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Jonathan Andrew Wolter

Archive for the ‘Movie/Book Reviews’ Category

Book: Power: Why Some People Have It-and Others Don’t

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Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

Power: Why Some People Have It-and Others Don'tPower: Why Some People Have It-and Others Don’t by Jeffrey Pfeffer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is an easy read with interesting examples. If you dislike the title, consider how the world is political, and it is in you interest to know the power games other people will play.

A few highlights:

  • When Keith Ferrazzi (author, CMO, CEO) was offered a position at Deloitte, he insisted in seeing the “head guys.” He met the NYC chief, Loconto, over dinner and Keith said he would accept if the two  would have dinner once a year at the same restaurant.” This was a gutsy move, but gave him influence at a very high level. All because he asked. What could you have asked for?
  • Ishan Gupta is an entrepreneur from India who positioned himself with compiling a book of major Indian entrepreneurs. He had the founder of Hotmail, the Indian president Kalam, and over a dozen leaders contribute to the book. How? His pitch was as a fellow entrepreneur and IIT graduate, he appreciated their courage, and said no one would take a book by him seriously, he wanted their help to write just a few pages or hundred words with key advice. He packaged the request brilliantly, and almost all accepted. Asking for help is inherently flattering. He leveraged his experience to write something with a positive social implication. Then gained influence with very big hitters, and ‘jumped up a weight class.’
  • Confucius said, ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance.’ While this seems somewhat out of place in this book, remember if you gain more power, you will change. It is best to not become full of yourself.
  • Stay focused on the outcomes you are seeking, and do not get hung up on people and their idiosyncrasies. You can not and will not please everyone.
  • Be able to act. As in acting, theatrics, Hollywood. If you are ‘angry’ don’t always really be angry, as you can act with emotion, skipping over facts, weaken you position, and alienate people. I have made my worst mistakes when acting out of emotion. You can use emotions effectively to lead a team; however, if you can have the passion of emotion, without the irrationality, it is much better. Thus, learn how to act. It disconnects the irrationality. When I worked at FeedBurner, Dick Costolo was CEO there and he came from 10 years of stand up comedy. Extremely useful for his outward influence (now CEO Twitter), and inward motivating employees.
  • Synchronize the ‘voice’ of a team’s many leaders. I have had huge team problems because the peer group of senior leaders all had different opinions about the vision and priorities. If one of us had suggested a simple, quick, weekly breakfast or lunch meeting next door, we would have been on sync. It would have boosted the team’s morale and effectiveness.
  • Oliver North vs Donald Kennedy’s congressional testimonies suggest theatrics (righteous anger vs shame and timidity) is a significant factor for how people are judged. This was an “aha” moment. Senior leadership is a lot of acting. CXO’s may not see some employees but once a year. The ability to turn on the energy and optimism (acting) is crucial to leave strong, lasting influences in people.
  • One comical specific claim was that “moving your hands in a circle or waving your arms diminishes how powerful you appear. Gestures should be short and forceful, not long and circular.” Probably true. How you carry yourself influences how you are viewed. Are you the carefree person, consistent worker, angry person, goofy one, solid leader, etc.?
  • Take you time in responding. Flustered or unsure people are marginalized. Related to acting. When choosing between emotions or a slower response, always choose the slower, more deliberate response. (My editorializing).

Not amazing, but short and I finished it. I think I can only read a
small number of these kinds of books a year. Now I am ready to read
more math books.

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Written by Jonathan

May 20th, 2011 at 3:18 am

Book Review: The McKinsey Mind. Focusing on Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive thinking

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Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

The McKinsey Mind: Understanding and Implementing the Problem-Solving Tools and Management Techniques of the World's Top Strategic Consulting FirmThe McKinsey Mind: Understanding and Implementing the Problem-Solving Tools and Management Techniques of the World’s Top Strategic Consulting Firm by Ethan M. Rasiel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Worth reading. Especially if you are in consulting. I like the beginning of the book especially, and will be turning back to some of those pages for reference.

Thinking logically
The book starts strong by introducing “MECE: Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive.” I use it often in my teams. Think of it as building a decision tree, where you cover every option, and none are overlapping. Each branch in the tree also has more MECE sub-branches. When deciding or investigating something, draw the tree on a whiteboard, and walk everyone through the options, and sub-tree options until you have a decision, or clear actions to take. Very logical. Be sure to encourage other people to contribute to the branches, and if you are leading it, ideally you team will volunteer the branches, and then they have more commitment to the options.

