Book review: A Place to Start

Jim Grey is a pretty ordinary guy. So why bother reading stories of his life? Because he tells them so well.

I first came to know of Jim through his roads website. At some point, I started reading his blog “Down the Road“. I can’t recall how long it’s been now, but it’s probably the better part of a decade, if not from the beginning in 2007. Although we’ve never met, I’ve come to feel like I know him. Not just because we share similar interests and have mutual friends, but because the way he is able to write his personal stories in a way that welcome strangers in.

Jim does not share every detail; his writing respects the privacy of those in his life. Nonetheless, he is able to warmly and openly share his stories in a way that invites to sit down and listen. There is no false modesty, no exaggeration, and no self-importance. Just honest tales of his life shared because he wants to share them.

Down the Road started in 2007 as a way to process and recover from a rough time in his life. Jim’s new (okay, six months old at this point) book A Place to Start collects some of the posts from the first two years of the blog.

The book is split into three parts: stories, essays, and faith. The stories are personal tales from all eras of Jim’s life. Told in no discernible order, they’re more like a conversation than a timeline. The short essays section contains reflections on lessons Jim has learned over the years. The faith section contains a mix of his personal experiences with his Christian faith along with what I would call sermons.

Admittedly, the faith section was the least engaging part for me. Being religiously indifferent myself, I suppose I’m not inclined toward that kind of story. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the way he is able to discuss his faith in a way that does not feel like evangelism. He shares his beliefs and how they color his life; the reader is free to do with that what they will.

Since each chapter is a blog post, they’re all short. This makes A Place to Start a great book for when you can only read in quick bursts. Even if you’ve never heard of Jim Grey before, this book with worth a read.

A Place to Start is available in print and digital forms from Midnight Star Press. I received no compensation for this review.

Book review: Range

In many parts of society, we ask people to specialize early and go very deep. This is the path to excellence. In Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world, David Epstein examines the role breadth plays. I should admit my bias up front: I am definitely a width person, not a depth person. So maybe I just agreed with this book because it reinforced the story I tell myself about my success.

But I do think there’s something to this. Throughout my career, I’ve found that the best colleagues are the ones who have academic or work experience outside of the tech industry. It’s not that they’re necessarily better technically, but they grasp the context much more easily. That becomes increasingly important when dealing with novel and poorly-defined problems.

I’ve long understood the value of coursework outside one’s major. Range helped me understand why that value exists. I sometimes heard at my alma mater that “we have a liberal arts school so we can produce well-rounded engineers.” Now I think perhaps we should have fewer major courses and more gen ed courses. (In addition to ethics classes which should be added to all curricula for separate reasons.)

In the context of the current time, with conspiracy theories enjoying a disturbing degree of acceptance, I find Epstein’s emphasis on amateurs a little concerning. Yes, novices sometimes make discoveries that elude the experts. Still, we must be careful not to replace “appeal to authority” with “appeal to lack of authority”.

I didn’t find Epstein’s writing style particularly compelling. This surprised me since he’s a journalist. I suppose books are a different beast. But the arguments were well-reasoned and supported by research. I would recommend this book to anyone thinking about their future career or seeking reinforcement of their past, seemingly-odd, changes in direction.

Book review: People Powered

Jono Bacon knows something about communities. He wrote the book on it, in fact. And now he has written another book. People Powered is a guide for how companies can create and curate communities.

I often see companies try to start what they call “communities”. In reality, they are ways for the company to get free labor that provide no real benefit to the the participants. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A community that doesn’t benefit the sponsoring company is not likely to continue receiving sponsorship. But if there’s no benefit to the community members, the community will not thrive. Only when everyone involved gets value from the community will the community be vibrant.

A community mission is different than your business vision, but tightly wound around it.

All too often, books like this prescribe the One True Way™. Bacon does not do that. He fills the book with many things the reader should do, but he also makes it clear that there are many right ways to run a community, just as there are many wrong ways.

People Powered is a starting point, not an answer. As I was reading it, I thought “this is a good set of recipes”. Further on, Bacon used the same metaphor. Curse you, Jono! But it’s an apt metaphor. The book presents advice and knowledge based on Bacon’s 20 years of community management. But each community has specific needs, so the reader is encouraged to selectively apply the most relevant parts. And in the tradition of open source, plans should be iterative and evolve to meet the changing needs of communities. Like any good cook, the recipe provides a starting point; the cook makes adjustments to taste.

