I’ve followed the work of Terry Abraham for what seems like a long while now. He first came to my attention, and the attention of many others, when I saw the film “Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike”.
Somewhere along the line I connected with Terry on Twitter and watched as his adventures with “Life of a Mountain: Blencathra” unfolded. We watched Blencathra, the day after its debut, sat outside, in the pouring rain, at the Threlkeld Cricket Club, facing towards that majestic and mysterious mountain. I loved the dramatic mountain cinematography accompanied by the narrative of people known to the family and even some distant family members. My wife spent part of her childhood living at Threlkeld Quarry looking out towards Blencathra and her wider family has roots that stretch from Penrith to Wasdale.
In recent years Terry has been working on completing his trilogy with “Life of a Mountain: Helvelyn” which was scheduled to premiere in recent weeks, but a global pandemic got in the way of that, I’m sure it will be brilliant when it does debut.
I had wondered about buying myself a copy of Terry’s recently released book, but hadn’t got around to it, so I was blown away when a copy came through the door including a personal inscription. It turns out that Sue had a similar idea to me, but she had ordered a couple of copies and then been selected by Terry to get something personal put inside.
The book itself is both an exquisite picture book and an autobiography focusing on Terry’s journey to filming mountains.
The pictures mostly align to the story being told and beautifully illuminate the stories of wild camping and inversion chasing. Having not been up a mountain for several months these pictures are both painful and soothing. There is a pain in the lack of access, but there are soothing thoughts of great days to come. You’ll notice, below, that the inscription talks about completing the Wainwrights, I’m nearly there, another four walking days will see me finished which I thought would be easy to achieve this year, but that’s a promise I’m holding lightly.
The autobiographical words illuminate Terry’s love of the hills and of the many Lake District characters that dwell between the mountains. Although having read the book I am slightly concerned about Terry’s health and safety practices while out and about, he does like a visit to the local hospitals.
We live in a world where it is possible to know so much about people, but not really know them. Sometimes we convince ourselves that in our reading, watching and social media interactions that we have got to know someone, but it’s not the same as really knowing someone. That lack of knowing doesn’t stop us having a connection with someone and that’s how I feel about Terry, this book and other interactions have given me a connection, and my life is richer for it. His regular posting on Twitter and elsewhere are an inspiration, and so is the book.
I recently found myself in an unusual place, not knowing where to turn next, because I’d reached the end of a couple of series of books. I’ve recently been re-reading the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis which has been wonderful, but the Last Battle had been and gone. I’ve also been loving the Sidney Chambers series by James Runcie, but that had recently concluded with the prequal. Then there’s been the DCI Ryan novels by L.J. Ross and they finished with a Christmas mystery (although a new one is arriving tomorrow). Like I say, I wasn’t at all sure where to go next when a birthday present arrived – “The Salt Path” by Raynor Winn.
Series of books are great because you get to go deeper with the characters, starting something completely different can be a joyous revelation of new things.
The series above are all novels, “The Salt Path” is more of a biography charting a very personal journey along the The South West Coast Path by Raynor and her husband Moth. The South West Coast Path is a 630 mile ramble from Minehead in Somerset to Land’s End in Cornwall and then on to Poole in Dorset.
I love walking coastlines, but they are hard work especially in somewhere like the South West coast where you can’t walk the beach and spend your life descending into steep valleys and then ascending out of them.
While the physical journey is part of this book, it’s not the major part. Without giving the story away I can tell you that Raynor and Moth have been through a terrible time and for most people even contemplating this walk would be madness, but in their position it feels dangerous, deadly even. Yet, when they set out I understood, absolutely, why they were doing it. The alternatives to the hike were significantly worse.
For Raynor and Moth this walk becomes a journey of discovery, a journey of redemption and ultimately a journey of new resilience.
Most of the time I don’t talk to others about the books that I read, the nearest I get is to write one of these posts, but I’ve found myself talking to numerous people about this one. There are so many anecdotes and stories that I have wanted to share with friends and family. The stories are often funny and regularly amazing. I’m not going to tell any of those stories here, because you can buy the book, and that’s what I want you to do – buy it, read it and let it impact you. This is a book that impacted me and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one.
