When I started commuting long distances for work a couple of years ago, I fell into listening to podcasts instead of music in an attempt to use my time more effectively. While I may not necessarily be an auditory learner, I actually found listening to podcasts stimulated my brain, keeping me awake and alert while driving. I felt like I was learning a great deal also, but I made a slight change near the end of 2018 that I would like to share with you.
You’ll find that what ended up happening was a stream of consciousness approach to reading that hasn’t stopped yet. Since what I have written below is not a traditional bulleted list, I have highlighted the books I selected in green so the reader can find them easily.
The Work Assignment
At some point in December 2018, my boss announced that he wanted our team to read a book together and discuss it on team calls starting in January. Of course, an initial response might have been that this was just more homework. But he felt it would be helpful to all of us in some way. I was at the time about a year into the SE role and had not done much reading on my own (for recreation or for professional benefit) to that point. Rather than buying the book, I decided to give Audible a try. Being dirt cheap, I would listen for free during the trial period so I would not have to spend extra time reading a paper book at night.
It just so happens the book was quite good. Similar to my enjoyment of podcasts, I liked the audio book format and the fact that I could listen to it in the car, while doing laundry, while taking a walk, etc.
I started the Audible trial in early January. The book was Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron. He gives the reader nuggets of wisdom through the lens of the 2016 Crossfit Games. I liked the approach of teaching athletes character traits to distinguish them from their world class athlete peers to prepare to have a real shot at winning the games.
Because at the Crossfit Games, world class is the price of admission.
My favorite part of the book was the focus on The Process rather than on results. It’s a lesson we can all learn and was a topic of a Nerd Journey episode before I read the book (total coincidence).
I enjoyed the book so much (after listening to it multiple times) I decided to give an Audible subscription a shot. By the way, the book didn’t make me want to do CrossFit, but it did make me want to work out.
When you’re new to something like Audible, how do you decide what to read next? You ask for recommendations. A colleague of mine was reading a paper copy of Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship by Mahan Khalsa and Randy Illig and said it was quite good. The example scenarios in this book are extremely helpful. The authors share some great techniques to ask hard questions that we often shy away from asking or have extreme difficulty asking in the Sales profession. It’s one I have listened to multiple times and probably need to listen to again sometime soon.
When you do a lot of driving, it’s not hard to finish an 8-10 hour audio book. What do you do when finished? One option is to listen to it again. Another is to keep reading. Rather than spend more money on Audible, I grabbed a book at the house that my wife had brought home from a fitness conference and started reading about the enneagram. It didn’t take me long to finish The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. I enjoyed learning about the 9 types, what they are like in healthy / unhealthy / average states, and how to determine what your number might be. I’m fairly confident I am a 1 with a 2 wing.
At some point in late February Audible gave me a free credit. This was after I had read the enneagram book, so I looked through Audible and found another book by one of the same authors – The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships by Suzanne Stabile. This was an excellent follow up to The Road Back to You. It dove into what it is like to be each number but also how each number can interact with all other numbers in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
This month’s selection was Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz. Someone had recommended reading this book on a training call, and it definitely did not disappoint in the usefulness department. It’s a mix of stories and tactics for negotiating in every day life written by someone who developed a negotiating curriculum for the FBI. I’ve used some of these in my professional and personal life with good success. One of the most helpful tactics for me has been labeling. This is one of those I have listened to multiple times and probably will go back to and review from time to time.
This month’s read was another recommendation from a colleague – The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman. The author wrote this as a compilation of valuable business lessons he was able to absorb through reading a number of books and suggests this methodology may be a very viable alternative to paying for an expensive MBA from a high profile school. Check out the manifesto here for more on this. While I did find this book extremely helpful, it’s The Personal MBA Reading List that I consider the gold mine. The author lists all the books he read (many of which are quoted in this book) for folks like us to benefit.
As part of my Audible membership, I was entitled to free Audible Originals each month. Since The Personal MBA talked a great deal about the brain and how it works, I opted to get The Beautiful Brain by Hana Walker-Brown as my very first Audible Original. This was a fascinating documentary about a very successful soccer player who ended up getting a degenerative brain disease from severe repeated blows to the head (i.e. using his head to direct a soccer ball).
