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.

Christopher McDougall: Born to Run

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: The human body is designed to run long distances, which can absolutely exceed 100 kilometres a day. All of the typical “running injuries” only started to spread after modern running shoes were introduced into the market in 1972. The ultra-running community produces and attracts some memorable and lovable characters.

Personal note: I picked this book up by a colleague’s recommendation. The first fifty pages or so, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. McDougall often goes back in time and starts a new storyline, so it all comes together slowly. However, once the stories get rolling, it’s a really enjoyable read.

The book is a nice mixture of research, reports from events, and personal anecdotes from the author and others. We learn a lot about the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri), a traditional tribe living in the Mexican copper canyons. Running is their way of getting from A to B, and we witness them beating the world’s best ultra-runners without any special preparation.

What I found most interesting, though, is the part about the evolutional evidence that humans are designed for running. Not for running fast — most predators can easily catch us —, but for going far. We don’t overheat like most animals do, because we sweat, and can adapt our breathing patterns. This way, homo sapiens could run their prey to death in a persistence hunt over several hours.

The second fascinating fact: The more padding you wear under your feet, the harder you stomp into the ground, because your body needs to get a feeling for the surface beneath you. Moreover, padding seduces runners to land on their heels, which is an unnatural way to run — try doing that barefooted, and you will quickly stop. Both effects combined mean that padding actually increases the likelihood of injuries instead of decreasing it. This was new to me, and I will definitely remember it the next time I buy running shoes.

Bottom line: Entertaining and insightful, with a lot of fun and also touching stories weaved in. If you are a runner, you should read this book. Take Caballo Blanco’s words to heart: First go easy, then light, then smooth, then fast.

Jason Hickel: Less is More

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Capitalism is not about following supply vs. demand, or about free markets, but about growing for growth’s sake. “Green growth” is a myth that does not stand the test of reality, because economic growth is ALWAYS connected to more material use, more mining, more logging, etc. If we want this planet to have a future, we need to put an end to planned obsolescence of consumer devices (why does your phone become so slow after three years?), cut advertising, switch from ownership to usership, end food waste, and massively scale down ecologically destructive industries.

Personal note: An important book in these threatening times, where the future of our planet is very questionable. To me, the pages on capitalism in particular were an eye-opener. Hickel gives a concise and fascinating account of the history and the rise of capitalism, clearly showing that capitalism is not about having free markets and following the rules of supply and demand. You can have that in a post-capitalist system, too.

No, capitalism is about never-ending accumulation. If you cannot grow by normal means, then you look elsewhere. Hence the land-grabs and enclosures in England in the 16th century. Hence the colonization and the slave trade organized by Europe throughout centuries. Hence the commodification of nature, which makes it super cheap to destroy forests, to mine, and to pollute.

This is what people reject when they are critical of capitalism. It does not mean they want communism. It means they reject growth by all means.

Growth does not equal quality of living, or even freedom. In capitalism, the surplus that growth brings is always soaked up by the already-rich. Real incomes of the middle class have been stagnating for decades, even though GDPs double every 30 years.

And look at Costa Rica: It matches the USA on well-being indicators with only a fifth of the income.

Hickel suggests a set of policies that can counteract this growth imperative, and slow down the destruction of our ecological systems. The difficulty is, of course, that a lot of these require international or even global collaboration.

Bottom line: A very interesting and well-researched book which will give you a lot of arguments for discussions with cranky uncles and nay-sayers.

Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons For the 21st Century

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Ever-accelerating advances in information technology and artificial intelligence have the power to radically change human societies, turning millions or even billions of people into a “useless class” for the world economy, because algorithms can do their jobs way better than them. At the same time, biotechnology can augment human abilities for those who can afford it, turning the rich into a super-human class and forever cementing the divide between rich and poor. Most politicians today don’t have a plan how to deal with these challenges, and nationalist movements all over the world close their eyes to global problems that require collaboration between nations.

Personal note: Another great book by Yuval Noah Harari, even if I liked Sapiens better. He is simply great at explaining current and potential future developments, while emphasising that it is impossible to accurately predict the future.

The book sharpened my awareness of looming threats connected to infotech and biotech. If the upper class, with the help of biotech, gains super-human abilities, then we might well end up in a two-class world society much like in the movie Gattaca. The cohesion of nation states might become weaker. If due to climate change, many regions of the world will become uninhabitable, this upper class might then claim the last inhabitable spots, leaving the lower class to itself and powerless.

Harari gives four questions that we should ask politicians, and demand an answer:

  • What actions will you take to lessen the risks of nuclear war?
  • What actions will you take to lessen the risks of climate change? What actions will you take to regulate disruptive technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
  • Thinking about the world of 2040: What is your worst-case scenario, and what is your vision for the best-case scenario?

If politicians don’t have answers to these questions, or if they don’t even understand these questions, don’t vote for them. The book has some more practical advice like this which makes it worthwhile.

Another view I found valuable is Harari’s point about the meaning of life: Don’t look for grand stories — eternity, the circle of life, religion, nationalism —, because all stories are fake. Instead, look at all the suffering in the world. Suffering is very real, and real meaning comes from lessening the suffering in the world. So join an organization that has exactly this goal.

Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: The human mind has two ways of thinking: The fast, subconscious, intuitive way (called “System 1”), which evolved over millions of years, and which is mostly right. And then there is the slow, effortful, conscious one, which usually just accepts the “suggestions” of System 1, but can also revise, block, and modify them. Our System 1 leads to systemic and foreseeable errors and misjudgements in our thinking that we should be aware of, and that should be taken into account in many areas of public life — medicine, science, the judiciary, and business meetings, to name just a few.

Personal note: A long read that took me quite some effort to fully get through, but also an outstanding book. The insights are simply amazing. If you want to understand how we, as humans, think, and if you want to become better at thinking, you have to read it.

The book describes many experiments and studies that put an incredulous smile on your face and leave you shaking your head in disbelief. For example, show unknowing students words connected with the elderly, and they start walking slower — without realizing it.

