How to be black?

Baratunde Thurston at ROFLCon II
Baratunde Thurston at ROFLCon II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First came across Baratunde Thurston on the TWIT show – as a panellist on Leo Laporte‘s show.  And Leo plugged the book hard.

Just finished listening to the book via Audible.  Have to say thought it was a great listen (and therefore read). Baratunde Thurston is, amongst other things, a black comedian. I found the book thought provoking, stimulating and funny (at times).

Thurston has a very open and positive approach.  And this is also reflected by the panel participants.  In many respects while the subject is ‘black’ the theme could be ‘how to be …anything?’.  The message is that it’s up to the individual to make the experience positive.

Notwithstanding all of this, the book does not shy away from discrimination experienced by black people.  And Thurston’s own upbringing, his father having been shot when he was only a boy, by a far sighted mother who was ambitious for him is well documented.  The combination of attending the private school (Sidwell) while learning about his black roots and customs is brilliantly contrasted.

Well worth taking the time to read or listen to.

 

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Steve Jobs – Biography by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

A man in a hurry who never seems to have been particularly happy.

By any measure of business success he achieved a great deal – built a company (Apple), lost and regained control of Apple (including rescuing Apple), shaped another company (Pixar), developed and commercialised a range of outstanding products.

It was interesting to read the book as someone who has lived through most of the same period.  In a previous role within KPMG I was very involved in the role out of Apple technology across the firm (and the development of specialist software for the platform).  I also recall the subsequent decision to migrate to the Windows platform because of a perceived lack of business applications software for the Apple platform at the time.  And in my current role I have not yet returned to the Apple platform – to date preferring the combination of Microsoft, Google and Android.

Jobs is not portrayed in a particularly attractive light as a person nor as a boss/manager.  His treatment of people falls far below that expected.  Yes he was within his rights to demand focus, attention to detail, brilliant engineering, quality output from his advisors, etc.  But the haranguing of employees and vendors, the tantrums, the rejection of ideas and subsequent relabeling as his own ideas – none of these would warm you towards the man.

I suppose Jobs is an example of the entrepreneur who stays in control.  In many cases we talk about the need to transfer control from the entrepreneur to the professional management team – on the basis that the entrepreneur brings the idea and the energy for the startup but may not have all the skills to see the startup through to full development into an established company.  Perhaps the appointment of Sculley was the attempt to do this.  But it failed and failed badly.  A couple of points here: it can only work if it has the support of the entrepreneur and the timing is also critical.  In Apple’s case it happened too late, it did not have Jobs support )in spite of the initial ‘love-in’ and perhaps Sculley was not the tight person.  The other essential question though is how do you maintain the innovation momentum  when you switch control to the professional management team?  In theory the entrepreneur should have more time to devote to product development, research, etc.  But would this have resulted in the stream of new products from Apple (post Jobs’ return) if he has not been at the top of the organisation?  I don’t think so.

I often distinguish between those who get projects done and those who play a positive role in corporations. Good project managers will do whatever it takes to get the project delivered on time and on budget – including managing scope and user expectations.  Good corporate managers understand the corporate objectives and develop teams of people in this context.  Typically the two types are different.  Project managers have little interest in anything except closing out the project – leaving someone else to pick up the pieces in terms of people who have been sidelined, over stressed, temporarily over praised.  Corporate managers work to a different timetable – seeking to develop the people and move the company toward tis objectives.

Jobs had a vision for Apple and Pixar – and this vision drove him.  And he embodied this vision in many of his products – e.g. Toy Story, iTunes, iPhone.  But the impression I form from Isaacson’s account of Jobs is of someone who was so project focused, delivery focused,  that a lot of what is associated with building corporate culture, developing people was dumped.   And the interesting summary of all of this is that it worked.  Jobs created a company of ‘A players’ and demanded A performance.  He got A performance and refused to accept anything less.   The result – outstanding products and outstanding commercial success.

So what was the genius of Steve Jobs?  A number of thoughts strike me after reading the book and experiencing a number of his products (Pixar and Apple):

  • Hard work and sustained application comes in near the top.  How many times do we read about getting close to product release and deciding to rework something because it was not quite right?  Yes this points to the high standards he set for himself and the team – but also the commitment and willingness to take on the rework to get something right.
  • Jobs was comfortable being surrounded by experts – be that brilliant engineers, designers or marketers.  He never lost sight of the fact that regardless of their individual ability they were all cogs in the wheel – all with a role to play.  He may have had a natural bias towards to design side, but he understood that he needed the best in all areas.  His management style may have been questionable – at the very  least on a human level – by the did not struggle in an environment of brilliant people
  • Tough commercial negotiator – whether dealing with Microsoft, music industry or Disney – and executed a number of his deals from positions of weakness.
  • His own consistent advice to others appears to have been to focus – and he appears to have followed this advice himself.  He was not short on ideas but focused on specific opportunities.
  • Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  We can all see now that smartphone, digitised music, etc all make sense.  But Jobs saw the opportunity looking forward – he saw the opportunity with the Xerox GUI development at Palo Alto.  Jobs saw the opportunity for innovation through technology.

