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Book Review

Web 2.0 Heroes

Book Review-Web 2.0 Heroes

If you’ve read this blog for a while you know I’ve been on a journey to try to figure out social networking and through extension Web 2.0. I’ve read Wikinomics, Blink, The Wisdom of Crowds, Linked, and The Long Tail. It would be pretty easy to see how I might get exhausted by the topic of social networking. However, my buddy Brad Jones started talking about the project, I was intrigued. We have regularly scheduled lunches and we were talking about how some terms in the computer industry don’t really have a firm definition. One of those was Web 2.0. He decided to embark on a project to interview 20 of the leaders of the Internet and ask them what they thought Web 2.0 meant.

Before I started reading his book, Web 2.0 Heroes: Interviews with 20 Web 2.0 Influencers I had about as much chance of defining Web 2.0 as launching myself to the moon with Mentos and Diet Coke. At the end, I don’t know that I can truly crystallize it into one answer – however, I can share common themes:

  • Enabling People to do things easily.
  • Interactive two-way and multi-way conversations
  • The intersection of people, process, and technology

I know as formal definitions go it’s not the best, but I can say that I feel like I can defensibly talk about Web 2.0 and have some valid opinions to back mine up. (It’s been said that best practices in the computer industry are just having someone that you trust saying that’s the way they do it too – so why can’t I use a similar definition for terms?)

The book isn’t going to make the New York Times Best Seller list – but it may help you build – and defend – your own definition of what Web 2.0 is.

Now if we can just get a similar thing on SOA, RIA, etc. we might be able to understand each other. In the mean time get started with Web 2.0 Heroes.

Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness

Book Review-Organising Knowledge

When I write a book review most of the time, I write the review within a week or two after completing the book.  I do that because it allows me to keep the topics the book presents fresh in my mind.  However, it has the disadvantage of not having been fully integrated into my thinking and certainly hasn’t had the opportunity to be “road tested.”  When it comes to Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organizational Effectiveness (and yes, it pains me not to spell it with a ‘z’ like my US English says I should), I waited before posting this review.

The reason I waited was because I felt like in this case having a more complete set of feelings about the book and it’s thoughts was more important than being able to distinguish specific thrusts of the text.  Instead, I opted to try it out for a while – to see if any of the material I gained from the book was valuable.  Good news it is.

I had my assistant type up a few excerpts from the book – things that I felt were highly relevant to the topics of taxonomy and organization.  I’ve referred back to this document on several occasions to pick out relevant snippets and to clarify my thinking.  I’ve passed the excerpts on to a few friends and colleagues who have been interested in the topics of taxonomy and organization.  In short, I know that there is value in the book because I’ve seen its value.

The book itself tries (mostly successfully) to crystallize your thoughts on organization.  It helps you see the organization that you already do and learn to apply these techniques to the kinds of problems that confront you when you’re trying to create a taxonomy.

It also covers how you can implement different structures with different levels of technology support.  At the lowest level there are organizational patterns that work with paper.  Higher levels of technology offer up additional options.  For instance, it is completely impractical to do a full text search over paper stored in a file cabinet – however, it is possible to leverage technology to do this kind of a full text search.  In a paper system it’s difficult to attach a single item to multiple places – multiple dimensions.  However, technology can make this practical and very useful to helping users find the information they’re looking for.

If you’re trying to put your arms around Taxonomy and Organization this book won’t give you all the answers – but it will certainly add a few more tools to your toolbox.  Pickup Organizing Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness if you’re seeking a better way to organize or the tools you need to create a taxonomy for your organization.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Book Review-The Wisdom of Crowds

I was recently reading a blog post titled Mild Super Power on the Dilbert Blog.  It made me think about how there are sometimes more factors at play than may be immediately obvious.  While I don’t subscribe to Scott Adam’s claim that he can avoid speeding tickets because he understands the economics of placing police cars at various points – mainly because economists assume that people are rational and we all know that people aren’t.  I’d also suggest that there are other factors – such as the desire to get some sleep on the job – which may play a factor in where cars are positioned to catch speeders.

One of Scott’s statements which rings very true is “My reason for majoring in economics in college was to understand how the world works, so I would be more equipped to navigate in it.”  I think this is a singular point of clarity – choosing to use your educational opportunities to help you better understand (and therefore navigate) the world around you.  I didn’t choose to major in economics – in fact, it was a topic that until quite recently that I cared very little about.  Recently however, the emergent behaviors of groups – that is complex (or different) patterns that emerge when many individual actors follow simple behavior rules – has become quite interesting.

