My book log

Even now, in this time of abundance of free blog posts, Internet articles, TED talks, and screencasts, I still love reading books. This is where I get a lot of ideas from. To keep track of what I read for myself, and to potentially help others choose a good book to read next, I maintain this list.

Tom Rath, Barry Conchie: Strengths Based Leadership

Personal score: 5 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: When you are in a position to lead people, you have to find your own style rather than trying to emulate other leaders. The best way to find your own style is to focus on your strengths. Different strengths will lead to different leadership styles, which might not be the styles of your leadership idols, but can still be very effective.

Personal note: A nice read. Not more, not less. It comes with a code to take the Strengths Finder assessment, which I can definitely recommend.

The book tells the stories of four (somewhat) well-known leaders who became effective by maximizing their strengths. These stories illustrate how different personalities are most effective using different leadership styles.

Moreover, the book gives specific leadership advice for each of the thirty-something StrengthsFinder themes. Pretty nice, but also mostly common sense.

All in all, if you skip it, you’re not missing much.

Chip and Dan Heath: Made to Stick

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: If you want people to remember your ideas, try to follow the SUCCESs checklist by making them Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and telling a Story. These properties help people understand, get their attention, make them believe, make them care, and, finally, make them act. Even if you are not a natural master of communication, you can greatly improve the stickiness of your messages by following these actionable recipes.

Personal note: One of the books I wish I had read sooner. Chip and Dan Heath provide a great framework you can use to make sure your ideas stay in people’s heads better. Of course, creativity might still be needed to implement the checklist in a concrete case, but the SUCCESs checklist defines what the result should look like — which makes the task a lot simpler.

The book has a lot of great real-world examples and stories that, unsurprisingly, are “sticky” and stay in your head: The Don’t mess with Texas ads. The NBA rookies who were impressively taught how easy it might be to contract HIV. The teacher who gave a creative answer to the question “When will I actually use this in real life?” (the unexpected answer starts with: “Never.”). The Darth Vader toothbrush (details, even irrelevant ones, make a message more credible). Any many more.

One of the things that I found most helpful is the concept of the curse of knowledge, brilliantly illustrated through the “tappers and listeners” scenario: One group of people taps well-known songs like “Happy birthday” or “Star spangled banner” on a desk, and another group (the listeners) has to guess the song. This setup is analogous to an expert explaining something to a novice. Shockingly, the success ratio is about 2%. If, as experts, we want to make our ideas stick, we have to creatively circumvent the curse of knowledge.

If one of your responsibilities is communication or teaching, this book simply is a must-read. It will help you get your message across in a clearer, better understandable, and more memorable way. Like an emotion and attractiveness amplifier for your words. Invaluable.

Marty Cagan: Inspired

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Note: This review is not about the most recent edition of the book, as Marty pointed out to me. Get the latest edition here. However, the newer book is drastically different, and there is a lot of value in both of them.

Book summary in three sentences: Successful products need one single product manager who is ultimately responsible for the success of the product, and who provides the vision. The product manager needs to develop a deep understanding of what the target audience needs, and has to know what is technically feasible to solve the audience’s problems. Working closely with an interaction designer, they should validate their solution first using multiple high-fidelity prototypes, before putting in all their engineering resources.

Personal note: This is a must-read for all product managers (or product owners, if they are so called in your organization) or those who aspire to become one.

All too often, the role definition and the self-understanding of product managers are blurry: Are they responsible for the business results or should they just write specifications? Should they do project management, as well? What about product marketing? Cagan makes it all crystal clear by defining the key functions that are needed to lead a product to success, and contrasting the roles with each other.

The book is structured into three parts — people, process, and product — and covers a wide range of topics: How to set up user testing, how to do gentle releases and prevent user abuse, how and when to use personas, how to deal with engineering and technical debt, how to assess product opportunities, and a lot more.

One thing I found particularly helpful is the idea of the product council, who meets at critical times to make big decisions, and ensure everybody is on board.

I found it remarkable what a big emphasis Cagan places on the role of the interaction designer. Product manager and interaction designer should collaborate early and frequently. Of all supporting roles, this is the one that should not be outsourced, because they need to be close at hand.

Moreover, if you take away just one thing from the book, it might well be: “Forget lengthy Product Requirements Documents. Go for high-fidelity prototypes (yes, plural) instead.”

Throughout the book, it is obvious that Cagan knows what he is talking about. Several anecdotes from his time at HP, ebay, and other industry-leading companies make the book even more interesting and fun to read. Again, I consider this book required reading for anybody who is working in the product area.

