The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Books (Page 3 of 6)

Talking with Tech Leads

I am proud to announce the release of my latest book, “Talking with Tech Leads” that is now available on Leanpub.

I started this book project over a couple of years ago when I discovered a lack of resources for helping developers transition into a role which demanded more than good development skills.

Talking with Tech Leads

Book Description: A book for Tech Leads, from Tech Leads. Discover how more than 35 Tech Leads find the delicate balance between the technical and non-technical worlds. Discover the challenges a Tech Lead faces and how to overcome them. You may be surprised by the lessons they have to share.

Buy it here on Leanpub.

Booklist from the Retrospective Facilitators Gathering 2014

The Retrospective Facilitators’ Gathering is the only conference I planend on attending in 2014. Like many conferences, I end up with many books to read, and thought it’d be worth sharing the list I accumulated here:

Book Review: The Art of Learning

I like reading books that describe how people grow. It’s useful as a Technical Leader to help you grow your team, it’s useful as an agile coach to help people build new skills and useful to you to look at how you can grow yourself. Thanks to pop-economics books like “Outliers” people might spend 10,000 hours working on a skill but never really master it. As I have heard people say before:

You don’t develop mastery by doing the same thing over and over again

Here’s a good post why top achievers 10,000 hours may be different to yours.

The book is written from the perspective of Josh Waitzkin, a guy who has had an incredible life mastering a couple of disciplines that couldn’t really be any further apart, Chess and Pushing Hands. He’s even had a movie made out of his life.

The Art of Learning Book

What I liked about the book
Waitzkin has already led a life ripe for several movies, and he describes his journey like a story book unfolding. I found it engaging because it is personal. He writes about detail that others could not know and he’s happy to disclose difficult parts of his life. I think these details made me relate to him much more.

I sensed he thinking deeply about himself, and in a way, observing this in his writing gave me respect he already knew a lot about learning (it’s hard to get better if you have no idea what you’re doing!) He isn’t particularly prescriptive about his learnings

I find it clear that he thinks deeply about his own self, and in a way, I think that makes him already very effective as a learner. He isn’t particularly prescriptive about his method of learning, talking about some general steps that take the form of chapters and draws upon his own personal anecdotes to make examples of them.

What I didn’t like

Although I found his personal stories captivating, I felt they were slightly embellished because of the way he discusses what other people were thinking during certain events (particularly during competition). Take it with a grain of salt, but it slightly tarnished some of the storytelling for me.

I also enjoyed the linking of the personal journey to the chapter titles, but would have been useful to have a summary providing insight into making it a bit more practical concrete. Reading other reviews on sites like amazon also give people some of this frustration.

His two personal situations were focused on competition and I think reflections some of the emphasis of “another opponent”. I found this difficult to translate into learning skills for self-development where you aren’t “opposed” to a single person such as learning a language.

What I learned

His chapter Using adversity gave me examples of how to turn difficult situations into learning opportunities. His drive and motivation reinforce other ideas about learning I have read about (that it’s about dedication and not necessarily innate skill that drives success).

The chapter Slowing down time reminded me about the differences between expert and beginner’s mindset that demonstrate what is “magic” to one person is perceived differently and working on how to break the “magic” into smaller, learnable, and practices steps accelerates the learning process. I think this requires a lot of self-perception, and the importance of exposing yourself to more difficult, challenging situations.


I gave this book away to someone recently because I felt they would benefit from it. However it is definitely one that I will be trying to read again sometime as I am sure to have a different insight by focusing on different areas. If you’re interested in learning, this is an enjoyable book that teaches some good principles but lacking concrete actions. Still recommended reading.

His personal stories are particularly captivating, but I find it difficult for him to conclusively draw what other people were thinking in the way that he describes

Book Review: Quiet

I have read more books recently with so much more travelling. Susan Cain wrote the book I finished most recently, called Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. A provoking title and filled with a good level of research and stories talking about how today’s society views introversion as a negative trait, but can actually provide people and organisations with positive outcomes.


What I liked about the book

Cain provides a different, refreshing perspective about the strengths introverts can offer. She highlights (mostly American) cultural influences that make it difficult for people with introverted tendencies to operate and some practical suggestions along the way on balancing the needs. For example, introverts often need time to digest, prefer to do deep analytical thinking and need time to restore after heavy interaction with many people. Another example is that extroverts tend to take more risk, particularly under stressful conditions, while introverts tend to take more take.

The book made me think about practices like “pair programming” and how agile methods impact introverted people and their need for space. Sidenote: I don’t see agile methods working against introverts but just that necessary balance must be found

I particularly enjoyed the section where Cain discussed how people with different extroversion/introversion tendencies can find a way to live, work and love together. It reminded me of interests based negotiation over positional based negotiation and that if people focused on what their needs were, instead of outcomes, they might find a new, slightly different solution that work for both parties.