The Wisdom of Crowds holds a similar mystery to me.  It illuminates how crowds can be very (hyper) intelligent and why sometimes they’re not.  Traditional thinking (in the US at least, I can’t speak for other areas of the world) is that you get together a group of exceptionally smart people and you put them in a room and eventually you’ll get something good out of them.  However, this necessarily is restrictive.  There are only so many people that are included.  There’s always some bar of “exceptionally smart” vs. “really smart”.

The fundamental premise for the book is that there can be a lot of value to allowing larger groups of people work on the same problem.  That the individual errors that are contained in their solutions tend to cancel each other out.  If you read Stumbling on Happiness you’ll know that we all have a very poor ability to predict the future because we tend to leave things out of our mental images.  I suspect that we have similar foibles when it comes to our ability to solve problems.

Fundamentally the author (James Surowiecki) suggests that there are three types of problems cognition (a problem of knowledge), coordination (getting everything to fit together), and cooperation (getting everyone to get along.)  He illustrates how groups solve the different types of problems differently.

One of the interesting tangents in the book is a discussion – in a few places – about Tacit knowledge.  That is knowledge gained by doing. I help the church I attend by supporting the technology around the delivery of Sunday services.  I’ve learned tons about the subtleties of music and of sound than I could have ever learned via reading a book.  (And I learn really well by reading.)  I’ve learned by having to run the sound board.  This knowledge isn’t easily capture and shared with others.

One of the considerations for problem solving large coordination and cooperation problems is the influence of tacit knowledge – you have to have “been there and done that.”  When you get the people together to solve problems those who’ve actually done it have the greatest chance of coming up with solutions that will work.

I’m reminded of a story about the infamous Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin.  That’s where Kelly Johnson and his team came up with some of the most sophisticated and radical aircraft designs of the time including the U-2, F-117, and my personal favorite plane the SR-71 (Blackbird).  The story is that when they were building one of the prototype aircrafts one of the machinists came up with a problem because one of the parts wouldn’t fit quite right.  An engineer walked out on the manufacturing floor, bent a piece of cardboard and told the machinist to “make it like that” – and asked the machinist to return the cardboard to the engineer because he’d have to draw the part later.  What’s striking to me about this is that the two different disciplines (engineering and machining) met at the point where the problem surfaced and they both exercised their tacit knowledge about the situation to solve the problem – without a hierarchy of structure, without bureaucracy, just taking the best of what (arguably the smallest) crowd knew.

If you find the ability of a crowd to create a solution that no one person could come up with – or don’t believe that a pool of different people with different perspectives and experiences could be smarter than 99% of everyone out there – you need to read The Wisdom of Crowds

Stumbling on Happiness

Book Review-Stumbling on Happiness

What makes you happy?  Are you happy?  I’ve personally spent my life time trying to find “happy” much to my dismay it’s illusive like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  (Hint: The rainbow moves.)  I certainly have a lot to be happy about – and I am generally speaking happy.

I have few regrets; I enjoy what I do for a living, and so on.  But to be honest, I don’t know why I’m happy.  Why do I care why I’m happy?  Well how do I remain happy?  How do I become happier?  How do I help my wife or my son become happier?  They are hard questions to answer if you can’t describe what makes you happy in the first place.

While I won’t say that Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness has all the answers.  Clearly it doesn’t or everyone would have read it by now – while sitting next to their money tree and sipping their favorite beverage.  However, even without all of the answers there are more than a handful of salient points.

I knew my ability to estimate how happy I will be from something is bad but I didn’t know how bad – or why.  I have enough gadgets that I realize that gadgets don’t make you happy.  (I’m still going to get more.)  However, I didn’t realize that everyone else was equally bad at it.  (OK, most people are equally bad at it.)  Gilbert helps to enumerate some of the reasons why the estimating is so bad and offers a hint or two about what to do about it.  (It’s one hint and you likely won’t take his advice, but it’s there.)

It also crystallized for me the idea of a psychological immune system.  That is, succinctly, a psychological system that keeps us “ok.”  Perhaps better said in the context of the book, enables us to be more happy than not.  This is important in part because I picked up the book as my flight was cancelled in New York’s LaGuardia airport.  My rerouting will take more than 24 hours, involves me not getting enough sleep, and sitting in Regan National Airport in Washington, DC for more than 9 hours.

Yet, honestly, I’m not that miffed at the whole deal.  I suppose I should be but I’m not.  What I would call coping skills kicked in and coerced me into making the best of it.  It gave me time to read the book – which I wouldn’t have been able to do without the delay.  It also gave me time to work on some projects that were late (or almost late).   To be frank, I wouldn’t have traded the time with my family for these things – but all in all it wasn’t a total loss.

