The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel

Photo by rbieber

Just received my Amazon shipment of The Great American Novel by Keith Malley (host of Keith and the Girl). I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while.

Update:
It looks like the book was released prematurely by Malleys publisher and is no longer available. Apparently the version on sale was not completely edited and the cover was not approved. Full explanation of what happened is available on KATG Episode #711 at around 37:40.

Old Hardy Boys Books

Hardy Boys Books

Photo by rbieber

I think I had this whole set as a kid.

Jonna and I hit a local antique store yesterday to kill some time and sitting on a shelf I saw these. I am pretty sure I had every one of this set when I was a kid and would spend hours reading these books.

Its cool to run into something every once in a while that is such a powerful anchor that it literally takes you back to lying in your bunk bed reading “The Twisted Claw”.

Current Reading – Maverick by Ricardo Semler

While I still have a few books in the queue mainly focused around TPS, I started reading Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace, the prequel to The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works.

Not too far into it yet, but riveted again. Pretty amazing story. Highly recommend both books.

I’m really curious about a lot of the ideas in these books, and how they would work in a traditional company. I know I’ve made little adjustments in this direction even before reading the books, but now I’m really curious as to how extreme you can go. Ricardo seems to have had great success going more extreme than most. I admire his idealism and his trust in people.

The Seven Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book on business that has kept me captivated through the whole thing, but Ricardo Semler’s The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works certainly did.

Semler is the CEO of SemCo SA, a company in Brazil with a pretty crazy management model by conventional standards. A complete democracy. People choose where and when they will work. There are no permanent desks, no dress codes, and employees select their own salaries and bonus structures. Most ideas for new business for the company comes directly from its employees. The bottom line, the company is run on the base assumption that their people can be trusted to (and actually are motivated to) do what is needed to keep the business running and growing.

This is, oddly, the complete opposite of the normal viewpoint seen in corporations today that employees are not trustworthy, must be monitored, must be in the office during a certain timeframe and dress a certain way to ensure that they are “behaving professionally” and “productive”.

Semlers philosophy may seem weird to some, but it also seems to work, as according to Semler the company has grown from $4M a year when he took over the company from his father in 1982 to, as of 2003, an annual revenue of $212M. Reading the book, its hard to figure out what SemCo actually does, but the model in which it is run is so intriguing that by the end of the book you don’t really care.

Some of the most interesting assumptions, behaviors, and programs that I found while reading this book that SemCo pioneers:

  • People are inherently good and trustworthy – Sure, there will be bad apples, but if you create a culture in which the social norm is trust, the “bad people” will be pushed out by their peers and/or subordinates if they violate the social norms. An interesting idea.
  • Management positions are not guaranteed – All managers are evaluated openly by their teams. Think of it as a Digg.com for managers. Repeated low scoring usually results in the manager either leaving or being dismissed. I found this to be a very intriguing example of giving the teams the power rather than the management structure.
  • Employees set their own salaries – SemCo’s books are completely open to their employees so that they can see the impacts of their salaries on the companies bottom line. Each knows what the other makes, and requests for salaries that are out of the whack are run the risk of being rejected by colleagues. Its an interesting concept to allow social norms to keep behavior in check, rather than the traditional approach of hiding information from employees. Given all of the information, employees are able to make decisions based on the impact to the company.
  • Retire A Little Program – The company did a study on work productivity and found that the peak of physical capability is in ones twenties and thirties. Financial independence, on the other hand, usually occurs between age fifty and sixty, while “idle-time” peaks after seventy. The conclusion was reached that when you are most fit to realize your dreams, you do not have the money or leisure time for them, and when you have the time, and money on hand, you no longer have the physical energy to realize them. Semco allows their employees to buy early retirement time, from the company, allowing you to do the things you are passionate about while you can still do them. Another twist on the program is that for all of this time you take off, you receive a voucher for time to work, so that when you are older, you can come back and work at a proportional pay level. Brilliant.

Its extremely hard to characterize the thoughts contained in this book in a review. They are so different, and so people oriented, that the best thing you can say is once you read this book you will more than likely begin thinking about how to relocate to Brazil to be a part of it. The book is really well written and Semler has a great conversational style to his writing. It isn’t your typical business book, which would be expected being written from someone who is not the typical CEO.

Do yourself a favor and pick this book up. It will completely change the way you look at your employees and your company.

