Dan Ubilla

A Software Developer's blog focusing on JavaScript, Rails, and CSS.

Favorite Reads of 2017

Somewhere in the middle of 2017, I set a goal of reading 30 books by the end of the year. I finished Book 30 sometime around 5pm on New Year’s Eve. Here are my favorite ten in chronological order.

Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, James Andrew Miller. Powerhouse is Miller’s latest oral history. After chronicling Saturday Night Live and ESPN, Miller turned his attention to CAA, the influential talent agency. The subject initially dissuaded me from the read, but Miler’s ability to pull stories from his interviewees had me hooked to the history of the agency quickly. It was interesting to compare the agency’s rise to stories of so many startups today.

Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull. Catmull details the founding of Pixar and the lessons he learned along the way. I had this one recommended for several years, and I wish I had pulled it off the shelf sooner. Pixar’s tale of persistence is entertaining enough, but it’s the inspiration that Catmull offers that makes this book a classic. “Creativity, Inc.” covers Catmull’s philosophy on continuous improvement, small iterations and feedback loops, and fostering new ideas. For the latter, Catmull discusses his mantra of “protecting the new”: allowing ideas to incubate and grow without being rejected too early.

Management’s job isn’t to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover

The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier. It’s hard to say enough about this book. Fournier dissects the various paths in a technologist’s career with emphasis, of course, on the management track. Fournier provides organization to the chaos that are our various career paths. The book makes the, perhaps unexpected, call to spend the first few chapters discussing the purely technical track that so many of us start in, and it takes time to explore management’s relationship with these career steps. The book is all the better for it, and it’s one of the reasons I feel comfortable recommending it to anybody in the software engineering field. Another strong positive for the book is its exploration of the various ways each role can be played, and Fournier does an excellent job of explaining the pros and cons while taking care to note the factors that could affect each (e.g. the size of the team, the industry) . As ~The Manager’s Path~ was released last year, it is one of my must reads of 2017.

High Output Management, Andrew S. Grove. There is not another book on this list that I’ve returned to more than “High Output Management”. The book was first written in 1985, but the lessons feel timeless. Grove leans on feedback, context-gathering, and context-sharing as essential skills of management. I could write a post laying out the top ten takeaways from this book alone. Admittedly, there are times when you’ll have to do some time translation between tools that Grove mentions in the text and the tools we have available today, but overall, the author does a great job of keeping the lessons tool-agnostic and explains the why with such clarity that the translation requires little energy. When new managers ask for recommended reading, this is the first book I mention. It’s an all-timer.

My day always ends when I’m tired and ready to go home, not when I’m done. I am never done.

Turn the Ship Around!, L. David Marquet. “Turn the Ship Around” is the last in the trilogy of management books I read this summer that I’m recommending here. The book is probably the most readable of the bunch. It follows Marquet, the newly minted commander of the USS Santa Fe, as he comes aboard the submarine, works to learn about the crew and the ship’s operations, and the lessons he learned from turning around the ship’s engagement and performance. Marquet’s approach is geared toward changing the traditional leader-follower approach to one in which every member of this ship’s crew can act as a leader to get things done. It’s told through a series of short stories which makes the book more of a page-turner than most of its ilk. This has become my top recommendation for engineers stepping into, or interested in stepping into, the tech lead role.

Open, Andre Agassi. I think I read this one more slowly because I sincerely did not want it to end. Ghost-written by J.R. Moehringer (author of The Tender Bar and, most recently, the ghost writer of Shoe Dog), the book puts a poetic touch on sport, competition, and the psychology of an athlete. I went into the book knowing a little bit about the sport and less about its history, and I left ravenous for more of each. It’s a tremendous telling of youth, growth, maturity, and wisdom. As I read the book, I was surprised when I reached the point in Agassi’s career when he was on the downside of his peak. It seemed to have gotten there so fast. Each tournament, each year, each goal was distracting from viewing the career as a whole. And I can only imagine that’s what it’s like.

I can’t promise you that you won’t be tired, he says. But please know this. There’s a lot of good waiting for you on the other side of tired. Get yourself tired, Andre. That’s where you’re going to know yourself. On the other side of tired.

Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone. In June of last year, I saw Adam Cuppy give a talk at GORUCO on Difficult Conversations. When I got the chance to catch up with Adam later, he recommended I read the source code. I couldn’t have been happier to take the suggestion. Stone posits that the most important thing to do in a difficult conversation is to listen and understand that the other party in a difficult conversation has a world of background and perspective that you simply do not have. Stone recommends compassion as a goal of a difficult conversation rather than sympathy. And he reminds the reader that every difficult conversation is about what happened or what should happen, how each person feels about what happened or what should happen, and how each person feels their identity is subject to change as a result. Recommended reading for anyone who talks at work.

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. I can describe “The Remains of the Day” as a tale of a butler taking a six day road trip in the English countryside in the 1950s, and I would be accurate. And with a synopsis such as that, it’s a near miracle that I picked it up. Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Stevens, reflects on his career, the relationships he forged throughout, and the ones he let languish. What is dignity and what is its worth? What is the cost of craftsmanship? Can we ever know the weight of the totality of our sacrifices as each one is being made?

There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

Managing Oneself, Peter F. Drucker. ~Managing Oneself~ might be the most efficient book I’ve ever read. At 72 pages, it is rich and dense with lessons on how to consider and manage your career. The book contends that successful careers are not planned. Instead, they are crafted through understanding your values and knowing and leveraging your strengths. Published and presented in an uber-digestable fashion, you can breeze through the book in an hour.

Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis. I fear I may have enjoyed this one too much. After reading “The Big Short”, I discovered that it is considered spiritual sequel to “Liar’s Poker”, and so “LP” made its way onto my list. If that is indeed the case, “LP” is to “Before Sunrise” what “The Big Short” is to “Before Midnight”. “LP” is a riotous roll through Solomon Brothers and Wall Street in the 80s. Parallels could be pointed out between the investment banks of the time and Silicon Valley today, but those comparisons only stand to rob the culture of what it was. It’d be easy to look at some of these excesses as tragedy in itself, but given the decades of time that has passed, the stories have aged into a nice comedy.

“I have this theory,” says Andy Stone, seated in his office at Prudential-Bache Securities. “Wall Street makes its best producers into managers. The reward for being a good producer is to be made a manager. The best producers are cutthroat, competitive, and often neurotic and paranoid. You turn those people into managers, and they go after each other. They no longer have the outlet for their instincts that producing gave them. They usually aren’t well suited to be managers. Half of them get thrown out because they are bad. Another quarter get muscled out because of politics. The guys left behind are just the most ruthless of the bunch. That’s why there are cycles on Wall Street—why Salomon Brothers is getting crunched now—because the ruthless people are bad for the business but can only be washed out by proven failure.”

I keep all my reading tracked in Goodreads. Check out everything else I read in 2017, and follow along with my 2018 on my Goodreads profile. Happy reading!

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