A Product Management Guidebook

Escaping the Build Trap book cover

Originally published at myreadinglife.com.

Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value by Melissa Perri was recommended by the agile coaching office where I work. They came back from a product conference raving about it. After reading it, I’d say their attitude is well warranted.

I have read many product management books in the last ten years. Most of these focus on what the product manager needs to do to succeed. This one does too but goes further. It also addresses what needs to happen organizationally to support the entire enterprise becoming product-led.

This change requires more than simple order taking or building features like crazy. It takes a top to bottom curiosity for what the customer problem is, seeking it out, and looking for the best solution to that problem. And this isn’t done once but over and over again to make sure you really dig it and find the root problem.

Any team looking to be better product managers and help their company make better products would do well to read this book and discuss it.

Change is Hard

Goodbye, Vitamin book cover

I no longer remember how I learned about Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. It’s the story of a young woman who moves back home to her parents’ home to help her mom take care of her dad who is dealing with a worsening case of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m interested in stories about how people deal with hard times, so I recently picked this one off my “to read” pile.

The format of the book is unique. The main character moves back into the home she grew up in just after Christmas with the promise to stay a year to help her mom with her dad. Each chapter is a month in that year. The writing is from the perspective of the daughter and is almost like a diary. There are date entries that are further divided into sort sections, some of which are only a sentence long.

The result of this unusual format is a very intimate look at how a young woman deals with the dynamics in her family caused by her dad’s condition. Just before moving back home, she was left by a fiance so she is dealing with change in her own life as well. She doesn’t always handle things well (who would?) and struggles not only to understand what is happening to her father but to herself.  Overall this is an excellent piece of literature exploring the challenges we will all face with end of life care for those we love.

A Timeless War Story

The Forever War book cover

One of my fellow students in the writing workshop that I attended through work (see previous post) recommended reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. I had heard of this book before, but it had never appealed to me. At his suggestion, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did.

The Forever War takes place in the future where mankind is at war with an alien species. Soldiers travel through wormholes to find and engage the enemy. This travel is essentially time travel into the future. Due to relativity, the soldiers age much more slowly than those left back on earth. By the time they return (if they return), hundreds of years will have passed and their home will likely feel alien.

The book is about how a never-ending war affects soldiers both as they fight that war as well as what happens when they return home. The book was written during the Vietnam War. It does an excellent job of projecting the feelings from that war into the future and generalizing them. I suspect that any veteran of any war could commiserate with the soldiers in this novel on the alienation of war, bureaucratic mindlessness, and returning home to people who just don’t understand what they went through.

Despite how heavy I just made it sound, the story is a personal one. It tells the story of one person as he fights to survive this war and figure out how to live his life through it and after it, should he survive. It is at the same time personal and cosmic in its scope, perhaps even timeless.

Tyranny by Entertainment

Amusing Ourselves to Death book cover

For most of my adult life I have heard references made to the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It is in large part due to this book that I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman makes the argument in his book that we have more to fear from and are closer to Huxley’s dystopia than that of Orwell (1984). The difference is that in Orwell’s dystopia, the tyranny comes from a dictatorial state while in Huxley’s it comes from a complacent public only concerned with being entertained continually. Sound familiar?

Well, I finally got around to reading Neil Postman’s book. Despite the fact that it was published in 1985, it is as relevant today as ever. The book focuses on TV, but simply change that word to social media or the internet and the same arguments could be made today. Postman doesn’t trash TV, though. He says that we definitely need entertainment. TV is best when it is trash TV. After all, that’s what it is for. The problem comes when it tries to get involved with more serious matters like politics and education. Rather than simply bringing these important aspects of society to a broader audience, it instead turns them into simple, and often mindless, entertainment.

The core of his argument is that due to TV, we are moving from a culture of reason and typography to one of entertainment and show business. It is an argument that is hard to refute. It seems even more true today than nearly forty years ago. My biggest disappointment with the book is that it doesn’t offer more in the way of ideas to overcome it. The one main suggestion he gives is a high hurdle – reforming education. I think the trouble is that there aren’t a whole lot of answers to this dilemma and none of them are simple. But becoming aware of the problem is a crucial first step.

Win-Win Negotiations

Split the Pie book cover

Barry Nalebuff was on a podcast this past June discussing how he sold his company Honest Tea to Coke for millions of dollars. He is a game theorist who used some basic economic principles to negotiate the best deal from an apparent position of weakness vis a vis one of the largest companies in the world. How did he do this? He discussed the ideas for doing it in that podcast, but he goes into even more detail in his book Split the Pie: A Radical New Way to Negotiate.