This is even more striking because I witnessed another passenger nearly “loose it” when her flight was cancelled.  I’m sorry that her psychological immune system was not stronger.  Whether I call it coping skills, adaptability (as I’m sometimes apt to do), or a psychological immune system – it’s interesting to better understand how to cope with disappointment.

I won’t say that Stumbling on Happiness will help you find happiness – however, it might make it a little easier to understand it when you do.  It’s more than worth a read.

Oh and “You’re fine, how am I?”

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

Book Review-The Long Tail

The world is changing.  That’s no news flash.  The real question is how is it changing and what do those changes mean for you?  One of the changes is a gradual migration away from runaway hits, blockbusters, and phenomena.  Instead lower cost to store, lower cost to distribute, and better findability are changing economy so that we can all have the individuality we crave.

A few centuries ago we as humans possessed relatively little.  The tables we owned were crude, the dishes in ornate, and our clothes drab and expressionless when compared to today.  We were in an age of craftsmen.  A craftsmen’s work took time and was therefore expensive.  As a result we couldn’t afford much.

We moved from there to assembly lines and mass production where you could have nicer things – as long as you were willing to have the same nicer things as your neighbor.  As a result of mass production, producers had to find the things that would sell well to a large number of people.  The more people you could convince to buy the product you were making the more money you made.

The problem with mass production is that it required that a few items be produced in large quantities.  We needed to have one kind of car (Ford’s Model T – in any color as long as it’s black).  The costs of producing, inventorying, and distributing variations were too expensive to be cost effective.  The economics of mass variation weren’t cost effective.

However, today we’re living in a different world.  We live in a world of electrons not protons (bits and atoms as the book would describe it.)  Electrons move from one spot to another at lightning speed thus eliminating distribution costs.   Electrons don’t take up nearly as much space as protons … the result is the virtual elimination of storage costs.  Electrons flow through computers in a seemingly infinite number of ways resulting in a lower cost to produce the variation that customers want.

We live in the world of $0.99 music downloads, print-on-demand books, and streaming video.  In short we already experience the ability to purchase bits not protons – or at least the electrons are converted to protons at the last moment.  We don’t buy tapes or CDs as often as we once did.  Instead we purchase the music – and occasionally convert the electrons into protons  when we burn a CD to play in the car.  We order books which exist solely electronically and they are converted into printed form without our even knowing.  Sometimes we don’t even bother to have them converted as we buy eBooks.  Instead of a single one-size-fits-all video from the network affiliate we are increasingly a society that watches our video from the Internet.  We watch 3-5 minute clips of the news stories that we want to watch rather than 30 minute news broadcasts.

The Long Tail explores this idea – the changes that have been happening – and what it means for you and me.  If you’re trying to understand how to make money in an increasingly competitive world, it’s worth a read.

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

Book Review-Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

I have to let you in on a secret. I don’t do this blog for you.  Not that anyone could honestly say that they do a blog for one specific person other than themselves.  You see while I’m happy that you (hopefully) find value in this blog.  That isn’t the real reason why I do it.  I do it because I am forgetful.  I need to remember stuff and frankly my memory doesn’t cut it anymore.  So I blog solutions, I collect information, and that way I can find it again – and my friends and clients can find it by searching.  (I’ve told many a client to search my blog for their answers.)

That isn’t to say that some posts aren’t really for you.  There are some that definitely are.  There are posts that exist because there was a client that wanted or needed something documented and they said it was OK to put it on the blog.  There are some intensely altruistic moments when I do truly do things for you – whoever you are – but mostly I don’t.

That’s why Wikinomics is so scary.  What do I mean by scary?  Well, I mean that I still don’t get the social networking animal.  Lawrence Liu has been patiently tutoring me, but still, I’m not 100% in the groove with it.  I still haven’t told you why Wikinomics is so scary … it shows real examples of how the power of social networking has brought about dramatic shifts in the way that we do business.

Everyone reading this blog probably has heard of Linux.  Most folks probably know it is open source.  It’s one of those examples people lay out when they talk about the new way that we’re working.  However, to let you in on a secret, it’s not really all about social networking – Linux is about many things not the least of which is a way for non-Microsoft organizations to make money.

Perhaps the most powerful mass market example – from my perspective – is Wikipedia.  Want to know about something?  Go to Wikipedia.  As long as someone like Stephen Colbert hasn’t been mucking with the pages you can generally get some good information on a variety of topics – for free.  There’s information there that I didn’t even know existed.  For fun, go to Wikipedia and query for your favorite corporation.