Or, as Wikipedia says:

[MECE] says that when data from a category is desired to be broken into subcategories, the choice of subcategories should be
1. collectively exhaustive — i.e., the set of all subcategories, taken together, should fully characterize the larger category of which the data are part (“no gaps”)
2. mutually exclusive — i.e., no subcategory should represent any other subcategory (“no overlaps”)

This is desirable for the purpose of analysis: mutual exclusivity avoids the risk of double counting information, and collective exhaustion avoids the risk of overlooking information.

Two areas for MECE thinking are in logic-trees and issue trees.

Logic trees help you identify components of a problem. Start at the 20,000 foot view and move progressively downward. You may want to build multiple trees, for instance by business unit (organizational hierarchy) and functionally (production, sales, marketing, etc.) to see which leads you to the next step, the hypothesis.

Form a hypothesis of what component of the logic tree may be causing the problem. Run it by the Quick and Dirty Test: ask what assumptions you are making that must be true. Are any false? If it passes the QDT, gather data and do analysis to disprove it. This is the same as the scientific method. If you fail to disprove it, you may be on to something. Predict what could happen if the identified root cause was changed.

Issue trees let you rigorously test the hypothesis. They are different from logic trees. Logic trees are a hierarchical grouping of elements. Issue trees are the series of questions or issues that must be addressed to support or disprove a hypothesis. It becomes you roadmap for analysis.

Present with the conclusion at the start. This was a good lesson. Do not use inductive reasoning to build up from details into a specific conclusion for your audience. They may already agree with it. You would then waste their time. Instead make you conclusion, and progressively drill into details, broadly covering each level before drilling down further. Stop/skip forward if they do not need the convincing. (A refresher on inductive/deductive reasoning).

Presentations are all about getting buy-in. It is important to “pre-wire” the meeting so that there are no surprises, and people already know your conclusions. The act of pre-wiring will identify gaps you need to work on, or build allies for you proposal.

Interviewing clients/stakeholders is a common activity I have done at ThoughtWorks. The authors advised scheduling time with people, and sending them an agenda. This lowers their apprehension of why consultants want to talk to them. Also at the end, during small talk before you walk out, ask “is there any thing else we did not cover that you think we should?” You’ve built rapport by now. Their answer can uncover important, previously unmentioned issues.

Note: as a software engineer, I appreciate the MECE thinking style for its logic. Also, it is the exact way we approach performance tuning an application. Think about the logic tree of slow spots. Build a hypothesis. Test it by profiling the running program under load. Let the data of time spent in each component show the root cause.

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Written by Jonathan

May 1st, 2011 at 3:14 am

Book Review: The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel

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Reading time: 1 – 2 minutes

This book is *awesome*! Why? The author takes a short story, “The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges and analyzes it along many different mathematical dimensions. The results are stimulating and accessible to non-mathematicians. The story is about a library, which is composed of:

An indefinite number of … hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. … Twenty bookshelves … line four of the hexagon’s six sides… One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens to another gallery, identical to the first — identical in fact to all.

What’s the implication of this? The author, William Goldbloom Bloch, takes us through combinatorics, information theory, real analysis, topology and cosmology (a tough chapter), geometry and graph theory, and more combinatorics. He explains things in an easy to understand way, and then if you want more, has “Math Aftermath” sections that get more in depth.

In the end, he gives a long list of suggested readings. I have started a list here http://amzn.com/w/236UZ2PNNR3W2. What math books do you all suggest?

Written by Jonathan

April 30th, 2011 at 12:38 pm

The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely BogusThe Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus – Book Review

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Reading time: 5 – 8 minutes

The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely BogusThe Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus by Matthew Stewart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A highly entertaining read where Matthew Stewart dismantles the Management Consulting industry. For you with experience in consulting, parts of this are hilarious as Stewart chronicles both the imploding of the consultancy he helped create, and the overall history of the industry.

One by one, he tears apart Fredrick Taylor (the father of “scientific management”), Elton Mayo (of the “famous” Hawthorn Effect), Management Consultants, Strategy (as a science), popular Management Gurus, and offers a harsh critique of MBA’s in general. His main premises is that “Management” is not a profession on the level with Medicine or Law, however management education through business schools have attempted to professionalize it. And to that end, they have manufactured “science” (in a very non-rigorous and untestable sense), truisms, frameworks, and case studies.