Pedro Teixeira: Hands-on Node.js

Personal score: 3 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Node.js has gained tremendous popularity and can be used to solve all kinds of networking problems. Node comes with little built-in functionality, but with a huge ecosystem of third-party modules. Its approach of doing most input/output asynchronously takes some re-thinking, but offers huge performance gains because the process does not waste time waiting for memory, a hard disk, or the network.

Personal note: The first really bad book I have read in a long time. First of all, the topic mix is pretty questionable given the title of the book — it’s mostly about very low-level operations like TCP, UDP, TLS, child processes, and file system. If you read “hands-on”, you expect something that gets you going with something practical quickly. Instead, the exercises are pretty contrived and far away from most people’s day-to-day problems.

Second, the book is badly written. English is not my first language, either, but if I then write a book in English, I have it proofread by somebody with better English skills. This is clearly not the case here. Incomplete sentences, bad grammar, coupled with spelling errors to a point where it’s simply annoying and disrespectful of the reader.

Third, at some point, the author just randomly copies API functions and lists them as a kind-of reference, without much practical application.

Finally, suggesting a price of $12 for a short, sloppily written book with next-to-useless content is pretty cocky. Bottom line: Spare yourself.

L. David Marquet: Turn the Ship Around!

Personal score: 10 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: David Marquet took over the nuclear submarine Santa Fe when it was the worst performing ship of the fleet, with low morale and high attrition. Through a set of changes that pushed decision-making authority down and increased his people’s competence and sense of purpose, he vastly improved the crew’s engagement and performance. After only two years, the Santa Fe was a top performer, and — what is even more impressive — continued to excel long after Marquet had left the ship.

Personal note: What a beautiful book! One of the few I give a ten-out-of-ten rating, because I think that everybody can get loads out of this one.

Above all, it is extremely encouraging to see how people change their attitude towards work and even life in general when you let them truly own what they do. Marquet did that primarily by pushing decision-making authority and control down the hierarchy (“Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.”), and encouraging the use of “empowered language” (e.g., “I intend to” instead of “Requesting permission to…”).

However, the author also acknowledges that pushing decision-making authority down, by itself, would result in chaos. Therefore, he introduces the two supporting pillars of competence and clarity.

For all three aspects of his leadership revolution — control, competence, and clarity — Marquet provides concrete mechanisms and business rules that worked on the Santa Fe. Examples are “Resist the urge to provide solutions” (control), “Eliminate top-down monitoring systems” (control), “Take deliberate action” (competence), or “Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviors” (clarity).

The real-world situation Marquet was facing, with a bottom-of-class submarine he had to get ready for deployment in only 180 days, is gripping and exciting for the reader, and provides dozens of instructive anecdotes and situations that illustrate Marquet’s leadership principles.

Marquet hits the sweet spot between “easy to read” and “lots to learn”. The urgency of his mission makes us turn pages without realizing it. The problems and obstacles that the people face are clearly illustrated, and the mechanisms to overcome the obstacles are widely applicable — not just on a submarine, but probably in your organization, as well.

After all: If a modern way of leading people is possible in a strictly hierarchical system like the military, why should it not be possible elsewhere?

Jocko Willink, Leif Babin: Extreme Ownership

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Leaders on all levels should assume total ownership of their mission and of any mistakes that happen in their team. If somebody screws up, it means they have not provided adequate training, or they have not instructed the team clearly enough, or they have not explained how the team’s work fits into the big picture of the organization. Principles and tactics that work well in the military world can often be transferred to the business world, and applied successfully.

Personal note: The title of the book is, of course, a little “clickbaity”. Navy SEALS, isn’t that cool?

However, the book does contain a lot of substance and provides food for thought. The twelve chapters all have the same format: First, a real military story is recounted, which illustrates a certain principle by examples. Then, the principle is briefly explained in theory. Finally, an anecdote from the authors’ business consulting experience shows how this principle can be carried over to the business world.

The comparisons generally make sense and show that, wherever humans collaborate — on the battlefield or in business —, similar phenomena occur, and similar strategies lead to success. What was most impressive to me was the story of how switching out the leader can turn a struggling team around completely, and take them from worst to first.

The episodes about “leading up the chain of command” remind us all that we, too, must not just complain about those “above us”, but guide and lead them through our superior knowledge of our situation on the ground.