Or, when evaluated separately, a larger set of dishes is estimated to be worth much less than a smaller set if it also contains some broken pieces — because the human mind intuitively evaluates by average, not by sum.

Or, a slightly painful experience (hand in very cold water) is preferred to a shorter one if the last couple of seconds were not quite as painful (because the water was slightly warmed up) — because we judge experiences by its extreme high/low point, and by the end.

Or, my favourite: regression to the means. Why do very intelligent women often marry men who are less intelligent? The answer is that it is a statistical necessity as long as women’s intelligence and men’s intelligence are not perfectly correlated. We often try to interpret a lot of meaning into phenomena we observe when the reason is simply due to statistical effects.

Moreover, the book has a lot of practical advice ranging from interviewing job candidates to project planning. There is so much more that I could go on and on: Framing effects, base rate neglect, anchoring, biases, risk-seeking and risk-averse behaviour, experience and memory, the endowment effect, and, and, and.

But you should see for yourself. It takes a bit of time and focus, but this book is absolutely worth it!

Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: The history of humankind starts with the cognitive revolution, around 70,000 years ago. More revolutions followed: The agricultural revolution, which lead to a strong growth of population and to the establishment of cities and nations, the invention of money, which lead to the establishment of world-spanning trade networks, and the scientific revolution, which allowed us to shape our environment even more, but also increased our hunger for resources. Homo Sapiens has become a god, but we seem undecided what we want to do with all our power.

Personal note: A remarkable book which taught me tons about our own species, and how to think about evolutionary success and progress. For example, from an evolutionary perspective, cattle are an extremely successful species, with more than one billion animals living on the planet. However, this evolutionary success does not translate into individual happiness: Almost all of these cows, calves, and bulls, are merely little cogs in an industrial meat or dairy machinery.

Some more numbers that I found remarkably shocking (note that the book was published in 2014): All people living on the planet have a combined mass of about 300 million tons. All domesticated farmyard animals (cows, sheep, pigs, etc.) have a combined mass of 700 million tons, so more than twice as much. In contrast, the combined mass of all large wild animals (porcupines, wolves, whales, …) is less than 100 million tons — not even a third of the mass of humans. This is the degree to which humankind has degraded the global ecosystems.

While delivering such sobering news, the entire book is scientific and factual. Absolutely recommended.

Center For Political Beauty: An die Nachwelt (To the World Thereafter)

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: This book is a collection of hundreds of letters and short messages, written by victims of the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Most of them were written in prison or in concentration camps and tell about the terrible injustice and cruelty that prevailed. A lot of them also tell of great inner strength of people dying for their deep convictions.

Personal note: This is an important project by the German activist group Center For Political Beauty. They did what several victims of the Nazi terror regime wished for in their letters: Look for us! Find what we left for the world thereafter!

So they went to Auschwitz in Poland to examine mass graves and discover lots and lots of secretly written messages hidden in buried metal flasks and other spots. This book is one of the results of their documentary work.

Parts of it are nightmarish to read, and how could they not? There is a story of three SS camp guards who, just for fun, make a bet: They half bury a prisoner head down in the ground, fill the hole around him up with soil, and measure how long his legs still twitch.

There is a story of adult men raping an 8 year old girl. There are stories about unspeakable cruelty towards children, women, and men, that will leave you wondering how people can do something like this to each other.

So be warned. This book is likely to change you. However, that’s probably a good thing. Because you will get a deeper understanding of how important a free democracy is, and how important it is to protect and defend it.

Some of the letters are in English, but most are in German. It’s a free PDF, so have a look.

John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: In the early 20th century, George and Lenny, who is physically very strong, but mentally weak, move from farm to farm to work. Like many farm workers, they dream of getting their own farm. However, outer circumstances and their own flaws are in the way.

Personal note: This was a quick vacation read that I found in one of my dad’s bookshelves. It’s only little above 100 pages. However, on these few pages, Steinbeck paints several characters that we can very well imagine, and creates a gripping atmosphere of narrowness, tension, despair, and loneliness, which gives a vivid impression of the life of the farmworkers.

Great writing, great read! Definitely recommended!

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Tom, his wife, and his three children are slaves and belong to a well-meaning couple who owns a large farm in Kentucky. Mismanagement and debt, however, force his owners to sell him and Eliza, a young, married woman. While Tom accepts his fate and serves first one, then another new master, Eliza flees north towards Canada.

Personal note: Harriet Beecher Stowe paints a vivid and impressive picture of slavery in America in the 19th century. Even today, about 170 years after it has first been published, the novel is highly relevant and shows where racial inequality and injustice in the U.S. originated.

The hardest aspect for me personally to read about was how routinely black families were torn apart when one or more slaves were sold to new masters. Children separated from their mothers, husbands separated from their wives. People who defended the system often argued that the feelings of “those people” could not be compared to white people’s feelings — therefore, it was not as bad.

The author skillfully illustrates the entire spectrum of standpoints with respect to slavery: From the abolitionists who help slaves to escape to freedom, over the many nuances in between, to the cruel plantation owner who sees barely more than things in their slaves.

Bottom line: The book taught me quite a bit. Moreover, the story is so gripping, and its characters so rich that I pretty much flew through this book. Definitely recommended.

Lætitia Colombani: Les victorieuses (The Victorious)

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Solène, a mid-aged lawyer working in Paris, has a burn-out. Trying to get back into life and looking for some meaning, she starts volunteering in a women’s house to help others with their correspondence — applications, official complaints, letters to relatives, and other things. The stories of the women she meets, and of the woman who established the women’s house, give her a new perspective on her own life.

Personal note: A valuable book in that it shows very concretely what kind of poverty, discrimination, and suffering is still happening even in industrial countries, and how divided our societies are — on the one hand, you have rich lawyers, software engineers, or businesspeople, and on the other hand, people have to live off a couple of euros a day.

The fates described in the book both humbled me and made me contemplative. There are stories of immense strength and sacrifice. One woman lived on the streets for several years after running away from a violent husband, and only ever slept during the day in order not to get raped at night. Another one left her son and family in Nigeria to save her daughter from genital mutilation.

