Book Report: Iris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality by Design

What Works by Iris Bohnet CoverIris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality by Design is probably the most pragmatic books on changing organizational culture that I’ve ever read. Over the course of the book, Bohnet offers 36 research-grounded design suggestions for achieving gender equality in the workplace. The use of the word “design” here is intentional: Bohnet is a behavioral economist, and the book offers much in the way of behavioral design from that perspective. Bohnet presents a careful review of current research — occasionally, this can be a bit dizzying as she walks through conflicting studies, but in the end she consistently delivers evidenced-based recommendations for how to achieve gender equality in the workplace and beyond.
This dizzying coverage of so much research and so many ideas can be a bit overwhelming. I had an incredibly difficult time narrowing down my selection of quotes for this summary. The behavioral design approach means that the solutions Bohnet offers in the book are incredibly practical. Given my own focus on hiring and interview processes over the last few years, I loved the checklist for comparative, structured interviews, and it has evolved my thinking on interviewing management candidates. The book also offers thought provoking insights into opportunities to improve diversity when hiring like this one:

The police force in the United Kingdom substantially increased the talent pool by adopting a friendlier tone and asking people a simple question before they took the entry exam: Why do you want to join the police and why does it matter to your community? Hearing a different tone and being nudged to think about what motivated them increased the pass rate of minority group applicants by 50 percent. Making a small change that had a big impact required no more than the insights and experimentation of a few creative thinkers at the UK Behavioral Insights Team.

Bohnet reviews research into all aspects of gender differences without shying away from the fact that there are measurable differences between the genders in different societies. For example, she digs into gender differences in competitiveness, pointing out that, “For MBA graduates at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, interpersonal differences in willingness to compete translate into significant differences in earnings, explain part of the gender gap in earnings, and have long-lasting effects: competitive graduates are more likely to work in higher-paying industries nine years after graduation.” When discussing these ideas, Bohnet covers both the long term need to explore the ways society might create or amplify those differences, while suggesting how companies might address it in the meantime.
Bohnet really digs into every aspect impacting gender equality in the workplace and society. While I was somewhat aware that female leaders can sometimes be the cause of discrimination against women, I was not familiar with much of the research this book presents. Bohnet gets right into interesting stories like this and goes on to address how we might correct for it.

In Spain, academic promotions from assistant professor to associate professor and then to full professor are determined by randomly created evaluation committees, leading to random variation in the gender composition of the committees. It turns out that female associate professors evaluating assistant professors for promotion were more likely to be in favor of promoting male junior colleagues. But this effect was only evident when evaluator and candidate were at the same institution. It appears as if the evaluator again feared same-sex competition, perhaps assuming some implicit gender quota. In fact, if a male evaluator was replaced by a female evaluator of the same institution, this decreased the likelihood that a junior female candidate was promoted by 38 percent. It did not affect female candidates from other institutions. Nor did the researchers observe any of this behavior for promotions to full professor. When full professors evaluate associate professors to join their ranks, they need not fear same-sex competition. Full professor is the highest rank possible in academia, and at that point, evaluators, looking for friends and people like themselves, exhibited an in-group preference, favoring candidates of the same sex and academic network.

The book also digs into other areas of diversity that, while not directly related to addressing the gender gap, struck me as fascinating. Given the huge trend anti-PC rhetoric in the U.S. at the moment, this research-driven call in favor of political correctness for creative endeavors stood out:

In addition, and somewhat counter-intuitively, groups might want to constrain themselves from speaking freely. The study “Creativity from Constraint” presents experimental evidence on how imposing a norm of political correctness (PC) that specifies how men and women should interact with each other enhances creativity in mixed-sex groups. The PC norm increased the exchange of ideas by clarifying the rules of engagement and providing assurance to those, predominantly women, for whom speaking up was associated with counterstereotypical behavior.

As organizations work to hire diverse employees into largely homogeneous teams, they face challenges. I’ve heard women describe having a single woman in an otherwise-male software team as an anti-pattern. Bohnet offers pointers into when diversity matters the most, and when homogeneity might actually be a good thing. This will take me a while to absorb and think through.