The book is generally well-written. The episodes about SEAL training and deployments in Ramadi, Iraq are gripping and make the reader turn pages easily. All in all, a book worth reading, but not necessarily a must-read.

Michael Bungay Stanier: The Coaching Habit

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Giving advice is overrated, because the recipient might forget it very fast. If they discover the answers themselves, the learnt lesson is much more likely to stick. This book presents seven extremely useful coaching questions that you can use in many conversations — with employees, with your boss, and in private life.

Personal note: This book is a gem! If you wonder why your one-on-ones feel like a lot of awkward hard work with little outcome, then you might want to switch your approach, and The Coaching Habit could teach you that approach.

Already the first two of the seven questions — “What’s on your mind?” and “And what else?” — can quickly take a conversation into depths where truth is discovered and progress is made. “What is the real challenge here for you?” asks the coachee to cut through the noise and identify the core of the issue. The remaining four questions are equally useful.

Along with the seven questions, Bungay Stanier gives us a lot of great variations and question modifiers that might be even more fitting to certain situations.

At just 100 pages, the book is a quick read. What would have been great is some more real-world examples that demonstrate the presented techniques in action. Nevertheless, the book is great, and I recommend it to anyone who regularly has one-on-ones or who is frequently approached for advice.

Jonathan Raymond: Good Authority

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Everyone exhibits certain problematic microbehaviours, like not being mindful of others’ time, communicating in unreliable and unclear ways, or hiding weaknesses instead of asking for help. These microbehaviours can be great opportunities for managers to show their people how specific actions lead to specific outcomes, and how these outcomes are holding them back. Holding people accountable to these small things can feel a lot like micromanagement, but if done right, it can change their working lives and their private lives for the better.

Personal note: An outstanding book. Jonathan Raymond is a very keen observer of human behaviour and of the dynamics that take part in the workplace.

Coming from a very positive point of view — “The way to get people to be engaged is to be more engaged with them” —, the author demonstrates how relentless accountability can be an act of deep care for your employees, and a source of tremendous personal and professional growth.

The book also gives a huge amount of practical advice. At the heart of it there is the Accountability Dial, a five-step series of interventions that you should use when an employee is starting to struggle.

Towards the end of the book, Raymond presents three leadership archetypes — the Fighter, the Fixer, and the Friend — as well as five employee archetypes. He describes their typical strengths, challenges, and how you as a coach can help them overcome those challenges.

I was thoroughly impressed how accurately and to what level of detail his descriptions of these archetypes fit several people I know, including myself (Friend and Pragmatist). His descriptions can certainly spark interesting and insightful conversations with your employees or mentees.

Along with illustrative and memorable real-world stories from the author’s experience, this book teaches you a lot about what it really means to do people management — hard work, patience, not letting yourself be tempted by the easy ways out. But also huge personal satisfaction and rewards, and colleagues who grow and excel at their work.

Edgar H. Schein: Humble Inquiry

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Will a nurse tell the surgeon when he is about to make a mistake? In the modern working environment, with tasks becoming ever more complex, and members of a team being ever more dependent on each other, we need free flow of communication for optimal task performance — even across cultural and status boundaries. Humble Inquiry is a way of establishing safety by showing genuine curiosity and reminding ourselves that others know things that we do not.

Personal note: A good read of roughly 100 pages that might affect the mindset with which you approach your conversations and relationships. The case examples are valuable and illustrate what the author wants to tell us.

Some parts of the book are a bit theory heavy and dry. Most parts, however, like the chapter on our “do and tell” culture of today, are pretty interesting. Schein argues that, in the individualistic Western cultures, relationship building is undervalued. Yet, good relationships are essential when people come together to solve complex problems.

The author recommends Humble Inquiry as an effective way to build such relationships. Humble Inquiry means being curious and interested, and reminding ourselves that we are ignorant and need the other person’s help. The book closes with some practical recommendations how to develop a mindset of Huble Inquiry. Some of those are rather common sense (“Review and reflect on your own behavior after an event”).

All in all, the book did not exactly blow me away, but it provides a good framework how to think about communication and relationships.

Johanna Rothman, Esther Derby: Behind Closed Doors

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: We follow and watch Sam, an experienced manager who just took over the position of Director of Development, and who has four other managers as direct reports. Sam sees each of his people as an individual, coaches them through difficult situations, teaches them how to give effective feedback, how to delegate properly, and how to improve collaboration with neighbouring departments. Most importantly, he creates more visibility and better prioritization by introducing a high-level project portfolio that is continuously updated by the management team.