The main principle is in the title of the book – split the pie. The goal is to get both negotiators to agree in advance to split the pie evenly. Then they are both on the same side working to figure out how to maximize the size of the pie they will split. One of the key concepts for doing this is understanding the BATNA for both sides. BATNA is Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. This simply means the best outcome for each side if the negotiations fall apart. With the agreement to split the pie and knowledge of BATNAs, it is amazing to see how negotiations can truly become a win-win.

The book goes into quite a bit of detail on the numbers, how to calculate a BATNA, and how to maximize the size of the pie. And since all negotiations aren’t straightforward and simple, he shows how to handle a wide range and type of negotiations. Despite this depth and breadth, the author keeps the books easily understood and approachable with numerous examples, many from real life experiences.

A Writing Textbook

Writing War book cover

I am a member of the Veterans Employee Resource Group where I work. This spring the group offered a creative writing course. Sign up was limited, so I put my name in right away. Doing so much reading has my head swimming with ideas for writing, and I was looking for some guidance on starting. Fortunately, I was included in the class which finished up this past week. We used as our text Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story by Ron Capps.

This is a well-known book that has been used for many years as the curriculum for seminars and workshops provided by the Veterans Writing Project. As the subtitle suggests, its focus is on veterans writing about their experience, whether as a part of therapy or as a record for their families. The book uses excerpts from veteran authors to illustrate concepts such characters, plot, and dialog. I was surprised that many well-known authors are in fact veterans. It is a very practical book with exercises.

As part of the course, we were invited to share some of our writing for feedback and critique. I submitted a short story that I first started many years ago. What I learned in the class and the feedback of my classmates helped me to improve it. Perhaps I will share it one day here. I learned a lot in the course and from this book and look forward to continuing to grow as a writer.

Can Clean Be Taken Too Far?

Clean book cover

A few years ago I read a magazine article that talked about how we in the West all shower too much. By lathering up our entire bodies daily, in addition to scrubbing away dirt we are washing away and/or killing microbes that evolved with us and are beneficial to our health and longevity. I think that article was in The Atlantic but I have been unable to relocate it since. When I heard an interview with James Hamblin, a science writer for The Atlantic, discussing his 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less I knew I needed to read it.

The book takes many approaches. It looks deeply into the science of skin dwelling microbes as well as the history of cleanliness and its relation to health. The main theme throughout is that while our long term attention to cleanliness has led to the elimination of diseases like typhus, we may have gone too far. It also covers the transition from the marketing that brought us soap operas to the newer trends in marketing natural products that actually do less.

I came to this book looking for direction. I was hoping that it would provide recommendations for how best to get clean without going overboard. It doesn’t do that. But if you are interested in the science, history, and marketing around what it means to be clean and how they evolved, this book is for you.

A Graphic Novel as a TV Series

Paper Girls, The Complete Story book cover

Originally posted at myreadinglife.com.

Recently I learned that Amazon Prime came out with a new series that some are comparing to Netflix’s Stranger Things. Both are about teenagers in the ‘eighties. But that is where the similarities end. Paper Girls is the story of four girls who are delivering papers one morning when they suddenly find themselves time traveling. They spend the rest of the story tangled up in a time war while they try to get home.

The Amazon Original series is based on the comic of the same name by Brian K. Vaughn, best know for another comic called Saga. Interested in the series, I wanted to read the full comic series before watching. I found Paper Girls: The Complete Story at my library. I took it on a recent business trip and finished it in no time.

The story telling that I loved so much in Saga is also present in Paper Girls. And below the surface is a story of the girls coming of age and learning the value of friendship. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone. I haven’t watched the TV series yet, but if it is anything like the graphic novel, I am looking forward to watching.

A Mysterious Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore book cover

I recently finished another book from my list of books about books. This one is a novel called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The premise of a story about a young clerk in a 24-hour bookstore sounds downright dull. But there is something strange and mysterious about this bookstore. And it isn’t dull at all!

It is a combination spy thriller and conspiracy, technology and old books, history and the challenges of everyday life. The characters are a bit quirky and unusual, but I bet you will recognize yourself or someone you know in them. So while the story is a bit out there, you always feel connected to it and part of it. It is a fun ride that I recommend.

Our Digital Present and Biological Future

The Code Breaker book cover

Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.

In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.

The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?

Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.

If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.