2015 in Review: Reading and Writing Highlights

I had a fun year in 2015. I took on some new responsibilities at work, moved my family up to Washington State, spoke at a few conferences, received another Microsoft MVP award, took on a “lead editor” role at InfoQ.com, and delivered Pluralsight courses on Cloud Foundry and AWS Databases. And, I’ve continued to blog for over 10 years now with no interruptions. Thanks to the 130,000 of you who stopped by in 2015. I’ve enjoyed taking this journey with you.

As I’ve done for the last few years, I thought I’d recap some of the best books that I read this year, and the things that I enjoyed writing the most.

Favorite Blog Posts and Articles

I kept up a decent writing pace this year, and here were some of my favorites.

Favorite Books

Plowed through twenty four books in 2015, and many of them were focused on either strategy/leadership, or history. Of course, many of the history books are also lessons in leadership!

  • Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. I read this after seeing how much it influenced my colleague Jim Newkirk. This is a heavily-researched book that explains how people form “tribes” in all walks of life, and we can categorize (and improve) the performance of a tribe. The authors encourage the reader to use various leverage points to positively adjust language and relationships in a tribe. Any tribe has a dominant culture, and after reading this book, you can easily identify what stage you are at. Stage 1, where life sucks? Stage 2, where my life sucks? Stage 3, where I’m great, but you’re not? Stage 4, where we’re great, and they’re not? Or Stage 5, life is great? This matters, because the authors use data to demonstrate that tribes at higher stages will outperform tribes at lesser stages. This is a great book, easy read, and will likely alter your approach.
  • Starship Troopers. The 1997 movie is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I had heard the book was much less ridiculous. Indeed, the book has a good plot, and has some insightful discussion about duty, allegiance, and leadership. And bugs. Really big bugs.
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. This true story was freakin’ insane and I finished the book in two days. It’s the story of Ernest Shackleton and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their planned itinerary was cut short when their ship got stuck in the ice, and from then on, they team faced an unbelievable set of obstacles as they fought for survival in one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth. Phenomenal tale of sacrifice and a refusal to succumb to impossible odds. I would have lasted barely a day under these conditions.
  • Barbarians to Bureaucrats: Corporate Lifecycle Strategies. My former boss Jared Wray recommended this book. It goes through the leadership stages in the corporate lifecycle, and identifies characteristics of each stage, the challenges you face, and how to work with leaders in that mode. These stages – prophet, barbarian, builder and explorer, administrator, bureaucrat, and aristocrat – are well explained, and the authors describes how a “synergist” leader can move between stages as the company needs it. Read it, identify where you’re at, and if you’re working at a place functioning in the last couple stages, start looking for work elsewhere!
  • Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It … and Why the Rest Don’t. The author identifies three barriers you face when scaling small enterprises to large ones: leadership, scalable infrastructure, and market dynamics. The book includes plenty of techniques for helping companies find the right questions to answer, establish routines, retain great employees, set a strategy, and deal with the inevitable challenges that you face when growing a business. Whether you’re an individual contributor, team leader, senior manager, or executive, there’s something here to help you see things differently and avoid the mistakes that many companies make.
  • Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar. I seemed to read a lot of “leadership under duress” books this year. Don’t read into that. This book does a wonderful job painting a picture of 19th century Europe, and one of the most significant military victories of that period. Nelson demonstrated many of the leadership characteristics that we value today: authenticity, conviction, creativity, an intense desire to win, and unwavering focus even in the face of brutal conditions. We may get uncomfortable nowadays when (business) leaders unabashedly commit to destroying the enemy, but this book shows the value of strong leaders committed to a cause.
  • American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. The book almost made me want to go buy a Ford, and that’s saying something! If you think you work somewhere with a toxic culture, it’s probably not as bad as Ford was. Mulally went from turning around Boeing, to taking on the assignment of “fixing” Ford in a challenging economic climate. His tale is inspiring, in part, because it’s not impossible to follow his blueprint. Mulally came in and simplified the product portfolio, dramatically improved internal transparency, demanded accountability, encouraged collaboration, and established a data-driven mindset, all while maintaining an optimistic outlook devoid of pretense. You’ll find lots of techniques to introduce in your own organization, while seeing a firsthand account of steady leadership when the situation seems hopeless. Great book.
  • The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. Fascinating, extremely detailed account of the origins of Christianity and how the religion spread through the Middle East and Europe. Impressively researched, very readable, but a tad dry at times. Still, a very interesting read.