Related Links:

  • The Semco Way – section of their web site detailing their management and company philosophy

The Myths of Innovation and the Full Machiavelli Quote on Change

Last month I posted a quote from Nicolo Machiavelli on change that I had heard in a lecture by Carly Fiorina. I’ve recently picked up the book The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun where he includes the whole quote – which is much more interesting than the subset.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

— Niccolo Machiavelli

Aside from finding this gem, this book is excellent – and has provided so much mental relief for me in its reading. So many people I know talk about innovation like its a thing, rather than a series of ideas, experiments and failures that may lead to something great.

Scott describes innovation in the book like this:

The dirty little secret – the fact often denied – is that unlike the mythical epiphany, real creation is sloppy. Discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. No one knows what he’s going to get when he is being creative.

To which he follows up with:

Creative work cannot fit neatly into plans, budgets, and schedules. Magellan, Lewis and Clark, and Captain Kirk were all sent on missions into the unknown with clear understanding that they might not return with anything, or even return at all.

This is a perfect book for managers all the way up the chain. It documents everything about the creative field that those in it know, and those who manage people in it have been conditioned to forget. If there is one book you pick up this year, pick this one up, read it, give it to your manager, and have him give it to his manager.

Building Scalable Web Sites by Cal Henderson

I have about three books that I am reading on and off but have been unable to focus on any of them for any length of time. Tom The Architect mentioned a book to me a few months ago called Building Scalable Web Sites: Building, Scaling, and Optimizing the Next Generation of Web Applications by Cal Henderson, engineering manager for the Flickr photo service, a service that I have used extensively since being turned on to it by, you guessed it, Tom The Architect.

This was the first book in a long time that I couldn’t put down, mainly because everything in the book is geared towards teaching you about how to create really, really, big web sites and the issues involved in scaling them. It was also quite intriguing because the book covers tools you use all of the time, like PHP and MySQL that are hard to find really good books about how they scale.

Cal covers a lot of material in this book, from layering your web application architecture, to creating an environment for developers to work in, which includes source control, issue tracking, coding standards and the like. This section was quite encouraging to me, as we have implemented almost everything that Cal mentions in the book (sometimes its nice to get some external validation). Cal then goes on to talk about internationalization and localization, data integrity and security, using email as an alternate entrance into your application, and how to build remote services.

All of this was great, but the next few chapters I found really valuable. Cal talks about identifying bottlenecks in your web application, scaling applications such as MySQL (where he covers quite a few replication strategies) and scaling storage. He also covers measurements, statistics and monitoring. Finally, Cal talks about adding API’s into your application to support mobile applications, web services, etc.

Cal references quite a few tools that are freely available in these discussions – tools that I didn’t even know were out there, that you can use to simplify your monitoring environment. I was most intrigued with the Spread Toolkit, a self described “a unified message bus for distributed applications” that allows you to unify logging across your applications. Anyone who has tried to debug an issue on a site that has more than one box would appreciate knowing about this tool.

This is the first book that I’ve read in a long time, technology wise, that hit the sweet spot between talking about real issues that I have been facing and possible solutions. I highly recommend grabbing this book and in the very least just keeping it on your book shelf for future reference. This is one thats going to be a constant companion for me in the coming months.

Starbucks Green Apron Book

Photo by rbieber

Did you know that you could just walk into your local Starbucks and request a "Green Apron Book", that outlines the principles of Starbucks? I heard about this little booklet from a recent book I had read about the company and went in to my local Starbucks and asked for a copy. I was a tad surprised when the employees were extremely happy to give one to me. There’s something to be said about a company that is not afraid to share their core principles with their customers. There’s much more to say when they do it so enthusiastically.

I was totally impressed with being able to walk into my local Starbucks and get a copy of their “Green Apron book” after reading The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.

I did find another review of the book and it was really cool to me that the reviewer offered the same observation that I did around the structure of the Starbucks principles:

After reading it that afternoon, what impressed me the most was the absence of rules. In their place were suggestions, goals, and the empowerment to make every customer’s experience a memorable one. It was at that moment that I realized the significance of Starbucks’ philosophy—not only for business, but for life in general.

This really parallels my thoughts on what I had read:

One thing that comes out fairly strong in most of the books I read about Starbucks (and Toyota as of late) is the acknowledgment of senior managements importance in setting the culture, ideals, and principles of the overall business while giving the “people doing the work” the ability to act within the framework of the principles.

Another cool thing I noticed. When you dig down into the detail of the Be Welcoming principle, you find the following:

Get to know your customer by drink or name.

This completely impressed me – because I experienced it. As a matter of fact, it impressed me so much that I wrote about the experience in the post “ Reaching “Norm” Status – The Ultimate in Customer Service” back in March of 2005.