Header Image: This isn’t Cornwall, this is Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
I really liked this book, it met so many of the criteria for a good book for me:
I like books with practical advice that is communicated as principles rather than prescriptions.
I like books with stories, we are made to remember stories.
I like books based on evidence, particularly when the author acknowledges that the evidence is indicative rather than definitive.
I’ve spent much of my life with a couple of quotations about time ringing through my head:
“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Which I didn’t realise until writing this post was simply an extension of Albert Einstein’s quotation “Time is an illusion”.
“The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”
These two quotations are, in some regards, contradictory. Time can’t be both an illusion and a constant ticking of minutes and yet, for me, this contradiction speaks volumes. We each have the same number of minutes in a day, that is true, and yet, each of us recognises that how we use those minutes greatly influences how we perceive our day. The spending of minutes is where this book is focused, but not where most of this type of book focus their study, on our work life and how to get ahead, this book is primarily targeted at all that time you have when you aren’t working.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”
How do you spend your time? Yes, you spend a lot of it asleep and, probably, another huge section at that thing you call work, but what about the remaining minutes? Have you ever received any training on how to spend that other time? Do you know what type of activity in your free time would enrich the whole of your life? How do you avoid those times where you feel like you’ve wasted your time? How do you get the best value out of your free time? Can you really call time free?
As I look around my friends, acquaintances and colleagues I see so many different ways that people use the freetime that they have. Some people appear to achieve so much and have such amazing experiences while others have little to show for the time that they have spent. What are the things that separate these two extremes? Does it matter? Well it does if we can enrich our whole life and even extend them by investing our time in particular ways.
James Wallman’s hypothesis is precisely that, apply a set of principles to spending our leisure time will greatly enrich our lives.
The reality is, though, that many of us have a very uneasy relationship with the free time that we have. A quotation from the opening chapter of the book:
“The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.”
Why are we so uneasy, particularly now? This is a summary of the reasons that James Wallmam gives:
We are earning more which makes the cost of time seem higher and feel more scarce.
We think that busyness is status.
We have too many incoming messages and too many demands on our time.
Instead of helping, multitasking creates ‘contaminated time’.
We have more opportunities than ever – endlessly scrolling online, more new places to go and events to attend – and end up feeling FOMO (fear of missing out).
Smartphones and all of our digital devices now eat around 60% of our leisure time.
Leisure isn’t taught, and has become trivialised, belittled.
James Wallman likens the different ways that we spend time to the different foods that we eat, some foods being empty-calories, like all of that endless scrolling, and others being super-foods, like a walk with a close friend along a beach. The aim of the book being to teach us how to recognise and consume super-food experiences rather than flopping into an empty-calorie existence.
The structure of the book is based on an acrostic of the
word STORIES with each of the letters highlighting a characteristic of great
Story – understanding the hero’s journey and what makes a great story.
Transformation – creating personal growth leads to happiness.
Outside and Offline – there’s huge power in being outside and away from all of those interruptions.
Relationships – loneliness isn’t healthy, we are made to do things together.
Intensity – this is about flow, which is a huge subject in its own right.
Extraordinary – creating a balance between novel and ordinary experiences.
Status and Significance – creating significance by investing in others.
With a combination of stories, evidence and anecdote each of these chapters creates a set of principles that define those super-food experiences.
I normally leave this bit until the end, but it’s appropriate here:
Header Image: Today’s header image was taken on a recent holiday when I was contemplating many of the principles in this book.
The picture was taken at the Low Wood Bay, Windermere, UK – this place has been a special place in Sue and I’s lives for over 30 years, so returning was extending an already significant story in our lives.
We are stood on a jetty from where we left our wedding reception in a speedboat. As with the day of this picture, it had been a lovely day that we would remember for the rest of our lives. There are many parts of that day that I don’t remember the detail of, but I remember the feeling of stepping into a speedboat that had been kindly decorated by the staff with trailing buoys and a Just Married poster. We kept this part of our wedding a secret, so it was a surprise to nearly everyone and the look on their faces as we zoomed off across the lake is etched into my memory.
Having taken a few picture we put out phones away and we stood and remembered, together, outside, in a kind of flow as we thought about our children, the things we had enjoyed together and the blessing of seeing them both in loving relationships of their own. We thought about some of the adventures that we had been on and looked forward to adventures to come, even the very next day. We looked across the lake at the beauty of it all and held hands.
