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.