Book Report: Humans are Underrated

Humans Are Underrated.thumbAfter one of my colleagues posted this article on what makes teams work, I was inspired to read Geoff Colvin’s latest book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will
The first chapters of this book give Clive Barker a run for the money, as Colvin walks through the many different ways in which the economy is going to transform in short order due to computer automation and robotics. I found myself continually having to put down the book to work my way through the implications of some of this:

  • I’ve thought a lot about how autonomous cars are going to change the economy from a car-buying perspective. A likely shift towards a sharing model for car-ownership would certainly have broad impacts on jobs – from manufacturing to sales to repairs and parts. And the impact to taxi-drivers has been clear to me, but I never considered the impact on delivery vehicles. Truck driving is the number one job among American men, and it’s hard to believe that this job will exist in a few decades.
  • We all know that computers outperform humans at chess, but Colvin runs through other things they have been doing more recently, including reading emotions better than humans, writing articles for publication, and moving into increasingly creative fields like creating recipes for chili and chocolate burritos that were well received at SXSW in 2014.
  • Colvin runs through some terrifying human fallibilities as well, like the impact of lunchtime on a judge granting parole. (Did you that while overall, judges grant 35% of paroles, but that the number jumps to 65% immediately following lunch?). While humans are currently skeptical of computers’ ability to handle tasks involving the freedom of humans, it’s hard to look at statistics like that and not acknowledge that algorithmic judgement would be more consistent.

After a few chapters of doom and gloom, Colvin makes his case that the future will involve a shift where economic rewards are centered on deeply human traits – most especially the ability to empathize, rather than the current reward structure towards analytic thought. Although he sometimes undermines his own arguments, he continues to weave together deeply interesting facts.
Colvin makes a strong case for colocated teams in the section on the square of the distance rule. While I’ve personally seen highly effective remote team-members who are able to form deep ties to a mostly colocated team, I found Colvin’s evidence here quite though provoking.
The best measure that we currently have for human empathy, the Reading the Mind Between the Eyes test is something that Colvin talks about quite a bit, as is Collective Intelligence. If you’re responsible for hiring a collaborative team, this book is almost certain to change the way you think about hiring.
In fact, one of the things Colvin probably underplays is the following:

It has become a cliché to say that bringing women into a corporate team, for example, improves the group’s thinking because it introduces a wider variety of thoughts and experiences. That assumes the team was mostly men, and greater diversity improves performance. But the finding of this research is exactly the opposite. It shows that the more women in a group, the smarter it is, plain and simple. The smartest groups in the research had zero gender diversity; they were all women. If the diversity argument held, then replacing a woman with a man would make the group smarter. But it didn’t. On average, it made the group dumber.

Why isn’t this a part of the conversation? It is one of the most perspective-changing things I’ve ever read, and is worth the investment in the book right there.
So yeah, you should probably read this book.

Book Report: The Rare Find

The Rare Find.thumbThis book is probably primarily useful to those who are either (a) in charge of a large-scale search, or (b) in charge of a very high-end search for a specific role such as a C-suite executive. However, there are plenty of small nuggets that I found thought provoking for designing interview processes as a hiring manager.
The book is short and fairly enjoyable for a book about hiring – I found many of his specific stories, especially the description of the selection process for Army Special Forces, surprisingly entertaining.
Anders’ attempts to make things personal can occasionally feel a bit like a politician’s campaign speech. Like this bit:

TFA [Teach For America] wanted people like Emily Lewis-Lamonica. I met her in the summer of 2009, after she had finished two years of TFA service as an eighth-grade history teacher…

This book is strongly focused on identifying rare talent, while almost entirely ignoring enticing them or retaining them. This is somewhat forgivable, given the title of the book. This next segment is one of the rare exceptions where Anders digs in a bit further:

