depth”) of, say, my iPod (i.e. the number of digitized albums stored in terms of a stack of CD cases), I’m beginning to visualize my iPad in a similar manner (i.e. in terms of the stack of print magazines and books available electronically instead). Virtually speaking, such devices “fill a room.”

Who knows, I may just have to invest in my own book scanner to help free up some shelf space… :-)

In Pursuit of Elegance

Last month I read In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and am finally posting my thoughts on this book by Matthew May.

First of all, it’s a well-written book that applies its message to itself.

I’m glad that I found it after my previous read, since it covers similar ground in places as does Subject To Change but ends up exploring different vistas, too. As a matter of fact, I can relate the contents of this book to several previous reads, and In Pursuit of Elegance has refined my thinking drawn from past reading through deeper correlation and, well, elegance.

“To find elegance, you must appreciate, embrace, and then travel beyond complexity.” The pursuit of elegance is more like chess than checkers. Elegance is “far side,” not “near side,” simplicity; it is at once symmetrical, seductive, subtractive and sustainable.

Concerning this book’s refining effect, take the somewhat popular subject of kaizen–a principle and a practice of “change for the better.” A student of kaizen creates a standard, follows it, and finds a better way. A student of kaizen understands that there are two types of work: value-adding and non-value-adding. In the pursuit of value-adding work, one must be wary of muri (overload), mura (inconsistency), and muda (waste).

Up to this point, I focused more on muda (waste) as a concern, drawing from lessons learned in The Machine That Changed the World while contemplating software factories. However, May writes: “Muda is the easiest to target because it is generally more visible. But muri and mura are often the more evil of the sins, as they can be the actual cause of all muda.” Yes, of course!

Taiichi Ohno, Toyota engineering pioneer and the man behind kaizen, taught his colleagues that new thoughts and better ideas do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process. [Aside: Developing and applying empathy is an important theme in Subject To Change.] Writes May: “By requiring keen observation before action, by demanding that one look beyond the obvious surface symptoms to better see the deeper causes, by never giving answers and only asking questions, Ohno taught people to stop and think.”

Make decisions that are based on observation, not assumption (or necessarily inference alone). Therefore, actively form your mental model through firsthand observation (empathy) to ask “What is possible?;” don’t passively succumb to the “ladder of inference” and prematurely ask “What should be done?”

Subject To Change

I recently finished reading Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World, and I can recommend this book to anyone who wants, for example, to build software that resonates with its users.

Here are a list of thoughts and quotes this read produced:

  • Empathy is an understanding of a person or group’s subjective experience by sharing that experience vicariously that can be developed and cultivated through practice (i.e. it’s not innate). Using your sense of empathy can help you focus on the experience you want to deliver in a manner that is effective for those who will engage with it. Don’t confuse customer briefings with developing customer-focused empathy; there’s more to it!
  • Experience accounts for motivations, expectations, perceptions, abilities, flow, and culture.
  • Parity isn’t a strategy; neither is being the best.
  • Don’t craft the story of a product in isolation form the actual creation of that product.
  • Human life is complex–embrace this reality; don’t ignore it. Capture complexity with qualitative research (e.g. conduct interviews to elicit stories about experiences). Differentiate process (i.e. the how and why) from outcomes (i.e. the what, where, and when).
  • Sometimes experience strategy isn’t about hiding complexity as much as it’s about managing it (e.g. distribute complexity across a system so as not to overwhelm at any particular point). That is, the overall experience should never become too complex. There needs to be coordination among the experiences touch points, allowing each to fully exhibit its strengths.
  • “You have to recognize that a system will degrade, and make it such that such entropy doesn’t shatter the entire experience. The true success of experience design isn’t how well it works when everything is operating as planned, but how well it works when things start going wrong.” For example, provide meaningful seams into which people can insert themselves (i.e. leave an impression).
  • Great experience is difficult to plan for, and almost impossible to specify.
  • Good experiences require systematic coordination with the customer in mind (i.e. a focus on qualitative customer insights).
  • “Design is a way of approaching problem solving, decision making, and strategy planning that can yield better outcomes.”
  • “[Design-centric organizations] peer into the needs and desires of their customers, identify patterns of behavior, refine ideas that tap into those behaviors, then push into the unknown–or at least the uncertain.” -Roger Martin
  • “You can’t build a design competency overnight; it requires difficult changes in process, skills, and perhaps most importantly, culture.”
  • In my development organization we deploy a risk-driven iterative development process, with phases we call inception, elaboration, construction and transition. I’d liked the book’s description of “the fuzzy front end,” which I would liken to inception (e.g. “anticipation exceeds insight”).
  • “Good ideas need to fail early and often so you can arrive sooner at a great one.” Process won’t turn mundane ideas into stars–nor will great effort (strong execution). Therefore, avoid premature execution of an idea. For example, presuppose multiple solutions and suggest alternatives based on partial data. Define constraints that drive great solutions (e.g. think like a newbie, leverage empathy (that you’re developing, right? ;-) ).
  • “Strategy should bring clarity to an organization; it should be a signpost for showing people where you, as their leader, are taking them–and what they need to do to get there…. People need to have a visceral understanding–an image in their minds–of why you’ve chosen a certain strategy and what you’re attempting to create with it…. Because it’s pictorial, design describes the world in a way that’s not open to many interpretations.” -Tim Brown

