How Design Makes the World

I recently concluded How Design Makes the World (Scott Berkun, 210 pages). It is not exactly what I hoped for, but it still a good introduction to design as a discipline.

What I was hoping for in this book was some deeper descriptions of human behavior and classical design ideas or principles that should be respected when coming up with a product or service. The book contains a bit of that. But, to be honest, almost nothing that I hadn’t heard before.

The part that may be interesting for someone who is not familiar with design thinking, is the process about how to go about including design when working with products or other concepts. The build, test, and learn loop is indeed quite powerful. But it is not too different from the agile practices we know and use regularly in software development for a long time already.

One of the main strengths of the book, for those who may be interested in that, is the discussion points along different aspects of doing (or choosing not to do) design. The author has some good points about the societal and organizational forces that can drive and promote good design. Or can be an impediment to it.

That said, this book may be useful for someone with little previous exposure to the topic. Although in my case, in particular, it is not sure that it added any new concrete ideas to keep in mind when doing design that I didn’t already have from before.


Building a Story Brand

I concluded today Building a Story Brand – Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen (Donald Miller, 2017, 242 pages). I think this was a bit unusual book, but somehow it works quite well.

Despite not being a marketing expert, I studied Marketing in a graduate course, and read a couple books previously on the topic. And I think this is not a book I would associate directly with what I previously learned. It does cover marketing topics for sure, but what seems a bit unusual to me is that this book is about story telling techniques as much as it is about marketing and selling. And that I think is a bit unusual.

For sure the main reason behind is the fact that the author had been a novelist for over a decade and half before this book first came out. So, there you have someone who is familiar with story-telling theory, and simultaneously has a business experience. And I think he manages to combine these two realities quite well in the book.

The main idea is that a typical successful plot has a hero, who has a problem or desires something, and along comes a guide who offers help and triggers the hero into action. The fulfillment of the hero’s destiny in solving his problem or obtaining what he wanted closes the story gap.

This main plot idea, according to the author, is a recipe that can and should be used by brands in order to engage customers. What I like a lot is that the client is the hero of the story. And along comes the brand to act as a guide helping the hero achieve what he needs to feel as a whole again.

There are more details following this basic idea, and a bunch of references to stories in famous movies and books. But essentially that’s what this book is all about. And I think it works! I only wished the author was a bit softer in his approach to use the very technique he describes to sell his services along the book. But it was not so much to annoy me, although I was not interested in buying.


Clean Architecture

I finished Clean Architecture – A Craftsman’s Guide to Software Structure and Design (Robert C. Martin, 2017, 432 pages), and I like it a lot!

As any other experienced software developer, I have come across issues around software design and architecture multiple times. And I have experienced good architectures, and bad ones. Creating good software architecture is simply not easy.

What I like about this book is that it made me very aware of some of the main issues in this field, and why this is difficult for everyone. The book is great at delineating some principles that I believe can really help putting a good architecture in place. But it also contains enough examples and stories as of how good intentions turned out to result in bad software.

At the core, the book got me thinking a lot about the “flow of control”, and essentially how the software will go about delivering on some expected behavior (user stories). And how much the code dependencies need to be inverted against this very flow of control, so that adding new behaviors does not break with existing code. This is a powerful concept.

I also enjoyed a lot the fact that the book starts with some history on programming, and how things have evolved since the very beginning (late 1930’s) both in terms of paradigms and also in terms of hardware. And I enjoyed the semi-autobiographic views of the author at the end of the book as well, with bad and good examples of software projects he worked over time.

If you are also interested in getting some great overview over programming, while learning some principles about good software design and architecture, I think this book is the right choice. Just go for it.


How To Lie With Statistics

I recently concluded How To Lie With Statistics (Darrel Huff, 145 pages), and I enjoyed it quite a lot. For a book introduced in 1954, I think its contents remain very actual.

There are some interesting aspects of going through a book that was written 7 decades ago. One of them is the used language, which presents a few nuances not popular today anymore, but which I find interesting to observe. The second aspect is that several numerical examples used show just how much, and how fast, some things have changed. For example, the US population size was of 154 million people. While today the figure climbed to over 330 million. It is fascinating to reflect on how much infrastructure has got to come in place to support such a dramatic increase in population!

On the other hand, what does not seem to have changed much is all the biases and manipulations different actors make when presenting mathematical and statistical values to the public. Typically to make their numbers “look better”, for whatever purpose it may be.

The book goes over several cases in which this happens, in situations for example where the adoption of mean or median values are chosen only to highlight the results that better favors what the presenter wants to convey. Even cases in which figures and numbers in the same picture are out of proportion (e.g., doubling a value is illustrated by doubling an associated image; which actually implies multiplying the area by 4!). Such cases are depressingly common still today, even after all these decades.

I hope the general public has gotten more educated since the book first came out. Even with all inequalities in this world, the tendencies are towards much higher literacy over time. And this book is a reminder of how much critical assessment of the sources is so important not only for fact-checking, but for statistical and numerical data-checking as well.


Zero to One

I typically choose good books to read, and I typically enjoy and learn quite a lot from them. The Zero To One – Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (Peter Thiel, Blake Masters, 2014, 224 pages) escapes this rule. Although it contains some great insights, it also exposes some disappointing biases from the author(s).

To start with the good things about the book, I would like to point out to the insights of how innovations can go from “Zero to One” in terms of creating something new. A new market or a new technology. On the contrary, reproducing existing business ideas take them only from “One to N”. The book associates this dichotomy with the idea of competition, meaning that business that really innovate can become monopolists, while those that build on existing concepts typically end up competing their profits away.

I find it insightful the notion that real monopolists try to hide it (e.g., when the search engine dominant Google denied it had a monopolistic position, comparing its own online business success against the whole of the advertisement industry). While those competing in non-monopolistic ways try to show themselves off as somehow unique (e.g., the only “English restaurant in Market Street”). This twist is very interesting indeed.

I also think that Peter Thiel makes a good case about why sales (or distribution, as the book puts it) is so important for tech business as well. And I agree that many good engineers seem to despise sales, while it is something intrinsic and important to any business. Tech included. Don’t expect from this book much practical insights on how to build up a sales force for a tech company, though.

The things I really dislike about the book and which surprises me are the number of biases you can find along it. For example, at some point it states that only computing and telecommunications delivered revolutionary technological changes in the last 50 years. What about the DNA molecule and its later sequencing and cloning experiments? And the multiple new cancer treatments, medicines and mRNA vaccines? Fuel saving cars and jet planes? Fast trains and gigantic ships transporting goods everywhere? To name just a few.

The authors also seem to think that nothing good comes out of Europe. Or nothing new can appear from China, which only copies other countries' technologies. Pointless to counter-argue that Europe is home to many leading technological companies (from chemistry, to food, to automakers), while TikTok, from China, took over a large global position in a way that only American companies typically managed earlier. Similar to what the Swedish Spotify also did in its own market.

In any case, it seems to me that Mr. Thiel takes proud in being or trying to think like a “contrarian”. Although I certainly see the merits in trying to think outside conventions, one needs to be careful not to make assumptions on topics one has limited knowledge about. Otherwise, a contrarian view of the world can very quickly become a false or biased view of the world. To be a contrarian imposes even greater responsibility in trying to amass as much information as possible about other fields, before trying to connect the dots into what most people may be ignoring about how things really are.

In any case, I think the book is relevant because of the power position the author has. It also can shed some light on Thiel’s previous partner Elon Musk and his recently behavior when taking over Twitter. For example, Musk insisted in freedom of speech before Twitter's acquisition (while the platform was already a space where freedom of speech thrived), and unfortunately the buy-out only resulted (at least by the time of this writing) in a deterioration of this very principle, with severe personnel reductions and allowing extremists to act and harass much more freely. If being a contrarian includes supporting conspiracy theories and a chauvinist worldview, so it is clearly not a good thing to be. In any case,  there are some good insights in the book, although it as a whole needs to be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt.


The Hard Thing About Hard Things

I concluded recently The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers (Ben Horowitz, 2014, 304 pages). I think this is an original and incredible book!

There are of course many original books out there. Many more than I can know of. But what strikes me about this one is how it goes about describing entrepreneurship in ways that I have not seen other books or articles do. Possibly in part because the author, Ben Horowitz, may have a very unusual background. Even in a field where many other founders also have lots of exotic backgrounds.

But some aspects of Ben’s history and views seem particularly original. For example, his love for music, rap in special, shows off in quotes along the book. His openness about his own mistakes seems also very authentic. I honestly believe Ben went through everything he could think of as important, and hard, about entrepreneurship, from his point-of-view.

And, of course, he has great perspective on the topic, by all personal experience since Netscape times in the nineties, to an over billion-dollar exit with Opsware, to the Andressen Horowitz venture capital firm.

From my time as an owner and feeling totally responsible by all the aspects of my small business, I can relate to a lot in the book. It can be at times a pretty hard and lonely position to be in.

So, what are the hard things? They are many, starting with all the difficulties in assembling a good team, and creating a culture for success. And then how to change things while the business grows. But it is also related to lots of unexpected events that seem to turn things radically to the worse, sometimes in very short-noticed way. Such near-death events can be unique to different businesses, but I think Ben makes an awesome job at describing some of the serious issues he faced. The way he went through them, and the kind of advice that was useful to him makes for great lessons to entrepreneurs-to-be.

I also find Ben very inspirational, in a unique way. To me, at least, many of his words and ways of thinking encompass and encourages anyone who actually dare to become a founder. I think he believes that we all have our own very individual strengths that can be put in favor of creating a relevant company. And I think I believe in that a little bit more as well, after reading this book.