If I could sum up People Powered in two words, I would pick “be intentional.” Given two more words, I’d add “be selective.” People are often tempted to do all the things, to be all things to all people. And while that may be in the future of a community, getting started requires a more specific focus on what will (and more importantly, what won’t) be done.

People Powered is full of practical advice (including a lot of calls-to-action to find resources on But it also contains more philosophical views. Bacon is not a psychologist, but he has made a study of psychology and sociology over the years. This informs the theoretical explanations behind his practical steps. It also guides the conceptual models for communities that he lays out over the course of the book. And to prove that it’s a Jono Bacon book, it includes a few references to behavioral economics and several to Iron Maiden.

I really enjoyed this book. Some of it was obvious to me, given my community leadership experience (admittedly, I’m not the target audience), but I still got a lot of value from it. Chapter 9 (Cyberspace and Meatspace: Better Together) particularly spoke to me in light of some conversations I’ve had at work recently. People Powered is an excellent book for anyone who is currently leading or planning to lead a community as part of a corporate effort.

People Powered (affiliate link) is published by HarperCollins Leadership and was released yesterday.

Disclosures: 1. I received a pre-release digital review copy of People Powered. I received no other consideration for this post (unless you purchased it from the affiliate link above). 2. Jono Bacon is a personal friend, but I would tell him if his book was awful.

Book review — Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit

Who was Robert Francis Kennedy? To me he was always primarily JFK’s brother. That’s not fair, of course. Bobby Kennedy was an accomplished man — campaign manager, Congressional counsel, attorney general, senator, and presidential candidate. Fortunately for me, I recently grabbed Chris Matthews’ Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit (2017) from my local library.

In A Raging Spirit, Matthews explores what made Bobby Kennedy the man he was. Matthews explores how Bobby related to his parents and to the other Kennedy kids, particular older brothers Joe, Jr. and John. What I found missing was his other family relationships. His wife Ethel and their 11 children make only minor appearances in this book. While we know Kennedy’s professional life, we’re left to know what kind of husband and father he was.

It’s clear that Matthews has a deep respect for this subject, but the book is not a hagiography. We see how Kennedy’s desire to support the civil rights movements was tempered by his disagreement with Dr. King’s non-violent protests and his concerns for the political impacts in southern states. His caring and empathetic nature — perhaps a surprise given the wealth and privilege he was born into — often appeared after his fierce and tempestuous side. Matthews gave several examples of times when Kennedy would initially react with anger, only to soften over the next few days as he gave further consideration to a matter.

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit is a fascinating look at an influential figure of the mid-century who is too often overshadowed by his brother. It is a well-researched book that nevertheless reads lightly and quickly. The main narrative weakness is the occasional interjection of personal anecdotes from the author. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the man some have called America’s greatest attorney general.

Book review — A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees story

It’s easy to see the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) not as the domestic terrorism organization that murdered and oppressed black and Jewish people for decades, but as a small group of impotent ragers making noise on the fringes of society. And it’s equally tempting to see this diminished stature as the direct result of society coming to realize that the KKK’s views are abhorrent. But for as much as we might like to think that American society marginalized the KKK on its own, credit also goes to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC’s novel suits against KKK organizations helped bring legal constraints and financial ruin to prominent KKK organizations in a time when they were feeding off the resentment festering in the wake of the civil rights movement.

At the center of the suits was SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. In his book, co-authored with Steve Fiffer, Dees tells his story. He talks about how his upbringing as the son of a poor Alabama farmer shaped his life and his resulting career as a private attorney and the leader of a prominent anti-hate-group non-profit.

I received a copy of A Lawyer’s Journey after making a donation to the SPLC. If I knew I was going to receive a copy when I made the donation, I had certainly forgotten by the time it showed up. The title hardly suggested an exciting read and I didn’t know who Dees is. Nonetheless, I picked it up. Within a few chapters, I had a hard time putting it down.

As a white person who grew up in the (nominally) not-South during the time many of the cases in question were tried, I had very little knowledge of the efforts the SPLC and others made to stop the KKK in the 1980s. I assumed that the KKK went away because polite society realized it couldn’t tolerate white supremacy. Instead I learned how a few very motivated lawyers (and their brave clients) went toe-to-toe with the KKK using legal strategies that had never been tried.

As interesting as the content is, this book is not great from a literary point of view. The timeline jumps around without a clear reason. As with any autobiography, readers are obliged to read with a critical eye. Even if Dees is entirely truthful in what he tells, he presents only what he wants the reader to see. He mentions his divorces in passing, but his personal life beyond his teens years is largely absent. Apart from describing the time he and his daughter fled to a panic room (and her subsequent attendance at a major trial), we don’t know what effect the lawyer’s journey had on his family’s journey.

