Category Archives: Non-fiction

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!


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.


Since reading Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, I’ve been looking forward to Malcolm Gladwell‘s next book. Outliers: The Story of Success didn’t disappoint, and I recommend reading it yourself.

As the book’s title suggests, Gladwell’s text is about success and outliers; however, he engages the reader from the get-go by starting with a definition of outlier expressly to follow-up by quickly suggesting a concrete redefinition of what is truly an outlier and what determines success. Gladwell challenges the reader to think in less-conventional terms (e.g. thinking about health in terms of community–beyond just the individual): “…there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.”

Outliers has two parts, focused on opportunity and legacy, respectively. Part one emphasizes “from-ness” (i.e. from where (e.g. birthplace), from when (e.g. time, era, norms), from how (e.g. culture, legacy), etc.). In doing so, part one indicates by one example after another why merely personal explanations of success don’t work.

     Where are you from?

Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of the those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play–and by ‘we’ I mean society–in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.

Gladwell states, “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” He then goes on to uncover patterns of achievement and underachievement as well as patterns of encouragement and discouragement. He focuses on the work ethic of those who are purposeful, single-minded, intentional–who achieve success by working much, much harder.

  • Adversity presenting itself as opportunity
  • Developing skills amidst obscurity
  • Meaningful – complexity, autonomy and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work
  • “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning.”

For example, the “10,000 hour rule” is discussed (i.e. its typically takes 10K hours of deliberate practice to develop true expertise and world-class mastery). The point of the discussion is not to admire those who earn such mastery as much as it is to understand the kinds of obstacles most of us encounter in the pursuit of such commitment. Furthermore, it concerns the creation of (more) equal opportunities for practicing in order to reach greater common potential: “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

     Are you regularly practicing what your core profession requires
     (e.g. modeling, design, coding, testing, writing)?

“Success arises out of a steady accumulation of advantages.”
“Extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.”
     Talent: intellect, “general intelligence,” innate ability
     Opportunity: imagination, savvy, “practical intelligence,” surrounding
     community, family background, demographics, virtues and values
     (e.g. frugality, initiative, sacrifice)

“General intelligence” and “practical intelligence” are orthogonal (i.e. presence of one doesn’t imply the presence of the other); therefore, keep clear and separate (i.e. don’t confuse one for the other).

Part two, moves from opportunity to legacy and starts by focusing on cultural legacies (e.g. a culture of honor, where reputation is of foremost concern). The focus becomes about teamwork and communication (e.g. “mitigated speech”). For example, understanding cultural legacy as a way to effectively combat mitigation (i.e. developing clearer and more assertive communication where both transmitter and receiver are not a afraid to speak up or to speak straight).

To bring cultural legacy into better focus, Gladwell leverages the Cultural Dimensions work of Geert Hofstede (e.g. IDV – Individualism (i.e. what Gladwell refers to as the individualism-collectivism scale), UAI – Uncertainty Avoidance Index, PDI – Power Distance Index). For example, the United States has the highest IDV score and the fifth-lowest PDI score.

Mitigated speech and high PDI influence communication, especially when the person speaking (transmitter) and the person listening (receiver) have different orientation. In Western cultures, communication tends to be transmitter-oriented (i.e. speaker is responsible to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously). However, in Asian cultures, communication tends to be receiver-oriented (i.e. listener is responsible to make sense of what is being said). For this reason, I believe that communication is both my responsibility and also a two-way discipline (i.e. if you don’t understand something speak up–I’m trying my best to be clear). It’s why I prefer more interactive sessions at conferences, etc.

As a mathematician by training, I was fascinated to learn that, as human beings, we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. When you compare the fairly transparent Asian number system with the highly irregular number system in English, it starts to become clearer how English-speaking (English-thinking) student accumulate a disadvantage. Stowe Boyd goes into more detail of Gladwell’s treatment of this cultural legacy. (I need to start thinking si instead of four, qi instead of seven, etc. :-) )

Cultural legacy suggests to me that it would be naive to apply an American timeline to the future development of, for example, China. Rice paddies aren’t fields of corn or wheat (i.e. skill-oriented versus mechanically-oriented farming tradition). So why should it take the Chinese the same amount of time to “modernize” as it did take Americans?

You’ve likely heard or seen the business cliché “Your attitude determines your altitude.” Well, Outliers posits that success is not much about ability as it is about attitude. That is, success is a function of persistence, doggedness and willingness to work hard. Success is more about out-learning than it is about being smarter. School works, but there just isn’t enough of it (e.g. 180 days versus 243 days–American versus Japanese school year). Or said another way, school isn’t the problem as much as summer vacation may be.

In closing:

  • “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities–and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
  • Success is a gift.
  • “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success–the fortunate birth date and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

P.S. I recently began a major revision of my Books page. You can now more easily see other book reviews I’ve posted herein. Soon you’ll be able to see what else is in my book library (i.e. just the business-related or software-related non-fiction therein). Why? Well, if you’re nearby and you see something of interest, please ask to borrow books of interest. If you’re not (i.e. regardless of your location to me), I’m hoping that opening up my library will help to solicit feedback as to what the especially good reads are (and why). I typically have multiple books queued up to read; so, knowing what should be top-of-list from my readers would be welcome feedback. Cheers…

Update 12/26/2008: Today I was able to get to watching the second part of Charlie Rose’s show on performance where, after interviewing Malcolm Gladwell in the first half, he interviewed the author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin. Mr. Colvin referenced the little known body of scientific work concerning deliberate practice, much like Mr. Gladwell drew upon it in Outliers. I appreciated Mr. Colvin’s belief, based on conversation with this scientific community, that the research frontier here is parenting.