Wednesday, May 15, 2019

[Book] Maid by Stephanie Land

Book cover
Start from one mistake, one that is tragically common - becoming a parent a little to young.  From that point, almost everything that can go wrong in someone's life while still making the best possible choice for the circumstance is laid out in the first four chapters of this book.  This beginning is a treatise on despair and government anti-poverty programs.

The arc doesn't exactly get better from there, but it starts to be framed in a way that shows gratitude for the things that haven't gone completely wrong, though things do continue to go wrong.  It reminds me of parts of my own childhood being raised by a single mom.  Those memories of being able to do the really simple things that don't cost a lot of money.

There is a lot to unpack here about how poor people are treated as fundamentally broken and lazy.  This is a really good reminder that people are people, and that the hardest working among us often do get the least reward.

Some of my most well-off acquaintances truly believe that they got there through smart-decisions and being willing to put in the work: That luck has very little to do with it.  Those are the people that I really think should skip this book.  I think they'd get the wrong thing from it.  Ultimately this is a memoir from a New York Times Best-Selling Author.  Someone who, through smart-decisions and being willing to put in the work, climbed out of poverty.  In a strange way, this book would only prove the narrative that merit is all it takes.

Read this if you want to go on a journey through some beautiful places in the Pacific North-West while experiencing some truly painful arcs.  Like any good memoir, I come away from this book feeling like I know the author, and really like her as a person.  Maybe you'll feel the same.  Trigger warnings for domestic violence, emotional abuse, medical gore, hoarding and bodily fluids.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

[Book] Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Book cover
This is the second book that I've reviewed by Naomi Novik, the first was Uprooted.  At a high level, there are some parallels between these books, but they are definitely different worlds.  Here's a quick overview of the setting:

A Jewish girl of about 16 named Miryam lives in a medieval small unwalled town with the name of either Pakel or Pavys, but the residents simply called it town which is a third of the way between two larger cities in the Kingdom of Lithvas.  Year over year, winters in Lithvas are getting longer and growing seasons dangerously short.

Anywhere in the kingdom, but most often in the forest near town a magical road of white ice to a winter kingdom of the Staryk will sometimes appear.  The road is a magical, almost dimensional, crossing that the Staryk king is able to open.  Lithvas itself is not a magical place, but the road and the Staryk kingdom is.  The Staryk use the road to pillage Lithvas for gold.

There are three women in this book who are all under-estimated in their own ways, and who all find a greater strength through doing the right thing and not having permission to do so.  Three times at the end of the book I wept with pride.  The character arcs are strong, and even the villains are mostly sympathetic (one exception).

Read this for strong women kicking ass and getting things done.  Content warnings for graphic violence and mention of rape in past context without graphic rape descriptors.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

[Book] Predators Gold by Philip Reeve

Book cover
This is book 2 of the Mortal Engines Quartet.  For convenience, here is a link to my review of book 1, Mortal Engines, which I posted a month ago.

I'm going to start this review with a note about a changed name.  The books were originally released in the UK with a character named Shrike.  For the initial US release of the books, that character was renamed to Grike.  I didn't run into this during the first book because the post-movie release of Mortal Engines had renamed Grike back to his original name, Shrike, to match the movie.  The version of book 2 I read hasn't been reverted, and I was legitimately dismayed that the name of the character had changed.  One I looked it up online, it made sense, but it was a bit distracting.

Very early in the book, we are introduced to a character named Nimrod Pennyroyal who is described as an adventurer and autobiographer of his adventures, and the reader is also given clues that Pennyroyal is not actually an adventurer at all.  By the fourth chapter, I was annoyed by the parallels of this character to Gilderoy Lockhart, the autobiographer character from the second Harry Potter book, Chamber of Secrets, and that annoyance never fully left me.  The overall plots are different enough, that I was able to enjoy the twists and turns along the way, and by the 2/3 point of the book, I was invested in the ending despite the book's OTHER major flaw.

Hester, who was introduced in book 1 as a self-actualized, scrappy adventurer, was arguably the main character of that book.  For this book, she is reduced to a collection of petty jealousies.  It feels like the character became a shadow of her former self, and worse, this jealousy is used as a major driver of the plot.

Ultimately, the first book was sold in the US as a Young Adult adventure, but it didn't feel like it was conceived or written for a young adult audience, which was part of its magic.  Sadly, this second book definitely feels like it was written with a young-adult audience in mind.  Not that it was written for young adults, but written for what someone thinks YA fiction should look like.

That said, the world building is still first rate.  Outside of Pennyroyal, the villains are believable and even sympathetic.  It's the heroine that becomes hard to sympathize with.  Like I mentioned above, I was eventually invested in the story, but I can't recommend this book.  As a complete-ist, I will probably read the other two books, and maybe even write about them here, but I'm not in a hurry to run out and find the next book in the series.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

[Book] Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Book cover
This is a different kind of book about business management.  This book is not about success, at least not an initial success.  Instead, this book is about continuing to succeed after that initial success.  It does this by talking very candidly about narrowly averting complete failure.

