The Art of Scalability

 

The second edition of the Art of Scalability is my book this week. It is coauthored by Martin Abbott and Michael Fisher. As its subtitle suggests, the book is about building scalable web architecture, processes and organisations for the modern enterprise.

In this book, the authors argue that the three key components of that are people, process and technology. In the introduction video, the author talked about how they thought initially that technology was the key, only to realise that people and process are no less important based on their consulting experience. These three components are covered in the first three parts of the book. More details on that to follow.

Before getting into the details, I share with you what I like and do not like about this book. Its content is vast, fascinatingly relevant, and not dry at all. It is engaging enough that I have had no trouble enjoying many chapters from around 3am to dawn nearly all days this week. Just to abandon this book and pick up another one is a very trivial action on my part. But I did not. The discussions, technical or not, are very plainly written. It opens up my view on how to scale. The quantitative approaches towards project management and scalability topics are straightforward. The main negative attribute of this book is repetition. It could be shortened significantly. That said, repeating concepts covered in previous chapters certainly helps to refresh the reader’s memory and improve the understanding of the topic currently under discussion. It could, therefore, be the intention of the authors.

Do I recommend it? Yes. If you do not have a large chunk of time to pursue such a big book, browsing the conclusion and key points sections of each chapter on safari books online can give you a quick overview of each chapter. The figures, tables, equations etc. are all beautifully presented online too.

 

Staffing a scalable organisation

In this part, the book discusses the necessary roles and their corresponding responsibilities in a scalable technology organisation. The lack of clearly defined roles or those with overlapping responsibilities can cause confusion and conflict.

The book then progresses to talk about the two key attributes of organisations: size and structure. Both can affect the communication, efficiency, quality and scalability of the organisation. The two traditional structures are functional and matrix. The third one, agile, is gaining traction for its increased innovation, measured by shorter time to market, quality of features and availability of services. There are pros and cons for both large or small teams. It is important to be aware of the specific pitfalls of each, know where your team is, take necessary steps to mitigate the negative effects of the team size.

Further, the book presents us Leadership 101 and Management 101. I like the guidance on goal setting for leaders. The goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable (but aggressive), Realistic and Timely (or containing a component of time). One piece of advice stands out for me in the Management 101: “spend only 5% of your project management time creating detailed project plans and 95% of your time developing the contingencies to those plans. Focus on achieving results in an appropriate time frame, rather than laboring to fit activities to the initial plan.” When it comes people management, the analogy of gardening is interesting: seeding (as of hiring), feeding (as of developing people), weeding (as of elimination of underperforming people within an organisation).

   

Building Processes for Scale

The second part of the book covers processes. The general idea is to create the right set of processes to standardize the steps taken to perform certain tasks, eliminate confusion and unnecessary decision making, and hence free up the employees to focus on important work. The authors use the following figure to illustrate the different levels of process complexity.

In this part, the authors discusses processes answering these questions:

  • How to properly control and identify change in a production environment?
  • What to do when things go wrong or when a crisis occurs?
  • How to design scalability into your products from the beginning?
  • How to understand and manage risk?
  • When to build and when to buy?
  • How to determine the amount of scale in your systems?
  • When to go forward with a release and when to wait?
  • When to roll back and how to prepare for that eventuality?

One chapter talks about headroom calculation. The authors advise to use 50% as the amount of maximum capacity whose use should be planned. Naturally we all know a discount factor should be used in estimating headroom, but the value to use for discounting is mostly informed from experience. This shows one great benefit of reading this book: informing me of what the authors summarised from their combined decades of experience of helping to scale businesses.

 

Architecting Scalable Solutions

The third part of this book discusses about the differences of implementation and architecture, how to create fault-isolative architectures, the AKF scale cube, caching and asynchronous design for scale. The AKF scale cube method suggests scaling along three dimensions: cloning the entities or data and distributing unbiased work across workers, separation of work biased by activity or data, separation of work biased by the requestor for whom the work is being performed. For illustration purpose, I cite the AKF scale figure from the book below.

The first two dimensions of the AKF scale cube approach are very similar to our scalability studies for Exascale Computing: providing more compute nodes and duplicating data and code on each of them to perform a chunk of work (that can equally be performed on other node), partitioning and assigning a specific piece of work to its most suitable compute node in a heterogeneous environment or partitioning the data among a set of nodes and sending the corresponding compute to each node. The third dimension is to direct the service requests to different subset of nodes, based on the info available about the requests or requesters. The authors point out often these are nested together.

The last part of the book covers the issue of having too much data, grid and cloud computing, monitoring applications and planning data centers. Not to miss the appendices, the examples given there are very illustrative on availability, capacity planning, load and performance calculation.

There is a set of slides from Lorenzo Alberton available on slideshare, talking about the key concepts from this book.

Overall, I enjoyed learning about scalability and how to build scalable architecture through reading this book. It is thanks to reading books like this that the darkness of winter days is slightly more bearable than it would be.

The Art of Possibility

A great lecturer and mentor of mine, John Steinhart, recently recommended the book The Art of Possibility. John specifically mentioned its audio recording. Although I have a reasonably lengthy list of books to read already, a recommendation from John no doubt sets me into motion to check both the audiobook and paperback out. The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, is my book of this week. The audiobook is also read by both authors. It is fascinating that the audiobook includes many pieces of music that were intimately relevant to the context. I am very fond of classical music, even more so when the music is intertwined with the stories and discussions in this book. I am grateful to John for suggesting this book.