The Jobs/ Gates rivalry is a recurring theme through the book.  They both built hugely successful companies in the same period.  Isaacson emphasises the basic difference in philosophy being Jobs’ obsession with total control (hardware and software) as against Gates’ willingness to release his software for different platforms.  I think this analysis is an over simplification – Gates was very keen to own the desktop by ensuring it was running his operating system (and today Balmer would like to see mobile phones running a Microsoft operating system).  Jobs is dismissive of Android – in fact seems to see Android as a poor quality rip off of Apple.  I think this case is unproven.

Having read so much comment about the book in the press was wondering whether I would learn anything from the book itself.  Not sure that I fully understood the man himself after reading the book.  Isaacson was determined to paint the picture ‘wars and all’.  He probably did this.  But I think somewhere in this he missed a trick in summarising the man.  I enjoyed reading the biography.  It was a rip roaring life when you look at the ups and downs, the product releases, the deal making, the family life.  And because we have all been touched by his technology it feels relevant.

Change impacting privacy

Have finally gotten around to reading ‘Privacy in Context‘ – Helen’s Nissenbaum‘s excellent treatise on privacy.

Privacy, invasion of privacy, attacks on privacy – never seems to be out of the news.  Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook theme seems to be that privacy is a thing of the past.  Much of the behaviour of people in social networks would tend to suggest that attitudes to privacy have changed greatly.

Helen Nissenbaum provides some to the background – what we mean by privacy, why it may be a good thing for the individual, why it may be a good thing for society.  And she considers the impact of changes in technology:

  • ‘democratization of database technologies
  • information mobility
  • information aggregation
WRT social networks she considers three developments:
  • individuals publishing information about themselves
  • posting information about others on one’s web page
  • capacity to monitor and track others’ activities
I have to say that from a personal perspective I think the smart phone (with its close integration (in fact seamless) with social networking platforms e.g. picassa, google+, twitter, facebook has accelerated everything in the last 18-24 months.
I found the discussion about the benefits of privacy e.g. in people’s personal development very relevant – and reminded me of what society and individual may be losing through some of the so called advances.

The Challenge of Change – Brendan Drumm

Just finished reading Brendan Drumm’s account of his experience of leading change in Public Health in Ireland – as head of the HSE from 2005 to 2010: ‘The Challenge of Change – Putting Patients before Providers‘.

Interesting book on a number of counts: good discussion of a major change project, public health is of interest to all of us, provides an insight into implementing change in public sector and poses some interesting questions about the role of politics and politicians and their impact on provision of public services.

He is very forthright on a number of points:

  • Patients (ie the public) need to demand change
  • Practitioners need to lead the change
  • Primary care is at the centre of any effective solution
  • We do not need more beds
  • Rationalisation of A&E services across the country was the only option – backed up by significantly improved ambulance services
  • HSE (and therfore the public) was paying too much for drugs
  • The revised consultant contract (80/20 split of public/private) work is the way forward
Was somewhat surprised not to see some more coverage of potential role of technology in enabling and sustaining change e.g. potential benefits of electronic patient records.

Clearly be believes that he has mapped out a way forward for public healthcare, that we have made significant progress during the last five years and that if the curent incumbents stay on message we will see real changes and benefits for patients in years to come.

It will be interesting to see how a number of changes play out:

  • Ongoing discussions re consultant contracts e.g. reimbursement; changing role in context of 80/20 arrangements
  • Further consolidation of A&E facilities across the country
  • Further role out of integrated services
  • How will the current Minister for Health drive forward the changes?

 

 

 

Interconnected becomes hyperconnected

Excellent piece in today’s New York Times from Thomas Friedman (previous reference).  Greatly enjoyed his previous book ‘The world is flat‘.

Friedman touches on a three ideas:

  • Advances in technology (since The World is Flat in 2004) e.g. twitter, facebook, freelancer.com are threatening white collar rather than blue collar jobs
  • Stop talking about outsourcing – really just a question of sourcing
  • There is now only good, better and best – and our schools need to catch up

Friedman has it right.  Social networking, mobile technology, free videoconferencing, tools to support collaboration, sites to rate resources – it’s all making for a world where you can assemble the best resources you require to do any task.  Increasingly there will be less room for inferior service.