Also, the story of Blanche Peyron, the woman who had the greatest part in establishing the women’s house where this story is set, and whose story is told in parallel, is impressive and inspiring. She devoted her life to service in the Salvation Army, and directed all her energy to helping the poor, for her entire life.

What have I done lately, I am wondering…

Hasnain Kazim: Auf sie mit Gebrüll

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Social media is full of aggressive, populist voices and hate speech. If we want a strong civil society, we must fight back and tell those people when they are out of line. While impressing or educating some of them is impossible, it is important to demonstrate to the silent bystanders (or by-readers) that this is unacceptable behaviour.

Personal note: This book is rather a collection of sometimes shocking, sometimes entertaining anecdotes of a journalist who definitely gets his share of hate speech on the internet. Kazim is routinely insulted by populists, nationalists, islamists, and a lot of people in between. This gives him a lot of credibility when he argues that we need to do more to oppose these people in discussions, both online and offline.

So say it with me: Hate is not an opinion. And people who spread hate deserve to be excluded.

Andreas Eschbach: NSA - Nationales Sicherheits Amt

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Helene grows up in Nazi Germany, in a reality where computers, smartphones, the Internet, social media, and electronic payment have already conquered the world. As she proves to be a gifted computer programmer, she gets a job at the “Nationales Sicherheits Amt” (National Security Agency, NSA for short ;-) ). Here, she is forced to take part in cruel and cold-blooded espionage against her fellow citizens, but also manages to use her power to protect some of her friends.

Personal note: A fascinating idea — what would the Third Reich have looked like if the state had had access to the computing power of today. I can tell you that much: It’s not a comforting story.

All in all, the plot is quite intriguing and entertaining, with intelligent twists and a few minor weaknesses. Almost more important and interesting than the plot, however, is the thought experiment itself. It’s obvious that the author thought deeply about the consequences of introducing the Nazis to modern hard- and software.

If you are at all into history, social development, and computers, this should be a good read for you.

Dr. John Cook: Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: For whatever reasons, there are quite a few people denying climate change or its dramatic meaning for the future of life on our planet. The methods they use in arguments are fake experts, impossible expectations, red herrings, cherry picking, and others. Knowing these methods makes it easier to not get distracted, and to take their “arguments” apart.

Personal note: This is a really cool book which shows how climate science deniers operate, and how to look through their strategies. Be it in the family, on social media, or at the workplace: It’s important not to leave those opinions without opposition. Most likely, you will not convince the deniers themselves, but the bystanders need to understand that the nonsense the deniers try to spread is just that - nonsense.

An examples of cherry picking is: “Greenland is thickening in the middle, so it is not losing ice.” True, but this ignores data about accelerating ice loss at the ice sheet’s edges.

An example of misrepresentation: “Sun activity is going down, so we are actually heading into an ice age.” However, the sun has only a minimal effect on Earth’s climate, compared with the greenhouse effect.

Finally, another example of cherry picking which is very popular with climate science deniers is that natural greenhouse gas emissions are far greater (740 billion metric tons of CO2) than human emissions (33 billion metric tons, less than 5% of the natural ones). Therefore, human emissions cannot cause that much harm.

What deniers don’t tell, or don’t want to see here, is that it’s about balance. Nature absorbs about the same amount of CO2 as it emits. However, it cannot simply absorb the masses of CO2 emitted by humans.

Bottom line: A great and entertaining book. Very helpful for anyone who wants to be prepared to expose climate science deniers as what they really are - ignorants and liars.

David Nelles, Christian Serrer: Kleine Gase - große Wirkung (small gases, large impact)

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: There are many competing forces and activities that have an influence on Earth’s climate. Probably the most important and powerful one is the greenhouse effect, which is predominantly fuelled by the gases CO2 and Methane. Other factors, like solar activity, play less of a role.

Personal note: This is a nice little book in German on climate change which teaches the must-know facts in a digestible way. It is very factual and as non-alarmist as it can be, while still telling what needs to be told. This might make it a good foundation for discussion with people who are skeptical about or even deny climate change.

Also, it’s only 5€, which is a nice move by the authors to make it affordable to everyone.

Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling: 4DX - The Four Disciplines of Execution

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: While most companies and teams do some kind of strategic planning, often the strategic goals get lost halfway through the quarter. This is because of the many urgent ad-hoc things that always come up sooner or later and demand our attention. Through the four disciplines of goal-setting, definition of lead measures, creation of compelling scoreboards, and holding each other accountable, you can systematically accomplish your wildly important goals despite the daily whirlwind of urgent distractions.

Personal note: I read this book because it was referenced and recommended in Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”. The 4DX methodology cannot only be applied to business strategy, but also to your personal goals. For example, if your goal is to write a book, a lead measure could be “Do 10 hours of writing per week”, or “Write 500 words a day”. You can then create a simple scoreboard out of this, with a graph indicating where you should be at any given point in time, and where you actually are.

As for teams, I think the 4DX method has the potential to give meaning and motivation to people, because they know exactly how their work moves the needle every week, and how it connects to the overarching goals of the organization. That said, I think that it’s not very easy to find good lead measures for a software engineering team. The authors say that, in these cases, the lead measures should be derived from the overarching goals of the business, but I have not directly tried this in practice or found any reports on it.

Jostein Gaarder: Sophie's World

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Shortly before her 15th birthday, the Norwegian girl Sophie receives a series of letters from an initially anonymous philosophy teacher. The letter-based course covers practically the entire history of European civilization and the thinking that led to it, starting with the transition from superstitious beliefs to the ancient Greek philosophers, continuing through Christianity and the Roman empire, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, up to the 20th century. All the while, there are mentions of a mysterious second girl of the same age as Sophie, and, gradually, Sophie and her teacher discover that there is something going on with the world they live in.

Personal note: This book is a gem if you have any interest whatsoever in the development of human thinking. It’s intended as a book for teenagers, but I definitely recommend it for adults, as well.