If a task involves coordination, say the provision of a public good like clean water or better health care, homogeneous groups can be helpful. All-women teams, for example, outperformed mixed and all-male teams in Friend or Foe because they correctly believed that women would be more likely to cooperate than men, leading to a virtuous cycle.
If a task involves individual problem-solving, say test-taking, be aware of peer effects. Diversity might produce spillovers (or, more formally, “externalities”) affecting, for example, how students perform in a class. If one group is more likely to work hard or disrupt less, as has been found to be true of girls, having them over-represented can help others, in this case boys, perform better.

Like many, I pay careful attention to diversity reports coming out of major tech companies each year. I often find them discouraging, and after finishing the chapters on behavioral modifications that might work, I find myself wondering if they’re actually doing a disservice by normalizing the current levels of diversity.

Making public and visible how well a company or country does in terms of gender equality compared to others might also promote convergence on a new norm. Indeed, a number of organizations now provide social comparisons or explicit rankings based on gender equality. In 2006, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched its annual Global Gender Gap Report measuring the existing gender gaps in four categories: economic participation and opportunity (pay, participation, and leadership), political empowerment (representation), education (access), and health and survival (life expectancy and sex ratio at birth). Since then, the WEF has annually published a report measuring how the gaps are changing over time. It ranks countries on their overall performance, as well as on how well they do in all four categories. Over nine years, the Nordic countries have been leading the pack with Iceland having closed the overall gap by 87.3 percent (with 100 percent indicating gender equality) as of 2013. Generally, Middle Eastern and North African countries have fared worst, with Yemen having closed only 51.2 percent of the overall gap.

At the least, the book has me convinced that collecting the numbers that companies release and putting them in ranked order with a visual and easy to understand score might be a helpful step in the right direction.

Improvements in a college’s rank on US News and World Report Best College Rankings immediately translate into a larger number of applications. Interestingly enough, however, the authors only find this effect when the magazine presents the colleges ordered by rank. When the colleges are listed alphabetically, with their rank included in the body copy describing the institution, no effect on applications could be detected. Only easily understandable and highly visible comparisons mattered, something gender equality designers hoping to influence behavior need to keep in mind.

Beyond the huge volume of research surveyed in this book, Bohnet also provides tons of other resources for people and organizations working towards gender equality. It’s a tremendous resource of practical and thought-provoking ideas. I especially appreciated the depth of coverage. In fact that very depth occasionally had me worried that this book could become a resource for the James Damores of the world to cherry pick isolated arguments out of context. But I suppose it would be a bit too much to expect this book to offer solutions to that. Overall, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s sure to be something I refer back to often, and if you’re interested in understanding and correcting gender inequality, you should read this book.

Book Report: Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path

The Manager's Path CoverThis book is a very short overview of the management career track — it’s probably of most use to an engineer debating making the switch between the technical and management track. Fournier’s thoughts resonate strongly with me, and I have already recommended it to a few friends and colleagues.
Some of her advice was entirely new to me; like this particular idea that made me stop reading and think for a bit: “Leaders who are strong team players understand that the people who report to them are not their first team. Instead, their first team is their peers across the company. This first-team focus helps them make decisions that consider the needs of the company as a whole before focusing on the needs of their team.” That’s such an interesting idea, but I was disapointed that Fournier doesn’t go on to explore the idea in significant detail. Here’s a longer passage that showcases the human-centered approach that she’s filled the book with:

Do remember to be kind. It’s natural and perfectly human to want to be liked by other people. Many of us believe that the way to be liked is to be seen as nice — that niceness is itself the goal. Your goal as a manager, however, should not be to be nice, it should be to be kind. “Nice” is the language of polite society, where you’re trying to get along with strangers or acquaintances. Nice is saying “please” and “thank you” and holding doors for people struggling with bags or strollers. Nice is saying “I’m fine” when asked how you are, instead of “I’m in a really crappy mood and I wish you would leave me alone.” Nice is a good thing in casual conversation. But as a manager, you will have relationships that go deeper, and it’s more important to be kind. It’s kind to tell someone who isn’t ready for promotion that she isn’t ready, and back that up with the work she needs to do to get there. It’s unkind to lead that person on, saying “Maybe you could get promoted,” and then watch her fail. It’s kind to tell someone that his behavior in meetings is disrupting the group. It’s awkward, and uncomfortable, but it’s also part of your job as his manager to have these difficult conversations.