Some background to China

The Ming Empire without its "vassal state...
Image via Wikipedia

Recently read Chinamerica and reviewed here.

I was looking for a basic history book to provide some insight into modern China.

Just read Patricia Buckley Ebrey’s ‘Cambridge Illustrated History – China’ (2nd Edition).  Would recommend this to anyone looking for an outline history.  Not that one reading of 360 odd pages makes for an expert on China.  But it certainly helps in trying to understand some of the background to what is modern China.

Reminds me of how little I learned about China during my school days.  And how we were programmed to measure China’s progress in terms of how it imitated Western culture.  Wrong approach.

Interesting to walk through the different dynasties – their rise and fall (Tang, Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing) – through to Mao and modern China.

Now looking forward to reading ‘When China Rules the World’ – having read the background history.

 

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Do I need checklists?

Cover of "The Checklist Manifesto: How to...
Cover via Amazon

Just read Atul Gawande‘s ‘The Checklist Manifesto – how to get things right’. Thanks to Brian Dunnion for suggesting reading the book.

The answer is a resounding – YES.  I do need checklists.  And the author would suggest we all need checklists.

I found the book particularly interesting in that he references examples in which I have some direct experience: healthcare, construction/ engineering and finance/accounting.  The other key area referenced is air travel (use of checklists by pilots).

Gawande is a surgeon who has had direct involvement in development and implementation of checklists in theatres – to be used by the surgery teams.  Much of his learning about what makes for a good checklist is centered on what he learned from Daniel Boorman of Boeing – detailed in a fascinating chapter ‘The Checklist Factory’.  He provides lots of detail on the background to a checklist he developed in working with the World Health Organisation (‘WHO’).  And he deals with the change management challenges in seeking to have the same adopted across the globe.

In discussing the application of checklists Gawande introduces a method of categorising problems between Simple, Complicated and Complex (Brenda Zimmerman and Sholom Glouberman). In demonstrating the application of checklists in complex areas he provides a number of examples from the construction industry in the US.

In closing Gawande provides some of the detail re the Hudson river landing by US Airways 1549 in January 2009. Gawande profiles Sullenberger and Skiles as heroes – because they followed process and followed checklists e.g. in spite of their vast experience as two pilots they had gone through all the proper checklists before taking off, they did follow the checklists when the birds struck.

And finally he provides an example of how he believes checklists have benefited his patients in surgery in the last number of years.

All of us bring our experience, our training and our skills to the jobs we do.  But when we are distracted, working under pressure, faced with unexpected happenings, effective, relevant checklists can make the difference between success and failure.

 

 

 

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The Shallows – Nicholas Carr

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows – how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’.

Carr provides lots of historical and scientific background material – all of which I found relevant and stimulating.  In many respects I found myself identifying closely with Carr’s own experience – wondering what impact my increasing involvement with the online world is having on me.  I am also trying to understand the threats and opportunities for my kids as they grow up in this web centric world.

I suppose the first theme is Carr setting out to substantiate his theory that the mind is impacted by the tools we use.  He refers to its ‘plasticity’.  He quotes a range of authorities (and experimental evidence) to support this.  And I found this conclusive.

He also takes us back as far as Socrates and his concerns as to the impact on the mind of writing down details of events – the potential negative impact on mind/ memory.

I was most struck by the discussion about memory and how the mind commits detail to ‘long term’ memory.  Carr talks about the current processing and the long term storage.  In particular he focused on the importance of focus/ concentration when reading – the impact on the ability of the mind to process and store information being related to this ability to concentrate (and, it would seem, the impact of your immediate surrounds e.g. quite rural v. busy metropolitan). In this context it is interesting to compare the online, hypertext enhanced, web experience with reading a book.  The web experience is immediately more attractive (and vastly more distracting).  Generally the online experience is accompanied by interruptions from social networks, email, instant messaging, text on the side of pages, etc.  Reading a book, as I have just done, in a quiet room, with no online distraction, is quite different.

I would not suggest that reading a book in a quiet room is without distractions.  As a consultant, reading a book such as ‘Shallows’ I find myself inevitably thinking about recent experiences in client situations, current client issues and, more generally, other books/ materials I have read on related subjects.  Carr references some of this in an interesting observation on the difference between computer memory and human memory.  At different stages we recall detail from long terms memory to current memory, associate it/ correlate it with current memory content and eventually, depending on quality of our experience, may restore it in an enhanced way in long term memory.  And we would describe this as a richer memory storage than any we may ‘outsource’ to computer memory.