The author does an amazing job explaining the not just different schools of thought, but especially the connections between them, and how they influenced each other. Sure, you have heard about Socrates, Platon, and Aristotle, but could you tell how their theories differ? Where do they agree, where do they disagree? Which were the driving questions in their lives?

Or, more recently, what did the revolutionary discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler mean in their time? What were the events and steps on Darwin’s way to his theory of evolution?

Better than any school book I have seen so far, this weaves a fascinating fabric of history and philosophy that shows us where our culture and our view of the world actually come from. If that is not worth knowing, I don’t know what is.

Frédéric Lenoir: Der kleine Philosoph (The Little Philosopher)

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Frédéric Lenoir, a French philosopher and author, conducted numerous philosophy discussions in schools with children between 5 and 10 years. The school classes discussed about the meaning of life, about the differences between animals and humans, about happiness, emotions, immortality, and other profound questions. Maybe surprisingly, children of different cultural and social backgrounds, in different countries, came to rather similar conclusions again and again.

Personal note: I was attracted by the title “How Children Think”, and was hoping for some ideas for how to guide the thinking of my own kids. I think the book does bad expectation management, because, at its core, it is the record of a series of group discussions, with little additional material. It is not a guide for parents to better understand their kids’ thinking.

The group discussions are entertaining and sometimes impressive. The kids say funny things, and there is the occasional gem where one kid says something that really stands out.

The book is probably a good fit for teachers or educators who are considering having philosophical discussions with their classes. All in all, though, I found it a bit thin. The contents of the book, apart from the discussions, provide little value. The author gives some pointers where to find additional material (books, movies) on certain topics, but does not show how he integrated any of this material in his own discussions. So, the last part of the book feels somewhat detached and unrelated to the main part.

If you are a teacher and are thinking about doing something similar with your classes, I recommend this book. Otherwise, not necessarily.

Robert D. Putnam: Bowling Alone

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Social capital is a measure for how well connected a society is, and how much reciprocity people have. Throughout the 20th century, social capital in the USA has increased until around the mid-1960s, and then sharply declined for decades. This has a lot of negative effects that politics and individuals alike should be aware of, and which they should actively work against.

Personal note: This book has confirmed, in an uncanny way, an indistinct feeling I had about our modern societies today: Where, in 2020, do you experience a sense of community? If you’re like most people, it’s not your neighbourhood, or some club you go to regularly. For a lot of us, it’s mainly work, and maybe a sports class — but probably not your gym.

This is where the title Bowling Alone comes from: Bowling alleys in the US have seen more and more customers, but the number of bowling leagues has declined. People don’t connect through bowling as they used to, or through playing cards, or through volunteering, or through other activities and shared interests. The number of association members in general has gone down, no matter which segment you look at. People do fewer things together, and more things by themselves, or, at most, within their core family.

The front porch, where neighbours casually met and exchanged news and gossip, has been replaced by the TV, which everyone consumes on their own. In general, people have less and less meaningful face-to-face interaction with each other.

The consequences are grave and manifold. In a social-capital-poor society, everybody loses. There is less trust and reciprocity, so we spend more money and time on safeguards, like paying lawyers and adding regulations.

An interesting aspect of less exchange with fellow citizens is that political views become more extreme, and the political “debate” becomes more shrill — I don’t know if the author knew just how right he was back then.

About the causes, my main takeaways were: Watching TV — and, since the book has been first published at the end of the 1990s, its today equivalents Netflix or Amazon video — is one of the prime killers of social engagement. Another one is full-time work, and, on top of it, long commutes.

So, if you want to do something about the collapse of community everywhere, consider watching less Netflix, and working a 4-day week. You might find ways to give your life more meaning and to become more socially connected in the process.

Carol Dweck: Mindset

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: How we cope with challenging situations and with setbacks depends a lot on the mindset we approach them with. People with a fixed mindset believe that you cannot change your intelligence or ability very much, while people with a growth mindset are convinced that, through effort and hard work, you can improve your skills and abilities in a lot of ways. By praising people for their approach and problem solving process rather than for their intelligence or giftedness, we can promote this kind of mindset in them.

Personal note: This book had been on my “to-read” list for a long time, and I had already heard about its main points. Nevertheless, it was definitely worth reading the book itself.

There are a lot of inspiring anecdotes how parents, coaches, or teachers promote or stifle a growth mindset in their children or students. The one I found most impressive is where Carol Dweck describes the situation of a girl who had only started gymnastics a couple of months before, and who took part in a gymnastics competition. She did not win any ribbons, and was devastated.

The author gives several options how you should behave as a parent. Should you tell the girl that you thought she was the best? Should you blame the referees? Should you point out that gymnastics is not that important? Should you tell her that she will surely win next time?

No, actually, you should tell her — in compassionate and loving words, but still — that she did not deserve to win, because there were other girls who have been in gymnastics longer than her, and have worked harder. You can also point out that, if she works hard for the next meet, she will also have a chance to win.

This is a message that, I feel, not many parents will send these days. And yet, it’s important that children learn to deal with failure.

In my opinion, this book is a must-read for pretty much anyone — not just parents. At least, you should be familiar with its central messages.

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Harry Haller is a 50 year old author and intellectual who is very despondent about the state of the world. Living in Germany in between World Wars I and II, he despises the nationalistic fanaticism and stupidity exhibited by large portions of the population, the destruction of nature, and the corruption of the economic and political castes. Close to committing suicide as a lonely “Steppenwolf”, he meets Hermine, a party girl, and Pablo, a musician, who teach him how to take charge of his own happiness again.

Personal note: I wanted to read another Hermann Hesse book, and I had no special reason for picking this one. It is a remarkable one, though.

This book has a lot of power. One of the reasons might be that many autobiographical experiences went into it. For example, as to his alter ego Harry, Hermann Hesse was also shamed and faced hostility for reminding fellow Germans of their own less than glorious part in the tragedy of World War I.

Harry, the main character, takes a dramatic turnaround at age 50, which teaches us something about mental flexibility and life-long learning. The end of the story is a bit surreal — it involves conversations with Goethe and Mozart —, but it certainly has a lot of revolutionary power.