What others might struggle with in the book

Although Cain references a lot of research, the contents appear to me more anecdotal. She approaches this early in the book, writing about different definitions of introversion and peppers disclaimers throughout the book that “not all introverts act the same”. She also references studies but warns they are not conclusive because these are in early stages. For some, this may be a killer, but for me, still provided an interesting read.

At times, the guidance can be confusing. In some parts of the book, the message I took was that introverts don’t need to adopt extrovert characteristics. In others, I felt like the guidance changed to sometimes introverts need to adopt extrovert characteristics but they will need to time recharge and it helps to do so in areas you enjoy.

In some part of the book, Cain describes the world being at least thirty to fifty percent being made up of introverts. Some may be better at hiding it. I think everyone should read this book to understand more about a group that will naturally be more quiet and why that is.

Book Review: The Power of Habit

After a twitter conversation with Rachel Davies, I wanted to read a book about change, and so I decided to read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg. After reading the first chapter, I realised that I had read the book but neglected to write up my thoughts, so I thought I would re-read the book.

The Power of Habit

Much like many business books, this book is full of anecdote’s and stories to help reinforce the habit loop. Early on the book talks about the habit cycle that once formed, is often very difficult to break. It involves a simple three step process that our brain reinforces over time as a way of saving energy in the brain. The author tells about research into rats that displays the difference in brain activity when a rat is first exploring a maze, compared to one that they are are used to navigating which they habitually navigate based on expecting a reward.

The habit loop

Habits save time
Habits are interesting because they save us time, but of course, perils lurk when habits have bad consequences such as drinking, gambling or unhealthy eating (probably one of my worst habits!). Fortunately the author focuses on understanding what things we can do to adapt behaviour.

We cannot stop a habit, only override it with a stronger one
With my understanding, small changes in the environment might not trigger our habits and if we can work out our cues, we might be able to stop the behaviour we want to change. However if we cannot change the trigger (or we cannot identify the trigger), we cannot often stop the habit. We can, however, create a stronger habit that overrides the other habit if we can connect the cue and reward, simply replacing the behaviour with an alternative habit. We do have to be careful though because our underlying habit still exists, and we might still revert to it under times of stress.

The strength of our mind
Another interesting point is the power of our own mind in that for change to stick, we really have to believe it will work. Very similar to the placebo effect cognitive bias, our minds are amazing machines and sometimes the power of willing it to be so makes a big difference to whether or not something works. This is often why some people talk about change only sticking when someone has a crisis because it is at this critical point where a person will fully commit to (and believe) an alternative.

Keystone habits
The book moves on from individual habits to organisational habits and from here, I felt the book explained the emergent behaviour out of a complex system through the lens of habits. For example, they talked about the organisational shift Alcoa went through when Paul O’Neill mandated a focus on fixing safety in their organisational.

The author describes this relentless focus on improving safety as a “keystone habit”, or a habit that if changed had the ability to trigger multiple other changes. In a systems thinking world, these would be leverage points or root causes. Same idea, explained differently.

I found The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change an easy book to read, and offers a lot of insight into why we might behave as we do in certain ways. I like its suggestions about actions we can take to create change, although I don’t necessarily agree with all of the anecdotes as I believe there are other ways of explaining the situation.

The ThoughtWorks Anthology, Volume 2 Released

I’m pretty excited to announce the release of The ThoughtWorks Anthology, Volume 2, a varied collection of essays in the field of software development.

The ThoughtWorks Anthology, Volume 2

Alistair Jones and I contributed a chapter titled, “Extreme Performance Testing” that I have talked about in the past. In this chapter, we discuss how we apply over decades of agile experience (particularly Extreme Programming) to the field of performance testing. We describes techniques and approaches for faster feedback that you can immediately apply to performance testing.

Book review: “This is service design thinking”

A couple of years ago, a very kind Product Manager gave me a book called “This is Service Design Thinking.” It was shrink-wrapped and everything after they had received it on a training course. I finally got around to reading it this weekend. The book is beautifully made… hard cover, thick pages and even with little coloured book mark ribbons strewn throughout.

I consider myself lucky, having worked with many different user experience folk who have helped shape my understanding of Service Design and this book helped to add a few more tools to my toolkit and a nice way of trying to shape it. When we write software, we already incorporate a lot of the design thinking concepts – really trying to understand the “touch points” that a customer has with an organisation and how software fits into these different needs. We don’t always get to work at a high level of an organisation – something that I believe is necessary if you are truly going to help shape or influence an organisation’s service offering to customers. Software is only one part of the puzzle. However it is becoming more and more relevant as software (or hosted software) starts to become a major or only channel for service delivery to customers.