For bosses like John Cameron, it’s not enough to discover talent that shouts. That much is easy. The great challenges come later, once such people are on the payroll. That is when everything hinges on an ability to make the most of such people’s wide-ranging ambitions and restless spirits. If top performers don’t feel tied into the organization that hires them, all their marvelous potential may be useless. Their careers may be marked by quarrels, betrayals, squandered opportunities, and repeated job-hopping in moments of anger.
In extreme cases, organizations decide it isn’t worth accommodating such high-intensity turmoil. No matter how brightly a star might shine before a hiring decision is made, everything can blow up once a contract is signed. If events don’t play out as planned, talent that shouts can turn impatient, selfish, or frustrated. After too many such failures, some leaders retreat. They would rather surround themselves with amiable plodders than tangle again with the unruly side of talent.
Fortunately, there’s a way around this agony. Top teaching hospitals like Hopkins are a fine place to look for clues. So are elite military units. These organizations don’t flinch at filling their ranks with ambitious personalities. That’s because they know how to get everyone pulling together toward shared goals, rather than ending up with a quarrelsome bunch of prima donnas. Step into the corporate world, and similar triumphs exist as well. None of these organizations equates talent and treachery. Instead, they are the world’s best snake charmers, if you will, figuring out how to get the most out of high achievers without being led astray.

My biggest complaint about the book is how little it focused on diversity in hiring. Aside from a few mentions, such as a Lehman Brother’s strategy to hire women as analysts rather than salespeople, diversity as a hiring goal is quite absent. When it does appear, it feels like it’s exploitative, when he could just as easily focus on the value that a diverse team offers.
On balance, the book is worth reading, although I think it falls a bit short of its promise.

Book Report: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.thumbI had the privilege of working with a very talented coder who swore that he learned everything he needed to know about coding from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that he re-read it regularly, making new discoveries each time. So after more than 20 years since I last read this, I decided to give it another go.
There is certainly quite a bit in this book that resonates with much more recent research on work and motivation. While I don’t think I can capture it all, I’ll try to cover a bit of what stood out to me.
Pirsig does a great job of capturing the essence of what has recently been called “Flow” in this bit:

So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. That was what it was about that wall in Korea. It was a material reflection of a spiritual reality.

And his section on what he calls “gumption” resonates strongly with the recent research on “grit” as a determinant of success. Interestingly, Pirsig goes on for quite a bit about how to acquire and hang on to gumption, which is a focus for many modern educators. Here’s his description of gumption:

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

Here’s a fascinating bit about the pleasure of doing a job well, even if it’s not a perfect job:

Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with — and they are all, sooner or later, dull — and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going.

Finally, a bit about how doing work well ultimately impacts yourself:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.

It seems clear to me that in many ways, Pirsig was ahead of his times. Or maybe he’s influenced the current generation of research in lots of interesting ways. Any way you slice it, this book is worth a careful read, maybe even regularly.

Book Report: The Best Place to Work

The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman, PhD is probably one of the best management guides I’ve read. Why? Because it offers research-backed(!), carefully end-noted, practical advice for how to improve the workplace. All of this while being a fairly enjoyable read – the chapters start with an illustrative example, then move on to recent research, ending with a list of practical suggestions for both managers and “emerging leaders”. While the advice of the book would be best executed by a company owner or high-level executive, there’s still plenty of useful insight for those of us down in the trenches.
one warning: One of those illustrative examples includes a very vivid (although non-“graphic”) and unexpectedly intense description of a school shooting. This leads to a discussion about what we can learn about communication from hostage negotiators, if you’re wondering (and I’m sure you were).
Here’s a short excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which talks about Sara Blakely, founder of spanx, and the importance of encouraging failure:

Asked where she found the courage to surmount such staggering odds, Blakely says a big part of the credit belongs to her father. Or, more specifically, to the one question he would ask his children every night at dinner.
Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?”
When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”
Blakely was taught to interpret failure not as a sign of personal weakness but as an integral part of the learning process. It’s this mind-set that prepared her to endure the risk involved in starting her own business. When coming up short is viewed as the path to learning, when we accept that failure is simply feedback on what we need to work on next, risk-taking becomes a lot easier.
Her father’s question taught her an important lesson: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
What’s odd is that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view espoused in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers. That struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it,” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After twelve years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. We’re implicitly taught that struggling means others will view us poorly, when in reality it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.
Some educators have begun recognizing the way this fear of failure is impeding their students’ long-term growth. Edward Burger, for one, is doing something about it. For more than a decade the Williams College mathematics professor has literally been rewarding students for failing in his class.
“Instead of just touting the importance of failing,” Burger wrote in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed essay, “I now tell my students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.’”
Burger believes this approach encourages students to take risks. His goal is to reverse the unintended consequences of a school system consumed by testing. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect. When we reduce performance to As or Bs, pass or fail, good or bad, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
At the end of each semester, students in Burger’s class are asked to write an essay examining a mistake they made. In it, they describe why they initially thought their approach might work and how their mistake helped them uncover a new way of understanding the problem.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to mine the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt.
To be fair, at just 5 percent of a student’s grade, Burger’s unusual grading scheme hardly constitutes an academic revolution. But research suggests that his approach of rewarding intelligent failure may have more of an impact on his students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. The reason, as we’ll soon discover, is that when the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.