In fact, one of the parts I liked most was where, in a fantasy of the main character, non-motorists wage war against all motorists. Hesse wrote that there had long been too many people on the planet, but now that everybody wants their own automobile, it really shows.

Amen. (Disclaimer: My family owns one car)

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Siddhartha is the son of a wealthy, educated Indian family, living during the time of Buddha (Gotama). In the search of meaning in life, he leaves his comfortable home to become a shaman, a beggar, a lover, a merchant, and finally a ferryman. Always in the search of the meaning of life, he lives through highs and lows, and manages to merge different world views into one.

Personal note: I picked this book up because it was listed among James Clear’s book recommendations as one of the books with the “highest page-for-page wisdom”. I think there is something to it.

One impressive lesson of the book is that it is very useful to be able to get by with very little. If you don’t need much, then nothing can pressure you easily. Siddhartha has become good at fasting during his shaman life, so he is not in a hurry to get a job when he decides to join civilization again.

Siddhartha’s story also shows how, even as a scholar and educated person, you can always learn from other people who have a very different perspective and set of experiences than you. Siddhartha learns from Vasudeva, the ferryman, who receives his wisdom from the river he lives by, and from the travellers he carries to the other side every day.

At only 200 pages, this book indeed offers a lot of per-page wisdom, and is probably worth the time investment. Hesse is one of my favourite authors, and this is him at his best: No fluff, but dense discussions, dramatic life changes, successes, failures, love, and loss.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Through the eyes of six year old Scout (whose actual name is Jean-Louise), we learn what it is like growing up in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. Between everyday stories that involve Scout’s brother Jem, her father Atticus, their home help Calpurnia, and various other figures, we learn about racial separation, injustice, and how different views on the subject collide. When Atticus, a liberal-thinking lawyer, is appointed to defend a black man accused of rape, tensions become stronger and also affect the children.

Personal note: This is a beautiful book that I hold dearly in my heart. The characters are so lively, so original, so real, that you almost consider them your friends by the time you are through with the book. Maybe this is only possible because Harper Lee put a lot of her own childhood experiences and impressions in this story.

Moreover, the book teaches a lot about decency, courage, and what it means to be civilized — traits that we can always use more of in times of populism and the climate crisis.

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym), a pedophile and convicted murderer, tells the story of his destructive obsession with Dolores (also: Lola, Lolita), who is 12 years old at the beginning of the plot. After Dolores’ mother dies, Humbert — as her stepfather — lives a life on the road with her for a whole year. When Lolita is 14 years old, she disappears, which drives Humbert into depression, anger, and finally revenge.

Personal note: A pretty fascinating view into the mind of an obsessive person. Not everyone will find this book easy to read, for obvious reasons (even though the allusions to sexual activities are, by today’s standards, rather subtle).

The book is very well written. It has a lot of intellectual wit, even if it is sometimes a bit contrived. Some sections add little value to the overall enjoyment or understanding.

I was curious of this book because I once saw Kubrick’s “Lolita” film. I thought it was a good read, I would read it again.

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: A group of 20 or so boys between the ages of 6 and 12 are the only survivors of a plane crash on a tropical Pacific island. After organizing themselves peacefully and democratically for some time, conflict, rivalry, and violence arise, and a second group forms. Before long, people die, and the island goes up in flames.

Personal note: First of all, I think it’s a fantastic book. Second, it’s also quite sobering and scary. The speed and the violence with which the group of reasonable, talented boys devolves into a gang of superstitious, scared, and cruel savages is depressing, and gives an idea of how thin the layer of civilization is, which is the varnish on our violent nature.

The main characters in the book stand for much more than just some random young boys. They stand for peacefulness, rationality, violence, fear, cunning, the conflict between the good and the evil within us, for human civilization even. This makes them all the more powerful, and they leave a deep impression on the reader’s minds and feelings.

Written already in the 1950s, I think the book is timeless, and maybe even more topical than ever before, seeing how stupidly and violently we destroy our planet, fight in conflicts that can have no winner, and yearn for power that only brings destruction.

Peter M. Senge: The Fifth Discipline

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: While humans are wired to think in linear cause-and-effect chains, many real-world problems occur in complex systems that require a more sophisticated way of reasoning. Systems thinking is this way of thinking. Along with personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning, it is among five disciplines that an organization has to embrace if it wants to engage in sustained learning.

Personal note: This was the first book I read about systems thinking. While I found the first 100 pages or so very fascinating (especially the case studies), the second half of the book was dragging on and on. It’s written in a very academic and idealistic style that is often hard to read. In my opinion, it could have been stripped down quite a bit.

That said, I think knowing the vocabulary of systems thinking, and the systems archetypes presented in this book, can be very valuable to anybody who is part of a complex system — which, in today’s world, we probably all are. By seeing the underlying structure instead of a seemingly linear chain of cause and effect, you can identify leverage points and use them to create a lot of impact.

Bottom line: I definitely recommend learning about systems thinking, but maybe there is a book that presents the topic in a more readable way…

Joachim Meyerhoff: Die Zweisamkeit der Einzelgänger

Personal score: 7 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Joachim is an aspiring drama actor in his twenties. He is torn between his intellectual, demanding girlfriend, and an eccentric dancer. Living life to the maximum, he gets into some precarious, but also very funny situations.

Personal note: I bought this book at the airport right before a summer vacation. It made me laugh out loud quite a few times, which is a very good sign already.

The way Meyerhoff describes people’s looks or way of moving is hilarious, as are some of the dialogues (e.g., when he buys a rat in a pet shop). Moreover, some of the characters’ actions are so surprising that I sometimes just sat there, smiling, and shaking my head. All of these descriptions are sprinkled with a lot of funny and creative word creations.

Nevertheless, I never had that feeling of “Oh my God, I wanna read on and on and on”. It’s a nice story, it’s entertaining, and it’s amazing that it’s autobiographical. Nothing less, but also nothing more.

