AwkEng Kicks off the Year with a Mini Book Report

Hi all,

I'm kicking the year off with a not so mini book report of stuff that I've read in the last several months, listed in order of recommendation. Enjoy!

Sprint: Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas In Just Five Days

This is a great book, if for no other reason than the suite of techniques that it describes for facilitating groups of people to work creatively and collaboratively on difficult problems. It really is an ultra-compressed, best of the best hit list of user research, brain storming, design, and user testing methodologies.

In short, over the course of five days, you research and map the problem space (using a multi actor journey map! I love journey maps!), propose solutions, down select to the best one, prototype it, then test it.

I haven't had the opportunity to run a full design sprint, but I've had positive experiences using the brainstorming and collaboration techniques it describes. Overall, I recommend this book.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Between reading The Mom Test, Sprint, and now Rocket Surgery Made Easy, I've noticed some common threads about user research and user testing. User opinions are worthless at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. On the other hand, evidence of past behavior is real, as are live reactions.

To capture real (and live) reactions, Rocket Surgery Made Easy suggests asking users to to either 1) complete a goal oriented action, like "create a new account" or "edit your calendar reminder" while you observe, or 2) look at product screenshots. In both cases, the user should describe what they're thinking as they're doing it / looking at it, giving you the closest thing to a peek inside their brain, short of mind reading.

That's it. It's not Rocket Surgery. The rest of the book is details about recruiting users, setting up tests, avoiding bias, facilitating test participants to keep talking, and the importance of getting engineers and execs to also observe live. Overall, also recommend.

How to Change Your Mind

Michael Pollen writes about the history of LSD, psilocybin, and other mind altering drugs and practices, the current state of research, then describes his own personal psychodelic experiences.

The big takeaway for me was that these drugs, while powerful, are much safer than I'd been lead to believe, particularly when taken in guided, controlled environments, and had positive, lasting effects on sense of well being.

I wish the book spent more time talking about the biological basis for how these drugs work. The leading ideas presented were that they inhibit a portion of the brain called the "Default Mode Network", which is most active when your mind wanders, and plays a role in filtering out the massive stream of sensory information your brain is inundated with every second. With the filter inhibited, you become more aware of things you would otherwise ignore or never notice.

I loved Pollen's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, but can't give How to Change Your Mind the same enthusiastic recommendation, because it's too loose, and spends too much time recounting historical facts. Read it if you're particularly interested in psycodelics.

The Making of a Manger

The author was one of the first designers at Facebook, then grew into a manager role, then became a manager of managers, then an Executive over the course of her career there. Where High Output Management is direct and to the point (and is referenced multiple times in this book), Making of a Manager was distilled and derived from the author's blog posts, and is filled with anecdotes from her personal experiences. Transitioning from an individual contributor to a management role is challenging (particularly for makers and doers, like designers and engineers), and the author is honest about the (very normal) bumps and bruises she experienced along the way.

Radical Candor

This is a book that has incredible ideas, a terrible name, and lacks the succinctness and clarity of other books in the space. There is overlap to ideas from the One Minute Manager, How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, and High Output Management, all of which are more tightly written, and get to the point faster. No Rules Rules also echoes a lot of these ideas, as they were implemented at Netflix.

Radical Candor brings a little more to the table, introducing a two axis feedback space, with feedback on one axis ranging from non-existent to challenging, and the other axis measuring empathy from caring to non-caring. Obviously, caring feedback is the best, while uncaring feedback can make you a jerk.

The book then jumps to the author's Getting Stuff Done loop, which is the process of forming and developing ideas, vetting them, selling them, getting people on board with them, and executing on them. It's a lot of the nuts and bolts of running a team that the author honed at Google and Apple.

I read the 2nd Edition of the book, which has a section with details about putting radical candor into practice, because it can be weird soliciting direct, honest feedback from your team, especially your direct reports.

The most important section for me was about having useful career conversations. It's a three part process, with the first conversation going through life history and motivations (The wheels in my head say that I've learned that past behaviors contain evidence, where forward looking hypothetical statements, like career plan questions, are not to be believed.), the second conversation is about dreams, and the third conversation is about aligning career path and the next year's work to building skills to achieve those dreams.

Overall, the ideas in this book are so valuable that it's worth reading, but I'd recommend reading it after the comparative titles mentioned above.

Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies

Sometimes, there are winner-take-all situations in business where taking large, aggressive, seemingly risky moves, is actually less risky that letting someone else make those moves and become the winner-take-all instead of you. This is often the case when network effects are in play.

The rest of the book is details about some of the patterns and market forces at work and there's significant discussion of how a company changes when it grows in size from a small team, to a tribe, to a village, to a nation.

Into the Tornado had a better analysis of the stampede that occurs when moving up the S-curve of adoption with a disruptive new business, and I would recommend Blitzscaling as a complementary follow on if you're more interested in some of the organizational challenges.

Don't Make Me Think

I picked this book up by the same author of Rocket Surgery Made Easy, which I really enjoyed, but this book was a lot less eye opening to me. Don't Make Me Think is about website and mobile app usability, which mostly boils down to following conventions for site navigation, then doing user testing. That was it. Not a must read, by any means.

Build What Matters: Delivering Key Outcomes with Vision-Led Product Management

This book was forgettable, by which I mean my reading retention is usually pretty good, but I had to go back and glance through this book to refresh myself to write a summary. And it's still hard to write one.

Their approach to product management uses a narrative, user journey (did I mention I love journey maps!), illustrated in comic book form to describe an idea that achieves an outcome for customers, then they work backwards to find baby steps on the path to that vision.

The rest is details about some bad habits that teams fall into, how to balance innovation, incremental improvement, and tech debt, and a useful section about how to transition from CEO as product manager at an early stage startup, to hiring a head or VP of product, and growing out the team.

Overall: This would be low on my recommended reading list for a PM.

Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More

This book was so disappointing that I gave an earful to the person who recommended it to me. It should have been a (short) blogpost and the most important points were not well explained or easily referenceable.

Let me save you the trouble of reading it.

When you're tracking any metric, you can apply some basic rules of thumb from the discipline of statistical process control (SPC) to distinguish between noise and a statistically significant change.

For time series data with at least 12(I think?) evenly spaced, consecutive data points, you can use the average delta between the points (multiplied by maybe 2.6?) to calculate a value for "guard rails". The following conditions represent a statistically significant change.

  • Any point outside the guard rail
  • Any 3 consecutive points closer to the guard rail than to the average
  • Any 8 consecutive points either all above, or all below the average

The book doesn't discuss the confidence score for the guard rails, buries the equation for calculating the guard rails in an appendix, and has left me generally angry.

Bare Knuckled Project Management

Another book to skip. The big idea in a nutshell, is that most project managers are placed in adversarial roles, where it's the project manager and team on the opposite side of the table from the client/stakeholder. The author's model is that it's a three sided table, and the Project Manager should own the project management process and call it like he sees it. The team is responsible for the work, and the client/stakeholder is responsible for the business outcome. The rest of the book is bragging about how this is the bare knuckled way to fix things.

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About people

A hodgepodge of facts about people. It wasn't structured in a way that I can remember much of what I read. I'd skip this.

happy new year, and I'm looking forward to continuing this blog in 2022

Sam Feller
aka THE Awkward Engineer

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