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The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Books (page 1 of 6)

Book Review of An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson

Introduction

When you say the word, “management,” it’s easy to drum up terrible images. Dilbert, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Office and Silicon Valley reinforce these bad stereotypes. Poor leadership and management is common as people transition into a different role for the very first time. As the old saying goes, “It’s not a promotion, it’s a role change.” Great management may be emotionally exhausting but is also extremely rewarding. Unfortunately I can’t point to enough material about what great management looks like. That’s why I’m excited by “An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management.

The beautiful book cover of An Elegant Puzzle (image courtesy of @lethain)

In my constant journey of learning, I stumbled across Will’s blog. Add it to your RSS feeds today (assuming you still use one these days!) If not, at least go back and peruse the great entries Will published. It was through his blog that I learned about his upcoming book and joined the waiting list. I bought it as soon as it came out and pleased to say I’ll be recommending it from here on.

Managing engineering teams is different from many other fields. Software systems interconnect via invisible API, data or tech dependencies. While the pace of software increases, so does the tech stack complexity. Any reasonable software product demands strong collaboration across many people. All these people often have very different backgrounds and skill-sets. Harmonising and optimising this ever-changing environment demands managers understand complex adaptive systems.

When I read Will recommending Systems thinking early on, I knew this was going to be a good read. You can’t manage modern software organisations with Tayloristic mental models.

What’s in this book?

The book contains five main sections Organizations, Tools, Approaches, Culture and Careers.

Organizations

This section covers many elements of effective organisation of engineering teams. It discusses optimal team sizes, breaking points, varying structures and trade-offs. Many people underestimate the impact of the poorly designed organisation. Yet many people suffer within them. This topic is also close to my heart, as an advocate for the Inverse Conway’s Manoeuvre and the Target Operating Model (TOM) I recently wrote about.

Tools

This section is the largest in the book. It offers a broad range of concrete and actionable advice. This section covers everything from systems thinking, basics of product management, vision and strategies, metrics, how to deal with migrations and reorgs amongst many more.

This section highlighted the author’s variety and breadth of experience. Not all engineering management will find themselves in each of these situations. It’s useful to have tools to approach these situations in advance.

Approaches

I like to describe this section as the author’s personal style to engineering management. It covers how to handle execution, personal philosophy’s, managing in growth and common traps.

Of all the sections, I found this the most opinionated. It may or may not suit you, the reader.

Culture

This section covers deliberate approaches to cultivating culture. An example is the opportunities you create and who you offer these opportunities to. Another example is reflecting on the representatives you have with your leadership team. A final example are the ranges of policies and the impact that has on the types of freedom.

In this section, I learned the concept of negative and positive freedoms. These are sometimes referred to as negative or positive liberties. Negative freedom is the freedom from external constraints, freedom of interference, or absence of external limits. An example of negative freedom is the USA’s right to free speech.

Positive freedom (or liberty) is the ability to act on one’s free will, or the absence of internal limits. Examples of positive freedom include personal growth and self-mastery. This article has some great examples of positive freedom.

Careers

This section covers everything to do with the employee lifecycle at a company. It covers sourcing, recruiting, interviewing, performance management and career growth.

My thoughts on the book?

This book will appeal to a broad range of people. Those considering engineering management will taste the different set of responsibilities expected in the role. Existing engineering managers will grow their toolkit and discover new ideas. Directors or VP Engineering will particularly benefit with concrete approaches to managing managers.

This is an opinionated book. The author offers approaches that worked for them across many situations. You won’t find a rule book or a guided how-to. Instead, you will find a wealth of experience packaged into actionable chunks. This may or may not be relevant to your current situation. It may or may not suit your own personal style. That is part of the difficult and challenge of effective management. An Elegant Puzzle offers you a head start.

What would I like to see done differently?