This is Service Design Thinki

We already make use of many of the tools described, but a few new ones to me included:

  • Service safaris – A nice name for the technique of visiting people to observe them interacting with an existing service.
  • Cultural probes – The “probe” in a scientific sense but basically a kit given to customers to allow them to take snapshots of their own life in the context of a service to build a greater awareness of what’s important to them. These probes stay with candidates for a while but a researcher may send texts or emails to prompt for a different insight. Requires constant attention to the information being submitted back
  • Expectation maps – Building a visualisation of what a customer expects when they interact with a service. Useful for comparing different expectations across different touchpoints, or offerings.
  • Desktop walkthrough – I haven’t seen this technique probably because it seems to demand more preparation than others. Basically this is a 3D small scale model of a service environment that allows people to interact with it. I can see this being highly engaging.
  • Service Roleplay – A scenario where staff members are asked to enact several situations where they might come into contact with a customer. Video is often used to provide feedback and act as a basis for discussion.
  • Customer lifecycle maps – A holistic view of a customer’s relationship with a service provider. Their example one maps out loyalty over time. I can see the map being annotated by events to trigger insight

I really enjoyed the book. There are some nice studies at the end. I did protest at the simplified description of “Agile software development” but it’s small detail in the larger set of things. My only gripe is that the beauty of the book comes at the price of being significantly heavy to lug around.

Book Review: Rethinking the Future

I recently finished the book, “Rethinking the Future” and I have to say how impressed I was by the book. The book is structured as a collection of essays from different well-known leaders and authors in different fields. I knew many, but not all, of the contributors and, as a result, the book offers a wide variety of perspectives. Some that complement, others that contrast with each author’s very opinionated view of the “future.” Bearing in mind this edition of the book was published in 1998, I find it interesting to see how still relevant many of the writings are today.

Rethinking the Future

Definitely focused as a business book, the contents are divided into different chapters trying to envisage the future from many different angles includes the way that businesses work, competition, control and complexity, leadership, markets and the world view. The book resonates very strongly with some of the works recently published such as truly understands what motivates people (i.e. Dan Pink’s Drive), or the need for management to balance even more and more states of paradox (e.g. Jim Highsmith’s Adaptive Leadership).

I don’t necessarily agree with all of the contributions in the book, particularly the idea of being focused on a single thing as described in the chapter, “Focused in a Fuzzy World.” I agree some focus is important, but I also believe in order to innovate, you sometimes have to unfocus. I see this as the problem often described by the Innovator’s Dilemma.

Book Review: Thriving on Chaos

The good thing about long plane trips is the ability to catch up on books. One of the ones on my list was a book by Tom Peters, called Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution.

This isn’t a particularly new book, first published in 1987 and the edition I read published in 1989, however the content remains just as appropriate as it is today. The author describes the way that the world is changing – ever unpredictable, new emerging markets, constantly changing conditions. Sound familiar? Since then, I believe it has becomes even more rapid and even more chaotic, and so his advice is largely relevant today.

Thriving on Chaos

The book is written as a set of edicts for people to follow. It covers everything from focusing on the customer (sounds a bit like Design Thinking and Users as the heart of the process), ideas around innovation and very relevant to the items James and I talked about in our talk about “How successful companies innovate“, through to empowering people in the organisation, building capacity for change and organisational advice on structures that need to change to cope in this world.

What was strange reading this old book was how it felt very lean/Toyota Way inspired. A lot of the advice is told in stories that relate to manufacturing, and although the world is very different today, the focus on knowledge work, failing fast and much of his advice is still completely relevant to the work that we do today. Almost everything in the book today seems very relevant, with the only piece of advice that remains a bit dated being about incentivising and aligning people with money even though new research says otherwise.

Even as a simplification, it is worth reading the headers from the book:

Creating Total Customer Responsiveness

  • Specialise, create niches, differentiate
  • Provide top quality, as perceived by the customer
  • Provide superior services, emphasise the intangibles
  • Achieve extraordinary responsiveness
  • Be an internationalist
  • Create uniqueness
  • Becomes obsessed with listening
  • Turn manufacturing into a marketing weapon
  • Make sales and service forces into heroes
  • Launch a customer revolution

Pursing fast-paced innovation

  • Invest in application-oriented small starts
  • Pursue team product, service development
  • Encourage pilots of everything
  • Practice “Creative Swiping”
  • Make word-of-mouth marketing systematic
  • Support committed champions
  • “Model” innovation, practice purposeful impatience
  • Support fast failures
  • Set quantitative innovation goals
  • Create a corporate capacity for innovation

Achieving Flexibility by Empowering People

  • Involve everyone in everything
  • Use self-managing teams
  • Listen, celebrate, recognise
  • Spend time lavishly on recruiting
  • Train and retrain
  • Provide incentive pay for everyone
  • Provide an employment guarantee
  • Simply, reduce structure
  • Reconceive the middle manager’s role
  • Eliminate bureaucratic rules and humiliating conditions

Learning to love change: A new view of leadership at all levels

  • Master paradox
  • Develop an inspiring vision
  • Manage by example
  • Practice visible management
  • Pay attention! (More listening)
  • Defer to the front line
  • Delegate
  • Pursue “Horizontal” management by bashing bureaucracy
  • Evaluate everyone on his or her love of change
  • Create a sense of urgency

Building systems for a world turned upside down

  • Measure what is important
  • Revamp the chief control tools
  • Decentralise information, authority, and strategic planning
  • Set conservative goals
  • Demand Total Integrity
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