Personal note: I enjoyed this book a lot. It is pretty easy to read, and yet every page is relevant. What makes it so valuable are the “real-world” dialogues that happen “behind closed doors”: How do you actually tell somebody they need to change their communication? How do you actually facilitate the discussions that produce strategic initiatives? How do you actually tell your boss that a changed deadline will affect the amount of what you can accomplish for that release?

The dialogues are complemented by some theory in between, which is all very actionable and practically relevant. One example is the Rule of Three, a guideline for making better decisions that says you should at least come up with three alternatives when you have to make a decision.

The book concludes with a set of practical checklists and howto-guides on delegation, facilitation, giving feedback, and other essential managerial techniques and tools.

A great read, and highly recommended!

Alexander Grosse, David Loftesness: Scaling Teams

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: When you go into rapid growth as a company, you have to scale along five dimensions: Hiring, people management, organization, culture, and communication. Depending on the warning signs and the dysfunctions you spot, you should prioritize different countermeasures. Use a scaling plan to organize your actions and get them into the right order.

Personal note: With its five dimensions of growth, this book is super comprehensive, and yet fits on 270 pages. While the authors emphasize that they have no magic one-size-fits-all formula that you can just copy, I think their advice is so rich and versatile that it can be applied to many organizations and situations.

I loved the chapters on hiring, people management, and organization. The authors give a great overview of different hiring processes with their pros and cons. Moreover, this book has the best texts on organization scaling that I have encountered so far. They give guidance on creating the second team, on switching from silos to delivery teams, on avoiding too much slowdown when communication overhead grows, on knowledge exchange across teams, and many other things.

The entire book is well-written, and the advice is very actionable. The authors have been in high-ranking positions in notable companies (Twitter and Soundcloud, respectively) and know what they are talking about. Absolutely recommended!

Tomasz Tunguz, Frank Bien: Winning With Data

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Everybody wants to be data driven, but there are common problems with data in companies today. Data engineering departments cannot keep up with the demand for custom analyses, data is fragmented and nontransparent, and there are quarrels about the correct interpretation of the data. By defining a shared data language, providing a unified access point to homogeneous data, and educating employees to become data literate, organizations can make better decisions and ensure that the best ideas win, instead of the most senior person’s opinion.

Personal note: The book puts today’s data engineering landscape in its historical context and shows how we got here. Along with the numerous examples and anecdotes from well-known companies, this is fairly interesting.

Often, however, when reading this book, I was thinking: Ok, this is nice, but how is it relevant or even actionable? At 150 pages, the book is not long, but it still feels somewhat inflated to me. It has been stuffed with facts and historical anecdotes that are rather distracting than helpful (one example might be the section on the second-hand clothing economy in renaissance-time Venice).

One section that actually is actionable and that I liked is the one on metrics in recruiting, where the authors name useful metrics like Qualified Candidates (QC), Days to close, Offer Acceptance Rate, etc.

All in all, it’s not a bad read, but it feels a bit nailed together. Like a series of blog posts. When you are through, you are left with a multitude of anecdotes and case studies, but the only really actionable advice you have is: Get Looker!

Gerald Hörhan: Der stille Raub (German, Silent Theft)

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: The ongoing digitization of pretty much every branch of our economy will have dramatic effects on societies, cities, and states. It will destroy millions of jobs, especially middle-class ones, and cause wealth to be even more concentrated than already the case, while the majority of politicians is ignoring the problem. People who want to be winners of the digital revolution have to invest in their online identity now, or become familiar with programming, data science, online marketing, etc.

Personal note: Hörhan makes it clear how close some radical changes are, and how careless and ignorant most middle class people are about them. It starts with taxi and train drivers whose jobs will disappear, but it will not stop there. Many real estate agents will lose their jobs to software and algorithms, as will many investment bankers, clerks, professors, and even lawyers.

How will we cope with the mass unemployment that will ensue? How can states react to dwindling tax income, since digital businesses are hard to tax? What if good education will only be available to rich people in the future? Hörhan asks tough questions that are largely unanswered to this day (August 2017), but which should not be ignored.

A good book that asks important questions, and recounts the author’s transformation from a mostly-offline entrepreneur to someone who makes the larger part of his profits through the Internet. The author also gives some advice on how to be a winner of the digital revolution, the most important one being: Start now!

Gerald Hörhan: Investment Punk (German)

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: The middle class is economically ignorant and, as a consequence, acts stupidly. They accumulate debt, are exploited by the economic system, and neglect their business sense. In the long run, the middle class will disappear and be remembered only as a historical anomaly.

