Good, Bad, and Ugly from the Business Shelves

December 2013

The business section of my local bookstores is a weird place. A Martian visiting the planet would wonder what “business” is all about.  At the same time, some of the best books about contemporary business are in the fiction sections.

I see books ranging from the expected junk (“how to get rich without working”, “how ‘those people’ are stealing all your cheese”, “memoirs of <some tycoon>”), stuff that used to be pop psychology (“believe in yourself”, “believe in others”, “lead by example”, “who moved my chicken soup?”), and, these days, Internet-ty stuff  (“the world is two dimensional”,  “networks/big data/<other flavor of the month> changes everything”).

Not only are the topics all over the map, if you actually read everything, you’d be paralyzed by contradictions.  Should I look out for myself, or trust others?  How do I share everything for free, and also get rich without working?  Are big companies obsolete or what we want to grow to be?  Is the problem with government that it does its job too well or too poorly?

Being more or less a Dumb Old Socialist (TM), I’m neither impressed nor intimidated by this mush.  But there are occasionally some notable titles shelved under “business”.

Here is roundup with a Good, a Bad, and an Ugly one.  Plus another an “interesting” one.

Good: Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley (Crown Business, 2013)

Why was this book in the business section?  It’s sort of a cross of pop psychology, commercial design, and business startup boostering—and all very, very Bay Area.  (There should probably be a shelf for ‘Californiana’.)

The Thomas boy’s give us a very attractive book by two of the people at the famous IDEO Lab (http://www.ideo.com/).

As the sub-title suggests, this book is about “unleashing” your creativity, or, more specifically, becoming “confident” in your creativity.  Being designers, they are most concerned with creating new products and services, and redesigning existing ones.

This approach comes out of their business, which is a design studio plus training institute.  In the latter role, IDEO teaches individuals and organizations how to be more creative.

Significant portions of their prescription are flat-out social psychology (they even cite Don Norman, famous psychologist for almost a half century now). Other sections come out of the Stanford/Silicon Valley “start up” culture: valuing innovation, rapid development, and aggressive social intervention.

I had mixed reactions to this book.  It is undeniably pretty (I’d expect nothing less form this crew), and the psychology has some attractive aspects.  They are consistent with points of my own philosophy: “Complaining is fine, but what are you going to do about it?”  And I certainly think that you rarely will be really “ready” to do something new; so you just have to take the leap and try to do it. I’m strongly in favor of developing self-efficacy (a la Norman), though I have my own opinions about the right way to do it (and who to target).

On the other hand, the audience for this book is obviously aimed at worker drones, usually in large organizations.  Not being in that position, I found much of their approach irrelevant. There are lots of things I’d like to fix in the world, but none of them have to do with “making my organization more innovative/profitable”.

On a deeper note, these guys definitely have the “Silicon Valley Disease”:  they think that a bunch of (mostly young, mostly well off) capitalists can sit together and, in about a day, invent solutions to the world’s problems—and get rich doing so.  You know.  Like Amazon has solved the problem of local book stores.  And Google is solving the problem of death. This ideology really creeps me out sometimes.

This ideology shows up very clearly in the problems they consider and the solutions they admire.

Their “design exercises” (probably unintentionally) reveal the life they think is “normal”.  “Redesign your daily commute”.  (I don’t commute.) “Redesign making coffee in the morning”.  (Morning coffee is a comfortable staple in my life, I don’t want anyone messing with it.)  Have a look at the challenges considered by the OpenIdeo community.  Nothing in there about aging, small towns, family life—real human stuff.

The results they admire are revealing as well.  Redesigned industrial equipment, reimplemented services, new products and businesses. One of their cases is a classic Internet startup, whipped up in a coffee shop, catching a lucky break and selling out for millions.  My joy for these guys is tempered by the fact that the product they created is pointless except for making yet more money for Apple.  Why is this a good result?

I might add a philosophical note.  These guys embodied the total opposite of zennish, mindfulness.   Their motto is not just “go ahead and try”, their motto is, literally, “just act”.  Also, they are highly prejudiced in favor of concrete prototyping and hacking.  Not much concern for theory, quality assurance, sustained maintenance—or even careful thought.  The whole approach is “What can you get done by the end of today?”