Here are a few highlights. I didn’t agree with all that he had to say, but I did enjoy reading it. I was laughing out loud towards the end as he details how his fellow partners are embroiled in litigation with him as he tries to sever all ties. Stewart is genuinely funny, giving characters nicknames such as “The Prince of Darkness”, “The Troll,” “Dr. Bob” the corporate shrink, and others.

As for management consultants, he had less-than-flattering quotes:

“[C]onsultants often serve not to provide new knowledge to their clients but merely to communicate ideas already formed. In many instances, our work amounted to harnessing work performed in one part of an organization and then packaging it all as our own work for the benefit of another part of the same organization.”

I can’t speak for all organizations, but I am extraordinarily fortunate to say at ThoughtWorks (my employer) this has never been my case. We are not a traditional management consulting McKinsey style strategy consulting firm, true. However, we do have consulting projects, some the strategic management consulting types. I’ve seen us bring our outside expertise and influence and avoid acting solely as grease in the wheels. Becoming grease may let others bill lots of money, but isn’t very intellectually fulfilling.

Even better, if you have worked in a traditional pyramid style company, (of which ThoughtWorks is very, very, very, very much not) he has this gem to explain it:

“It’s like being stuck in a dungeon with a bunch of rats and a giant block of cheese. All the rats keep climbing the cheese, two years at level one, two years at level two. The threes shit on the twos and the twos shit on the ones, and everyone shits all the time on the rats at the bottom. All they care about is rat-face-time. As in, please-sir-would-you-stick-your-rodent-butt-closer-to-my-face time. You keep going up until one of the other rats bites your ass off.”

Up or out. Several friends of mine elsewhere have shared this is a fairly accurate description.

Strategy. He also tears apart Porter and his Five Forces [3]. Stewart claims all business strategists describe strategy in hindsight (not so useful if you want to implement “strategy” for, you know… the future). I have a little bit of a hard time accepting that all of modern strategy is hogwash, as instead I think while bounded in utility, different frameworks help one to position a problem and look for solutions in diverse ways.

Due to business schools’ roots in Taylor, Mayo and others that he sequentially defuses of all credibility, the author also suggests that the fundamental underpinning of MBA’s are shaky. The academic and scientific rigor is weak, and the content is easily grasped by otherwise intelligent people.

“After 100 years of fruitless attempts to produce such a discipline, it should be clear that [Business Management] does not exist. preparing managers to manage, in fact, is not different from preparing people to live in a civilized world. Managers to not need to be trained; they need to be educated. And for that purpose, although a certain amount of study of business-related subjects may prove useful, the business schools as they are presently constituted are at best superfluous.”

A jaded view? Yes. But also very fun. The best parts is the parallel narrative that progresses through the book about his firm. I don’t want to spoil much, but it is especially fun when his firm’s acquiring company’s CEO steps down because he wishes to promote full time his beliefs in UFO’s and alien-human technology transfer. Serious. [4] This guy had a crazy consulting journey, and has a great style of writing about it.

If you are interested in this book, first read his article on The Atlantic [1], which gives you a taste of the content here. Second, check out the WSJ book review [2], by Philip Broughton, author of a similar book that I recently reviewed. Also check out the New Yorker’s review [5].

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/arch…
[2] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424…
[3] Michael Porter, of Harvard. Father of the 5 Forces, which are: (1) the bargaining power of suppliers, (2) the bargaining power of buyers, (3) the rivalry among existing firms, (4) the threat of new entrants, and (5) the threat of substitute products. Extremely influential, he also advocated all strategy aims for a single, measurable goal: excess profits. (Unsurprisingly, Stewart takes criticism of this).
[4] http://articles.sfgate.com/1999-01-09/ne…
[5] http://www.newyorker.com/arts/cri…

And, please share with me your comments.