Given the recent resurgence of nationalism and white supremacism, this book deserves a read. People can fight hatred in many ways, and Morris proved that civil suits can be effective.

Book review: Habeas Data

What does modern technology say about you? What can the police or other government agencies learn? What checks on their power exist? These questions are the subject of a new book from technology reporter Cyrus Farivar.

Habeas Data (affiliate link) explores the jurisprudence that has come to define modern privacy law. With interviews with lawyers, police officers, professors, and others who have shaped the precedent. What makes this such an interesting subject is the very nature of American privacy law. Almost nothing is explicitly defined by legislation. Instead, legal notions of privacy come from how courts interpret the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This gives government officials the incentive to push as far as they can in the hopes that no court cases arise to challenge their methods.

For the first two centuries or so, this served the republic fairly well. Search and seizure were constrained to the physical realm. Technological advances did little to improve the efficiency of law enforcement. This started to change with the advent of the telegraph and then the telephone, but it’s the rapid advances in computing and mobility that have rendered this unworkable.

As slow as legislatures can be to react to technological advances, courts are even slower. And while higher court rulings have generally been more favorable to a privacy-oriented view, not everyone agrees. The broad question that courts must grapple with is which matters more: the practical effects of the technology changes or the philosophical underpinnings?

To his credit, Farivar does not claim to have an answer. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what society determines is the appropriate balance between individual rights and the needs of the society at large. Farivar has his opinions, to be sure, but Habeas Data does not read like an advocacy piece. It is written by a seasoned reporter looking to inform the populace. Only by understanding the issues can the citizenry make an informed decision.

With that in mind, Habeas Data is an excellent book. Someone looking for fiery advocacy will likely be disappointed, but for anyone looking to understand the issue, it’s a great fit. Technology law and ethics courses would be well-advised to use this book as part of the curriculum. It is deep and well-researched while still remaining readable.

It has its faults, too. The flow of chapters seems a little haphazard at times. On the other hand, they can largely be treated as standalone studies on particular issues. And the book needed one more copy editing pass. I saw a few typographic errors, which is bound to happen in any first-run book, but was jarred by a phrase that appeared to have been accidentally copy/pasted in the middle of a word.

None of this should be used as a reason to pass on this book. I strongly recommend Habeas Data to anyone interested in the law and policy of technology, and even more strongly to those who aren’t interested. The shape that privacy law takes in the next few years will have impacts for decades to come.

Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a woman does pioneering work in a field, only to have the men end up remembered by posterity. So it was for Elizebeth Smith Friedman. But she’s starting to receive her due. Jason Fagone’s newly-published The Woman Who Smashed Codes is not the first recognition of Friedman’s work, but it’s the most recent.

Friedman and her husband William rival the Curies as the most impressive scientific couple in history. Their careers would be impressive on their own, but it is the combination that makes them incredible. Starting out on a rich man’s compound trying to provide that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, they went on to essentially invent the field of cryptanalysis.

Fagone’s book is a biography, but with a narrow view. He spends little time on Elizebeth’s life prior to joining George Fabyan’s Riverbank Laboratories. Life after World War II is similarly viewed on fast forward. But the three decades in between are covered in depth.

The outbreak of World War I saved the Friedmans from work they were rapidly coming to doubt. Their work decoding enemy messages – and inventing the processes for doing so – changed their personal and professional trajectories and brought them into prominence. Between wars, Elizebeth cracked the messages of Prohibition runners. When war came again, the Coast Guard cryptanalysis unit she created worked to crack three variations of the Enigma machine and was responsible for tracking the extensive Nazi spy ring in Argentina.

Despite her incredible work, Elizebeth often took a backseat to William. She seemed to prefer it that way. The Friedmans each felt the other was the smarter and more talented of the pair. Fagone devotes little of the book to Elizebeth’s personal life, except for her relationship to William. Their mutual devotion and admiration are as inspiring as their work.

This is a thick book, but it reads much faster than you’d expect. I enjoyed reading it and came away with a deep admiration of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a person I hadn’t heard of just a few days ago.

Book review: Forge Your Future with Open Source

If you are looking for a book on open source software, you have roughly a zillion options. Operating systems, languages, frameworks, desktop applications, whatever. Publishers have cranked out books left and right to teach you all about open source. Except for one small detail: how do you get started? Yesterday, The Pragmatic Bookshelf fixed that glitch. They announced the beta release of Forge Your Future with Open Source: Build Your Skills. Build Your Network. Build the Future of Technology by VM Brasseur.