We used STORIES to extend and enrich our story.
For a slightly longer summary of the information in the book the following is a good podcast:
I’m always on the look out for books that people are reading and finding helpful, interesting, entertaining, etc. Sometimes people recommend something to me, at other times I see a video or a talk by someone and decide to read their book. I found this one via a different route.
One of the subjects that I find interesting is organisational change, particularly in large organisation. The change at Microsoft since Satya Nadella become CEO has been on of the most dramatic organisational changes in recent years. I read his book Hit Refresh a little while ago and was fascinated by the definition of the organisation as a group of warring factions. What I missed from that book and only understood later on was that he had made his entire leadership team read a book as part of changing the warring factions situation – Nonviolent Communication is that book.
This isn’t a new book having been first published in 1999 based on research and experience that dates back to the 1960s. Nor is this a “Business Management” book of the type that you may expect the leader of a large enterprise to be giving out. This book isn’t a business management book at all, really, it would be better to describe it as a “tools for life” book.
As the name suggests this is a book about communication, another subject that has fascinated me for a very long time.
As the introduction to the book says:
“NVC (Nonviolent Communication) is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. it contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know – about how we humans were meant to relate to one another – and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge.”
Nonviolent Communications – A Way to Focus Attention
In these posts I normally give a bit of an overview of the book; I’m not going to do that this time because this is a book that deserves to be read and not consumed as a summary.
The other thing I normally do is provide some personal observations; I’m not going to do that either. Many of my personal observations are very personal and require a bit longer to become part of who I am before I write about the. What I will say is that reading through this book has helped me to see a number of things that I do when I communicate that I need to change, it’s also given me some tools to make those changes.
What I will do is to say what this book isn’t. This book isn’t a how-to prescriptive manual for counselling conversation, although much of what is in the book would be helpful for those situations. Neither is it a book of listening skills, although it includes many great insights on how to be a great listener. It’s not even a manual on how to be politically correct, although some of the examples could be read that way if you were so inclined. This book isn’t just about giving good communication, it’s also about receiving it well.
I started reading this book part way through a series of posts that in my head is called “fascinating conversations”. Once I’d started reading this book I felt that I needed to finish it before continuing those posts for fear of simply adding to my catalogue of poor behaviour. I haven’t yet decided whether I will restart those posts, I probably will, but I need to change some of the language.
Having read it I can understand why Satya Nadella made it mandatory reading for his leadership team.
Everywhere you look technology is changing how we do things and what we do. While this change already feels dramatic the reality is that it’s only just begun. There are many estimates about how significant this change is going to be, the latest one was published in the UK, this week, by the Office of National Statistics: Automation could replace 1.5 million jobs, says ONS. To be clear about the statistics here, this is 1.5 million jobs in England (not the whole of the UK or GB) and represents 7.4% of jobs. The slight irony of this report is that it is accompanied by a ChatBot which will tell you about which jobs are at risk, thus demonstrating the levels of disruption already underway.
Society is on the leading edge of a technology tsunami. Advances in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, virtual reality, robotics, nanotechnology, deep learning, mapping the human brain, and biomedical, genetic, and cyborg engineering will revolutionize how most of us live and work. Technology will be able to learn, as well as teach and program itself. We call this next big step the Smart Machine Age, or SMA.
Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 1). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
As with any change, we have a choice, we can either ignore it, or we can recognise it and respond. Once we recognise that a response is required the next sensible question is “how?”
How is the change going to impact me?
What skills am I going to need for the future?
What skills is my organisation going to need for the future?
It’s these questions that this book is speaking into by arguing that we need a new mindset and new behaviours.
They argue that the way we think isn’t suitable for the SMA:
Mental models guide our thoughts and actions and predispose us to behave in certain ways. They can help us simplify the world and operate efficiently, but they can also be limiting and destructive when they’re like concrete bunkers, blinding or repelling us from ideas, facts, or perspectives that challenge our views of the world. Many of our mental models are stuck in ideas and perceptions originating in the Industrial Revolution. The SMA is a new reality requiring new ideas and rules.
Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (pp. 33-34).