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Written by Jonathan

October 31st, 2010 at 5:03 am

No-Nonsense Guide to International Development – Book Review

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Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

No-nonsense Guide to International Development (No-Nonsense Guides)No-nonsense Guide to International Development by Maggie Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fast read about international development’s history and future. The statistics are staggering. “10 million people a year are displaced due the construction of dams and urban transportation systems. Compare to 12 million annually with wars and other ‘disasters’.” I enjoyed this book, read it in about a week, and recommend it as an introductory text. It discredits the historical Marshall Plan style of development, which attempted to funnel infrastructure investment in a massive global scale. Post-WW2 Europe developed so quickly because of an educated cadre waiting to run it, eager human capital, and an abundant educated workforce. This is not present in the poorest of developing nations. Maggie Black cites an epic failure of mechanizing agriculture in Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia when tractors suffered from rapid breakdowns, no spare parts, misuse for private purposes, and endless other problems. (Great life lesson: you have to meet people where they are, rather than where your biases initially lead you).

Black covers aid with its many failures, some successes such as smallpox eradication, but overall underwhelming performance in ending poverty. She summarizes aid as generally ineffective: “the machinery of official aid is not designed to address the poverty of people, but the state of nations.” Next she moves to the World Bank/IMF and their program of “structural adjustments,” and the “Washington consensus.” Both were macroeconomic agendas pushing prudent fiscal and monetary policies, inflation control, and free markets. Seemingly wise ideas, but which often resulted in great challenges for the debtor nations: cut services and subsidized foreign commodities competition, and lost local jobs.

- Today a third of the world’s population – about 2 billion people – still remain outside the modern economy or survive at the edges.
- Circa 2007, two thirds of Indians are still involved in agriculture; in China she claims it is 44%.
- In 1960 the income gap between the fifth of the world population in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 30 to one; by 1997 it was 74 to one.
- As of 2004, 1.1 billion people were without a supply of safe water, and 2.6 billion without a proper means of sanitation. And don’t think just digging wells or creating a water utility will solve this.

What is her summary? “Less effort should be put into grand international initiatives – ‘Marshall Plans for Africa’ and achieving the Millennium Development Goals – and more into making things work on the ground.” She goes into detail of successes where local scale efforts have still been able to assist millions of people. These, she posits are the keys to future success in international development, as opposed to the “bigger picture, more western perspective” of macro-economic adjustments.

The book is interesting in the treatment of details, and in the journey it takes the reader on.

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Written by Jonathan

October 20th, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Movie Review: Bigger Stronger Faster. I ask how far to go for better performance?

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Reading time: 5 – 8 minutes

Watching a movie that entertains is fun, one that teaches benefits you tomorrow, and ones that make you think in a new way are the best of all. I have a friend who says periodically it’s time to go to a conference, “in order to introduce randomness into the system.” Shake things up. Movies in “Cerebral” category in Netflix are a new way I found to do this. My hope is for comments and further recommendations of thought-worthy movies.

Bigger Stronger Faster is a documentary. bigger stronger fasterTechnically it’s about steroids in American culture, but it also raises the clear lack of consistency we treat other performance enhancers. The director Christopher Bell examines his brothers as they use steroids.

What is an ethical and responsible limit to how far you are willing to go for success? Is it okay to wake up in the morning and say you are destined for greatness – that somehow you were born to give something to the world? (And how far will you then go?) Is it okay to just become a normal, average, person?

  • When Tiger Woods had laser eye correction to 20/15 vision, was that an unethical performance enhancement?
  • How about professional musicians taking beta blockers to eliminate anxiety before performances and auditions?
  • Athletes’ are dependent on cortisone shots (a legal steroid), yet should those be held equal to anabolic steroids?
  • Red blood cell count can be increased by doping, taking EPO (details), high altitude training, or sleeping in an altitude chamber. Two options are illegal, two are legal. Should the end result (higher than natural RBC’s) be the determiner of ethics, rather than the mechanism used to reach it?
  • The US Air Force gives fighter pilots speed (amphetamine) to perform better, is that a rational decision?
  • He interviews a member of the Olympic Doping Committee and is told that routinely US Athletes are flagged for failing drug tests, but still allowed to compete.
  • Attending a Chiropractor Anti-aging specialist Chris is able to say he suspects a hormone deficiency which leads to tests and results where no “healthy” range has been set enables him to get an Human Growth Hormone prescription – legally.
  • Students are interviewed in how easy it is to get Adderoll (just tell your doctor you have trouble focusing, or have it passed around from friends). Are these and other “study drugs” (long but really interesting article) worth it? (Or, should everyone be taking them?)