Personal note: A pretty unsettling and provocative book. Gerald Hörhan, an Austrian ex-investment banker, real estate tycoon, and internet entrepreneur, lays out the facts without mercy and asks the reader to take a hard, honest look in the mirror. Why do you want to buy a house and live in it yourself? Why do you not manage your money better? Why do you not invest? Why do you only think of the stock exchange when you hear “invest”? Why do you work for a company instead of being an entrepreneur? Why do you not dare to do something else than what everybody else does?

One of the most provocative statements by the author is that the middle class ultimately caused the financial crisis of 2008, because it was them who bought all the houses and other things that they could just not afford. All in all, an easy-to-read (but hard-to-digest) book that gives some high-level advice how to escape the trap of consumerism, debt, and total dependence on your job. High-level advice, but not much more. Some of the anecdotes from the author’s life serve to illustrate a lesson, some don’t really. Entertaining and somewhat insightful.

Reginald Braithwaite: JavaScript Allongé

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Functions are first-class citizens in JavaScript, in that functions can serve as variable values, arguments to other functions, return values from functions, and so on. This holds an incredible amount of power and opens up endless possibilities and patterns how to interweave and combine functions. JavaScript Allongé demonstrates a vast amount of these patterns, and combines them with interesting and powerful features not only of ES2015, but also of potential future JavaScript versions.

Personal note: If you are looking for a real mind-twister, this book is for you. Raganwald delivers a comprehensive and deep discussion of an incredibly wide range of functional patterns that goes way beyond the usual map-reduce or currying examples. He will make you think, and you will probably not understand everything at first glance. The sections on combinators are probably among the hardest material I have read in a long time, but it is very rewarding to work through it and finally get to that A-HA! moment.

Bottom line: An enjoyable, but hard-earned read not only for JavaScript fans, but for everyone who wants to learn about real functional programming, or who simply likes thinking outside the usual box of if-then statements and class hierarchies. The book is freely available at https://leanpub.com/javascriptallongesix/read.

Camille Fournier: The Manager's Path

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Camille Fournier takes us on a journey looking at management from different perspectives, starting from the individual contributor and progressing up to senior leadership positions like director or CTO. Throughout the stages, the main activities shift from shaping the technical direction and mentoring individuals to shaping the culture of a department, finding your leadership style, and managing managers who oversee teams. While tech leads still write quite a bit of code, engineering managers get drawn more and more towards the people issues, and have to develop and practice a whole new set of skills.

Personal note: The author points out that the book is about technical management as opposed to management in general, and she lives up to this promise by giving thoughtful and deep discussions on the peculiarities of the engineering world. As she has previously done in blog posts, she emphasizes the need for technical managers to stay technical at least to a certain degree — engineering managers should still write some code, and managers of managers should at least take part in code reviews and stay in touch with the systems they are responsible for.

The book is full of great food for thought, and a lot of real-world (or near real-world) anecdotes illustrating different behaviours and management styles. Each chapter ends with summarizing questions you can ask yourself, which will make you think about your own context. There is also a lot of directly actionable advice like “new hires should update the documentation”, “adjust your focus depending on the stage of projects”, or “spend plenty of time on accomplishments and strengths in performance reviews”.

What I found especially interesting were the sections on “shielding” your employees from outside influence: Camille’s take is that “You may be a shield, but you are not a parent.” Treat your people as adults who can handle important information of things happening outside the team. Another gem is the section on the “people pleaser” type of manager, who promises everything to everyone, but rarely gets much done.

All in all, this book is extremely rich in useful content, and you can tell that Camille speaks from a great deal of experience. Moreover, she keeps it pretty concise and to the point, making the book a pleasant read. Absolutely relevant for people who are interested in leadership or management positions, and absolutely recommended.

Antonio Cangiano: Technical Blogging

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Starting your own blog is not that hard, but you have to consciously and continuously make a lot of decisions. This includes, to name only some, which niche to pick, how often to publish, which software to use, how to attract traffic, how to start email marketing, and how to measure success. However, while all this is important, it will be worth nothing if you don’t have good content.

Personal note: Nice overview over a broad range of topics. However, since it was written a couple of years ago, some of the software that is mentioned is already outdated, or does not even exist any more. Moreover, while being broad, some of the sections lack depth, and won’t tell you anything that you cannot find out from articles or tutorials online. Since the landscape is shifting continuously, I think a lot of books on blogging will have that problem.