Her advice on hiring managers was, to me, one of the most valuable bits of insight in the book. She lays down some suggestions that have helped me think through how I could potentially build out a manager interview process that is truly audition-based. I’m excited to put those ideas into practice.
If the book has a weakness, it’s that in achieving the “very short overview” it offers, the book feels rushed. As with the first-team focus I mentioned above — she leaves lots of ideas only partially explored. Luckily, the book does include a great list of suggestions for follow up reading. I found several books I’m looking forward to digging into.

Book Report: Radical Candor

Radical Candor Book Cover It’s a challenge to think of useful things that I can tell you about this book that you don’t already know from listening to the Radical Candor podcast (and you are listening to it, aren’t you?) — much of the book will be very familiar. The podcast often references the book and the book often references the podcast, so there’s a bit of a ouroborus trying to talk about one or the other.
The premise of the book and podcast is simple: by providing honest feedback (and especially not shying away from negative feedback) you will lead your team to better results. That’s not quite enough to fill a book, but that’s really at the core of all the advice: whether it’s getting to know what motivates your team or how to run effective collaborative meetings, it all relates back to create a culture of useful feedback.
There’s plenty of good advice to be followed here, and I would strongly recommend the book for new leaders (or even leaders moving into new roles) looking for good advice on getting started: there’s even a “Getting Started” guide at the back of the book to walk you through implementing the books’ ideas. Here’s one of my favorite bits, which is a typical example of the obvious (once it has been clearly stated) advice that the book is full of:

One of the funniest things about becoming a boss is that it causes an awful lot of people to forget everything they know about how to relate to other people. If you have a beef with somebody in your personal life, it would never occur to you to wait for a formally scheduled meeting to tell them. Yet, management has been bureaucratized to the point that we throw away effective strategies of everyday communication. Don’t let the formal processes — the 1:1 meetings, annual or biannual performance reviews, or employee happiness surveys — take over. They are meant to reinforce, not substitute, what we do every day. You’d never let the fact that you go to the dentist for a cleaning a couple times a year prevent you from brushing your teeth every day. Don’t use performance reviews as an excuse not to give impromptu in-person feedback.

I’m a reader and I liked this book quite a bit, but if you’re not a reader, fear not! You can get plenty from tuning into the podcast each week.

Book Report: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

I’ve been interested lately in the idea of using infographic pages to display critical stats about the services my teams build. In typical fashion, I decided to start by reading a book, and this one seems to be the book to read in the field of informative graphics.
It was definitely a bit of a mismatch — I didn’t get what I was hoping to out of the book. Perhaps partly because of my disappointment in that, I also didn’t find the book to be very helpful. For one thing, most of the rules Tufte lays out are negative rules. “Don’t use gridlines” (he calls it chartjunk) is typical. Even some of his “Do” rules are really about things that should be erased. Some of the ideas seemed obvious to me and others felt like an opinion stated as absolute fact.
And that’s definitely a thing in this book: Tufte rarely sounds like he’s voicing an opinion, instead the book is filled with statements like “Beautiful graphics do not traffic with the trivial.” As I was reading the book, my inner voice would often fall into a Hollywood “Voice of God” tone. Here’s another typical example (although in this one, at least Tufte starts out with the qualifier “should”):

Data graphics should often be based on large rather than small data matrices and have a high rather than low data density. More information is better than less information, especially when the marginal costs of handling and interpreting additional information are low, as they are for most graphics.

Perhaps this book, written in 1982, has just become a bit dated? I found some of Tufte’s “improvements” on data display more confusing than the originals; apparently those visual metaphors did not catch on. I did get some value out of the book; I suppose it served as an introduction to some of the vocabulary and concepts, but overall I’d say this book is more useful to someone who’s building graphics in a statistical context than someone looking to do so in a business context.

Book Report: Turn The Ship Around by David Marquet

Turn the Ship Around Book CoverThis short, entertaining and insightful book tells the story of how the author, David Marquet, effectively applied bottom-up leadership principles when taking over command of a submarine, and achieved some truly remarkable results.
As I began reading a lot about leadership research a few years ago, I initially found myself quite surprised to find references that the US Armed forces have been increasingly abandoning command and control leadership approaches for a much more modern and collaborative approach. If you haven’t seen evidence of that yet, it may surprise you that the passage below was written by a submarine Commander:

In our modern world, the most important work we do is cognitive; so, it’s not surprising that a structure developed for physical work isn’t optimal for intellectual work. People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers. As followers, they have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion. Those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative.