I understand how hard it is to write a book, and it’s rarely perfect. Two of my issues stem from reading the book in its digital form. Unfortunately the printed copy was not available in Germany, where I’m currently living. My first is the regret of not experiencing the beautifully designed front cover. I’m sure it’s a better experience in real life than on the Kindle. My second issue also stemmed from this, with some of the visuals being hard to read on the kindle. My final issue was the constant use of the word, “resources,” when I’m pretty confident the author meant, “people.” At least in many cases.

Highly recommended. Grab a copy now!

Agile methods and practices went mainstream over the last two decades. We’ve improved our architectural, technical and processes landscape. It’s time we pushed our management and leadership practices even further. An Elegant Puzzle is a great addition to the field of engineering management.

Get a copy of the book here.

Book Review of Resilient Management by Lara Hogan

I had the pleasure of sitting near Lara Hogan at the Lead Dev London conference this year. She hit off day 1 with her opening talk, “Navigating Team Friction” (highly recommended!). The conference coincided with the launch of her newly published book, “Resilient Management”. I’d pre-ordered a physical copy as these were only available in United States.

Resilient Management Book Cover by Lara Hogan and Foreword by Camille Fournier

Who this book is for?

This book will appeal to all types of managers, regardless of industry. This means managers in product, design, engineering or others will learn from it. Many stories and examples will resonate stronger with those in technology, given Lara’s background.

What is in this book?

Resilient Management has five sections. Each section builds upon the previous. The book grows like your relationship as a manager develops with your team over time. These sections are:

  • Meet The Team
  • Grow your Teammates
  • Set Clear Expectations
  • Communicate Effectively
  • Build Resiliency

The book provides clear, direct and actionable ideas for managers. Lara covers topics like:

  • Understanding individual’s core needs
  • Growing individuals
  • Giving effective feedback
  • Making meetings more effective
  • Contrasting different communication styles
  • Clarifying roles and boundaries
  • Building your own support network as a manager

If you’ve heard Lara speak, you can almost hear her voice throughout the writing. Her people-oriented leadership style shines in each chapter. It’s not all warm and fuzzy though. The book offers many templates, coaching questions and links to worksheets. Each offers you an opportunity to kick start conversations or develop your own style. New managers will leave with many potential starting points. Experienced managers will have some new ways to start or engage conversations. I finished with a few new ideas and tools to add to my leadership and management toolbox.

Would I recommend this book?

Absolutely. Resilient Management is an accessible book full of practical and actionable tips. Its thinking models and tools will grow and improve your own management craft. Get a copy here.


Books I’ve Been Reading (Jan/Feb 2019)

I started reading a lot more fiction last year, although I still read enough non-fiction. I picked up the habit of reading on my kindle and thought I’d share some of the non-fiction books I read.

Who Moved My Cheese (Johnson Spencer & Kenneth H. Blanchard)

My excellent colleague and great friend, Georgie Smallwood reminded me of this book. I read it many years ago, when I first stepped into consulting. A great and short business novel focused on characters going through change. You meet the little people, Haw and Hem as well as the mice Scurry and Sniff. Each represent a part of our own persona and how we view change.

A powerful story that is particularly useful in an ever-changing world.

The Art of Social Media: Power Tips for Power Users (Guy Kawasaki & Peg Fitzpatrick)

A book full of tips and tricks with how to deal with social media. You can tell the company that employees Kawasaki was definitely a sponsor in this book. Take the advice with a grain of salt. It’s a short book, full of practical advice about how to use social media. The tips are obvious but could be useful for some. Although published in 2014, the book already shows it’s age (e.g. Google+ closing down in 2019)

Tesla: Man Out of Time (Margaret Cheney)

A fascinating biography of a visionary person who I didn’t know too much about. Several points jumped out for me during this book. During Tesla’s lifetime, it seemed like there were a lot of innovations and research. Each finding resulted in many patents – very different from today’s open source world.

Tesla had an amazing array of discoveries, many of which are still not understood today. Many of his papers disappeared with his death. He also didn’t share many details with others, having had bad experiences with others.