It takes certain mindset to settle into this book. The shift from last week’s Information Retrieval to this was not a comfortable one. My very analytical mind initially responded quite badly to the vagueness of its writing and its light-weight philosophical discussions. I was constantly battling with my inner voice: Why is this the case? How did we derive this point? Is this a single instance? Do we have a sufficiently large data set to draw this kind of insights/conclusions? How do we know that we have attributed to the right causes for the effect observed? Then suddenly one sentence opened the door for me to enter this book: “do not take yourself so goddamn seriously.” Did not Oscar Wilde have a similar line: “Life is too important to be taken seriously”? It reminded me also of a piece of advice that my friend Jay Owen gifted me last year: “do not take yourself too seriously”. That sentence was very powerful. In this particular circumstance, I told my inner self off immediately, “Just shut up! Be open-minded and see what the authors have to say!” I subsequently experienced the wonder of this practice. I was curious enough and wanting to learn all the rest of the practices covered in the book such that I started again from the beginning.

This book is about possibility. The message resonates with what I learned some time ago that I am only limited by my own thinking. As the authors put it: much, much more is possible than people ordinarily think. The authors wrote this book with the objective to provide us the means to lift off from the world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility.

“Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience. Each chapter of this book presents a different facet of this approach and describes a new practice for bringing possibility to life.”

Here is a short summary of a selectively few out of the 12 practices included in the book. I include the steps to get there from the book too. Some are direct quotes. Some are paraphrased by me. Purely for readability purpose, I do not use italic font to mark the quoted phrases or passages, but I happily acknowledge that all messages below are read or learned from the book.

  • It’s All Invented. Ask these questions: what assumptions am I making, that I am not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see? And ask: what might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?
  • Stepping into a Universe of Possibility. How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world? You look for thoughts and actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety. Recognising that your measurement mind is at work, you ask again: How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world? And how now?
  • Being a Contribution. Life is a place to contribute and we as contributors. Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. How will I contribute today? Declare yourself to be a contribution. Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why.
  • Lighting a Spark. Ben told a story that his father said “Certain things in life are better done in person”, when Ben asked him why not making a phone call instead of making a train journey. That answer bewildered Ben in a wonderful way. Many years later, Ben made a day trip by air to persuade the world’s greatest cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to play in a concert. Rostropovich agreed to play. To light a spark, the authors suggest to practice enrollment: imagine that people are an invitation for enrollment, stand ready to participate, willing to be moved and inspired, offer that which lights you up, have no doubt that others are eager to catch the spark. It is similar to the “yes, and” practice in improv.

I would like to highlight a few passages that relate the practices in this book to a much broad world.

When one person peels away layers of opinion, entitlement, pride, and inflated self-description, others instantly feel the connection. As one person has the grace to practice the secret of Rule Number 6 (do not take yourself seriously), others often follow.

I am the framework for everything that happens in my life….If I cannot be present without resistance to the way things are and act effectively, if I feel myself to be wronged, a loser, or a victim, I will tell myself that some assumption I have made is the source of my difficulty.

The foremost challenge for leaders today, we suggest, is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and no matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door. It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenge.

The term mission statement is often used interchangeably with the word vision in business and political arenas but, by and large, mission statements are expressions of competition and scarcity…A vision releases us from the weight and confusion of local problems and concerns, and allows us to see the long clear line. A vision becomes a framework for possibility when it meets certain criteria that distinguish it from the objectives of the downward spiral.

 

The book has a list of criteria as what is a vision in the universe of possibility, which I do not list here for the sake of brevity. That said, I do think they are very relevant to any organisation.

After reading this book, I understand why John recommended this book. The views and methods advocated here can be very powerful in searching for good solutions to resolve conflicts and even better in transforming the conflicts to profoundly rewarding experiences.

Information Retrieval

My book of this week is Information Retrieval: Implementing and Evaluating Search Engines, by  Stefan Büttcher, Charles L. A. Clarke and Gordon V. Cormack, published in February 2016. This appeared to be the latest and most comprehensive book on information retrieval and search engines that I found back in August when I wanted to learn more about this field.

Clearly this book is very different from all the other books I have written about this year, except two: Introduction to Information Retrieval by Manning et al., Text Data Management and Analysis by Zhai et al. The former, available freely online, is a great place to start reading about information retrieval, if you are unsure whether you want to invest in the topic yet.

Here is my paradox. (a): I enjoy reading about computer science, more broadly, science and technology in general, and I work in this field. (b): It would be cheating if I were to read and write a book a week about the subjects that would directly connect to my profession. It might advance my career and make me more an expert, but would not broaden my general view. But I do feel very tempted to read some, at least. So, here goes another book in the arena of computing. I hope I strike a reasonable balance in terms of my choice of books.

There is one more computer science book that I would very much like to read as part of this project, which is the upcoming computer architecture book that John Hennessy et al. have been working on, if available before the year of 2017 draws its curtain.  