Steve Biddulph: The Complete Secrets of Happy Children

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: While a lot of our parents were raised in an authoritarian way, this style of education has largely been replaced — but by what? These two books illustrate children’s needs and how to meet them without spoiling the kids or promoting inappropriate behaviour. It’s a lot about listening, understanding feelings, being loving but firm, and about building networks and communities.

Personal note: I liked raising boys by Steve Biddulph very much, but I was a tiny bit disappointed by this two-in-one book. It’s not that it’s bad, but I think it’s a bit outdated. Some of the content is commonplace by now, and some does not apply any more.

What I liked, though, are the many practical tips that are directly actionable for every parent to try out. One example is a way that parents can protect some couple time every day by reserving 10-20 minutes for themselves before dinner, where they can discuss their day, have a small drink, or a little snack. During that time, the kids have to leave them alone.

I can’t wait to try that out, but right now, the little one is still too little and can’t be told to stay put shortly before dinner — that would get loud…

Cal Newport: Deep Work

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Deep work is defined as any professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration, so that your cognitive abilities are pushed to their limits. This work is valuable, but increasingly rare in our modern societies that are full of distraction, where even 30 seconds of “boredom” (i.e., non-distraction) quickly “cured” by the relieving screens of our smartphones. If you want to work deeply, you have to establish rules and rituals, carefully choose the online tools you use, and when you use them, and ruthlessly prioritize the few activities that actually move you closer to your goals.

Personal note: This book is a gem. While I had already read a lot of advice on productivity, and frequently exchanged best practices with colleagues, this book takes the subject to a different level.

Newport presents compelling scientific evidence along with real-world examples (some of his own career) that had me question many of my work habits, and even life habits. The “things to try out” list I took away from this book is 12 items long and ranges from “quit Twitter for 30 days” to “implement an end-of-workday ritual” to “learn to memorize a deck of cards”.

The subtitle of the book is “Rules for focused success in a distracted world”. Some of these rules are very practical and actionable, while others ask you to question your mindset. Rule 2, for example, is called “Embrace Boredom”, and warns us that our habit to seek distraction (i.e., get out our phones) at the slightest sign of idleness is actually dangerous to our brains. Presented with the scientific evidence that this habit damages our ability to concentrate, I am currently becoming a lot more cautious about the distractions I allow into my life.

Another very impressive section is the one about the farmer who chose to sell a tool for making hay, and about his thought process for tool selection in general. I think a lot of knowledge workers today (me included) lack this kind of rigor and rationality when selecting their (online) tools. As long as a tool has some benefit, we adopt it, without considering the downsides or opportunity cost that come with it.

This book has the power to change the way you think about your time, focus, and attention for the better, and profoundly so. Therefore, it is worth every penny. Absolutely recommended!

Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright: Tribal Leadership

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Humans naturally form groups of 20 to 150 people which you could call tribes. Each tribe has a dominating culture or stage, from one to five, which is determined by how its members view the world, how they speak about it, and how they collaborate. Through consciously coaching individual members of the tribe, you can upgrade the tribe’s culture, thus improving its effectiveness, happiness, and potential.

Personal note: People around me were increasingly talking about “Stage 3 behaviour” or “Stage 4 mindset” etc., so I felt I should finally read Tribal Leadership.

It’s a good book with an interesting perspective on the culture within a tribe, and the social dynamics that come with different forms of behaviour.

The authors confine themselves to externally visible phenomena, especially language and behaviour. This makes the concepts tangible, and you will soon realize some of the language and behaviours the authors describe in your own environment.

What I found very interesting is that tribal leaders who live by a Stage Four mindset (“We’re great”) form triads, i.e., stable and strong relationships between three or more people. They do not fear that the other two people will join forces and go behind her back.

In contrast, people at Stage Three (“I’m great, and you’re not”) form dyads — two-person relationships — with a lot of people, and tailor their communication to each of these people. This takes a lot of time and energy, while not leading to the results that Stage Four makes possible.

I have always loved it when people who I connected develop a productive relationship, so this gives me hope that I might reach Stage Four at some point :-)

Bottom line, if you are interested in (organizational) leadership, I think this book is a must, simply because it has been pretty influential and serves as a reference point for a lot of other experts in the field.

Robert I. Sutton: The Asshole Survival Guide

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Work, shopping, travel, vacation — in almost every part of your life you sometimes have to deal with people who treat you with utmost disrespect or malice — simply put, they are assholes. While you cannot avoid them completely, there are ways to reduce your exposure to their poison. Moreover, there are psychological techniques that help you take less damage, and there are even smart ways to fight back — always keeping in mind that we, too, are not immune to behaving like an asshole.

Personal note: Luckily, I did not read this out of a pressing need, but rather out of curiosity and as a source of advice to people who I mentor. It’s a pretty light and quick read, so it might well be worth your time investment.

Even though a lot of it is common sense, the content is put together with a lot of care and detail, and many of the real-world anecdotes are very relatable and practical.

Among the things that stuck in my mind is definitely that asshole behaviour is contagious. Stay clear of it as best as you can, or you might behave like an asshole yourself — possibly towards people who haven’t deserved it, and probably sooner than you think.

Another interesting and useful phenomenon is the Allen curve (after MIT professor Tim Allen), that states that people are four times more likely to communicate regularly with a colleague who sits six feet away compared to one who sits 60 feet away. It’s pretty fascinating that people who sit about 50 metres apart (or on different floors) communicate so rarely that they might as well be in a different city or country.

So, if you have one or more assholes sitting near you, a little more distance can work wonders.

Bill Walsh: The Score Takes Care of Itself

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in 3 sentences: Bill Walsh led the San Francisco 49ers (to non-Americans, that’s an American Football team) to three Super Bowls. Leading not only as coach, but also as general manager, he introduced clear and ambitious expectations for every role in the organization, from quarterback to receptionist. Using this framework, which he called the Standard of Performance, he focused on diligent and meticulous exercise and preparation, and tried not to worry about the 20% you cannot control.

Personal note: It’s always interesting to watch or read about a leader taking over a struggling organization and turning it around 180 degrees. This is what the excellent Turn the Ship Around is about, and it’s also a recurring topic in The Score Takes Care of Itself.