The author portrays Tesla with a rich and vibrant character. Not only did he have the quirkiness of the inventor. He also had the flamboyance of a socialiate and showman. For someone in his time, and the number of experiments, he lived to quite the ripe age (87!)

This book gives you an insight into many of the amazing predictions Tesla made. It also gives you an idea of how much impact he had on society with the inventions he also created and shared with the wider world.

Book Review: Multipliers

Earlier this year, I read the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (by Liz Wiseman). The book title peaked my interest as I’m often helping people on their leadership journey go from Maker to Multiplier mode. The book not only highlights the habits of a multiplier, but also discusses the opposite, The Diminisher. The book defines Tthe Multiplier as, “A person who lead an organisation or management team that was able to understand and solve hard problems rapidly, achieve its goals, and adapt and increase its capacity over time.”

Multipliers (Liz Wiseman)

The book defines The Diminisher as, “A person who lead an organisation or management team that operated in silos, finds it hard to get things done, and despite having smart people, seems to not be able to do what is needed to do to reach their goals.” The book often highlights that many people act as accidental diminishers or do so unintentionally.

There are several ways a leader can focus on being a Multiplier including being the Talent Magnet, The Liberator, The Challenger, The Debate Maker  or the Investor, each which has its own separate section of the book with tips and practices.

“Multipliers never do anything for their people that their people can do for themselves”

As you watch someone, ask these questions:

Multipliers (Liz Wiseman)

I liked the section on becoming a Talent Magnet (which they contrast with the Empire Builder). Both attract talent, but the question is what do they with that talent afterwards. Talent Magnets don’t run out of talent because they draw upon four practices:

  1. Look for Talent Everywhere – Appreciate all types of genious (Ignore Boundaries)
  2. Find People’s Native Genius – Look for what is native (Label It)
  3. Utilise People to their Fullest – Connect people with opportunities (Shine a spotlight)
  4. Remove the Blocker – Get rid of primadonnas (Get out of the way)

I also liked the three simple practices of becoming The Challenger:

  1. Seed the Opportunity – Show the need. Challenge assumptions. Reframe problems. Create a starting point.
  2. Lay down a Challenge – Extend a concrete challenge. Ask the hard questions. Let others fill in the blanks.
  3. Generate Belief in what is Possible – Helicopter down. Lay out a path. Co-create a plan. Orchestrate an early win.

This book resonated with me as a leader and would recommend this to others looking to expand their own leadership journey.

“Multipliers invest in the success of others”

Multipliers (Liz Wiseman)

Book Review: Brain Rules for Aging Well

I finally got around to reading “Brain Rules for Aging Well: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School” by John Medina. I’m really pleased I did.

I found the book extremely easy to read. The book summarises the latest in brain science about what keeps the brain strong. It underscores what science proves to work. More importantly, it breaks many myths about what doesn’t. Medina uses a lot of stories and analogies to simplify the complex field of brain science.

The field of studying the brain is relatively young. It was only in the last few decades that we could easily observe the brain without needing to remove it! As a result, this book still leaves many open answers but is at least honest about it.

Some tips that help keep the brain active and healthy include:

  • Maintain healthy relationships with a wide variety of people. Avoid emotionally controlling or abusive relationships. Avoid verbally aggressive people. Surround yourself with people who have different opinions and who value different perspectives.
  • Reflect on what you are grateful or appreciative about. Share your gratitude with others.
  • Learn about something new constantly. Better yet, teach others to expand your own understanding and stretch your brain.
  • Stay active (through exercise). Exercise strengths not only your body, but also your brain.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep isn’t about resting. It’s about reseting, getting rid of “toxins” and forming connections essential to learning.

I also learned about a few areas that influences how your brain functions. Your diet has a big influence. Nostalgia can also help. I liked the question, “When did you have the most meaningful experiences of your long life?”

The book also underscored limits to the brain. We are rubbish at multi-tasking. Memories are volatile, so repetition is essential. If someone doesn’t feel safe in a particular environment, they will perform worse. The brain is not designed for long-term stress where you feel like you have no control.