Back to this week’s book, it is very impressively comprehensive. I love the plain explanations of the concepts, the right amount of equations that are clearly annotated and explained, and the superb discussions about practical implementation matters. There are many papers passing by my desk with symbols, equations and concepts that are poorly explained. I do realise I am ignorant of many subjects and by no means very bright at all, but I am under the impression that some papers are written to “impress” people rather than to broadcast knowledge or to educate people on the topic covered. It is committing a crime to write like that. Just imagine how many bright young students might have taken up interesting research projects in that field and advance the science frontier, had they been able to understand what they read from those papers rather than feeling deeply doubtful about their own intellectual potential in pursuing advanced research. The good news is that this book does not fall into that category.

Thanks to being more recent than the IR book by Manning et al., this book has updated some topics covered there and includes some new content such as learning to rank. A great amount of attention is given to evaluation. It also has a slightly more implementation-oriented flavor. There are many discussions around the algorithms, data structures, search effectiveness, efficiency and so on. The authors provide a few sample chapters here. Content-wise, the book covers: the fundamentals of information retrieval, search engine indexing, retrieval and ranking, measuring search engine effectiveness and efficiency, parallelisation of IR, and specifics related to web search. One great feature of this book is its coverage of computer performance, e.g., discussions of caching and data placement (such as in-memory or on-disk).

 

Overall, it is a great textbook for this field. By no means have I mastered all. My colorful markers show me what sections I need to revisit.

The Startup Owner’s Manual

My book of this week is The Startup Owner’s Manual: the Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company, by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf.

Thanks to Jim Terranova for recommending this book to me. Jim has been an awesome mentor, not only for his generosity of sharing his own vast knowledge about the startup world, but also for bringing the tremendous expertise of his network to me. Two and half hours every week with Jim and his guest is the most exciting way to spend an evening. I am grateful for the opportunities of learning from these great people in Silicon Valley, and the books coauthored by serial entrepreneurs such as Steve Blank.

I always love reading the Acknowledgment chapter of a book. It often tells me a lot about how a piece of work comes to its fruition. I found it fascinating to trace that “how did she/he come to write/do this” beyond the “what has she/he done or written” covered by the book. In the acknowledgement of this book, Steve wrote “As an entrepreneur in my 20s and 30s, I was lucky to have four extraordinary mentors, each brilliant in his field: Ben Wegbreit, who taught me how to think; Gordon Bell, who taught me what to think about; Rob Van Naarden, who taught me how to think about customers; and Allen Michels, who taught me how to turn thinking into direct, immediate and outrageous action.” These four axes underscored by me are great baits for thought.

This book is a how-to reference for aspiring entrepreneurs. Much of the book focuses on the customer development with the help of a business model canvas. This book recognizes that the process to get, keep and grow customers is different for web/mobile startups compared with startups that sell products through physical distribution channels. It provides step-by-step guidance for both types of startup.

The authors advise to not read too much of this book at a time. Unfortunately, I have to ignore this advice as my one-book-a-week project clearly requires me to read it within a week. However, the implicit message is to refer to this book often in the process of doing a startup. I got this point and agree with that this book would be a great companion for the entrepreneurial  journey. I would not go as far as the authors wished for: “your best friend – for the six to 30 months or more that it often takes to begin building a successful, scalable startup business.” No, I prefer real human beings as my best friends. Grammatically correct or not, “best friends” is prefered over “best friend” regardless.

Having not read Steve Blank’s other books, I think one great contribution this book made is the customer development methodology. It is crystallized into a Customer Development Manifesto detailing fourteen principles to guide the process. Two other main focuses of the book are customer discovery and customer validation. I like how the authors explain the two stages: Customer Discovery turns the founders vision into a business model canvas and then into a series of hypotheses. Those hypotheses are turned into experiments, and tested with customers to see if your understanding of the customer problem and proposed solution mesh. Customer Validation expands the scope of the business model testing to see if you can get enough orders or users to prove that you have a repeatable and scalable business model.

The series of checklists provided in this book are very comprehensive. These checklists are meant to help with tracking the progress of the customer development process. The multi-level indentation used in these checklists and the diagrams throughout the book make it very irritating to read on a Kindle. Do not read the e-version. Get a paper copy.

Many passages I highlighted while reading this book are great source of information and advice. With limited time and space, the rest of this post will share with you the Customer Development Manifesto from the book.

  1. There are no facts inside your building, so get outside.

It’s much easier to write code, build hardware, have meetings and write reports than it is to find and listen to potential customers. But that’s what separates the winners from the losers.

  1. Pair customer development with agile development.

Customer development is useless unless the product development organisation can iterate the product with speed and agility.

  1. Failure is an integral part of the search.

One of the key differences between a startup and an existing company is the one that’s never explicitly stated: startups go from failure to failure….If you are afraid to fail in a startup, you’re destined to do so….When something is not working, successful founders orient themselves to the new facts, decide what needs fixing, and act decisively.

  1. Make continuous iterations and pivots.

The best startup founders donot hesitate to make the change. They admit when hypotheses are wrong and adapt.

  1. No business plan survives first contact with customers so use a business model canvas

The difference between a static business plan and a dynamic model could well be the difference between flameout and success.