The very beginning of this book does capture the early history of Pixar up through the release and success of Toy Story.  The only management lesson I think it was trying to tell is something like this:  Get a group of talented people together, give them the honest mandate that quality is priority and you have a gamble.  Maybe magic will happen, maybe everything flails around and nothing gets built.  Like I said, this book isn't about that initial success.

When a book talks about something I know about, in this case management, I look for it to help me put a name or framework to practices that I have found successful.  I often know something works and can usually replicate it, but - when I don't fully understand something, I find myself repeating a ritual, instead of understanding the essential steps.

When I read How to Make Friends and Influence People, for example, I learned a lot about what I already did right, but I learned even more about the essentials.  I was able to demystify the things I did right, and stop wasting effort on things that were needless parts of my repeated ritual ... things that most likely annoyed people.

Creativity, Inc. was written to let me know that the rituals I repeat to try to repeat a successful behavior may be more harmful that helpful, with examples (and a lot of them).  There are absolutely successful behaviors described here, but the big theme is learning to find balance in agility.  That is, change is necessary while stagnation is certain death.  Yet, change without balance is chaos.  Creativity without deadline is unlikely to ever complete, yet deadline without flexibility will lead to rote repetition, burnout or both.  Trust your people, but hold them accountable.  Accountability means that they must have the power of open and constructive input.

This book has a very clever style of writing.  It talks about a number of management strategies illustrated through a memoir style, The Making Of ..., most of Pixar's movies.  That is the story of how Toy Story 2 was made is also a cautionary tale of employee burnout.  The making of Inside Out is a tale about how constructive feedback works, while the making of a story that ended up cancelled entirely is a tale about how to feedback done wrong, or too little, does lead to failure.  There is also a bit of interesting insight into Steve Jobs in here.

Yes, I recommend this book if you, like me, are really into Pixar.  Definitely read this if you are a Steve Jobs completist.  I recommend this book if you want to read good narrative advice about running a creative and productive team.  Skip it if neither management nor animation are of interest to you.  Yet, even from a story perspective, a good half of this book is great narrative storytelling wrapping around a lesson on team management.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Fixing the Broken

I was reading my twitter feed, when I stumbled upon this:
If a process is broken throw it in the trash and start over. Nothing is set in stone.
The simplicity of the tweet is absolutely true.  It totally reminded me of a problem I've seen multiple times though.  The process is rarely the difficult part of fixing a problem.

A long time ago, when I was a team lead, the group I worked with had an automated build system that was extremely complicated, built entirely in-house, and didn't follow the conventions of any of the standard build-systems that exist.  There was a steep learning curve to get new software packages into the system, and most developers never learned to do it.  This also meant that when someone needed to introduce a project that didn't exist already, they'd often work-around the need instead of waiting for someone with knowledge to help.

At some point, the group hired a published tech-author who was a big open source advocate, and quite outspoken.  Upon trying to interface with the build system, they loudly declared it broken, and suggested it should be fixed.  Management above me said a very smart thing, "Okay, fix it."

Many months later, that person left the group, and the same build system was still there and there were not even any modifications done.  Let me unwind what went wrong.

By most metrics, if a process is that hard, then it is objectively broken.  That new employee was absolutely correct in the assessment.  However, the process doesn't care.  This group had over 200 distinct, but interrelated projects, which means that any replacement system would need to be configured for all of them.  The process also had a custom syntactical structure to deal with a number of edge cases.  This is both what made it maddeningly difficult to work with, but also what made it work well in that environment.

The process, like most, was built and maintained by people, most of whom were still sitting in that office.  Generally, everyone who understood the custom build process deeply appreciated the many, many things it accomplished.  Those who didn't need to learn the complexity of adding a new project didn't have a reason to care, but that also meant that those people weren't useful allies, since they didn't understand the full extent of what the process did.

This new person basically started by angering the very people who maintained this process.  Those were the only people with the knowledge of the complexities that a new system would need to mitigate or replace.  Once this person started working in earnest to replace the system, the complexities showed themselves randomly, and the original maintainers just stood back, waiting for the inevitable failure.

Here is the lesson I learned from watching this happen.

To affect change, you must acknowledge a process' power, and demonstrate understanding of its complexity before the process guardians will trust you to replace it.

If a process accomplishes nothing, it would have already been replaced.  If a process exists at all, it accomplishes something, and it is probably there for a reason.  Sometimes a strange or ugly process simply exists because of somebody who did something really dumb.  As in, don't be the person who makes us write a rule.

If a process is terrible, ask open questions about why it is built the way it is.  Most likely it is still there because it solves problems that other tools (even if they are newer) don't already solve.  This is especially true when those processes bridge multiple other systems.  Avoid criticizing a process, but ask pointed questions about the parts that are ugly.