Because this book walks through his journey starting a short time before he took over command, it offers insights that would probably be especially useful to someone taking on a new leadership role: I suspect it will be on my re-read list when the next transition in my career comes.
The book is surprisingly short, but it packs a lot of thoughtful advice into its pages while remaining entertaining and engaging. Marquet does a fantastic job of using stories to illustrate his point, and having fun with them. He achieves a subtle elegance with language that I don’t expect out of leadership books. Here’s a typical example, where I had to pause to ponder for a bit which meaning of “blow stuff up” applied:

For phase one, we rendezvoused with a helicopter and picked up the SEAL team. Eleven burly guys, their weapons, two rolled-up Zodiac inflatable boats, two motors for the Zodiacs, and a bunch of equipment to blow stuff up left the helicopter, came on board the submarine, and went down the hatch.

If you don’t have time for the book, you can get most of the essence of it from this excellent video:

Book Report: The Ten Day MBA

The last time I was applying for a job I wondered frequently whether it would be a worthwhile investment for me to get my MBA. Many people go and get their MBA to get the sort of job that I had at the time. But would it have made me a more attractive candidate? Since then, I’ve had conversations with several trusted mentors and have decided that it’s not going to help me do the sorts of things that I want to do.
However, The Ten Day MBA looked like a quick and potentially useful survey over some of what I was missing. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to retain much of what I read; it’s simply too fast. A 30 page summary of quantitative analysis? Nope. Silbiger only has the space to make super quick statements without follow-up, such as when describing the Keynesian relationship: “It was especially true in the period between 1950 and 1985, but it has not been consistently so over time, such as the period since 1985.” What exactly is that saying? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ You’ll have to find your own answers to many such questions when reading this book.
The book also suffers from being an older book that has been updated over time. A section recommending the internet as a really good way to do research, which lists a few useful search sites including yahoo and google as really good resources? You might get a headache from the speed at which your eyes roll into their sockets. And that worries me about other advice in the book which I know less about.
I quickly realized this was going to be useful in the same way that books like “Teach yourself C++ in 21 Days” were useful in the age of dial-up networking and terrible internet searching — the book gives you a general overview of the topics, gets some key words and concepts in your head, and you can refer back to it whenever you need to. When you do that it will give you a quick overview, which you can use as a springboard to jump into more detailed study.
All-in-all, for me personally this book was probably a better investment than getting an MBA would be. I’ll leave it at that.

Book Report: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

reinventing-organizationsReinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux explores non-hierarchical organizations (they’re called “Teal” organizations throughout the book) in an effort to explain how organizations can operate without much in the way of structure — essentially a CEO and then a bunch of title-less employees that simply find work that needs to be done and go and do it. It sounds utopian, to be sure, but Laloux explains the history of several successful businesses that have been operating in this paradigm for some time.
Probably most impressive is the story of Buurtzorg, a Dutch neighborhood nursing organization that grew from 10 to 7.000 nurses in 7 years, and has achieved incredible results:

The results achieved by Buurtzorg on the medical front are outrageously positive. A 2009 Ernst & Young study found that Buurtzorg requires, on average, close to 40 percent fewer hours of care per client than other nursing organizations—which is ironic when you consider that nurses in Buurtzorg take time for coffee and talk with the patients, their families, and neighbors, while other nursing organizations have come to time “products” in minutes. Patients stay in care only half as long, heal faster, and become more autonomous. A third of emergency hospital admissions are avoided, and when a patient does need to be admitted to the hospital, the average stay is shorter. The savings for the Dutch social security system are considerable—Ernst & Young estimates that close to €2 billion would be saved in the Netherlands every year if all home care organizations achieved Buurtzorg’s results. Scaled to the US population, this savings would be equivalent to roughly $49 billion. Not bad for just home care. Imagine if the incomparably bigger hospital organizations were to be run in a similar manner.