This approach is grounded in solid psychology:  to have more good ideas, have more ideas, period.  Also, they are quite correct that constant practice will make you much better at prototyping and development.  And, of course, you will learn far sooner by trying to do something right now than by trying to do a long, slow process.

But this way of life surely lets the monkey brain run free.  Calm alertness is not in their playbook.  Deep knowledge is not only ignored, it is to be overthrown in the name of innovation.  Introspection, second thoughts, long term thinking—no time for that.

I can’t be completely comfortable with such mindless hacking, especially when the goal is allegedly to make the world better.

Bad? Work Like a Spy:  Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer. By J. C. Carelson (Penguin, 2013).

This book is a odd bird, a “how to succeed in business” pot boiler by a retired CIA operative.  She turns around the CIA recruting materials about how your knowledge of business are just what you need to be a good spy, to try to tell us how expertise in spycraft is useful for civilian business.  Really? Even if true, is this a good idea?

First, the portrayal of CIA life is right out of their public relations materials, no mistake about that.  CIA recruits are the best and brightest, we are told.  They are rigorously screened and trained (with unspecified, secret methodologies).  They selflessly perform highly dangerous missions necessary to protect the security of the world.  Team work.  Preparation.  Execution. Courage. Sacrifice. Et cetera.

Of course, much of this is sanitized and flat-out fiction.  We are talking about the CIA here.  They aren’t going to reveal much, and much of what they reveal is deliberate deception.

Anyway, the basic theme is the selfless dedication and extreme high quality of CIA teams, and the extreme risks they take in the field.  I had a deep problem with this storyline. Many of the activities described here were huge, huge mistakes that cost the country dearly, in lives, treasure, and sacred honor. The fact that comparatively innocent operatives are put in mortal danger pursuing such absurd fantasies only adds to the horror, it doesn’t redeem the whole disaster.

Second, the entire thesis of the book is pretty silly: very little spycraft is useful to normal business success.  In fact, close reading of the text clearly shows that she knows this very well. If you follow her lessons literally, I wish you luck.  You’ll be out of business in a week, and possibly in jail.  (She warns you about this in the book.)

It looks to me like this book is an effort for a retired government employee to make some money and set up some business gigs.  To that purpose, I say, “more power to her”.  (And I did buy the book, so I did my part.)

Given the pro-CIA propaganda throughout I wouldn’t be surprised if this effort also had enthusiastic backing from the agency’s recruiting division.  I’m very sure they would love to get more like Carleson in their ranks, and I wish them well with that.  I want them to have the best recruits they can get, though I would never advise anyone to do it.

Overall, this is a strange little book, one that I kind of liked despite myself. But it is a very bad “business” book.

The Ugly. Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton (Penquin, 2013)

It is impossible for me to independently verify most of this story, but it rings so true that I tend to believe it.  Furthermore, I have to concur with Nathan Heller (in the New Yorker):  the writing is strange if not outright horrible.  But let us look at the story he tells.

If these people weren’t millionaires, we’d think they were useless screw-ups.  Well, actually they are screw-ups, but they got lucky. “A Clown Car that Fell in a Gold Mine”, as one commentator aptly described them.

This book was timed to be out just as Twitter went “public”, becoming “valued” at something like $100 Billion.

Twitter irritates me in a very fundamental way. Like many similar Internet successes, Twitter is a triumph of sociology or marketing or something—but not software or computer technology.  In fact, it is not especially creative technically, and most of its short life it has been very poorly implemented.  I worked for decades as a software engineer, so it is impossible for me to admire someone who gets rich off of junk that was thrown together willy-nilly.

This story also bugs me deeply because the people involved messed up so many lives along their merry way, including their own.  It’s sad, really. They are a bunch of more or less ordinary people (for better or worse), and they make the usual kinds of mistakes. But throw millions of dollars (not to mention appearances on Oprah) at them, and they can accomplish terrible feats of inhumanity.  I’ll leave it to practicing psychologists, but some of these people look to me like they need treatment.  They certainly could have used some grown ups in their lives.