After a book full of examples of popular and less than popular examples of how the power of large numbers of people can change the world, I’m wondering what changes are coming that we’re not even seeing yet.  I must admit that I was genuinely concerned when I read the book – but then I became excited.

The real exiting part is what happens when the masses… the millions of productive human beings who work their 9 to 5 shift decide to start interacting with the rest of the world without the barriers of physical space limitations?  What if the tool and die maker comes home and does CAD projects off of a site like Mechanical Turk?  Why?  Not for money, the pay isn’t necessarily all that great but instead for the fun of it.

I know that there are some coding problems that are fun for me to solve, even if the reward isn’t that great.  (Don’t believe me?  How many of you know that I have half a dozen products that I sell – but don’t market?)  What happens when we change our culture from one where we “veg out” into a culture where we “turn on” our brains and start doing productive – or semi-productive work?

If I’ve got you the least bit intrigued, pickup the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and see what I mean.

Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life

Book Review-Linked

Some things come easy to me.  I see patterns.  I make connections that not everyone makes.  However, there are many more things that are more difficult.  I struggle to understand the idea of social networking, blogging, wikis, and forums.  They mystify me.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t try my hand at it to learn, it just means it doesn’t make that much sense.  I keep trying new things, new approaches, and start new conversations all seeking to figure out how it all works together.

So while I’m still reading software development titles because the journey that I’m on to be a better software developer – despite a decreasing amount of my time being spent that way – is a never ending journey.  However, I’m also beginning to inject social networking, long-tail marketing, and similar topics in an attempt, no matter how feeble to GROK it.

Linked is one of those books that I picked up upon the recommendation of a trusted colleague.  The book’s primary focus is networked thinking.  In other words, there is not one answer that drives everything.  It’s a series of complex interactions between all of the players that creates the play.  As someone who does a lot of IT work I’ve gotten quite familiar with a binary view of the world.  The code is either right or wrong.  The answer is either yes or no.  The hypothesis is either true or false.

However, the binary world of ones and zeros isn’t enough to explain the group dynamics of a user group.  Nor can it illuminate the reasons why a community thrives when another doesn’t.  It doesn’t well expose the single cause for success – probably because there isn’t one.

One of the great things about Linked was that it provides a great deal of information about a wide variety of subjects and pulls it all back to a central theme that many things are networks where one change impacts every other.  From eco-systems where animals are returned to a state of balance, to cancer, and to other far flung ideas a model emerges that things are connected to one another.

As an author and editor, I’ve read and written more than my fair share of material.  However, to be honest I’ve never liked reading academic papers.  I felt like the objective was to make the information harder to understand – to prove that the author is smarter than the reader.  The sacrifice I’ve made in this is that sometimes information that is quite good and relevant never makes it to me because I can’t coerce myself into reading the academic papers that the information is buried in.

This too was an interesting thing about Linked.  There were lots of very critical and strangely useful details buried in its pages and in very few occasions did I feel like it got to be too academic. (This is high praise if anyone’s trying to sort out what I mean.)  I felt like the author repeated his points from different angles without being overly repetitive.  He exposed some fairly advanced mathematical topics without wandering off into places that the reader couldn’t follow.

The short is that Linked helps you to understand how things are connected in every discipline, in every country, and in our every day.  If you’re struggling to understand how marketing works, how large systems function, or how coincidences happen, it’s definitely worth a read.

Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative

Book Review-Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative

I struggle to find the right way to express how to make software development right.  I can’t say that I subscribe to every idea that is put forth by Software Engineering.  The Software Engineering Institute does drive software development forward.  However, having had the opportunity to listen to a few of the speakers that work for the SEI, I can’t say that I feel like they’re in touch with reality.

The appealing thing about this book, Software Craftsmanship- the New Imperative, is the opportunity to take a different perspective towards software development.  I’ve always felt in some ways that building software was about getting a feel for the users, the technology and making them come together.  The idea that you don’t build software you craft it is certainly appealing.

The whole book puts forth the idea that we think about software wrong.  We take the few examples of large projects and expect that the experiences gained there will apply to every software project.  There have been numerous observations that the software development practices that we know, from these observations, lead to better software are routinely ignored or not followed.  Although there are many reasons for this, the reality is that we don’t do what we are taught to do.

The other end of the spectrum is the apprenticeship model that’s practiced in many other professions either from a formal structure or informally. Most trade professions have some sort of a process from taking apprentices and making them into professionals.  This is an approach that the author proposes we should be doing with Software Development.

In my own experience, I can say that both are needed – and the idea of software as a craft is widely under discussed in professional articles and books.  Despite this it’s the primary way that I teach, and learn, about software development and how to make it better.  As a coach and mentor I train developers to remember to watch error handling, to test, to think about boundary conditions, to care about the resulting code, and all of the things that make up good software.