Bill Walsh arrived at San Francisco with a detailed framework and plan in his head that he had built up over decades. He makes it very clear that leading the 49ers to success took hard work, painstaking attention to detail, and meticulous planning.

The theme of preparation and planning is very prominent in Walsh’s accounts. He describes how he went from planning four opening plays to planning an entire game in advance, with contingency plans for every thinkable edge case, and how this kind of planning became the standard in the National Football League. Planning is the leader’s job.

Walsh also points out how important it is to lead by example. If you expect your people to dress correctly, you have to dress correctly yourself. If you want them to be disciplined, you have to show uttermost discipline yourself.

Towards the end, the book feels more like a loose collection of anecdotes than a structured leadership guide. Moreover, in some parts, Walsh makes more of a point of praising himself or lamenting over how unfairly he has been treated than giving actionable leadership advice, and there is the occasional digression that is interesting only for people who care about American Football. Therefore, I don’t esteem the book nowhere as highly as Turn the Ship Around. If you can read only one of them, read that one.

Ed Catmull: Creativity Inc.

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: When Toy Story, the first computer animated feature film, could finally be released, Ed Catmull — President of Pixar — shifted his attention from building computer graphics technology to building an organization that fostered and encouraged creativity. Among the more prominent aspects of the Pixar organization are candid but caring peer reviews, an office building that lets people express themselves and promotes random encounters, and

When Ed Catmull and John Lasseter took over the lead of Disney Animation, they had a chance to prove that the principles and methods they developed at Pixar to create an environment of creativity could also work elsewhere — with success.

Personal note: I’m a big fan of Pixar’s movies (I couldn’t wait for the day when I could watch Toy Story with my oldest son for the first time), so this book was very interesting to me from that perspective. You get a lot of anecdotes, behind-the-scenes information, and war stories (most spectacular of all, somebody running rm -rf / and erasing almost an entire movie, only to find that the backups had stopped working months ago).

However, even if you are not interested in Pixar per se, I think this book has a lot to teach about how to build a creative organization. Some of it is widely accepted common sense now, like not micromanaging people and letting them do their job.

But then there is the other side of “letting people do their job”: What if these people go down a rabbit hole for months, and you don’t step in? This is what happened to the original directors and writers of Toy Story 2, and, at last, some more experienced people had to step in and ultimately take over to stop disaster from happening. There is a fine balance between being hands-off and being irresponsible.

In Pixar, this balance is created through something called the braintrust: A meeting of directors and writers, where work in progress is presented and candid feedback is given among peers. A director is not forced to implement any of the feedback, but if there are problems with the story or characters, there should be improvement in the next version. There is some pressure, but also a lot of freedom.

This is a great book by a great leader who cares very much about his people. Ultimately, I think Ed Catmull’s high devotion and integrity have played a huge role in making Pixar a great place for creative people. Therefore, I can definitely recommend this book as role model study and inspiration.

Josh Waitzkin: The Art of Learning

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: There are universal principles of learning and mastery that are independent of a concrete field. Among these are the systematic study of fundamentals in order to reach higher levels of intuition and skill, extracting the essence of something to be more effective with less effort, and embracing the discomfort of being a beginner in order to keep growing even if we have reached a local maximum. Josh Waitzkin illustrates these principles by example of his careers as a world-class chess player and a world-champion martial artist.

Personal note: This book is both a very entertaining read and a very interesting perspective on the process of learning. Josh Waitzkin was both a world-class chess player and a world-class martial artist (Tai-Chi push hands, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), and he identified learning principles that he applied to both fields alike. Therefore, these principles should be fairly universal and transferable to other fields, as well.

One of the principles is study numbers to leave numbers, which, in the martial arts context, becomes study form to leave form. It means mastering the fundamentals and the rules first, in all their facets, so that you can build your own variations on top, and even sometimes consciously act against the rules because the situation is special.

I think this is a principle that we technical knowledge workers should take to heart. So often, we fall in love with fancy new frameworks that reinvent the wheel — only in a different colour — but we forget about the Single Responsibility Principle or don’t know the fundamental communication protocols we rely on.

Another chapter that I found pretty fascinating was “Building Your Trigger”, where Waitzkin describes how you can, by leveraging a situation where you feel completely in flow, building a routine around it, and condensing this routine, build a trigger that only takes a couple of minutes (or, in Waitzkin’s case, only a couple of seconds) but still puts you into a mental state where you are absolutely present and ready for peak performance. The balance of stress and recovery are important concepts that play into this.

I found this book highly interesting, from a learner’s perspective. It can also serve as an entry into performance psychology.

Michael Lopp a.k.a. Rands: Managing Humans

Personal score: 8 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Engineering management is full of surprises. You have to deal with unrealistic expectations and schedules, unhappy employees, and a rapidly changing environment. While it is a demanding and sometimes unfair job, it can also be a very rewarding one.

Personal note: Michael Lopp, the man behind Rands in Repose, shares the wisdom he has accumulated during more than 20 years in the industry.

Basically, the book is a collection of blog posts, most of which are freely available from his web site. Some are rather trivial (“The Wolf”, “Nerd in a Cave”), others are at least entertaining (“The Monday Freakout”, “Wallace Hates Me”), and a few are pretty brilliant and actually taught me a lot (“Agenda Detection”, “Fred Hates the Offsite”, “A Different Kind of DNA”).

Overall, I would definitely recommend the book to any engineering manager. Rands has seen it all, tried a lot of things, and can give you the reasons why certain methods and strategies will work better than others. This can save you a lot of time, because many of his insights are non-obvious at first, and can only be won through experience.

James P. Carse: Finite and Infinite Games

Personal score: 5 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Everything that is going on around us — life, society, the universe — can be considered one huge, infinite game which constantly reinvents itself. Within this infinite game, there are finite games with fixed rules, in which everybody plays a role and, to some degree, deludes themselves. You can only truly be yourself when you are an “infinite player”.

Personal note: I found this to be a tough read, and, to be honest, I did not quite finish it. It is very philosophical and I did not get very much out of it. Some people rave about it, so I was curious. I think it is a matter of taste.