Inspiration: “Sorry, I’m busy. Can you go Google it?”

Ignoring the blatant Intel advertising (yay “public” television/radio), this is a great story- kid asks his parents how blind people read, they blow him off, and he ends up building a braille printer out of Legos.

Maybe I’m just a lifelong geek, but I love the idea of prototyping with Legos. For those who are would like to build their, the plans for the Braigo printer are on Make’s site. While I get the point that the Lego prototype is not usable by the blind, I’m personally less thrilled with the solution of turning this into a significantly expensive product than I am charmed with the cheap simplicity of the original creation.
I’m currently reading The Peripheral by William Gibson which, among many other things, includes the idea of micro-fabs running sophisticated 3d printers, capable of “printing” electronics like phones.  I immediately connected that concept to this project. As cool as Lego prototyping is, imagine what 3d printer based micro-fabs could do for accessibility as specialized types of devices can be assembled from printed pieces at local businesses or in the home (specialized products for the blind currently tend to be wildly expensive because of the limited market). I wonder, as 3d printers improve and can use different materials, if they could be used to assemble circuit boards. If so, then Gibson’s vision in the book might prove to be as close to real as his vision of the internet in Neuromancer.

Interesting quote

Here’s a quote from a recent New York Times article on the recent Sony hack:

“Everyone is so excited about the cloud, but the cloud is really a drunken Xerox machine making copies of pretty much everything that everyone has said anywhere and spewing it all over the place,” said Howard Lerman, the co-creator of Confide, a messaging app that works like the corporate version of Snapchat.

My first reaction to this quote was a big loud “no”.  It’s a really nice soundbite, but misapplied, surely. This applies to social media, but not the cloud in general, right?  Then I remembered: what about those private Jennifer Lawrence that suddenly went public earlier this year?

The Sony hack wasn’t really about data in “the cloud”.  From what we’ve seen so far, Sony’s internal systems were compromised.  They weren’t on the cloud as we normally think of it.   Lerman has an agenda (selling Confide’s services), and he’s using the story of the moment to push his agenda. But this quote probably applies far better to the 2014 photo leak (sorry, I’m not going to use the popular name here) than it does to the Sony hack.

However, it is entirely correct as applies to much of recent history.  The question for those of us who develop technologies in/for the cloud is simply: How do we stop it?  This smells like market opportunity to me.  Can PGP be made easy enough for anyone to use it on their phone?  Does an entirely new solution need to be created? How can we extend security and privacy into the easy to use cloud?

Food for thought.

Saying Goodbye

I’ve been running a large team of software and infrastructure engineers for the past two years. I’ve just left this job to move to a larger, consumer facing company.  I’m obviously excited about the move, but I’m also going to miss the team that was such a huge part of my success.

This is the first time I’ve given notice from a leadership position and much of the experience was a surprise to me. Here are some notes from my experience.

Keeping secrets is hard: This was incredibly difficult for me. I pride myself on being transparent with the people that work for me and I care about them deeply. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had in the final few weeks of negotiation and background checking where I tried in many different but subtle ways to say, “Can we hold off on this conversation for a few weeks?” And in most of those cases, we really couldn’t hold off, so we had to revisit the conversation after I gave notice. I kept a running list of these types of conversations, and at times it was a little overwhelming.
If you’re not in a position to be open regarding your job search (and you almost certainly won’t be if you’re running a team), be prepared to be bothered by this one as you go through the process of looking for a new job. For me this was by far the hardest part of my job search.

You are probably being more subtle than you think you are: When I was finally cleared to share the news with my team, I expected emotional reactions from my team, but I wasn’t ready for their surprise. To me, it felt like I had been unintentionally broadcasting my intentions since I started looking — I had caught myself in many many slips; surely this very smart team had caught some whiff of what was coming.