The book is filled with similar stories of amazing results, but where it fails, for me, is Laloux’s absolutely positive view of the organizations and practices. At no point is there any serious exploration of negative impacts the organizational changes described. The only negative language used in this book is to describe those who doubt that the system, and the book often uses flowery new-age language to describe business environments: a “beautiful set of practices”, a “wonderful procedure”, “we need integrity and wholeness to transcend the primacy of profits and heal our relationship with the world.” It feels more like a book about religious or spiritual practices than a book about business. Because of the overly-positive descriptions, and lack of any raised concerns, I found the book to be untrustworthy, especially given what I’ve read about Zappo’s attempts to adopt Holacracy.
Some of my peers who enjoyed the book more than I have share my skepticism about some of these practices in the context of a software development organization: I was disappointed that there was no example there. Laloux also doesn’t answer questions of scaling to my satisfaction: I find it telling that the book mentions (frustratingly briefly) that the two largest organizations discussed have both abandoned their “Teal” practices.
Laloux also blows right by issues that raise my eyebrows — as here when he explains that a Morning Star employee is expected to write a letter to colleagues outlining a work schedule that raises life-work balance issues to me (not to mention my cringe at the idea of having to write a commitment to colleagues outlining said “balance”):

Morning Star has a similar practice: each colleague indicates in his CLOU [Colleague Letter of Understanding] his work schedule commitment. A person might indicate, for example, 40 to 45 hours off-season, and 50 to 55 hours in high season (when tomatoes are harvested and processed). Because colleagues discuss their CLOUs, they know about each other’s commitments.

My biggest concerns are with the descriptions of the feedback and conflict resolution processes described in the book. Here’s a bit about feedback:

The first is simply to approach feedback with the ancient insight shared by all wisdom traditions. We can approach the world from one of two sides: from a place of fear, judgment, and separation; or from one of love, acceptance, and connection. When we have difficult feedback to give, we enter the discussion uneasily, and this pushes us to the side of fear and judgment, where we believe we know what is wrong with the other person and how we can fix him. If we are mindful, we can come to such discussions from a place of care. When we do, we can enter into beautiful moments of inquiry, where we have no easy answers but can help the colleague assess himself more truthfully. Bringing this kind of mindfulness to discussions is something we can learn, something that can be taught. Simple practices can help too: we can start feedback sessions with a minute of silence or any other personal ritual that helps us tune in to love and care.

And here’s the conflict resolution process at Morning Star:

The conflict resolution process (called “Direct Communication and Gaining Agreement”), applies to any type of disagreement. It can be a difference of opinion about a technical decision in a given situation. It can be interpersonal conflict. It can be a breach of values. Or it can be related to performance issues, when one colleague finds that another is doing a lousy job or not pulling his weight. Whatever the topic, the process starts with one person asking another to gain agreement:

  • In a first phase, they sit together and try to sort it out privately. The initiator has to make a clear request (not a judgment, not a demand), and the other person has to respond clearly to the request (with a “yes,” a “no,” or a counterproposal).
  • If they can’t find a solution agreeable to both of them, they nominate a colleague they both trust to act as a mediator. The colleague supports the parties in finding agreement but cannot impose a resolution.
  • If mediation fails, a panel of topic-relevant colleagues is convened. The panel’s role, again, is to listen and help shape agreement. It cannot force a decision, but usually carries enough moral weight for matters to come to a conclusion.
  • In an ultimate step, Chris Rufer, the founder and president, might be called into the panel, to add to the panel’s moral weight.

Since the disagreement is private, all parties are expected to respect confidentiality during and after the processes. This confidentiality applies of course to the two persons at the heart of the conflict as well. They must resolve their disagreement between themselves and are discouraged from spreading the conflict by enlisting support and building rival factions.

Thinking about how these processes might look to someone who’s been discriminated against in life — who’s likely to approach any of these discussions feeling oppressed rather than empowered raises huge concerns for me. Can you imagine that conflict resolution process in the context of a sexual harassment incident? Step one is to sit together and sort it out privately? Then they need to find a mediator? I seriously can’t imagine that this is truly the process in that case, and yet Laloux (as always, ignoring any potential problem areas in the practices he describes) does not mention any other process. In that context — even if that would be legal (I can’t imagine it is) — it is horribly, deeply immoral.
Laloux would respond to my concerns that they are coming from my own fear and ego (the word “fear” appears 83 times in 326 pages of text). Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think I’ve approached much of my career out of a sense of fear, and I am genuinely interested in the approaches these organizations are taking.
In fact, in spite of all of my criticisms about the book, I found it a very worthy read. First of all, it was deeply challenging to many of the views that I hold. More importantly, in spite of the fact that Leloux suggests that attempting parts of these practices within a hierarchical structure is a waste of time, I found many ideas in the book (and in my thinking about the book) that I will be experimenting with over the next few months.