I recommend Brain Rules to anyone who has interest in how their lifestyle affects how they think. It’s accessible, practical and hopefully you leave considering changes to your lifestyle!


Book Review: Factfulness

It was almost a decade ago, I first watched Hans Rosling talk about the ever changing state of the world (see the videos here). He was a poster-child for demonstrating how visuals can bring static data to life. In his last legacy to the world, Rosling published the book, “Factfullness.” Unfortunately he passed away in 2017 due to pancreatic cancer.

Factfullness reflects many of Rosling’s personal stories. It also shares his frustration with a world filled with bias and “fake news.” This book is extremely relevant given the current state of politics both in the UK and the US.

Factfullness challenges us to push past biased social and news media. Instead we should focus on globally available data such as from the United Nations. In the book, Rosling paints a much more positive view of the world than what the media likes to portray. As he often repeats, “It may still be bad, but it’s significantly better.”

Fuelled with data, Rosling shows us how child mortality is drastically decreasing. He demonstrates how fewer people live in critical poverty. He reminds us how women have better rights today. The book highlights how monkeys are more factful than educated humans. Rosling points out we are less factful because of “Instincts.”

The Gap Instinct describes how we quickly classify something into one of two camps. Examples include being poor/rich, sick/healthy, or us/them. Reality is more of a spectrum, with a majority in the middle and that there’s not that much of a gap. Rosling warns us to be careful of extreme comparisons.

The media fuels the Negativity Instinct. Rosling points out, “Negative news sells.” He contrasts this with an observation that  incremental improvements are not considered newsworthy. In this chapter, he starts using the phrase he later repeats, “It can be both better and bad.” (The situation can still improve, but the world has improved significantly.)

The Straight Line Instinct describes how we think linearly. In the context of an ever growing population, this instinct fuels the fear of overpopulation. Rosling highlights how childbirth rates reduce as a country becomes more prosperous. He challenges us to use data to better understand the shape of data. He gives examples where curves are more like doubling curves, or act like an S-curve. Straight line functions are the exception rather than the rule.

Rosling shares a personal example where the Fear Instinct causes unclear thinking. This reminds me of the Type I thinking (from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). Type I thinking means we react in critical situations with poor results. Fears from physical harm, captivity or contamination drive us to act irrationally. Rosling challenges us to differentiate between frightening and dangerous. Danger is risk multiplied by exposure. When we recognise this instinct, seek calmness before making an important decision.

The Size Instinct focuses our attention on individual numbers out of context. A compelling story or a concrete example leads to us overestimating an impact. Rosling recommends we look at numbers in proportion. We should do relative comparisons, or look at trends rather than numbers alone. Rosling reminds us of the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) or use rates (e.g. number per person).

The Generalisation Instinct describes our habit to automatically category and generalise. Stereotyping through generalising leads us to incorrect conclusions or unjustified judgements. It also leads us to poorer decisions. GapMinder invented Dollar Street to highlight different categories. Rosling challenges us to look for differences and similiaries across categories. Avoid using categories to justify an assumption.

The Destiny Instinct drives us to believe destiny is pre-determined. This reminds me of the Fixed versus Growth Mindsets, made popular by Carol Dweck. To fight the Destiny Instinct, we must recognise small improvements and changes. We should seek knowledge about how cultures and societies do change over time.

The Single Perspective Instinct drives us to seek a simple solution or answer. I recognise this instinct from my studies in Systems Thinking. A counter against this instinct is to collect different Mental Models. Each Mental Model provides a different perspective on a situation. I loved this quote from this chapter. “The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”

The Blame Instinct describes our desire to find a scapegoat, or to point the blame at an individual. It blocks our ability to focus on contributing factors. It also means we are unlikely to prevent similiar problems in the future. Rosling provides great advice here. It reminds me of advice for healthy, blameless post-mortems. “Look for causes, not villains and look for systems, not heroes.”