What’s the route to these required mindset changes? Humility:
What ultimately is needed to thrive in the coming SMA is this kind of openness to perceiving and processing the world more as it is and not merely as we believe or would like it to be. That is what’s at the heart of our definition of Humility. In the SMA, we all will have to acknowledge the need to spend less time focused on “big me” and instead balance our competitive spirit with a collaborative spirit, because critical thinking, innovative thinking, and high emotional engagement are all team sports—“big us.”
Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 60). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
The book then goes on to describe a set of NewSmart Behaviours that will enable us to make this mindset change and to create a posture of humility:
Managing Self: Thinking and Emotions
Otherness: Emotionally Connecting and Relating
The final section of the book broadens these ideas beyond purely personal changes and focuses on the ways in which these changes are impacting teams and the changes to the ways in which we lead the NewSmart Organisation.
Sometimes it’s difficult to summarise a book into just a few words. For me, this book is itself a summary, it’s chocked full of many interesting and valuable ideas, but isn’t sufficient for us to become NewSmart. In no way is that a criticism, I’m not sure that any book could be sufficient, reading a few pages on Reflective Listening or Quieting Ego isn’t sufficient to change behaviours that we’ve built up over decades (for some of us). Those few pages may be sufficient to get us started on our journey of becoming NewSmart which, itself, would be a great achievement. Sometimes the most difficult part of a journey is to work out the starting direction.
This book draws an a number of books that I’ve already read so there were, for me, times when I felt like I was going over old ground. Again, this isn’t a criticism, it’s great to see ideas proliferate beyond the boundary of a single book.
Humility Is The New Smart includes many Reflection Time sections and a couple of Assessment Tools I found these some of the most valuable parts of the book, taking the time to contemplate the next steps and to dig a bit deeper into the mindset or behaviour being highlighted. I contacted Ed Hess via twitter to see if these were available as a separate document, but unfortunately they aren’t. I wanted to be able to annotate my thoughts and conclusions, which isn’t easy to do in a small area in a book.
In conclusion: The world we live in is changing it’s time to get prepared, and this book gives a great summary of how to develop.
Header Image: Today’s picture is of the Blackthorn blossom which is currently brightening up my morning walk in the fields near to my house.
In summary: IT leaders want to be regarded as real business leaders, to be invited to the top table, and they are told that they should act in a particular way to get that seat at the table. Mark Schwartz argues that that the traditional approach is completely the wrong way of going about it in a world that is changing rapidly.
I’ve read a number of book on the changing landscape of business and, in particular, the radically changing role of technology within businesses. You may call this change Digital Transformation (personally I think that we’ve passed the point of meaningless for that particular term). This is a book for the people who are being expected to lead through that change:
“I’ve read a number of books on IT leadership and how to be a good CIO. None of them mention the major change of the last two decades: the rise of Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. I’ve read plenty of books on Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. None of them explain the role of IT leadership in an Agile world. The two domains are evolving separately: the field of IT leadership continues to frame its problems in its same old ways, oblivious to the deep changes brought on by the Agile revolution, while the Agile world, ever suspicious of management, proceeds as if it can manage without the involvement of IT leaders.”
The most common thought I had while reading this book was: “Yes, that’s it! I’ve seen that.” This was particularly true throughout chapter 2 where Mark outlines the history that has resulted in the situation that many organisations find themselves in and the behaviours that continue to reinforce this situation. This is a situation in which IT is regarded as separate from the business and is handled by contractor-control methods that spawned the whole outsourcing market in which I have worked for many years:
Thus, a distinctive way of thinking about IT was born, and has determined the course of IT since. First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The armslength contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.
There are many challenges with this approach, not least the challenge that a contractor-control relationship requires a level of stability and certainty that IT is not and should not be in a position to predict. Don’t get me wrong here, there are facets of IT provision that should be contracted, that’s what the who cloud change has been about, but that’s not where the business value is and that’s where the IT leaders should be focusing. Rather than subscribing to the “IT and the business” contractor-control model, Mark Schwartz sets out a different approach based on Lean and Agile thinking. I’d be reproducing the book if I tried to summarise all of the different ways in which Mark sees this playing out and that’s not the point of a quick review.