  1. Design experiments and test to validate your hypothesis.
  2. Agree on market type. It changes everything.

The product/market relationships generally fit one of these descriptions: bring a new product into an existing market; bring a new product into a new market; bring a new product into an existing market and trying to re-segment that market either as a low-cost entrant or as a niche entrant; clone a business model that’s successful in another country….Market type influences everything a company does. Strategy and tactics that work for one market type seldom work for another.

  1. Startup metrics differ from those in existing companies.

Startup metrics should focus on tracking the startup’s progress converting guesses and hypotheses into incontrovertible facts rather than measuring the execution of a static plan. It’s critical that board and management continuously test and measure each hypothesis until the entire business model is worth scaling into a company.

  1. Fast decision-making, cycle time, speed and tempo.
  2. It is all about passion.

The people leading almost every successful startup in history…their brains are wired for chaos, uncertainty, and blinding speed. They are irrationally focused on customer needs and delivering great products. Their job is their life. It is not 9-to-5, it is 24/7.

  1. Startup job titles are very different a large company’s.

Startups need the rare breed: open to learning and discovery – highly curious, inquisitive, and creative; eager to search for a repeatable and scalable business model; agile enough to deal with daily change and operating “without a map”; readily able to wear multiple hats, often on the same day; comfortable celebrating failure when it leads to learning and iteration.

  1. Preserve all cash until needed. Then spend.

Search not for the one-off revenue hits but rather for a pattern that can be replicated by a sales organisation selling off a price list or by customers regularly visiting the website.

  1. Communicate and share learning.

Share everything learned outside the building with employees, co-founders and even investors.

  1. Customer development success begins with buy-in.

Everyone must accept the (customer development) process, recognizing that this is a fluid, nonlinear search for a business model that can sometimes last for years….To succeed at Customer Development, the company must abandon the old model’s emphasis on execution of a fantasy business plan. Instead it must commit to a Customer Development process stressing learning, discovery, failure, and iteration in the search for a successful business model.

By reading these quoted passages, you have probably noticed that the tone of the book might have been a bit too forceful. It shows the authors’ conviction about the content presented in this book. As a reader, if you are sensitive to a “lecturing” style, I would suggest you to read beyond that. The wealth of information and advice in the book is worthy of my time invested in reading it. It is a great go-to book even though it would not be a best friend for me.

Getting to Yes

Getting to Yes – Negotiating an Agreement without Giving in is written by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton.

This is another book that I borrowed from John Steinhart. It is one of John’s many recommended books on leadership and conflict management. I enjoyed reading the paperback tremendously, but had a lesser experience listening to the audiobook. Perhaps the subject matter is more suitable to be consumed in print than in sound waves. As a comparison, the audiobook The Selfish Gene, read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, was addictive to listen to.

In the authors’ own words: This book is about the method of principled negotiation. The first chapter describes problems that arise in using the standard strategies of positional bargaining. The next four chapters lay out the four principles of the method. The last three chapters answer the questions most commonly asked about the method: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they will not play along? And what if they use dirty tricks?

What is negotiation? It is easier to think what it is not. In my view, it is not a contest of will, for example, whether I am more stubborn than you or vice versa. It is not threatening. By threatening with statement such as “if you do not meet my request, I would do X just to spite you”, you only show how fragile and insensible you are. At the receiving end, no one should give in to threats like that, unless the concession to be made is of no consequence to others and we do not want to waste any more breath with the other party. I also think it is wrong to have a specific and fixed goal prior to the negotiation. With an unshakable target in mind, you might turn deaf to the other party’s reasoning and stop seeking other potentially better options. Negotiation is a dialogue. The more challenging the underlying conflict, the better to have this dialogue in person, side by side. Ask questions and listen to others’ perspectives, seek understanding of what matters most to them. Finally, before heading into a conflict and negotiation, there is always the question whether it is worth it.

In the authors’ words: Negotiation is back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed (as well as some that may simply be different).

This book is centered at principled negotiation and I list four methods to achieve that below. As usual, texts in italic are quoted from the book, the rest is my thought based on reading the book.

  • Separate the people from the problem

Every negotiator has two kinds of interest: in the substance and in the relationship…The relationship tends to become entangled with the problem…Positional bargaining puts relationship and substance in conflict…Dealing with a substantive problem and maintaining a good working relationship need not be conflicting goals if the parties are committed and psychologically prepared to treat each separately on its own legitimate merits. Base the relationship on mutually understood perceptions, clear two-way communication, expressing emotions without blame, and a forward-looking, purposive outlook. Deal with people problems by changing how you treat people; don’t try to solve them with substantive concessions.

  • Focus on interests, not positions.  

The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears….Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones….How do you identify interests? One basic technique is to put yourself in their shoes. Examine each position they take, and ask yourself “Why?”… Ask “Why not?” Think about their choice. One of the most useful ways to uncover interests is first to identify the basic decision that those on the other side probably see you asking them for, and then to ask  yourself why they have not made that decision. What interests of theirs stand in the way? If you are trying to change their minds, the starting point is to figure out where their minds are now.

  • Invent options for mutual gains

This method calls for being creative in coming up with potential solutions. Neither of the two negotiating parties has to lock into certain positions. By examining both conflicting and shared interests, being open-minded without forming premature judgement helps to search for new options that might satisfy the interests of both parties. Do not think that solving their problem is their problem. In a negotiation, the problem is affecting both parties. It pays to invent ways to make the counterparty’s decision making process easier.