The final instinct Rosling describes is the Urgency Instinct. This instinct draws upon Type I thinking and biases for action now rather than later. Rosling reminds us that urgent decisions are rare. He encourages us to take a breath, insist on data and be wary of taking drastic actions.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Rosling’s personal stories bring vibrancy to the book. He highlights how even “experts” or “highly educated” people fail to act factfully. The book makes us wary of the “Instincts” and provides concrete actions to help us. If you’re interested in learning more about Factfullness, get the book here.

Book Review: 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management

I ended up reading Kevin Kruse’s book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management: The Productivity Habits of 7 Billionaires, 13 Olympic Athletes, 29 Straight-A Students, and 239 Entrepreneurs in January but haven’t had the chance to write-up my review. Here it is now!

This book, other than having one of the longest book titles ever, is a huge collection of tips and tricks from a lot of people from different fields. It’s chapters are organised around different topics, with examples and quotes from different people (both famous and not so well known) to help you understand how others manage their time.

At the end of each chapter is the concluding tip, which I’ve summarised here below.

  1. Time is your most valuable and scarcest resource.
  2. Identify your Most Important Task (MIT) and work on it each day before doing anything else.
  3. Work from your calendar and not a to-do list.
  4. Procrastination can be overcome when you figure out how to beat your future self, who cannot be trusted to do the right thing.
  5. Accept the fact that there will always be more to do and more than can be done.
  6. Always carry a notebook.
  7. Email is a great way for other people to put their priorities into your life; control your inbox.
  8. Schedule and attend meetings as a last resort, when all other forms of communication won’t work.
  9. Say no to everything that doesn’t support your immediate goals.
  10. Eighty percent of outcomes are generated by twenty percent of activities.
  11. Focus your time only on things that utilise your unique strengths and passions.
  12. Batch your work with recurring themes for different days of the week.
  13. If a task can be completed in less than five minutes, do it immediately.
  14. Invest the first 60 minutes of each day in rituals that strengthen your mind, body and spirit.
  15. Productivity is about energy and focus, not time.

There are many nice personal stories about situations and each chapter frames the advice in terms of different roles about how it might apply if you’re an entrepreneur, an executive, a freelance, student or a stay-at-home parent.

I really found this book really easy to read as it was one of those books that gives you lots of practical bits of advice that you can apply immediately. I think it’s also a great book if you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure about how to manage your time and energy. Since all the advice comes from different people, you will find that some of the advice may not be so easy for you to put into practice, but gives you a good set of ideas to try something out for yourself.

Why we wrote Building Evolutionary Architectures

When I first started working as a developer, agile was a taboo-word, seen as a fad driven by developers. Scrum was, at least in Australia, unheard of and I luckily fell into a team experimenting with XP (Extreme Programming) combining CruiseControl with CVS and the first version of JUnit.

In those days, most projects ran using some sort of waterfall process with a lengthy requirements-gathering phase, a long architectural design phase followed by problematic development and often a stressful testing phase. You were lucky to get access to a new development because there were long delays in obtaining new infrastructure, waiting for some operations person to set up the machine, configure the services and grant you access.

Fast forward to today where we have a completely different world of technology. We have rich, open source libraries that give us fundamental building blocks to focus on solving our problems. We have powerful computers with vast disk space, processing capacity and memory that enable us to build complex features without waiting for a lengthy compile or build phase. We have access to cloud services that give us even more compute power, disk space and broadband that allow us to rapidly interact with remote services, almost as if they were on a local network.

Today’s world of building software looks very different from what it looked ten or fifteen years ago. The way that we need to design and architect our systems also needs to change. This is one of the reasons why my co-authors and I decided to write the book, “Building Evolutionary Architectures

Long phases of designing an architecture will likely result in an architecture that will be cumbersome to build. Zero architectural design will fail to meet what we deem as a software’s “fitness function.” Instead, developers need to consider how their systems will adapt to change and we’ve looked at modern software development practices, methodologies and processes to understand what supports change and, more importantly, what typically hinders change.