I’m not ready to jump on the film’s open skepticism of “are steroids actually a health risk?” I don’t think they are naturally necessary and a cautious approach to my health comes intuitively. They cross my line of fair competition. Throughout sports and recreational fitness I was never tempted to try them. But maybe that was just because I wasn’t/didn’t want to become good enough to compete at the highest level?

But how far will we go for performance outside of sports? If you could close 70% more sales by taking “Synthesized Aquatic Maltose” (which I just invented), would you take it? Health Supplements in the US are not regulated to be proven healthy, the FDA has the job of proving them unhealthy.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.FDA on DSHEA

Therefore I could start selling this new supplement and require no doctors or nutritionists to even look at what my customers would start to ingest. Chris actually does this. Entertainingly, he picks up a few illegal day laborers, and invents a product and fills pills with his “proprietary blend” of powders. He does “before/after” pictures the same day at a photo shoot and can start selling this $40/bottle tonic. (Of course, manufacturing cost are under $5/bottle for him).

There is more, such as how Utah’s third largest economy ($2.5-$4 billion/year) is the health supplement industry (Nice article here about Utah’s supplement industry). Legislation from Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch made for the passing of DSHEA, and continues to enable those too squeamish for “real steroids” to get something that promises the same benefits.

He goes on to show a breed of cow: Belgium Blue. Through 100 years of natural selection, these cows are deficient in Myostatin, a growth factor that limits muscle growth. Video below gives a peek. Researchers are looking to mimic that for fighting Muscular Distrophy in humans. See more freakish links about this gene mutation in humans, cows, or other animals. Note: Clip below from National Geographic, not from the movie.

Chris goes to say that Americans are all about Bigger Stronger Faster, and it’s un-American to be #2. We even have romanticized the concept, calling things bigger than expected as “Xyz, on steroids.” We must win, and we must win better than we previously won.

Written by Jonathan

August 30th, 2009 at 4:25 am

Posted in Movie/Book Reviews

Obsess About Your Time – 3 Economics Books

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Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

Podcasts are to real-unabridged-books as a raindrop is to a punch in the face. It takes a team of dozens of people to write a really awesome book. And I find them more satisfying and thought provoking than several short podcasts.

There is nothing so precious as your time. I am only more convinced of this every day.

In the last 3 weeks, I listened to:

  • Confessions of an Economic Hitman – even though I don’t agree with his conclusions, it is an excellent memoir. It was personally thought provoking to listen to a man’s entire career life unfold in 5 days on my work commute. Takeaway: life can be very exciting, and some people are very powerful. Move faster, driving for results.
  • Banker to the Poor – fantastic book. If you don’t know about microfinance, this is your introductory course. Imagine in your mind what the marriage of finance and social justice would look like. I read it with friends–which led to great conversation–and scheduled a tentative meeting with the great folks at Kiva.org for my friend with an NGO in India.
  • Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy – So far it’s entertaining. It is a story telling format asking “where did your T-Shirt come from?” And the government-subsidy-enabled-irony of the cotton planted in Texas, woven and sewn in China, and imported back to Florida.

To effective time.

UPDATE (10/26): Listening to more of the last book tonight. Around the 3h 30min mark, I learn the key driver our present industrial economy: the Spinning Jenny. This was a big deal. One person used to have one spinner to make the yarn. In 1764 they suddenly had eight spinners: a tremendous productivity boost in an under supplied marketplace. By 1800, spinning jenny’s had 80 spinners. And by the 1830’s the price was 1/20th of the 1700’s price.

This breakthrough –mechanized yarn production– propelled the world into the industrial age, and brought consumers into expecting constantly improving technology and quality of life. To me the parallels of present day high tech are remarkable, and the “so what” factor noteworthy.

Two “so what” takeaways:

  1. The invention of the spinning jenny came because of great bottlenecks in yarn production. In the 1760’s mostly farmers produced cotton yarn, and this was a cottage industry. When harvest time came the families were far too busy harvesting, and weavers had a great difficulties buying yarn. Often they had to walk six miles each day to gather up enough material for that same day’s weaving. This bottleneck –as all bottlenecks– created a great pressure. A pressure that burst forth in invention, and technological revolution.
  2. In the face of such bottlenecks, Britain sanctioned a contest of which the spinning jenny was an entrant. An example from the past of how using prizes compelled innovation. See the X Prize Foundation for present day contests in medicine, automotive, education, or (Google’s just announced) Lunar X Prize.

Written by Jonathan

October 23rd, 2007 at 3:03 am