Henrik Joreteg: Human Redux

Personal score: 9 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Redux is, at its core, a very small library. However, it is extremely flexible and extensible. Through patterns like reactors, decoupling views from data fetches, and middleware, you can tame the complexity that comes with client-side state management, and build resilient web applications that stay functional in the face of network loss and asynchronous updates.

Personal note: This is a fairly short read packed with great advice on development with Redux. Perhaps the single most important takeaway for me was to think of Redux actions not as “do this” actions, but rather as “this happened” news updates. So, more BUTTON_CLICKED than OPEN_MENU.

The chapters on decoupling views from data fetches and on reactors are extremely useful, as well. Reactors are a way to keep the state of the application small, while still having any number of computed values available in my components.

All in all, really practical, actionable advice that you immediately benefit from. Highly recommended if you do, or plan to do, state management with Redux.

Gerald Hörhan: Gegengift (German, Antidote)

Personal score: 5 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Europe’s young people are facing a dire future of having to pay of mountains of debt imposed on them by older generations. They do not rebel against this because they are too adaptive and not organized in any way. The way out for the individual is to take their economic fate in their own hands.

Personal note: The usual Hörhan mix of ranting against the middle class, anecdotes of his own economic success, and tips of how to take responsibility of your own wealth. Pretty thin, but I thought for 10€ you can’t go super wrong.

There is still the occasional nugget of insight to be found. The topics covered are investing in bonds and shares, taking over an established business, founding a business, investing in real estate, and some others. Might be a good starter to get into an entrepreneurial or investment mindset, but I would choose Hörhan’s “Investment Punk” or “Der stille Raub” over this book any time. His weakest I have read so far.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther)

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: In the beginning 1770s, Werther, in his early twenties, falls in love with Charlotte (or Lotte, more commonly), a young woman who has a lot in common with him, but is engaged to the level-headed Albert. At first, it looks like Werther can peacefully coexist with Lotte and Albert, and maintain a platonic relationship with her. However, over time, he becomes more and more desperate, and his situation and life in general become so unbearable to him that he commits suicide. See this fun video summary for more details.

Personal note: I thought I’d close a gap in my classic education, so I picked up this one. The book is, in parts, entertaining to read, and anyone who was ever unhappily in love can probably relate with the hero, at least to a degree. Please don’t kill yourself, though. Impressive fact: Goethe wrote the novel within a few weeks at the age of 24.

Hans-Martin Tillack: Die Lobbyrepublik (German, The Lobby Republic)

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Lobbyists in Germany exert influence on all major parties, except maybe Die Linke. Since there is no mandatory directory of lobbyists, there is also little transparency — less than, say, in the U.S. If lobbyists and special interests are taken too far, democracy suffers, because the special interests of minorities preside over the interests of the masses.

Personal note: An important topic, and a well-researched book by a renowned and experienced journalist. Sometimes, it is a bit dry to read, because the author lists a lot of facts without giving much interpretation in between. Off-topic to this blog, therefore I won’t go into too much detail.

Steven Levy: In the Plex

Personal score: 6 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Google’s rise from a university startup to a huge and famed internet corporation was not always as smooth and straightforward as it looked from the outside. The extreme growth came with enormous technical challenges that sometimes brought the company to the brink of survival. Over the years, a lot of things had to change — people, attitudes, procedures, communication —, but still Google had to preserve its unique identity somehow — yet another kind of challenge.

Personal note: An interesting read, with good descriptions of some episodes that might be called common knowledge for people interested in the Web. What became clear to me was that I had underestimated Sergej Brin’s part in making Google what it is now. I had always thought that Larry Page was the real mastermind, but Brin actually developed much of the math that made Page’s ideas reality.

Some anecdotes are truly funny, like the one where Larry and Sergej — as always, disregarding societal conventions — drink their dessert sauce like a shot instead of pouring it over their meal, with Prince Philip of England sitting next to them and looking quite surprised.

All in all, a nice read, but not a must-read.

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.

Stephen R. Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Personal score: 10 out of 10

Book summary in three sentences: Success, fulfillment, personal happiness: You can have dramatic influence on your own circumstances if you base your thinking and acting on tried and tested principles. Most importantly, you should strive for personal independence by being proactive, being clear about your ultimate goals, and by making sure you work on the most important things in your life. However, since you do not live in a vacuum, you should strive for healthy relationships with others by adopting a win-win mindset, by seeking to understand, then to be understood, and by synergizing with people.

Personal note: This is one of the books that have the power to change your life. It has first been published in 1989, sold millions of copies, and is still both successful and relevant today.

And I say: For a good reason.

There are so many good methods, principles, and advice in general on all kinds of situations you might encounter in life & school, work, marriage, sports, death & it’s just truly amazing to me.

Personally, I found the image of the circle of influence vs. circle of concern certainly inspiring: Focus on what you can change and influence, and don’t waste energy by complaining about things you have no control over, or about mistakes of the past.

Also, I find the productivity matrix (also called Eisenhower matrix) introduced in Habit 3 (“Put First Things First”), even though I already knew it, absolutely invaluable. How often do we let our days be controlled by the urgent things only, only reacting to incoming requests, without truly tackling the important things?

Knowing very little about the book when I started reading it, I expected that it would be full of anecdotes of famous people like Thomas Edison or Napoleon. This is not the case, however. It is full of inspiring and instructive anecdotes, but they deal mainly with normal, everyday people like you and me. I did also not expect relationship advice, but there is actually quite a bit of it in there, and it is never tacky, but often challenging (yes, relationships are hard).

I could go on and on. The Quadrant II weekly planning tool. The interesting things that happen when you phrase somebody else’s concerns better than they can. The important distinction between win-win and lose-win. This book is bursting with wisdom. Read it.

Fun fact: Stephen Covey wrote the foreword to another book that I rated with 10 points out of 10, Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet. Captain Marquet gave a copy of the 7 Habits to every officer on his submarine, and also invited Covey to spend some days on his ship, the Santa Fe.

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

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.