John L. Parker, Jr.: Once a Runner

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: In the early 1970s, Quenton Cassidy is a passionate runner for Southeastern University in North Florida, and specializes in the mile. When the university administration makes him the scapegoat for some student protests, he is expelled from the university’s running team. With the help of his runner friend Bruce Denton, he finds a creative way to take part in an important race anyway, drops out of university entirely, and prepares like he has never prepared before.

Personal note: One of the few novels I have been reading lately. I found it very inspirational and entertaining, especially the first half of the book. The jokes and pranks the athletes at the university pull off made me laugh out loud a couple of times while reading, so that my wife looked at me sideways, smiled, and shook her head.

Even if you are not a runner, I think Parker, Jr. can give you a good impression how hard the athletes push themselves, how they go beyond limits, how they sacrifice almost everything else in their lives in order to be the best possible runner they can be. The way he describes the dedication, strain, exhaustion, and suffering they go through is humbling, motivating, and inspiring.

Patrick Kua: Talking With Tech Leads

Personal score: 5 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: The book contains a lot (~40) of interviews with novice or experienced tech leads on dealing with people problems, staying technical, and bridging the gap between tech and business. Most people agree that people problems are often harder than technical problems, that you should in part stay technical, that time management becomes essential in this role, and that communication is a lot more important than as an individual contributor. A lot of people also emphasize that your measure of productivity shifts when you start in your role as a tech lead.

Personal note: Personally, this book gave me little new insight. I had already read (and written) a lot about most of these topics before. Moreover, there is — inevitably, I guess — a lot of redundancy in the book. Several interviews just don’t teach you anything new that some previous or following interview do not also contain, and could be skipped. For new tech leads/engineering managers, or people considering a move to such a role, I can certainly recommend the book. Experienced leads can spend their time more efficiently (then again, it’s a fairly quick read…).

Marcus Blankenship: 7 Habits That Ruin Your Technical Team

Marcus Blankenship shares with us some valuable insights from his vast experience both as a developer and a manager of developers. Seven habits that can ruin your technical team are illustrated through anecdotes that actually happened, and that clearly show the detrimental effects.

One of the habits is withholding feedback “until the time is right”, another one is forgetting how hard writing good code is. Personally I liked chapter 3 best: “Fixing other people’s mistakes”. I think this is one of the less obvious ones, and Marcus does a great job showing exactly how this bad habit can start a downward spiral. It also happens to be one that I have witnessed myself, and probably not for the last time.

The book is a short read, around 50 pages, and gives great guidance for novice team leads as well as great real-world cases to compare for more experienced managers.

Simon Sinek: Start With Why

Why would someone who uses a Dell computer easily switch to HP, while an Apple user is fiercely loyal to her brand? Because people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Their choosing Apple is not about Apple, it’s about them. Apple’s WHY, the reason they exist, is challenging the status quo, and people who share that WHY will be drawn towards Apple products again and again.

Simon Sinek draws an interesting connection between neurobiology and the choices we make: Decisions are made in the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, but not for language. Therefore, in order to generate loyalty and repeatable, long-term success, this part of the brain is what companies should target. They can do this by sending a very clear message of what they are about. If you do not have a clear, consistent WHY, then you will be a commodity: Exchangeable, arbitrary, competing on features, price, and promotions.

Interesting read with some convincing reasoning. Has become something like a classic already. I think it oversimplifies things a little here and there, but since the basic idea has quite some truth to it, I would definitely recommend it.

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler: Crucial Conversations

Great book about how to approach and behave in important conversations, so that you are at your best communication behaviour when it matters the most. Some passages and techniques reminded me a bit of “Getting to Yes” (discover mutual purpose, separate the strategy from the goal, invent new options, etc.). If I had to choose between the two, I would choose Crucial Conversations because I think it is more focused.

The book teaches you to observe conversations for a lack of safety, and for people going to silence or violence. You will learn to look behind aggressive communication patterns, and get to know ways to defuse tense situations. I found the “Master My Stories” part especially useful, where you learn that between some action and your emotional response, there is something else, and this something is the story you tell yourself in your own head about what happened and why. Sounded very true to me out of my own experience :-)

The authors shoot a lot of acronyms at you like STATE, AMPP, CRIB, and repeat them until they haunt you in your dreams, but most of them actually make sense, and it can help remembering certain techniques. The numerous dialogs (some real-world, some made up) make things easy to follow and illustrate the practicality of the techniques.

Laszlo Bock: Work Rules!