It’s not enough time: Whatever notice you’ve given, if you’re running a team, it’s going to be a mad rush to meet with everyone and complete whatever transition you’ve been asked to execute.  You’re going to be remembering details that you need to share up until the very last minute.
All the while, as you’re waking up at 2:00am and jotting down notes to review tomorrow, you’re going to be hearing short-timer jokes from colleagues at work. If you’re doing it right, your team will see your efforts, and you’ll be spared that from the people that matter, but you’ll still hear it in the office from people who don’t work closely enough with you to see what you’re doing.  Just nod and smile and then rush off to send that email you just realized you need to send off.

It’s too much time: At the same time as you’re frantically scrambling to do whatever it is you need to do, you’re going to be cut out of strategic and planning meetings.  It’s going to feel a bit odd, but this another thing you need to accept and move on.

The end feels a bit anti-climatic: After years of hard work and a final crunch to get done what you need to before leaving, the time is going to come for you to just leave. It will be a quiet and reflective commute home.

At least for me, I can say that I’ve left the job, not the people; and I’m looking forward to seeing what the team does in the future. It does, however, feel a bit strange to be watching from afar.

Book Report: You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

I’ve read quite a few books that build on the content of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and I often have found myself rejecting them as too derivative.  A few days into You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, I was starting complain about the book for fitting into that mold, but a friend “politely” convinced me that I was being an ass.*

With an adjusted attitude I got right into the rest of this book and enjoyed the hell out of it, and almost certainly learned more than a few useful things.

At times the book can be a bit frustrating in it’s failure to address how to overcome the tendencies it describes (which probably explains the sequel: You Are Now Less Dumb)

This book isn’t marketed as a business book, but it could easily be. Tell me you haven’t sat in a meeting like the one described in this excerpt:

When a group of people come together to make a decision, every demon in the psychological bestiary will be summoned.
Conformity, rationalization, stereotyping, delusions of grandeur — they all come out to play, and no one is willing to fight them back into hell because it might lead to abandoning the plan or a nasty argument. Groups survive by maintaining harmony. When everyone is happy and all egos are free from harm it tends to increase productivity. This is true whether you are hunting buffalo or selling televisions. Team spirit, morale, group cohesion — these are golden principles long held high by managers, commanders, chieftains, and kings. You know instinctively that dissent leads to chaos, so you avoid it.
This is all well and good until you find yourself in a group your brain isn’t equipped to deal with — like at work. The same mind that was formed to deal with group survival around predators and prey doesn’t fare so well when dealing with bosses and fiscal projections. No matter what sort of job you have, from time to time everyone has to get together and come up with a plan. Sometimes you do this in small groups, sometimes as an entire company. If your group includes a person who can hire or fire, groupthink comes into play.
With a boss hanging around, you get nervous. You start observing the other members of the group in an attempt to figure out what the consensus opinion is. Meanwhile, you are simultaneously weighing the consequences of disagreeing. The problem is, every other person in the group is doing the same thing, and if everyone decides it would be a bad idea to risk losing friends or a job, a false consensus will be reached and no one will do anything about it.
Often, after these sorts of meetings, two people will talk in private and agree they think a mistake is being made. Why didn’t they just say so in the meeting?
Psychologist Irving Janis mapped out this behavior through research after reading about the U.S. decision to invade southern Cuba — the Bay of Pigs. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy tried to overthrow Fidel Castro with a force of 1,400 exiles. They weren’t professional soldiers. There weren’t many of them. Cuba knew they were coming. They were slaughtered. This led to Cuba getting friendly with the USSR and almost led to nuclear apocalypse. John F. Kennedy and his advisers were brilliant people with all the data in front of them who had gotten together and planned something incredibly stupid. After it was over, they couldn’t explain why they did it. Janis wanted to get to the bottom of it, and his research led to the scientific categorization of groupthink, a term coined earlier by William H. White in Fortune magazine.
It turns out, for any plan to work, every team needs at least one asshole who doesn’t give a shit if he or she gets fired or exiled or excommunicated. For a group to make good decisions, they must allow dissent and convince everyone they are free to speak their mind without risk of punishment.
It seems like common sense, but you will rationalize consensus unless you know how to avoid it. How many times have you settled on a bar or restaurant no one really wanted to go to? How many times have you given advice to someone that you knew wasn’t really your honest opinion?

*I’m better for the conversation- it’s not as if I remember Predictably Irrational cover-to-cover.  I’ll be less likely to reject by default the next book that reminds me of it. I may not be so smart, but I’m a little bit less dumb. Thanks, Adam!