Book Report: Idea Flow: How to Measure the PAIN in Software Development by Janelle Klein

ideaflowThis is a self-published book that covers a lot of ground, and it has some flaws. Reading this feels a bit like experiencing a non-stop high velocity flow of ideas (sorry, couldn’t resist) that can be roughly organized and overwhelming at times (I was reminded of the character Jordan from the movie Real Genius).
But the ideas themselves? They are crazy thought provoking. This book has me thinking a lot, and I think you could choose almost any section of it and dig into the ideas for weeks before coming up for air. This book will definitely require a re-read to fully explore what I’ve discovered from reading it, and I expect to find it just as fascinating the second time through.
As the subtitle might have you guess, this is primarily focused on solving painful projects. As I read the book, I thought back to various projects I’ve worked on where Idea Flow could have made a tremendous difference in our ability to identify the correct problems, and sell the executives on why we needed to invest in fixing the issues identified. I’ve recommended the book to several folks who are currently working on projects that have a lot of “pain” and I expect it will help them quite a bit. One strong reaction I have after reading the book is that Idea Flow Mapping strikes me as an idea that would be very difficult to implement as a top-down initiative. This is a developer-led movement for sure — the amount of data that needs to be collected could easily be perceived as very “big brother”-ish (in fact, more than one developer I’ve described it to used exactly those words) as a management initiative. Klein’s own suggested presentation supports this:

I want to make the business case to management for fixing things around here. No more chaos and working on weekends, this needs to stop. I need data to make the case to management, though, so I need everyone’s help.

I also haven’t fully figured out my own reaction here, but although I think this framework could offer a lot of value to many teams (including teams that I’ve worked on in the past), I’m quite convinced that the approach described here would add little if any value to my current team. Why is that? I’m not sure — perhaps my team is small enough that the communication of ideas between the developers and code are easier to keep in sync. Perhaps it’s simply that the codebase itself is small enough. Maybe it’s just that the group of developers are similar enough to make ideas flow naturally. I’m also willing to concede that I may be flat out wrong. I know I’m going to be thinking through this for a while though, and trying to figure out why I think that this is true.
Even though the practices described here don’t feel right for my project right now, the ideas will influence the way I approach problems moving forward.
Klein’s ability to describe the escalation of pain in our processes can occasionally feel like re-living the very worst of our professional experiences:

The pain doesn’t happen all in one step. One decision usually sets up the preconditions for an unavoidable high-risk situation later.
The classic example of this in software is writing confusing code. When the code is written, the author can manage it fine, get it working and deployed to production. There is no immediate impact from this decision. The problem comes in when we have to understand or modify that code and there is suddenly a high risk of making mistakes.
The best way I’ve found to explain these problems, I picked up several years ago from an article by Scott Bellware. The pain comes from an increase in the number and severity of safety hazards.
When we use analogies like land-mines, fires, and various types of hell, we’re referring to the hazards in our everyday work. We may not be working with sharp objects or explosives, but the anxiety, stress and exhaustion from working in a hazardous environment is very real.
Likening these conditions to working around land-mines makes a lot of sense. We aren’t necessarily aware that we’re in a high-risk situation until we happen to step on the land-mine and something explodes. The lack of awareness makes these conditions all the more dangerous. It’s the knife that’s in the wrong drawer, the toys left out on the stairs, the loose screws in our bicycle. Hazards increase the risk of injury.
Let’s say we deploy some changes, then later realize we made a mistake. Our code is doing something horrible like over-charging our customers. Now we have an urgent situation on our hands. We care about the company and don’t want to fail, so we do whatever it takes.
Suddenly we’re working late nights and weekends, choking down Red Bull to stay awake, and hacking out last minute changes. We might end up breaking something else in the process.
It doesn’t matter if we’re sick, if we were supposed to go watch our kids’ recital, or meet our spouse for an anniversary dinner. When things go wrong and our project is online, we sacrifice a lot. At the moment of urgency, we can no longer choose safety.
By compromising safety, we increase the likelihood of making mistakes and the pain from the impact. Things don’t always go wrong, we’re gambling. If we’re lucky, we save time. If we’re not, we can lose big. The more we lose, the more time pressure builds and the more compelled we feel to gamble.
Compromising safety pulls us into a vicious cycle that’s fueled by constant urgency. We keep rolling the dice and making riskier and riskier bets, in an attempt to save time, but in the long-run our optimizations backfire.