On multiple occasions in the many years since, I've been able to use these lessons to fix or replace multiple processes in multiple places.  In no case has the problem been a technical hurdle, but a problem of finding those who protect the process, and getting them on-board with fixing the deficiencies (even if they don't need to do the fixing, but just stop being protective).  Sometimes this means a whole process replacement, but most often it has meant paying off technical debt (like major code refactoring or updating dependent systems), and implementing new interfaces into the existing processes.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

[Book] Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Book cover
Over a thousand years before the book's present, there was a war that effectively destroyed all of society.  Picking up the pieces of the technology that was left behind, London was put onto treads, run by steam, so that it find and consume other towns for resources and, ultimately, more fuel to keep moving.

Over time, other towns and cities did the same, while another group, called the Anti-Traction League, created a defensive wall across the only pass in a mountain range to keep these traction cities at bay on the other side.  This gives the background of how steam is the primary driver while other technology - well past steam - is also present.

By putting steampunk over 1000 years into the future, this book represents one of the best thought-out steampunk universes I've ever read.  The social constructs around living on - or avoiding, predatory cities are incredibly well thought out.  That is, this presents as a plausible future.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Thomas, a young Londoner who is a "Third-class apprentice at the Museum of London".  The hero of this story is a young woman named Hester, who is trying to avenge the murder of her parents.  The first action of this story is Thomas preventing Hester from killing her target, and subsequently falling off of London with her.

In the best science fiction tradition, this ornate, fantastical background is a perfect set-up to reflect our present back on ourselves.  At its core, this book is about learning to accept that heroes may be false and that a character's society, itself, might be built upon evil.

The story is incredibly well done, though there are a few parts where the dialog between people is a little flat.  The masterful pacing and very well described action more than makes up for the places where odd dialog momentarily bumped me out of the story.

If you plan on reading the book and seeing the movie, I recommend watching the movie first.  The stories hit the same core-points, though the movie is much more of an action adventure than well balanced action and story.  For me, at least, the book fills in large amounts of detail, some of which was hinted at through movie dialog.

If you like Sci-Fi or Steampunk, I highly recommend this book.  Trigger warnings for slavery and extreme violence.  Skip it if you prefer fiction to be in the known world.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Managing Difficult Problems

I can no longer count the number of times that I've been able to re-invigorate a problem investigation, even if I have zero visibility on the actual problem.  This takes some self-discipline that doesn't come easy, especially during an urgent investigation.

Here's that one weird trick:

I do the depth of reading myself.  If I see multiple threads, I'll read all of them.  Then I will write as short a summary of all of the facts that I can.  Re-summarizing all of the relevant facts that have been shared, pointing out the places where multiple people or departments have a differing view of the facts, and sometimes suggesting a list of questions that should be put back to the customer (the person who is reporting the problem), will usually refocus and reinvigorate the investigation.

Wait what?

When something goes wrong, e-mails have a tendency of getting very long reply chains as people add a few sentences and add more people who might be able to help.  This is pretty normal, and isn't actually a terrible way to go about finding a problem solution.  The urgency is obvious, so most people just skim the top-most e-mails, and keep the chain moving.

On a normal day, few people will read e-mails beyond about two pages worth of text (some report as little as a paragraph).  During a difficult or urgent problem, depth of reading is not likely to get better.  I'm not here to lament this, it is just a fact about humans.

Why?

I started doing this back when I did product support (so long ago it doesn't even hit my resume anymore).  It came from a place of wanting to be able to contribute even when I didn't know the answer myself.  Sometimes by writing the summary, I would be able to see the actual problem and just answer with a solution.  Most often, though, the questions I would come up with would lead directly to a solution.  Frankly, it might be one of the things that I did that helped others think that I should be a manager.

Now, as a manager, I know that I am rarely going to have the answer, so it seems natural to continue doing the depth of reading and actually contributing back a summary and a few questions.  That is, to me, the very act of trying to write a summary of a problem naturally leads to important insights into a problem.

Problem space

It would seem that the people who have been on the thread since the beginning would be annoyed at seeing all the things they already said be repeated.  This has happened twice that I know of over the last 20 years.  It has never happened when the summary also brings up a disparity of reported facts.  In any case, I've taken to explicitly starting with a line similar to this, "I am summarizing this thread to clarify my understanding of what is going on here, and to introduce the problem to those recently added."  I also find it very important to end with something like this, "If I have anything wrong, or I missed an important detail, please let me know."

Every time I've done this, it has led to immediate changes.  First, it is a point where a large number of people can legitimately leave the investigation (even if they can just start ignoring the thread).  That is, some folks who know they have nothing to do with the problem are literally only hanging on to make sure that their one piece of input was heard.  Especially in cases where I am pointing out a dispute in the facts, a number of people will re-investigate the dispute.  About half of the time, the problem itself lies within the dispute.

Feedback

Please ask questions if you have them.  Also feel free to let me know if there's anything above that I should add.  I wish to improve this if I can.  After some time, I'm likely to republish this on LinkedIn.