A friend gifted me Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson this month as well. This is one of those I will go back and listen to from time to time to brush up on the advice within. Building safety with the people you are talking to is so important when trying to have a very important / difficult (or “crucial”) conversation, and the ideas and examples in this book can help anyone in any profession in both your professional and personal life.
Still fascinated with learning more about the brain, this month I selected Brain Rules by John Medina. It just so happens I found this one in The Personal MBA Reading List. While I did not agree with the author on evolutionary theories, I enjoyed hearing his thoughts on how we could restructure education to match how the brain works (including strategies for presentations) and how our brains process new knowledge. It’s another selection I have gone back and listened to multiple times.
I thought I would try another Audible Original this month and settled on The 3-Day Effect: How Nature Calms Your Brain by Florence Williams. The premise was interesting, but I could not get past the language and stopped listening shortly after I started.
By the time June arrived, I decided one book per month through Audible wasn’t enough for me. I bit the bullet and changed my subscription to two books per month.
I made another selection from The Personal MBA Reading List – Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. In this book, the authors talk about the characteristics of sticky ideas and what specifically makes them memorable versus those which are forgettable. Each characteristic of sticky ideas (simple, unexpected, credible, emotional, use of stories, etc.) is illustrated through example (actually, through stories). Reading this one made me think about how much time marketing departments spend trying to ensure their campaigns are “sticky.”
The second read for this month was Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Some might consider this read a bit drier than some of the others listed here, but it is chalked full of fascinating ideas about the ways computer science can apply to interesting life situations. I loved the illustrations of optimal stopping as it related to selecting an apartment and choosing to hire someone and the part about finding a spouse.
Since hearing chronotypes discussed in previous reads, I stumbled upon The Power of When by Michael Breus. He happens to be a sleep psychologist. The book helps you identify your chronotype and gives some advice on how to change the timing of actions in your day to have more energy and get better sleep. It looks like based on the quizzes that I am a lion. He makes the point that lions should not exercise first thing in the morning because their energy will peter out through the day. Instead, they should work out in the afternoon to prevent an early evening energy dip. He talks about when to eat, when to snack, when to have coffee, and many other things. Even changing one or two things could really help, and pushing my caffeine intake to later in the morning has definitely been helpful.
The second read for the month was Range by David Epstein. It struck me because it promotes generalists having the upper hand in a world that has become so hyperspecialized. Epstein talks through specific examples (stories) of generalists with exposure to different knowledge domains becoming very successful specialists who were able to make up for getting a late start in a specialty area. This is by far the best book I read all year, and I have listened to it multiple times. Epstein weaves in stories about Vincent Van Gogh, Nintendo, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, and the Challenger explosion. What have you done to expand your range?
After enjoying one book by Chip and Dan Heath, I found they had written another called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. In this book they share ideas about how we can all influence and support positive change. They share the illustration of someone riding an elephant. Making and sustaining a successful change means you need to do 3 things: direct the rider (logical / rational aspects), motivate the elephant (emotional aspects), and shape the path (support the change sticking). It’s filled with a number of helpful stories that illustrate these principles much like Made to Stick.
I also picked up Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson. This book attempts to share who developers are, how they think, and how the work they do is impacting society. There are a number of interesting stories about tech companies inside and some hypotheses about how the tech industry came to be male dominated after not starting out that way.
In August I had attended DevOps Days in Dallas for the first time, and Adrian Cockcroft shared his reading list after doing the keynote. After taking a look, I chose War and Peace and IT: Business Leadership, Technology, and Success in the Digital Age by Mark Schwartz (more because the title sounded cool than anything else). I love the fact that this is written to non-technical business leaders as a follow up to A Seat at the Table. I really enjoyed the insight Schwartz provides into ways business leaders can utilize their technology teams as more than just a set of contractors forced to do a certain task. I think if you’re someone who is working in technology today, it makes more sense to start with A Seat at the Table first and then read this one. And you don’t need to be a C-level executive to read either one. The concepts discussed can benefit employees at any level within an organization.