The book is self-published and, as with many self-published books, it occasionally flared the OCD grammarian in me. A bigger problem for me is that it was not possible to read this on my kobo for two reasons. First, the images flow off to the right of the page, so they’re not fully visible. But even allowing for that, color is required for understanding the images — you’re going to have to read this on a color screen (or print it out, I suppose).
Organizationally, the book could use the hand of a professional editor as well. One example — the book could do a better job of laying out the mechanics of how idea flow mapping works and how to read an idea flow map a little earlier and more clearly. It’s not a complicated topic, but the book jumps quickly into showing idea flow maps without a sufficiently basic primer on what they are and how they work. By the end of the book, I think I understand how they work, but during the first few chapters I often felt lost.
Regardless of these small complaints, the book and it’s ideas are well worth exploring. You should go read it! If you’re not the reading type, you should at least watch Klein lay out her case here: Let’s make the pain visible

Book Report: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges

Amy Cuddy - PresenceIf you’re a reader of this site, you’re likely to have watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses. This book expands on that, and is filled with fascinating insights into recent social science. I read the book after seeing Cuddy talk at Philadelphia Free Library’s Leading Voices. (You can listen to the podcast here.)
I was interested in the talk and the book largely because I’ve recently been spending a lot of time thinking about interviewing and hiring through the lens of building a more diverse team. One of the things I was hoping to get out of the book were some ideas for helping those from underrepresented communities in technology be more “present” during interviews. I certainly benefited from the ideas Cuddy presented in her TED talk when applying for my current job, and I shared the ideas with my daughter right before she kicked ass on the SATs. When I think about applying this from the other side of the interview, I have this vision of saying, “Okay, now stand in this room like Wonder Woman for 2 minutes, and I’ll be right back so we can begin.” Fun as the image may be, of course it would be far to socially jarring to actually work in an interview situation.
Why is it important to me to figure out how to put someone interviewing to work on my team at ease? Cuddy explains that better than I could:

Research shows that in pressure-filled situations, when we are distracted by thinking about possible outcomes of our performance, our skills are measurably diminished. When we explicitly monitor ourselves, second by second, any task that requires memory and focused attention will suffer. We don’t have enough intellectual bandwidth to perform at our best and simultaneously critique our performance. Instead we’re caught in a faulty circuit of trying to anticipate, read, interpret, and reinterpret how other people are judging us, all of which prevents us from noticing and interpreting what’s actually happening in the situation. This dynamic, which psychologists refer to as self-monitoring, is significantly higher for people who experience impostor fears. It takes us out of ourselves. It stands in the way of our presence.

So given that we know that interviewing is one of the most pressure-filled situations, what can we do when interviewing to break that faulty circuit? Here’s one useful thought from the book:

Pamela Smith, a professor of management at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, and [Adam] Galinsky have demonstrated in their research that power often operates at a nonconscious level, meaning that it can be activated without our knowledge — turned on like a switch — and can affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways we’re not even aware of. That’s good news. It means we don’t need to wear a crown to feel powerful, and we don’t have to plot and strategize ways to deploy our power in order to reap its benefits.
Recall a moment when you felt personally powerful. A time when you felt fully in control of your own psychological state — when you had the confidence to act based on your boldest, most sincere self, with the sense that your actions would be effective. Maybe it was at work, at school, at home, or in some other part of your life. Take a few minutes right now to remember and reflect on that experience of your personal power, on how it felt.
It felt good, right? Whether you know it or not, you’ve just been primed. Thanks to that little exercise, your psychological state was, and likely still is, infused with feelings of confidence and strength.