On Monday, I noted 11 years with EMC (via its acquisition of Documentum). I can certainly say that “change happens” in the content management space and my own career.

My first engineering responsibilities were centered around the Documentum Desktop (aka Desktop Client) offering–client/server architecture implemented as a mixture of C++ and VB. Then I was called on to drive the first major release of WDK, a web-based application implemented in Java, JSP, HTML and XML. Next stop: creating an integration bridge between Documentum and authoring environments like Office, Adobe and XML editors (i.e. Application Connectors), which was specified as an N-tier architecture implemented as a mixture of C# (on the desktop) and Java (on the middle tier. Currently I’m focused on providing a rich set of services (i.e. local Java APIs, WSDL-based web services and RESTful web services) that drive a diverse set of applications, each with its own presentation layer technology decisions (e.g. Flash/Flex, ExtJS/DWR, etc.).

And “tomorrow” this will all be subject to change once again… :-)


After reading Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple), I find myself taking pause. It’s harder than usual to coalesce my thoughts.

Complexity figure

This book is an easy enough read, but it’s also a bit disconnected. As author Jeffrey Kluger suggests, “simplicity and complexity may masquerade as each other,” but I’m still left feeling like the mask hasn’t been adequately identified or removed. Perhaps I expected too much from the text. After all, as the author points out, complexity research is still a young scientific pursuit–an unsettled (formative) field. If the science is young, the pop science equivalent seems all the more premature.

I do have a few take-aways to share from my read, though:

  • View a conference as a group of people exchanging information and insights, keynoting ideas and tempering whatever action is eventually taken by exploring lots of options first. Conferences are indeed great opportunities for milling and annealing–it’s the networking, stupid! Thanks to Simon Guest and his vision to bring open space to events like the Microsoft MVP Global Summit and the Microsoft Strategic Architect Forum (SAF), I’m surprised that more conferences don’t feature open space more prominently.
  • With respect to social signaling, signaling abilities are influenced from building group connections. For example, a signaler you know well becomes more persuasive than a signaler you don’t. The amount of time your spend with other individuals changes their ability to influence you and your ability to influence them. (I realize that this take-away is rather obvious, but it bears (personal) repeating.)
  • Referring to work by Mark Gottfredson and Keith Aspinall, I appreciated becoming aware of a so-called Model T analysis to find one’s innovation fulcrum and stay perched there upon the respective complexity arc.
  • Having seen the power of strongly held beliefs myself, I appreciated the following turn of words in evidence of complexity confusion: “The entrenched anthropology of the place, however, turned out to be more powerful than the new lessons.”
  • “A bunch of isolated [sports] conferences is like a bunch of isolated economies. If you don’t allow them to mix, they stay primitive because you have no way of comparing them.” -Ken Massey (For example, will CMIS impact the ECM industry in ways similar to inter-league play in MLB?)
  • “We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones.” (So, what do you confuse for a snooze alarm that should be a wake-up call, or vice versa? What is only temporarily agitating that deserves longer-lasting follow-through? What is over- or under-thought?)
  • “The nature of people who love electrons and bits is very different from the nature of people who love atoms.”
  • “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” -Louis Armstrong

Toward the end of his work, Mr. Kluger states: “Understanding the hard science of a thing is not always the same as being able to make any use of that knowledge.” I still need to understand the hard science of complexity (e.g. go beyond software engineering’s essential complexity versus accidental complexity debates). Simplexity wasn’t my ticket to this performance.