I should disclose two things at this point: 1. VM is a friend and 2. I will receive a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a technical review I performed. Now that I have fulfilled my ethical obligations, let’s talk about this book.

This is a very good book. It’s a book I wish I had years ago when I was first starting in open source. Brasseur covers understanding your motivations for contributing, determining requirements for a project you’ll contribute to, finding a project that matches those requirements, and getting started with your first contribution.

She assumes very little knowledge on the reader’s part, which is welcome. Don’t know the difference between copyleft and permissive licenses? That’s okay! She explains them both, including the legal and cultural aspects, without nudging the reader toward her preferred paradigm. Indeed, you’ll find no judgement of license, language, tool, or operating system choices. VM has no time for that in real life, so you won’t find it in her book either.

One of the better things about this book is that it is not really a technical book. Yes, it discusses some technical concepts with regards to code repositories and the like, but it puts great emphasis on the non-technical parts of contributing. Brasseur covers communication, community structure, and collaboration.

Forge Your Future with Open Source was not quite complete when I performed my technical review, but it was complete enough to know that this is an excellent book. Newcomers to open source will benefit from reading it, as will old hands such as myself. The final version will be published in June, but you can order a beta copy now through The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

Book review: Inside the Tornado

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is perhaps the single most influential technology marketing book. When I first read it a few years ago, everything in it made sense and it gave me a better feel for where my company was (spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily where we thought we were). So when several people recommended Inside the Tornadoa sequel of sorts – I was ready to dig in and love it.

But I didn’t love it. It’s not because Moore is wrong. I don’t claim to know enough to assert that, and in fact I think he’s probably right on the whole. My dislike for the book instead is a matter of literary and ethical concerns.

The literary concern is what struck me first, so I’ll start there. Whereas the metaphor in Chasm is very straightforward, Tornado is a mess. You start in the bowling alley and then a tornado develops and eventually you end up on Main Street. Also, you want to be a gorilla or maybe a chimpanzee, but probably not a monkey. In fairness to Mr. Moore, some of this is because the concepts he tried to communicate became more complex in Tornado. Instead of the broad concepts of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, he focuses on the more intricate motions that happen on a smaller scale. As a meteorologist, I can appreciate this. Nonetheless, the roughness of the metaphor distracted me from the message of the book.

I’m also not particularly keen on what Moore tells us we must do to achieve dominance in the market. “To hell with quality or what your customer wants” may be the best way to achieve the market position you want when conditions are favorable to you. That doesn’t mean it’s what I want to do. Reading this book made me think of Don McLean’s third-most popular song: “if winning is what matters I respect the ones who fail.”

I suppose it may be a disconnect between my goals and what Moore assumes my goals are. Although I am a very competitive person, I am not interested in winning for winning’s sake. I want to do work that makes the world better, and if we’re in second or third place, that just means that others are also making the world a better place. That doesn’t seem like losing to me.

Inside the Tornado is one of those books that every technology marketer should read. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it.

Book review: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

As I move from tactical marketing work into more strategic work, my former CEO recommended several books. The first one I read is The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries. This 2002 update of the original by Al Ries and Jack Trout includes The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding.

I immediately liked the book for its easy readability and the fact that I agreed with what it said. But it’s a little bit dated. The world was different in 2002, particularly when it comes to the brands that dominate their fields. That doesn’t change the messages. After all, it’s the laws that are immutable, not the brand.

The passage of fifteen years is more evident and meaningful in the Internet section. The authors spend most of a chapter decrying the “vanity” of Jeff Bezos. Amazon, they say, should stick to books. Branching out into other markets will damage the brand in the long term. Yeah, about that…

Now the rule may be generally correct and Amazon is just a lucky exception. Certainly many other brands have outreached their grasps. But in a later chapter, they rail against the notion of convergence. Nobody would want a combination of a phone, camera, and music player. Strike two.

The future is hard to predict, so I don’t hold it against them for missing the mark. But if you repeatedly insist with great authority, you need to be proven right. The authors failed pretty miserably in that regard. This forces the skeptical reader to wonder if the rest of the authoritative statements are similarly wrong.

I’m inclined to think that the bulk of the advice is correct, but I would certainly caution the reader to not accept everything blindly.

This book is definitely focused on building a brand, not maintaining one. But if that’s what you’re after, I’d give The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding a read.