This book has received a lot of praise, and justly so. I consider it required reading if you are in some “people-related” role, be it a middle manager, or a member of an HR team. The book is full of valuable quantified insights gained by Google’s People Operations team. The scale at which Google operates enables this team to run studies and experiments that most academic psychology departments should probably be jealous of.

Most relevant and interesting to me were the chapters on recruiting (especially the predictive power of certain methods like unstructured interview, structured interview, work sample test, etc.), salaries (performance in knowledge work follows a power law, not a normal distribution), training, and nudging people to do the right thing.

Tom DeMarco: Slack

Having seen my share of “slackless” organizations, I was really looking forward to this book, and I was not disappointed. On merely 200 rather short pages, it contains a lot of wisdom on organizational dysfunction, blind hurrying, and overtime that does more harm than good. I wrote some blog posts on what were to me the most useful insights from this book: That busyness is not a virtue and can do harm, that the white space in an org chart plays an important role, and what the must-haves are for substantial organizational change. Absolutely recommended book!

Walter Isaacson: Steve Jobs

A long book, obviously, but with many entertaining and enlightening anecdotes and a lot of insights on leadership, focus, and strategy. It is stunning to read testimonials of early Apple employees who assure that they consider themselves very lucky to have worked for Jobs, even though he bullied, insulted, and terrorized his employees on a regular basis. That’s the power of vision and purpose. I would not call it a must-read, but it is certainly a powerful lesson of how to think big and get things done.

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Ben Horowitz emphasizes several times how much he adores Andy Grove and his management classic “High Output Management” (he even wrote the foreword for the current edition). When reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, I thought a couple of times: “This is the High Output Management” of our time”. There is no fluff about it. Instead, it offers practical advice for common real-life situations and problems you face in management, like how to promote or fire somebody, how to give feedback, how to minimize office politics, how to think about organizational and process design, how to deal with departments who don’t get along, and many more.

Moreover, it is densely packed with breathtaking, fascinating, and educative anecdotes from Horowitz’ event-rich tenures as CEO of Loudcloud and Opsware, of his time at Netscape, and his experiences as a venture capitalist. Most of the book is written from the perspective of CEOs, but it is useful for anybody who has to do with management.

Some sections of the book, like Peacetime CEO, Wartime CEO or Why Startups Should Train Their People are available on Horowitz’ blog. I still recommend reading the book, it’s just damn good.

Roger Fisher, William Ury, Bruce Patton: Getting to Yes

A book about principled negotiation, which teaches us how we can, in a negotiation, be hard on the substance, but soft on the people on the other side. While it was published already in the 80s, the principles still hold: Separate the people from the actual problem, identify the underlying interests behind the positions, develop a diverse set of options, and, maybe most importantly, invest in developing your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) so you know when to walk away from a stalled negotiation. If you do a lot of negotiating, you should probably give this book a try.

Steven Pressfield: The War of Art

A remarkable book by Steven Pressfield about creativity as hard work, about the inner resistance that everybody feels in their life, and about what it means to be a professional. It is like a collection of mantras, or like a creative’s confession, that can help you grow your determination to break free and follow your creative destiny. If you know you were meant for more than you are currently doing, but you keep avoiding getting started with something, this book might be for you. The one thing that I took away from this book is that even people we perceive as successful geniuses might feel miserable and scared when they sit down to do their work, or when they are about to go on stage. They do it anyway, and that is why they ultimately succeed. This is what I remind myself of when I am unsure if I will be able to come up with a reasonably interesting blog post this week. Don’t wait for inspiration. Sit down and do the work.

Edmond Lau: The Effective Engineer

Contains a lot of techniques, habits, and strategies how engineers and engineering managers can increase their impact and be more effective. Lau, who worked at Google and several startups, is a good writer and knows what he is talking about. He delivers a large collection of real-world stories that underline his points, partly lived through by himself, partly by senior engineers at Facebook, Instagram, and others.

The guiding principle of the book is leverage, a concept that also occurs in High Output Management. Continuous learning is a high-leverage activity, as is investing in iteration speed. Personally, I liked the sections on prioritization and on minimizing your operational burden very much, because these are things that are, I think, often neglected.

Dan Pink: Drive!