  • Insist on using objective criteria

Principled negotiation produces wise agreements amicably and efficiently. The more you bring standards of fairness, efficiency, or scientific merit to bear on your particular problem, the more likely you are to produce a final package that is wise and fair. The more you and the other side refer to precedent and community practice, the greater your chance of benefiting from past experience. And an agreement consistent with precedent is less vulnerable to attack…Three basic points to remember: frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria; reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied; never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The vast majority of workplace conflicts are small-scale and are usually caused by misunderstanding, particularly when the communication skills, culture and personal backgrounds vary drastically. We should refrain from sending emails or messages when the recipients are reachable in person. In the absence of face-to-face discussions, video calls are better than phone calls, which in turn are better than emails for dealing with conflicts. An extension, but not far-fetching: life is much better without being the slave of e-communication. Finally, I also think it is important to know that not all negotiation will result in win-win solutions. It is perfectly fine to agree that we disagree with each other with mutual respect intact.

I end this article with a few more interesting points of view from the book:

A great need for negotiation based on a joint search for mutual gains and legitimate standards.

Conflict remains, as we have noted, a growth industry. Indeed, the advent of the negotiation revolution has brought more conflict, not less. Hierarchies tend to bottle up conflict, which comes out into the open as hierarchies give way to networks. Democracies surface rather suppress conflicts, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian societies.

The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable – and useful – part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. Few injustices are addressed without serious conflict. In the form of business competition, conflict helps create prosperity. And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from a superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict, not less.

The challenge is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it. It is to change the way we deal with our differences – from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem solving.

Like it or not, you are a negotiator. Negotiation is a fact of life.

People find themselves in a dilemma. They see two ways to negotiate: soft or hard. The soft negotiator wants to avoid personal conflict and so makes concessions readily to reach agreement. He or she wants an amicable resolution; yet often ends up exploited and feeling bitter. The hard negotiator sees any situation as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme positions and holds out longer fares better. He or she wants to win; yet often ends up producing an equally hard response that exhausts the negotiator and his or her resources and harms the relationship with the other side. Other standard negotiating strategies fall between hard and soft, but each involves an attempted trade-off between getting what you want and getting along with people.

The (principled negotiation) method applies whether the other side is more experienced or less, a hard bargainer or a friendly one. Principled negotiation is an all-purpose strategy. Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better.

The Five Dysfunctions of A Team

 

This week, I read The Five Dysfunctions of A Team by Patrick Lencioni. It is a fascinating read. After this week’s Leadership and Conflict Management class with John Steinhart concluded, I stood by the desk where John laid out a collection of recommended books, picked this book up, started reading and became completely hooked by it. As time went by, everyone else left the lecture theatre. There I was, still holding this book. John graciously offered to let me take this book home to continue the reading. Borrowed books are always more interesting to read than the ones we own, especially if you borrow from a friend rather than a library.

To whet your appetite, I include this short passage from the cover: After her first two weeks observing the problems at DecisionTech, Kathryn Petersen, its new CEO, had more than a few moments when she wondered if she should have taken the job. But Kathryn knew there was little chance she would have turned it down. After all, retirement had made her antsy, and nothing excited her more than a challenge. What she could not have known when she accepted the job, however, was just how dysfunctional her team was, and how team members would challenge her in ways that no one ever had before.

The best feature of this book lies in its storytelling. The pseudo company DecisionTech is failing despite its initial success under the founder and CEO Jeff. The board brought in Kathryn Petersen aged 57 out of retirement to fix the company up and turn it into a success. Kathryn has no prior experience working in high tech companies. She was a “blue-collarish executive’ in an automobile manufacturing plant. Kathryn spent first two weeks attending meetings and simply observing without actions, which frightened the board and the company as to how much value she would add, if any. Then she decided to have a series of off-sites with all executives, while the company was in dire need of bringing in customers and generating revenue. The very first conflict arrived from this, followed by other conflicts and at the core the five dysfunctions revealed and Kathryn’s actions in addressing them. At each turn of the page, I was eager to find out how yet another new mess is to be sorted out.

Unlike most books about leadership and management written with analysis and case studies, this book is a leadership fable with the style of a fiction. With one set of characters in a fictitious startup, many stories are progressively told to reveal the five dysfunctions of a team that are very common at most workplaces and show the steps taken to overcome these issues to build a highly effective team. Thanks to Patrick’s excellent portraying of the characters through dialogues and thought processes, while reading this book I was able to map myself to the key characters, see their perspectives and learn what behaviors are constructive or destructive for building a great team.

What are the five dysfunctions of a team? I share the descriptions from the book below with one warning. Simply looking through the list here without seeing its manifestation would discount its value significantly, particularly for readers without leadership experience.

  • The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.
  • This failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
  • A lack of healthy conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.
  • Because of this lack of real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability. Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.
  • Failure to hold one another accountable creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals of the team.

This figure cited from the Table Group gives a pictorial overview of the five dysfunctions and example methods to combat them.

A few more passages from the book are worthy mentioning:

Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.

Building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.