Carr admits he has not changed much in his own behaviour.  While writing the book he withdrew from much of his online interactivity.  He readily admits to his own ‘withdrawal’ symptoms during this period.  Having completed the book he returned to the web.  He also acknowledges that for many working in this web centric world they have little choice but to participate actively.  However none of this is to undermine his analysis – there is a real need to distinguish between genuinely human thinking and memory and that which is driven/ influenced by search engines, social networks and online content.  Fail to make time for quality, offline, reading/ research/ contemplation at your peril.

I would very much like to see a discussion of Carr’s book incorporated into secondary school education – if there is an appropriate subject/ class in which to discuss it.

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Web 2.0 not all positive

Photo of Jaron Lanier performing at the Garden...
Image via Wikipedia

Close to finishing Jaron Lanier‘s excellent book: ‘You are not a  gadget’.  For someone like me who promotes social networking and web 2.0 Lanier certainly asks some tough questions.  I will comment in more detail in a later post – but I have to say his criticism of our obsession with the wisdom of crowds and of Wikipedia make a great deal of sense.  When I studied English in High School the cheat guides to the classical texts e.g. Hamlet, Persuasion, etc were Coles’ Notes.  They provided you with bullet proof analysis/ critiques for the texts – but obviated the need for original thinking/ imagination/ creativity.  Likewise Lanier argues that crowds will never produce original thinking on a par with an Einstein.

Today read an interesting piece in the New York Times on Hasbro‘s plans to dumb down a number of their games e.g. Monopoly.  They are making an effort to make the games more attractive through inclusion of some unnecessary technology – dressed up as a way to prevent cheating!  Seems to me cheating was always part of the fun in these board games.  More interestingly they also comment on the fact that younger people’s attention spans are continuing to shrink.  Without doubt this is a serious challenge for all educators.  And Web 2.0 has contributed significantly to the problem.

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Review: Chinamerica: Why the Future of America is China

Name:  Chinamerica: Why the Future of America is China

Author:                Handel Jones

ISBN 978-0-07-174242-9

In many respects this book seemed to me to describe the natural follow on from much of what Tom Friedman had pointed out in his excellent work, The World is Flat.  China’s wealth is growing – and with it, its influence and power.  America’s preeminent position on the world stage is under threat, slipping and, in some fields, gone.

We are familiar with the themes: hard work and ambition, flexible labour force, growing population, currency manipulation, lack of respect of intellectual property rights, powerful, central control, controls over imports, growing foreign currency and gold reserves.  Jones provides interesting commentaries on developments in specific industries: automobile, electronics (including contract manufacturing), steel and software.  He also deals with the assimilation of Hong Kong and forecasts a future assimilation of Taiwan – driven by economic imperatives on both sides.

With respect to the US Jones has a number of concerns, including: non competitiveness, lack of commitment to research, disproportionate influence of the agriculture lobby, slipping educational standards.  Most importantly he sees a lack of strategic (medium and long term) planning in the context of competing with China (and other countries).

Living in Ireland I was particularly struck my Handel’s analysis of the educational backgrounds of top leaders in China (pp142-145).  The group is dominated by people with engineering and science backgrounds.  Perhaps this explains the target of 1,000,000 engineering graduates per annum by 2015.  In Ireland we seem to specialise in having governments dominated by teachers, lawyers and accountants.

The automobile industry is an excellent example of contract between US and China.  The US industry has recently been bailed out.  It is crippled by high costs – including the health benefit costs associated with retired workers.  China is currently ahead of its plan to build 15,000,000 cars and trucks per annum by 2015.

China is not without its challenges – in terms of mass poverty, underdeveloped rural society, rising expectations of its people, creating work for its people, competition from other countries, requirement to improve quality of its products.

Jones has not given up the ghost on America.  But he sees a need for change – and outlines this in his 8 point ‘restructuring plan’ – to include:

  • 5 and 10 year planning
  • National metrics
  • Financial support for building corporations to compete
  • Cuts in social spending
  • Financial incentives to increase exports
  • Tax subsidies to build new industries
  • Efficient manufacturing within US

In conclusion Chinamerica provides a useful comparison between industrial and economic growth in America and China over the last 10-15 years.  Jones provides useful insights into the reasons for the divergence and proposes a number of actions required to be taken in order for America to compete on a level playing field.  Will be very interesting to watch how this plays out in the next 5 -10 years.

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