  • The Martian: A Novel. Another book that I read over a weekend. Couldn’t put it down. It was released in 2011 and a movie based on the book was released in 2015. While some lamented the thin backstory on the hero, I found the overall story compelling and the supporting scientific details added to the realism. Good plot twists, constant sense of danger. It’s the story of my life.
  • Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. Military bodies are often a source of team and strategy innovation, and this book by General Stanley McChrystal explains how the US military needed to fundamentally transform itself to battle the tactics of al-Qaeda. Specifically, he explains how one must stop this obsession with efficiency and also factor in adaptability. This is an excellent book on organization design and the move away from top-down command and control structures, and towards empowered teams that can rapidly adjust course. Great discussion of resilience thinking, cooperation, rapid decision making, driving change even when it makes others uncomfortable, and (physically) breaking down silos.
  • Designing Delivery: Rethinking IT in the Digital Service Economy. Insightful book by Jeff Sussna that asks the reader to re-think their approach to service design and delivery. It’s a great introduction to ideas like promise theory, cybernetics, and continuous design. Sussna explains the new role of IT, and spends considerable time describing how Quality Assurance teams should change their approach. This is an important book that outlines many key principles for companies that want to maintain relevance in the years ahead.
  • Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Another great book about teams, difficult circumstances, and leadership based on hard decisions. It’s a compelling, well-written true story that creates a real emotional attachment to the characters. Great example of teams that felt accountable to each other, not their superiors, and how hard-earned trust enabled them to survive WW II together.
  • The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Entrepreneur extraordinaire Steve Blank wrote this book in 2005. It remains a very relevant guide that outlines “the repeatable path to success” for startups. He claims that those who “win” do so because of an obsession with customer learning and discovery. Blank tells the reader to ignore the classic product development model, and instead focus on a deep understanding of customers and their “jobs to be done.” In this easy to read book, Blank includes lots of real-world examples, challenges conventional wisdom, and provides a handful of tools for assessing what kind of startup you’ve got. This book is relevant for those building products within existing organizations, not just startups!
  • We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. I’m a “Back to the Future” fan, so I picked this book up as soon as it came out. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at how the movie was made, with plenty of amusing details I had never head about.
  • The Wright Brothers. A wonderful story about perseverance and continuous design. The Wright brothers were up against well-funded groups that were also chasing the dream of flight, but their self-taught knowledge and patience won the day. Fun read, meticulously researched. I have a fundamentally greater appreciation for the magic of flying.
  • The Swimmer. Great non-fiction book with a meaty plot and some unexpected turns. Story about spies, international intrigue, and corruption.
  • The Connected Company. Extremely relevant book about how customers and their networks have changed the nature of the relationship between consumers and companies. Instead of designing services around internal efficiency, successful companies focus on customers and experiences. Almost EVERYTHING you buy today is a service in some fashion. For example, a Kindle is a vehicle for a book-delivery service. The author claims that most companies have yet to adjust to a service delivery model. To succeed, businesses need to empower teams at the edge (and closest to customers), “know” their customer and what they care about, and recognize the co-evolution that comes from today’s hyper-competitive environment. Some good data points and case studies.
  • The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. The Crusades came up in US politics early in 2015, and I realized that most of my knowledge of that period came from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This book looks at the history of the Crusades from both Christian and Muslim perspectives and puts endeavors in context. Well told stories of exciting battles, brutality on all sides, and the efforts by spiritually minded and power-hungry parties.
  • Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. Can established enterprises take advantage of lean concepts in their IT departments? Of course, but until this book, there’s been a dearth of practical guidance targeting large, existing companies. The authors look at how companies have to rethink project management, financial management, risk and compliance, governance, system architecture, and service delivery. Culture matters, and the book spends a significant amount of time discussing the necessary cultural changes, and not accepting a “that won’t work here” answer from those that fear change. Start off your year right by picking up this book and resetting your organization.

Thanks again for being part of my “tribe” this past year, and I’m looking forward to learning from you all and engaging with you in 2016.



Categories: General

1 reply

  1. Thanks for the book reco’s! Always on the lookout for a new book-‘o-the-month!

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