Kathryn’s lack of in-depth software experience did not concern her. In fact, she felt certain that it provided her with an advantage. Most of her staff seemed almost paralyzed by their own knowledge of technology, as though they themselves would have to do the programming and product design to make the company fly. Kathryn knew that Jack Welch didn’t have to be an expert on toaster manufacturing to make General Electric a success and that Herb Kelleher didn’t have to spend a lifetime flying airplanes to build Southwest Airlines.

As harsh as that may sound, Ken (Kathryn’s husband) always says that his job (as a coach) is to create the best team possible, not to shepherd the careers of individual athletes. And that’s how I look at my job (CEO).

Find someone who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decision, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team, not their own ego.  

Now, what dysfunctions have been affecting your team? Would you like to exit from it or to fix the dysfunctions? How would you like to address them? You might find this book a useful one to read.

Speaking Up Without Freaking Out

 

Speaking Up Without Freaking Out by Matt Abrahams is the required reading for the Public Speaking course here at Stanford. We are fortunate to have the author as the instructor for this very interactive course.

 

If it were not for the fact that this book is a required reading, I might not have picked any books addressing anxieties associated with public speaking. With the full knowledge that there is lots of room for me to improve my public speaking skills, I do not think anxiety is one of those hurdles. I feel excited rather than anxious prior to a talk, formally or informally, in front of a group of people, whether familiar to me or strangers. There are far worse sufferings on this planet than public speaking. I do not wish this for anyone, but imagine the following. If I suffer from an illness with excruciating pain for the rest of my life, would I feel anxious about public speaking? If I know that I might lose my loved ones at a splitting second to any random accident, would I feel anxious to speak in front of people? If I am homeless and struggling with getting enough bread, let alone butter, would I care whether others think I am a good public speaker or not? I think not. Drop the anxiety, free yourself from the burden of imaging how you might be judged by others, stop thinking of impressing others how knowledgeable you are. Have you read an eulogy that talks about how anxious or calm someone is as a public speaker? I have not, but then I have not read many eulogies. The point is that there is really no need to be anxious. All we need to do is to be prepared and do our best if no time given for any preparation. Keep calm, drink tea and work on it.

Now you ask, is there any value to read this book at all if anxiety is not an issue? I have asked Matt a very similar question: is it valuable to attend a public speaking course if you are not anxious about public speaking? I like his answer. There are a lot techniques I can learn and practice to be a better public speaker, body language, variation in tones etc. Did I like reading Matt’s book? Yes. Much of his advice is not only applicable for addressing anxiety issues, but can also help you to practice to be a better speaker. I list a couple that are pertinent to my own shortcomings:

  1. Practice A.D.D. method of answering questions: Answer the questions (one clear, declarative sentence); Detail a specific, concrete example that supports your answer; Describe the benefits that explain why your answer is relevant to the asker.
  2. Begin your presentation speaking slightly more slowly. Practice delivering your opening lines at a slower rate than usual.
  3. Use Powerpoint wisely. Author your content in an outline format before you create slides. Next, determine if and what slides are needed. Then, create slides. Remember, slides are not the presentation. Your content and delivery are the presentation. Far too often, speakers think they are writing a speech when they are only drafting slides. These two acts are different.
 

A great mentor of mine, Jay Owen, encouraged me to present without any visual aid during group meetings. That was a great piece of advice. Thanks to the opportunities I had, the more I practiced that, the more confidence I gained for speaking spontaneously and the more observant I became of the listeners’ feedback during the presentation. These feedbacks led me to be more acutely aware of the two major flaws in my own behavior that need correction: the rush to speak my mind when asked for an opinion or answering a question, and speaking too fast about a topic that may be distant to others. In communication, the recipient of the information being delivered is the center, not the presenter. I would like to work more on the delivery techniques rather than get myself off the hook quickly and leave the recipients confused. Hope this course will help me to improve.  

 

Read the book, if you are interested. It is a small volume with crisp advice on how to become a confident, compelling and connected speaker.

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement

I have been reading Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton and Rose D. Friedman on and off last a couple weeks. To read this book, we need to know first that this book was published in 1980. The global environment was very different then. That said, much of the content I find convincing and I am inclined to agree with the authors. However, some of it I am more inclined to disagree, especially about social welfare. Friedman argues for a laissez-faire economic model without government intervention, such as tariffs, regulations, subsidies and so on. Plenty of examples from history are provided to support this thesis: Britain’s glorious economic growth for a century before WWI, east and west Germany, Hong Kong as a rising star in the 1980s, Japan from 1867 to 1897 vs India after WWII as a comparison. Freedom from governmental intervention is credited for the rapid growth in both economic and political freedom. The comparison of Japan vs Indian exemplifies this argument.