If you’re interested more in this topic, then check out this page on how you can learn more about building evolutionary architectures.

Book Review: 37 Things One Architect Knows

The author of 37 Things One Architect Knows, Gregor Hohpe, has a lot of experience to share, already having published the hugely successful and still highly relevant book, Enterprise Integration Patterns book in 2003. More than a decade later, Hohpe published his experiences playing the Architect role across many different organisations and shares useful tips and tricks for the modern day Architect.

Grab a physical copy of 37 Things One Architect Knows here or get the ebook as a published bundle Tools for Tech Leads and Architects

The term Architect is certainly overloaded, and although his book is aimed at describing the role of a Transformational Architect (one who can help shift traditional organisations into thinking, planning and acting more digitally), there are many different gems that Architects in all types of situations can benefit from.

Hohpe describes the Architect role using the analogy of a large building and the interplay between the Architect, the elevator and traversing the building up and down; “Be sure to stop in the “engine room” and various floors from time to time,” is a useful reminder for Architects to avoid staying in the Penthouse (aka Ivory Tower) and understand the value that a well-informed Architect can add when they truly understand the issues in the “engine room.” He has kindly also published an expanded version using this metaphor on Martin Fowler’s Bliki.

The book is divided into five different sections:

  • Architects – Exploring the various interpretations of the term Architect, and his perception of its responsibilities.
  • Architecture – Useful tips and approaches to understanding, defining and shaping decisions.
  • Communication – A really key area that Architects need to develop and draw skills on to be succesful.
  • Organisations – An explanation about the relationship between the Architect and the interactions and world they find themselves in.
  • Transformation – A call to action for Architects.

Hohpe has a great story-telling skill, and with cute and memorable chapter titles like “Control is an Illusion”, “If You Never Kill Anything, You Will Live Among Zombies” and “You can’t fake IT” there are useful cross-references contextualising the pragmatic advice gathered over his long career in technology.

Buy this book if you want to be a more effective software architect. You will learn some of the false assumptions or traps unexperienced architects fall into when they take on the role. You can order a physical copy of 37 Things One Architect Knows here or get the ebook as part of a bundle, “Tools for Tech Leads and Architects”.

Book Review: Scaling Teams

This weekend I finished reading Scaling Teams by Alexander Grosse & David Loftesness.

I know Grosse personally and was looking forward to reading the book, knowing his own personal take on dealing with organisations and the structure.

tl;dr Summary

A concise book offering plenty of practical tips and ideas of what to watch out for and do when an organisation grows.

Detailed summary

The authors of the book have done a lot of extensive reading, research and talking to lots of other people in different organisations understanding their take on how they have grown their organisations. They have taken their findings and opinions and grouped them into five different areas:

  • Hiring
  • People Management
  • Organisational Structure
  • Culture
  • Communication

In each of these different areas, they describe the different challenges that organisations experience when growing, sharing a number of war stories, warning signs to look out for and different approaches of dealing with them.

I like the pragmatic approach to their “there’s no single answer” to a lot of their advice, as they acknoweldge in each section the different factors about why you might favour one option over another and there are always trade-offs you want to think about. In doing so, they make some of these trade-offs a lot more explict, and equip new managers with different examples of how companies have handled some of these situations.

There are a lot of links to reading materials (which, in my opinion, were heavily web-centric content). The articles were definitely relevant and up to date in the context of the topics being discussed but I would have expected that for a freshly published book. A small improvement would have been a way to have them all grouped together at the end in a referenced section, or perhaps, (hint hint), they might publish all the links on their website.

What I really liked about this book its wide reaching, practical advice. Although the book is aimed at rapidly growing start-ups, I find the advice useful for many of the companies we consult for, who are often already considered very succesful business.

I’ll be adding it to my list of recommended reading for leaders looking to improve their technology organisations. I suggest you get a copy too.

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