How simple would it be to start an interview with a question like “Tell me the professional accomplishment that has made you the most proud?” If that should prime someone to feel more confident, and have a better conversation? Well, chances are, you’re going to have a much better conversation.
During Cuddy’s talk, I asked her whether there was any research on how an interviewer could improve a candidate’s confidence through body language (you can here her response at about 1:08 in the podcast). She offered three concrete suggestions. “Come out from behind the desk… Be aware that your presence is really intimidating… so make sure that you’re not using that big expansive body language… Listen for whether they’re telling you everything they want to tell you… Ask, ‘Is there something else you’d like me to know about you?'”
The book offers another, related interviewing tip on the importance of warmth and openness in our body language:

In a famous 1974 paper, Princeton psychologists presented a pair of experiments on the self-fulfilling power of body language. The researchers wanted to know if white college admissions officers were unconsciously adopting cold, disengaged, and discouraging body postures (e.g., orienting their bodies away from the applicants, crossing their arms, not nodding) when interviewing black applicants, and, if so, how these postures might affect the applicants’ interview performance. In the first experiment, white interviewers were randomly assigned to interview either black or white applicants. Indeed, when interviewing the black applicants, white interviewers used cold, disengaged body language, and the black applicants were perceived to have performed more poorly in the interviews than the white applicants. In the second experiment, trained white job interviewers were split into two groups and instructed to use either cold, disengaged body language or warm, engaged body language. They were then randomly assigned to interview either black or white applicants. The black applicants performed as well as the white applicants when their interviewers exhibited warm, engaged body language. And applicants of both races performed equally poorly when their interviewers behaved in a cold, uninterested way.
Furthermore, in both cases, the applicants’ body language matched that of the interviewers; they were unconsciously mimicking what the interviewers did, which is what we usually do in social settings. In short, our body language, which is often based on prejudices, shapes the body language of the people we’re interacting with. If we expect others to perform poorly, we adopt body language that is off-putting and discouraging. Naturally, people take the hint and respond as expected — poorly. How could anyone ace an interview under those circumstances?
When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.

Again, simple — remember to lean in towards the speaker and pay close attention. Nod or vocalize encouragement when appropriate. Orient your body towards the speaker. If you’ve been put in the position of interviewing candidates, hopefully you understand how to do these things in a way that feels natural. Essentially, treat the conversation as if you’re going to find it deeply fascinating, and chances are, you will.
The book offers far more than some useful insights into interviewing; it’s filled with research that will spark your imagination: after reading about research into risk-taking after assuming power poses (spoiler: it goes up) I became worried about what casinos might be able to do with that research. After reading about how her research has been applied to horse training(!) I’ve been debating conducting some research on our pets.
Cuddy has filled the book with the personal stories of many people who have been inspired to reach out to her and explain how her TED talk has changed their lives. While these stories provide a good bit of the heart and soul of the book, at times this feels a bit overwhelming (especially in the final chapter, which is essentially a collection of these stories). Very strongly, the same warmth, humor, and personal experiences that compelled us all to share Cuddy’s TED talk come across on almost every page of this book. It’s well worth the read.
Update:FiveThirtyEight has published an interesting article on problems in reproducibility which talks about Cuddy’s research quite a bit.

Book Report: Beyond the Resume

cover[disclaimer: this is based on a “beta” copy of this book from gitbooks. the book is not complete at this time, and may be a bit different by the time you read it. I believe that most of my comments will still apply, but I’m also likely to re-visit this when it is complete.
further disclaimer: I happen to work with Pam Selle. However, this was not a solicited review, nor was it discussed with the author.]
If you’ve seen Pam Selle talk, or listen to the Turing-Incomplete podcast, then you’re probably going to read Beyond the Resume: How to get your next job as a developer in Pam’s voice, which comes through clearly in the book’s conversational tone. In this case, that’s definitely a good thing. It’s like sitting down with a friend or colleague and getting some advice over coffee. Which is probably exactly what you’re looking for while you’re dealing with the stress of a job search looming over your head.
Of course, in this case, you’re sitting down with someone well connected in the industry who has some useful insights on how to effectively frame a job search in the candidate-friendly tech job market. I don’t agree with everything Selle has to say, but it’s certainly useful and thought provoking; and I suspect the final edit will be well worth consideration. As the subtitle indicates, Selle’s insights are focused on the developer market- while there may be some comments of generic utility, this probably won’t provide value if you’re trying to land a job as a CPA.
Overall, if you’re looking for a job as a developer, the book is well worth the read. Here’s a quick sample that I think does a great job of capturing the tone and utility of the book:
In fact, a search for “$YOURLANGUAGE interview questions” will serve you very well, because here’s an unfortunate truth:
Most engineers are terrible at interviewing.
Not only are they terrible, they often have little guidance on what they should do, what questions they should ask. Even if they do have some guidance, I can almost guarantee these kinds of technical interviews will be similar to what you can practice online.