One thing I did like about the Twitter gang was their repeated refusal to sell the company, despite a comedy roll of offers.  I generally hate to see guys whack together a company with little more than a successful demo, and then sell out to a big company and walk away.  That just doesn’t seem right to me.  How can you walk away before you prove it is really a success?

Of course, in the end, the money guys got them anyway.  It took more time and multiple reshuffles, and a lot of very, very bad Karma.  But Wall Street always wins in the end.

The book itself suffers from TMI, going on and on with this baffling soap opera.  Worse, I was embarrassed by many parts of this book (to the extent that I could even understand what was going on).  I can’t enjoy watching kids screw up in ways that are obvious to me.

Overall, an ugly read in many ways.  Probably mostly true, but ugly.

Interesting. The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun (Jossey-Bass, 2013)

Scott Berkun offers us an interesting, if limited, view of an interesting example of “the future of work”.  As he himself admits, writing about his own experience limits and distorts the story. Nevertheless, since the topic is large about “corporate culture”, an ethnographic bent has its merits. (Berkun apparently worked on early versions of Internet Explorer, which would have been based on source code licensed from NCSA—I don’t know him, but we probably have mutual acquaintances.)

The topic is his first year at Automattic, the company that runs WordPress.com (the platform that delivers you this note).  The book is interesting because (a) Berkun is a business guru who advises business how to do stuff and (b) Automattic is an extreme outlier as far as how it does stuff.  So he is well aware of what is and isn’t “normal”, and also has some notion about how to judge the value of such things.

The story interleaves both Berkun’s personal experience and his insights based on other experiences, including his stint at Microsoft. This isn’t easy to pull off—no one reader is equally interested in, say, the antics of programmers on the prowl in Athens and the plusses and minuses of various electronic media for collaboration.

I wasn’t interested in the antics of his (all young male) team.  I’m way past high school hijinks, and drinking all night. Actually, they were rather embarrassing, and I would have advised him to omit much of this stuff.  Worse, I would be extremely uncomfortable in such situations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many women and anyone over 30 would likewise be unamused.  Note to managers:  progressive corporate culture does not have to mean “college dorm room rules.”  Just as an example, the title and cover design irritated me, to the point I almost didn’t buy the book.

Fortunately, the rest of the book contains a ton of useful description and analysis of how Automattic works. This is by no means a puff piece, there are a lot of things that don’t work so well, or that aren’t ideal.  For example, Berkun reports some shocking shortcomings in the development of WordPress, notably, the long absence of analysis of user interfaces and failure to address difficult problems. Berkun also offers some potentially valuable insights into why things work. Her observes, for instance, how complete transparency can be intimidating, and possibly may foster short term, “tactical” thinking. Big, crazy ideas are difficult to explain and pitch in a digital free for all.

I was also interested to learn a bit more about how WordPress sustains itself.  It’s clear why WordPress is popular (a good product, mostly for free), but from the outside, it is abundantly not obvious where the money comes from. Berkun provides a useful summary of the somewhat complex business model (it turns out that most of the revenue is from “VIP” partners, essentially providing business services to big companies.)

Overall, this is an excellent book.  By the way, I thank Terri Griffith for pointing it out on her blog.  The cover had convinced me to ignore it, which would have been a shame.

Free bonus:  Fiction is truer than earnest preaching.

Not surprisingly, there is a small but growing literature depicting “the future of work”, such as Couplands’s JPod, Dotorow’s Makers, even Stross’s Accelerando.  We get glimpses of the Game industry in Stirlings’s REAMDE and Williams’ “This is not a game”.

I have already mentioned two recent novels that clearly have direct contact with the Bay Area technoculture are Eggers The Circle and Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra.  These present fictionalized accounts of the magical powers and divergent subculture of the big web companies, from the point of view of “non technical” outsiders.

These writers suffer some from their lack of technical knowledge, since it is very important to be able to recognize the hype and marketing, and how the magic works.  Also, if some of the plot points depend on bogus technology, I get rather annoyed.

But I am pleased to get perspectives other than utter worship.  It is especially important to read stories about the human costs of these technologies, especially the corrosion of family and friendships.

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