Japan (from 1867 to 1897) relied primarily on voluntary cooperation and free markets – on the model of the Britain of its time. India (1947 to 1980s) relied on central economic planning – on the model of the Britain of its time. The Meiji government did intervene in many ways and played a key role in the process of development. It sent many Japanese abroad for technical training. It imported foreign experts. It established pilot plants in many industries and gave numerous subsidies to others. But at no time did it try to control the total amount or direction of investment or the structure of output….India is following a very different policy. Its leaders regard capitalism as synonymous with imperialism, to be avoided at all costs. They embarked on a series of Russian-style five-year plans that outlines detailed programs of investment. Some areas of production are reserved to government; in others private firms are permitted to operate, but only in conformity with The Plan. Tariffs and quotas control imports, subsidies control exports. Self-sufficiency is the ideal. Needless to say, these measures produce shortages of foreign exchange. These are met by detailed and extensive foreign exchange control – a major source both of inefficiency and of special privilege. Wages and prices are controlled. A government permit is required to build a factory or to make any other investment….Reliance on the market in Japan released hidden and unsuspected resources of energy and ingenuity. It prevented vested interests from blocking change. It forced development to conform to the harsh test of efficiency. Reliance on government controls in India frustrates initiative or diverts it into wasteful channels.

I made an earlier decision not to write about China, but there is one interesting passage about China in this book worthy quoting:

We recently came across a fascinating example of how an economic system can affect the qualities of people. Chinese refugees who streamed into Hong Kong after communists gained power sparked its remarkable economic development and gained a deserved reputation for initiative, enterprise, thrift, and hard work. The recent liberalization of emigration from Red China has produced a new stream of immigrants – from the same racial stock, with the same fundamental cultural traditions, but raised and formed by thirty years of communist rule. We hear from several firms that hired some of these refugees that they are very different from the earlier Chinese entrants into Hong Kong. The new immigrants show little initiative and want to be told precisely what to do. They are indolent and uncooperative. No doubt a few years in Hong Kong’s free market will change all that.

Economic and social progress do not depend on the attributes or behavior of the masses. In every country a tiny minority sets the pace, determined the course of events. In the countries that have developed most rapidly and successfully, a minority of enterprising and risk-taking individuals have forged ahead, created opportunities for imitators to follow, have enabled the majority to increase their productivity.

In this book, Friedman argues that the story of the United States is the story of an economic miracle and a political miracle that was made possible by the translation into practice of two sets of ideas – both, by a curious coincidence, formulated in documents published in the same year, 1776.

One set is embodied in The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Adam Smith’s key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit. No external force, no coercion, no violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals all of whom can benefit. That is why, as Adam Smith put it, an individual who “intends only his own gain” is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

 

The second set is from the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

There are many fascinating pieces from this book. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

Writing about equality: A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy byproduct, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Though a byproduct of freedom, greater equality is not an accident. A free society releases the energies and abilities of people to pursue their own objectives. It prevents some people from arbitrarily suppressing others. It does not prevent some people from achieving positions of privilege, but so long as freedom is maintained, it prevents those positions of privilege from becoming institutionalised, they are subject to continued attack by other able, ambitious people. Freedom means diversity but also mobility. It preserves the opportunity for today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged and, in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life.

Talking about unions: A successful union reduces the number of jobs available of the kind it controls. As a result, some people who would like to get such jobs at the union wage cannot do so. They are forced to look elsewhere. A greater supply of workers for other jobs drives down the wages paid for those jobs. Universal unionization would not alter the situation. It could mean higher wages for the persons who get jobs, along with more unemployment for others. More likely, it would mean strong unions and weak unions, with members of the strong unions getting higher wages, as they do now, at the expense of members of weak unions.

About conformity vs unanimity: The ballot box produces conformity without unanimity; the marketplace, unanimity without conformity. That is why it is desirable to use the ballot box, so far as possible, only for those decisions where conformity is essential.

On inflation: Five simple truths embody most of what we know about inflation: 1. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon arising from a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output (though, of course, the reasons for the increase in money may be various). 2. In today’s world government determines – or can determine – the quantity of money. 3. There is only one cure for inflation: a slower rate of increase in the quantity of money. 4. It takes time – measured in years, not months – for inflation to develop; it takes time for inflation to be cured. 5. Unpleasant side effects of the cure are unavoidable.

 

Morrie: in His Own Words

 

Many people know about Morrie Schwartz from the book Tuesdays with Morrie, written by his student Mitch Albom based on fourteen visits on Tuesdays. I was one of these people; I read Tuesdays with Morrie a few times over the decade. Tuesdays with Morrie is a small volume with a quiet power to clear the mind and clarify priorities for me.

This weekend, I read Morrie: in His Own Words by Morrie Schwartz. I visited Grover Beach in the winter of 2013. As part of the ritual of exploring a new area I searched for bookshops and found Nan’s Pre-owned Books. It was a delightful second hand bookshop with many volumes. There I came across Morrie: in His Own Words on the shelf among with a few others that the now faded receipt used as a bookmark informs me. This is the only title on the list that, shamefully, I have not read before. I should not criticize myself too harshly on this score though. With so many boxes of books, it is not easy to keep track of them. At least this book is being shelved after randomly opening a couple of boxes among many. The happiest faces I saw this year were the two movers’ when they heard me saying that they could leave the boxes of books in the garage in the absence of anywhere better to put them.

I am glad that I finally read it in September 2017 instead of the winter of 2013. Much personal experience in recent years has helped me to appreciate this book a lot more than I could have done a few years earlier. For example, I often wonder about what my father (severely disabled caused by traumatic brain injuries) feels and thinks, how my actions and words might impact him, and so on. In some way, Morrie’s words help me to picture what my father might have been going through internally without the capability of articulation. Like many, I am thankful to Morrie for writing this book despite suffering from his grave illness.