Some key stand-out thoughts for me though:
Planned Approaches v Agile Approaches
Planned approaches may have given us a perception of control, but that control was just an illusion. There were always too many unknown factors to really have control. Using Agile approaches allows us to continuously correct the course as we discover things helping us to navigate the unknown.
Enterprise Architecture in an Agile World
There are many fascinating insights into the role of Enterprise Architecture in a world where Agile is the way to deliver.
I have said that we need to stop looking at IT delivery in terms of projects and products. With what, then, shall we replace them? I’d like to suggest that the enterprise architects have had it right all along. We manage an enterprise-wide asset with an “as-is” state and a “to-be” state. We groom this asset in perpetuity—as the company changes and develops—by adding, removing, and improving its capabilities. We try to build into it agility and options, risk mitigations, and usability. The totality of our IT capabilities is an economic asset that will be used to derive profits or accomplish mission, and we might as well just call this the Enterprise Architecture.
As architects we need to move quickly away from our roles as the occupiers of the “land of the template zombies” and step into our new role as members of the business community who manage the IT economic asset. I wonder whether the term “Enterprise Architecture” is already too closely aligned to the “template zombies” to be redeemed, but that’s just the title and it was never really about the title.
We need to think very differently about risk, risk logs have never worked. Our plans require us to accurately predict the future, and we’ve never managed to that either. The way that we control risk is to make changes as circumstances develop. Creating experiments to help us understand how to navigate the risks is going to be the new skill that we all need.
Build v Buy
Mark makes an argument that the cost of building used to be so high that at always made sense to buy. The problem with buying was that you never quite got what you needed; you either got more than you needed or you got something that was only an 80% fit for what you need. This has all changed as the cost of building has reduced because of capabilities like micro-services which allow us to build something that is a 100% fit for what we need by plugging together a number of preexisting elements from cloud capabilities.
My personal perception is that this change is already taking hold – I’m seeing a lot more building going on.
The Role of the Senior Leader
Within this framework of change Mark outlines a new role for the IT leader, a role that has changed from be an enforcer of the contractor-control model to one whose role is to create an environment where self-managing teams can thrive. Mark summarises this change in a number of new roles:
Driver of Outcomes – taking responsibility for business outcomes.
Manager of Uncertainty – dealing with uncertainty has always been a part of IT leadership.
Steward of Assets – three critical ones the Enterprise Architecture asset, the IT people asset and the data asset.
Contributor – by being technical.
Influencer and Salesperson – stepping up to the “Chief” role.
Orchestrator of Chaos – businesses are complex systems that require a level of orchestration to truly sing.
Enabler – enabling activities rather than controlling them.
Independent Remover – “The best thing that a manager can do is to help the team do what it knows how to do by removing impediments.”
Manager of Managers – helping to manage other managers into an Agile mindset.
There’s a lot of focus on IT teams becoming Agile, but that’s only going to make a small change in most business. The real challenge is how a business becomes Agile, and that’s going to require a different kind of IT leadership.
This is a book I’m going to be coming back to.
Header Image: This is Lindisfarne Castle from Lindisfarne Harbour which is looking great after a number of years being surrounded in scaffolding for a renovation.
Why do you do what you do, when you do it? That is the fundamental question threaded throughout this book. The reality is, for many of us, we have unconsciously walked into a When of life that has little to do with productivity, performance or even well-being.
We have a tendency to treat all of our awake time as equal, we schedule our days around the priority of an activity and little else. We sit in afternoon meetings conscious of things going a bit slow, but choose to power through. We visit our doctor and expect the best performance from them whenever we go. We remember sitting in afternoon exams wondering why it was so hard. Yet, we all know instinctively that we have certain times of the day where different things are more enjoyable, and times when we are better at doing certain things.
In When, Daniel H. Pink, gives a framework for understanding ourselves, and those around us. As with many human conditions we all sit somewhere on a spectrum and not rigidly into any neatly defined box, but having the boxes helps us to understand ourselves and others. In When the boxes are:
Early to mid-morning
Late afternoon and evening
Late afternoon/early evening
Late afternoon/early evening
Making an Impression
Morning (sorry owls)
Making an Decision
Early to mid-morning
Late afternoon and evening)
Most of us are third-birds – we’re neither extremely larkish or blatantly owly.