An often-cited book in the world of managers and team leads. Introduces the terminology of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, which are essential to unleash the intrinsic motivation of employees. Definitely worth a read if you want to know more about motivation. It’s also rather short, so not a huge time investment. I liked especially the part on experiments showing that rewards can be detrimental to intrinsic motivation, and the chapter on mastery and flow. This book made me want to read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Andrew Grove: High Output Management

A high-density gem full of practical, actionable advice. Andrew Grove, long-time president of Intel, draws from decades of intense experience and shares both practices that work and that don’t work with us. There is little theory, and virtually every paragraph bursts with useful thoughts that are, for the most part, directly applicable in everyday working life. An engineer by training, Grove knew how to keep his explanations short and to the point.

Topics covered include work organization, performance reviews, motivation of employees, salary, effective meetings, and several more. It is like a “manager’s manual of everything” in condensed form. Highly valuable. Whether you are a newly promoted manager, or you have ten years of management experience: I bet that you will get a lot out of that book.

Marcus Buckingham: The One Thing You Need to Know

Interesting and partly entertaining, with a lot of gripping and fascinating real-life anecdotes. Buckingham tries to give “the one, controlling insight” into management (capitalize on the uniqueness of each person), leadership (capitalize on what is common to all your people), and sustained individual success (identify what you do not love doing and stop doing it).

I enjoyed it, but I would not consider it essential reading. It is a good addition to “First, Break All The Rules” (if you choose one of the two, choose that one), and most he writes about management has already been covered there. Here, he goes deeper into the distinction between management and leadership, and I think he does a very good job in doing that. The chapters on sustained individual success are a nice bonus on top.

Tom DeMarco, Timothy Lister: Peopleware

So much has been written about this legendary book that will try to keep it short. Most importantly: I loved it from the start. Especially the sections about quality, team dynamics, motivation, and brain time vs. body time are absolutely world-class. Others are, by now, slightly outdated, and can be skimmed over. All in all, a must-read.

Marcus Buckingham: First, Break All The Rules

I like this book very much, and I recommend it to anybody who is even remotely involved with people management. Its quintessence is that every person is unique, and that you should capitalize on this uniqueness instead of trying to make everybody the same. “Don’t try to put in what was left out. Take out what was left in. That is hard enough.”

The book offers a lot of valuable advice and useful ways of looking at things, like:

  • The distinction between talents (which you won’t be able to change much in a person), skills, and knowledge (the latter two you can change).
  • Twelve questions to measure the quality of a workplace.
  • A good manager acts as a catalyst that turns the unique combination of his employees’ talents into performance for his organization.
  • You cannot study excellence by studying bad performance and inverting your conclusions.
  • You should spend the most time with your best people.
  • And many more…

Patrick Lencioni: Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Very entertaining and pretty light, but also insightful. It is called a “Fable”, meaning it is an invented story rather than a non-fiction book. Tells us about a business turning around because the new CEO gets the top management to trust each other and work together more effectively. Pretty good. Have a look at this video to get an impression.

Oren Ellenbogen: Leading Snowflakes

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: An engineering manager’s handbook that teaches a lot about time management, building and interacting with your team, holding your team accountable, teaching them how to be effective, delegation, building trust in the organization, and other things. Comes with great ideas for inbound recruiting, like investing time into answering technical questions online, write guest posts, create public challenges, etc. More good advice is about building trust between teams through “Thank you!” emails, cross-team exchange programs, and inviting people from other teams to design reviews.

Personal note: This book is worth its money. It comes with many creative ideas, and covers many, many aspects of the engineering manager’s or tech lead’s working life. At 150 pages and without any fluff, it is a rich source of advice, and you can feel that it stems from Oren’s actual experience.

Brian W. Fitzpatrick, Ben Collins-Sussman: Team Geek

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Software engineering is a team sport, so your career and your effectiveness depend to a large degree on how well you work with others. Try to cultivate a mindset of humility — know that you might be wrong at times, or that others might have better solutions —, respect — care about your co-workers and take them seriously —, and trust — assume others are competent, and have good intentions —, which can be memorized as HRT or “heart”. Following these three guiding principles, you realize how to separate your work from your ego, how to be open to influence, how to establish a healthy team culture is important, and how to be a servant leader who provides true value to their team.

Personal note: This is a great book filled with practical, actionable advice for numerous real-world situations that a lot of people can probably relate to: The obsessive colleague who absolutely needs to be involved in every single technical decision, the boss who micro-manages you so you cannot get anything done, meetings that seem endless and provide little value, or even internet trolls who litter your open source software project with poisonous comments. I can, without reservation, recommend this book to anybody who is working in a technical field, but if you hold a leadership position, it is an absolute (and not very time-consuming) must-read.