They learn not through the one time reading and single verbalization of these ideas but through the continual reinforcement of the ideas and the continued application of the ideas to their work.

I learn through work with my colleagues.  They teach me their approach and I teach them mine.  Whether I alter my approach or they alter their approaches, we’re both better for the exchange.

The book is somewhat repetitive in places and over the top in others, however, it’s a good read if you can put aside the details and focus on the core message and evaluating it against the way that you do software development today.

Dynamics of Software Development

Book Review-Dynamics of Software Development

More than 10 years ago Jim McCarthy wrote the first edition of Dynamics of Software Development.  At that time it was a great book.  It helped identify specific behavior patterns that software development teams fall into.  Perhaps the most familiar behavior pattern is flipping the “Bozo bit” – in other words writing someone off as not a valuable member on the team.  Small nuggets of insight like this one are woven together into a tapestry of the behaviors you don’t want to see in your team.

But that’s where the 1995 edition of the book stopped.  You knew what you didn’t want to see and had sign posts to alert you that they were coming.  However, there was very little in the way of support for creating the right kind of behaviors and exterminating those behaviors that you had been warned about.

The 2006 edition in addition to the 1995 content has content designed to support your transition from a team where these behavior patterns are the norm to one where you’re looking for the rare case where there’s some bad patterns emerging.

The “Core System” as Jim and Michele McCarthy describe it is a set of patterns, antipatterns, and “Core Protocols.”  The “Core Protocols” are as set of specific behaviors which support the proper working of a software development team and inhibit the growth of some of the other patterns that are not so favorable.

Dynamics is a book that every development leader should read.  More than that — it is a book that should be used as content for team meetings.  By dissecting one of the 57 rules included in the book you can generate a few minutes worth of discussion on a single, important software development project so that you can move the team forward, one sound byte at a time.

Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game

Book Review-Agile Software Development

With all of the books with “Agile” in their title today why would anyone want to single out Agile Software Development in particular?  My reason was the author Alistair Cockburn.  Alistair has been a part of the agile movement being both an original signatory on the Agile Manifesto and the proponent of the Crystal Clear methodology.  In other words, the resume isn’t bad.

Agile Software Development is both interesting and unique because it’s unlike other books about agile development that you might read.  First, it’s in some ways more of an extension of Peopleware and The Psychology of Computer Programming.  It talks about why developers behave the way they do without condemnation or excuse.  It speaks about the way things are and what you can do to get better results.  Alistair’s understanding of the dynamics of communication can help you construct solutions that allow your team to communicate more effectively.  Either its “rearranging the furniture” or “vandalizing the walls” there is an understanding into the psychology of how things work – and why they work that can be effective whether you’re deciding to adopt an agile methodology or not.  (“rearranging the furniture” and “vandalizing the walls” aren’t his terms – their my colorful summaries of things like evaluating communications like the dispersion of heat or a gas and a concept that Alistair refers to as information radiators.)

On the topic of methodology there’s a lot to be had as well.  I’m preparing for a web cast titled Defining Your Own Software Development Methodology.  In that web cast we’ll be talking about how to create – or more appropriately tailor – a methodology for your organization.  In addition to having some great “sound bites” for that discussion, the model that Alistair uses to talk about methodology creation has influenced some of the web cast material.  Coverage of the characteristics of a methodology, the way to approach usage, and the impact of lighter and heavier methodologies have all been positively impacted.

I’ve always respected the simplicity and usefulness of Alistair’s breakdown of projects based on size and criticality.  The breakdown of criticality into Loss of comfort (C), loss of discretionary monies (D), loss of essential monies (E), and loss of life (L) has been quoted many places.  The reason I appreciate it so much is that it simplifies the task of speaking of the size and characteristics of a software development effort into something that can be quickly understood by all.

As both a word of caution and one of praise, Agile Software Development doesn’t take a formulaic approach to delivering the content.  Instead it gives you all of the components you need to understand how things work and leaves the exercise of making it work to you.  While I find this approach very appealing because I am looking for different views and perspectives which I can add to my toolbox, it may be frustrating for readers who want someone to tell them what “the answer is.”

I leave you with one of my favorite sound bites from the book (p71):

“Although heroes who work overtime may be needed to save poorly run projects, there is a much more interesting phenomenon to observe: ordinary people doing their work with a sense of pride and community and in doing that work noticing something wrong, passing information to someone who can fix the problem, or stepping out of their job descriptions to handle it themselves.  This is an indicator of a community in action, not an indicator of a poor development process.”

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