If you look through this table you may notice that the mid-afternoon isn’t a great time for anyone or anything and that’s because it isn’t. That post-lunch slump affects most of us and isn’t a great time to progress anything, which is why it’s the ideal time to take a break. Some cultures have breaks built-in with extended lunches and early afternoon naps. This was perhaps the case in the UK some years ago, but it’s certainly isn’t now. Most people have their lunch at their desk while covering their keyboard with crumbs. That, it turns out, is a massive mistake, we would be far more productive if we took a proper break and had a nap.
When is full of advice on how to take good breaks: micro-breaks, moving-breaks, nature breaks, social breaks, even mental gear-shift breaks. Pink’s exhortation is for us to get serious about breaks, to schedule them in and to stick to the schedule.
The mid-point slump, doesn’t just apply to our daily routines though, the same pattern applies to most things – we start and finish with enthusiasm, but struggle in the middle. Pink devotes a number of sections to this phenomenon and in his usual style mixes scientific research with concise practical advice for handling these situations whether that’s a mid-point in a career, in a project or even in a relationship.
I’m not going to cover all of the sections in When here, because there is a lot that I liked about this book and much to apply and the post would be too long if I did. The one remaining section I will touch on though, is the one on synchronising. Getting together with others and performing a task has a powerful impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Having sung in groups most of my life I recognise the power of it in that situation, but I’m predominantly an introvert and wouldn’t go out of my way to join synchronisation opportunities, that’s a challenge. I think that my first step on that one is to join a yoga class, I currently use an app on my iPhone to do my practice, but I recognise that this is robbing me of the synchronisation high that comes from being in a group.
There are certain books that you read and wish that you had read them earlier, this is one of those books. Although, as I reflect upon it, as someone who in many ways is in the middle of things, perhaps it’s best that I read it now, when I need it.
How do you bring significant change to an organisation? Particularly a large, multi-national organisation?
Where do you start once you’ve decided what it is that you want to change? How do you make change that is sustainable?
This is no ordinary organisation either, this is Microsoft, an organisation that has some huge fans, but also massive detractors. It’s an organisation that has made some very public missteps and become regarded as arrogant, but is also one of the most valuable organisations in the world.
How do you revive a giant?
Microsoft has, for a long time, had a reputation for being an organisation with an interesting way of working. This is something that Nadella refers to early on in the book by using a cartoon from Bonkers World that depicts Microsoft’s organisation structure as being one of a set of warring factions:
While it’s a cartoon, it has meaning because it is based in a truth. Moving away from this situation required a significant change of culture and to use Satya’s words for Microsoft to find its soul.
This book is partly an autobiographical telling of how Nadella got to be Microsoft CEO, it’s partly an outline vision for the future of Microsoft and partly a discussion on some of the opportunities and challenges currently facing the wider technology industry.
I found the autobiographical parts the most interesting, but I like biography. These sections give some insights into how someone born in Hyderabad becomes the CEO of an organisation that has had a dramatic impact on the world that we know. There are part of these sections that are very personal, particularly when he is talking about his son Zain who suffered in-utero asphyxiation during his birth which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. This isn’t one of those management books where someone tells you how brilliant they, there’s more humility than that.
Nadella describes the role of CEO as “curator of culture” and it’s clearly culture that he regards as the primary change required. Speaking as someone who works in the technology industry, Microsoft is an organisation that divides opinion, and it takes people a long time to change an opinion. Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO in 2014, since then Microsoft has sought to show a very different culture, embracing many things that previously would have been regarded as red-lines. Two words that Nadella uses several times in the book are listen and empathy neither of them words you would have associated with the Microsoft of the Steve Ballmer era.
The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO.
The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.
Still, many responses to the recently announced purchase of GitHub reflected suspicions of the arrogant Microsoft. I suppose it just goes to show that 4 years isn’t a very long time in people’s memories.
The third section, on some of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology sector are also interesting, but for a different reason. These sections aren’t as insightful into Nadella’s thinking on a particular subject, but feel more like the thinking of the broader Microsoft organisation. There wasn’t, for me, any particular revelation here.
Summarising: Nadella is an interesting character with an interesting background. He seems to me to be taking Microsoft in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see where he gets put when the history of the current age is written.