At this point I realized I hadn’t read anything that was purely for fun. Since I love the sport of tennis, I landed on A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher next. The author tells the story through the lens the Davis Cup final between Don Budge (USA) and Gottfried Von Cramm (Germany). While the tennis match described was certainly phenomenal, it was very interesting to hear what the Nazi presence in Germany did to the sport of tennis, the lives of the players (Jewish and non-Jewish), and how the outcome of this one tennis match could impact two different countries.
After having read War and Peace and IT last month, I started with A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility by Mark Schwartz this time (again from Adrian Cockcroft’s list). It was interesting to hear why some CIOs are kept from having a seat at the leadership table, how they can gain a seat there, and how they can keep it…all by leveraging things like agile processes and enterprise architecture the right way. One of my favorite points was planning not to stick to a plan. Make the plan at the beginning, but allow tweaks along the way when needed to produce maximum business value for the organization as a whole. Also, are requirements people tell us as technology professionals really requirements? Think about that one.
The next read was The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier (from Adrian Cockcroft’s reading list). This book is structured in such a way that it gives the reader advice for preparing to be a future manager in the technology space as he / she participates in the journey from individual contributor to upper management. It starts by talking through how you can be a good employee for your manager, discusses mentoring team members, taking on a technical lead role (a role all team members should take at some point), being a manager, managing managers, managing multiple teams, etc. The author also emphasizes the need to stay technical as you move up the chain. Her background is in software development, so a number of recommendations will be geared toward development. But this is a fantastic read for anyone, whether you are or are not considering management as a career path. I think it also gives insight to the individual contributor for better understanding managers at different levels.
I also tried another Audible Original this time – The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen. With burnout being a popular topic in the technology space these days, I wanted to see if this was something with good content. I do think the interviews the author did with various people were interesting, but for me it lacked meaty advice for what people can do to get through this burnout situation.
Since I started down the Audible path, many of the books I have read have cited other books. Mark Schwartz cited The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen in one of his books, and I wanted to give it a listen. It was interesting to learn that the exact management practices which help a sustaining technology business continue their success are in fact the same practices that allow them to be disrupted by growth businesses leveraging new technologies. The author gives a number of examples of companies which were able to disrupt others and why this may have happened. The book is a little bit older (and so are the examples), but I think the principles are still extremely relevant today.
I found An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson on Adrian Cockcroft’s reading list as well and figured it might be a good follow up to The Manager’s Path. Will Larson took a very good but slightly different approach. The book is organized in a prescriptive outline based on the author’s experience in technology management. It had much more career-focused content than I had expected. There was a section dedicated to how to help people prepare for their next role while in their current role (something perhaps we as individual contributors can overlook as can overburdened managers). It’s another one that is worth the read even if you are not considering management as a possible path. Now that I write this, I need to listen to it again soon. The author shares a 25-book reading list that I need to go back and capture.
With all the hype around it and after having read The Phoenix Project, I had to go with The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim as my first December book. It was very good. I’m guessing if you work inside a company suffering from the same symptoms as Parts Unlimited, you will recognize it pretty quickly. I like the thoughts and the principles taught throughout the book, but the hardest thing for organizations in my opinion will be the cultural / political aspects of teams working together, supporting one another, and getting management to support it. I loved Maxine’s approach in seeking to understand the challenges of each team involved in the various processes and how their expertise could be leveraged to support the overall goals of the organization.
After reading The Innovator’s Dilemma, I had to go with The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor as the next selection. One of my favorite parts of this book was the discussion about how to hire managers who could effectively manage a growth business. Many managers would not be able to develop the necessary skills to do so well without gaining the proper experience through some failures. The discussions about leveraging a company’s RPV (resources, processes, and values) were also interesting. This book is a few years old, but in my mind it has a ton of valuable information.
That’s 25 books this year (or 22 if you don’t count the Audible Originals as true books). One of them was a paper book. One of them I cut short because I didn’t like it. One was purely based on a sport I enjoy. The rest were selected in a stream of consciousness methodology. I found myself listening to more books than podcasts as the year progressed. I don’t think I have ever read that many books in one year. I’m excited to keep going with Audible in 2020. What will you be reading next year?