The book has two parts: understanding where you are now and getting to where you want to be. The first part talks about living with physical limitations, handling frustrations, grieving for your losses, reaching acceptance, and reviewing the past. In the second part, Morrie gives us advice on maintaining an active involvement in life, relating to others, being kind to yourself, dealing with your mind and emotions, developing a spiritual connection, and finally considering death. There is a lot wisdom in this small volume. You may think it is too gloomy a topic to read in a weekend day. I beg to differ on that. I believe through learning to deal with illness and to face death, we see the world in a much clearer way and live a much better life than it otherwise would be. I select a few passages from the book to share with you below and hope you find guidance from Morrie’s words.

When we have an injury to the body, we tend to think it’s an injury to the self. But it was very important for me to make clear to myself that my body is only part of who I am. We are much greater than the sum of our physical parts. The way we look at the world is fashioned by our values and our thoughts about good and evil, things that go into making us who we are. We have emotions, insights, and intuitions. My contention is that as long as you have other faculties – the emotional, psychological, intuitive faculties – you haven’t lost yourself or even diminished yourself. Don’t be ashamed when you’re physically limited or dysfunctional; don’t think that you’re any less because of your condition. In fact, I feel I am even more myself than I was before I got this illness because I have been able to transcend many of the psychological and emotional limitations I had before I developed ALS.

Grieve and mourn for yourself, not only or twice, but again and again. Grieving is a great catharsis and comfort and a way of keeping yourself composed….I see mourning as a way of paying respect to life.

Come to terms with the fact that you will never again be fully physically comfortable. Enjoy the times you are comfortable enough. Acceptance is not passive – you have to work at it by continually trying to face reality rather than thinking reality is something other than what it is.

Recognize the difference between what you want and need. Your need to feel connected to other people is as vital to human survival as food, water, and shelter.

If you are ill, you can experience more freedom to be who you really are and want to be because you now have nothing to lose.

Accept your doubts about your ability to achieve any change in your emotional state. But keep trying. You might be surprised.

Learn how to live, you’ll know how to die; learn how to die, and you’ll know how to live.

The best preparation for living fully and well is to be prepared to die at any time, because impending death inspires clarity of purpose, a homing in on what really matters to you.

Finally, the book ends with this short story that invites us to reflect:

There’s this little wave, a he-wave who’s bobbing up and down in the ocean off the shore, having a great time. All of a sudden, he realizes he’s going to crash into the shore. In this big wide ocean, he’s now moving toward the shore, and he’ll be annihilated. “My God, what’s going to happen to me?” he says, a sour and despairing look on this face. Along comes a female wave, bobbing up and down, having a great time. And the female wave says to the male wae, “Why are you so depressed?” The male says, “You don’t understand. You’re going to crash into that shore, and you’ll be nothing.” She says, “You don’t understand. You’re not a wave; you’re part of the ocean.”

Introduction to Information Retrieval

Introduction to Information Retrieval is my book of the week. It is co-authored by Christopher D. Manning, Prabhakar Raghavan and Hinrich Schütze. The authors generously make the e-version of the book freely available to the public. I benefited from this generosity and read the pdf version. It is very convenient to follow the links in pdf, although the lack of reverse-link in pdf makes it hard to navigate back to the source of the link.

This book is very comprehensive and probably the best textbook available if you wish to know about information retrieval. There are both fundamental and advanced topics covered. Moreover, each chapter includes a References and Further Reading section, providing more resources for readers who would like to dive further into specific topics. The other notable attribute of this book is its clarity in explaining the concepts without introducing unnecessarily complicated formula. The texts accompanying the algorithms express the logic clearly. If you are still unsure about how certain algorithm works after reading the text part, thinking through one of the several exercises typically included in each chapter helps a great deal.

The version online is from April, 2009. There are a great amount of recent advances in the information retrieval field that are not covered here. However, grasping the content in the book would no doubt help to better understand more recent works. There are more recent lecture notes based on this book available online that I have not explored yet, partially because I have one fairly recently published book, Information Retrieval: Implementing and Evaluating Search Engines, on my to-read list for the near future. Should you become positively obsessed with this topic, like me, you might appreciate that the authors also very helpfully offer a comprehensive list of information retrieval resources.

In the preface, the authors talk about the organisation of this book in depth. Here is my feeble attempt to show you what this book covers at a very high level. If you are interested in learning how search engines work or how to build one, Chapter 1 to 8 cover the basics, such as an inverted index, index construction, compression, vector space model, relevance score calculation, evaluation and so on. Chapter 9 on relevance feedback and query expansion is of great guidance for real-world projects, as I was handling such a challenge in my work while reading this book. In the authors’ words: it discusses methods by which retrieval can be enhanced through the use of techniques like relevance feedback and query expansion, which aim at increasing the likelihood of retrieving relevant documents. Chapters 9 to 18 cover more advanced topics, for example: probabilistic language model, text classification, clustering and latent semantic analysis. Chapters 19 to 21 dive into web search basics and more in depth on crawling, indexing and finally link analysis. Forgive me for my lack of diligence here, since there could be no better overview than the one written by the authors in the preface.

I enjoyed reading this book no less than the Cicero trilogy (Imperium, Conspirata and Dictator) and made many notes for future re-visits.