This is not a complaint, just an observation about a genre of books which I have loved, much to my surprise.
Anyway, back to the irony of listening to this book on Audible. Bookshops have been closing across the UK, including the obliteration of at least one major chain. What’s the primary driver behind this shift in our buying habit – Amazon. The number of books that we buy has been about the same for a number of years, the difference is that we no longer buy them on the high street, we either order them from Amazon, or download them to our Kindles. Shaun Bythell loves the Kindle so much that he has one which he peppered with a shotgun mounted as a trophy on a wall in the shop.
For those of you still looking for the irony, I should point out that Audible is also owned by Amazon.
This Diary of a Bookseller is partly about the daily interactions between a bookshop and the Amazon gorilla, and partly about the daily interactions with visitors to the bookshop. One is strangely faceless and bleak, the other portrays the British public in their eclectic and eccentric diversity.
Amazon has become so pervasive that there’s no way of avoiding it and Shaun is no exception listing many of his books there. This puts him at the mercy of the Amazon algorithms and creates a constant need for good reviews and high fulfilment ratios.
Sometimes the eccentricities of the British public are wonderful, at other times they make you want to scream. From the people who expect to pay the sleeve price for a book that is labelled in shillings and pence, to the people who are delighted to have found a book for which they have been on a long search. From the people who order books from a secondhand bookshop who complain that the book was indeed secondhand, to the people who sit by the fire in the shop building a pile of books which they then buy. This books is about a bookshop but, for me, it was primarily about these interactions.
It seems appropriate to start this post by defining my own relationship with the countryside. I am basically a townie, but it’s more complicated than that.
I’ve never been a city person although I now live in somewhere called a city. I have always lived in towns, and nearly always on the edge of towns with a significant amount of countryside around them. The secondary school that I went to was a combination of town people and country people; we mixed quite well and I would cycle out of town to visit a friend who lived on a farm. My first experience of driving was in a tractor.
I’ve always loved to be out in the countryside, as you may have picked up from my instagram timeline, but I’ve never regarded the English countryside as a picture-postcard place, I’ve always seen it as somewhere that has been crafted and maintained by generations of people. This crafting is especially true of the English Lake District where I love to walk.
My wife’s family are lakeland people, her father was born in a small hamlet above Derwentwater where her grandfather was a fell farmer. There are relatives who live and make their livelihood there to this day. I’ve walked the fells around the farm with my wife’s dad and soaked in the stories of the life that they led there; stories of harsh winters, stories of dry-stone walling, stories of hunts, stories of visiting catalogue salesmen, stories of pig slaughter and blood for black puddings, and stories of summers spent sleeping in the barns so that paying visitors could have a bed in the house. In short, stories of a countryside shaped by people and a people shaped by the countryside.
James Rebanks (Herdwick Shepherd) is the son and grandson of lakeland fell farmers. Farming is in his blood and was all that he wanted to be as a child. He lives a way of life that has existed in the northern Lake District for centuries, taking on changes as they have been needed, but continuing to use many of the tried and tested practices. The traditional Herdwick sheep, which he shepherds, characterise the Lake District for many, but they aren’t there for show, they are people’s livelihoods and have been there (probably) since the Vikings brought them over in the 10th or 11th century.
This book is an autobiographical walk through James Rebanks his own upbringing whilst also stepping through the shepherd’s year. I love to read books about other people’s lives, it opens my eyes to the diversity of our ways of life are. Herdwick Shepherd lives just over a hours drive away from my home and yet he lives a life that is in so many ways different to mine. I’ve never rescued a sheep from a snow drift, participated in a livestock auction, delivered a lamb or judged the quality of a tup. Yet, there are many connections with my own story, that of my father-in-law and other lakeland folk that I know. I suppose that’s the power of biography, the differences that interest us and the similarities that connect us.
This isn’t a sanitised, National Trust, portrayal of the Lake District, this is a book that talks about the tragedies of life as well as the wonders of the environment. The sections that talk about the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 are bleak and nearly had me in tears. The descriptions of times in the fells are wonderful.
Many of us have lost the connection between the food that we eat and the farmers and land that produce it. We see so much of our food as a commodity that we want to be cheaper each time we visit the supermarket. One of the lessons from this book is that our drive for cheap risks the very things that we value.
If you are one of those people who love to visit the Lake District, and millions do, then you will learn a lot about what makes this place what it is and it will improve you appreciation of the place on your next visit.
I’m quite happy with where I live, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what it’s like for different people to live where they choose to live.
I’ve been to Denmark several times, mostly to Copenhagen, and always loved the country.
Helen Russell is a lifestyle journalist who is, at the start of the book, based in London with her husband. They work, they eat, they sleep, and not a whole lot more. Then her husband gets a job in Denmark at that landmark organisation Lego.
This book documents Helen’s journey during those first twelve month of living in Denmark. Helen finds a country that works very differently to London, and it has to be said, to the rest of the England. I say England, and not Britain, because I think that there are parts of Scotland where much of what Helen found is present, but for the most part we operate very differently.
Not only does Helen find a country that works differently, but Denmark is also regularly ranked as the happiest country in the world, so what is it that makes it happy? Not surprisingly it’s not a single thing, it’s many things. I suspect that it’s all of it that makes it a happy country, I didn’t read something and say, “if we only did that in England we would be much happier”, but I did think, “if only we did that, and that, and that, and weren’t like that, then we’d be happier”. It’s difficult to change one thing in a whole nation, it’s almost impossible to change the whole thing. For starters, the population of England is nearly ten times greater than that of Denmark, there are one and a half times as many people in London alone, and population size is a factor in happiness.
Having said that, this book shines a light into some English orthodoxies that tell us “we’ll be happy if…” and exposes them as problematic, at best, and downright untrue at worst. In England we believe that long work hours show that you are committed to your work, and that has to be a good thing? In Denmark the working week is significantly shorter and yet they are significantly more productive than we are. In England we tend to believe in small government because we are suspicious of everything that government does, Denmark’s government is significantly larger than ours and yet they are happier. In England we downgrade tradition, always looking for the new thing, in Denmark tradition is highly regarded and seen as the bedrock of much of what they do. In England we regard the accumulation of more possessions as a good thing, it’s not the same in Denmark where things are so expensive that they focus on a few high-quality things.
We are surrounded by algorithms. We are constantly being evaluated by criteria that is invisible to us.
What I see on Google is different to what you see. What I see on Facebook is different to your perspective and not just because I have access to different thing to you.
I pay for insurance for a number of things, the cost of that insurance is governed by a set of parameters that are unknown to me; many of which I can’t change or even validate whether they are correct.
Statisticians have known that many statistics have a dark side creating unintended consequences and perverse outcomes. As we increasingly use data, and the associated statistical algorithms, we need to understand the dangers of the perverse outcomes that we are creating.
Cathy O’Neil uses examples to illustrate the challenges that we are facing. The bulk of the book is examples of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) that already exist. There are examples for algorithms being used for politics, employee candidate selection, criminal justice, insurance, education ratings and advertising, to name just a few. The extent of these algorithms means that it’s unlikely that you haven’t been impacted in some way by one of them, but how do you know that the assessment of you is fair, or even accurate. How do you know what parameters have been used to calculate your insurance premium?
In many of the areas outlined in the book the unintended consequences lead to significant mistreatment of individuals and whole people groups. Many of these people groups being the same people groups that have been mistreated by society for generations – the poor, those living in certain neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and women being particularly negatively impacted.
The book talks about a lot of examples and raises a lot of questions and concerns, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the potential resolutions to the issues raised. There are a few great thoughts in that direction but it’s not that primary topic for this book.
I’m quite sure that we don’t, yet, have the necessary regulatory framework in place for these algorithms. I’m also convinced that we will make progress towards the right framework, but in the interim, damage is being caused.
I read this book in the middle of a political and media storm about an organisation called Cambridge Analytica who collected data from Facebook on 50 million people. This story was pioneered by The Guardian with a lot of coverage on 17th March 2018 quoting whistleblower Christopher Wylie, but it’s worth noting that Cathy O’Neil’s book was published in September 2016 and contains many of the same details about Cambridge Analytica that we now regard as shocking. Perhaps news doesn’t travel as quickly as we think it does.
I was first prompted to read this book by Cathy’s TED talk which will give you an idea of the WMD that she has collected: