Books I Read in 2015

I wrote a post like this at the end of last year (here), which has unexpectedly (to me, at least) turned out to be one of the more popular posts of the past year. This year, several of the books I read weren’t all that great in themselves, but they’ve spurred me to delve into new topics more deeply.

Once again, I’ve managed only one work-related book in the past year: In Search of Certainty, by Mark Burgess (@markburgess_osl), but this is one book I’ll whole-heartedly recommend. Mark is a proponent of promise theory, which describes a non-deterministic way of approaching and directing complex, dynamic systems. In Certainty, Mark draws on very basic physics and mathematics principles in the early chapters to establish an understanding of the myriad factors that destabilize systems and the countervailing forces that generally keep them going in spite of their inherent fragility. From there, although the primary focus of the book is designing for eventual outcomes in information systems, there’s also an interesting exploration of the psychology and philosophy of being such a designer–of how hard it often is to let go of micromanaging each process or transaction–and of designing human teams along similar lines. I’ve had the pleasure of also getting to know Mark personally in the past year; he’s a man of wide-ranging interests, a novelist and a painter as well as a scientist–and they all show up in the course of the book: economics, psychology, neuroscience, and more. The tone is conversational and a broad humanism underpins everything; the overall effect reminded me quite a bit of my childhood favorite, the BBC series Connections. A wonderful, immersive read.

I’ve been dabbling in home cheesemaking in the last couple of years, so one day my husband ordered for me The Science of Cheese, by Michael Tunick. It’s a very technical book, and not one you really read front to back. But for someone who’s been following recipes blindly, it’s enlightening to understand how each of the major variables (fat content, heat applied, culture type, aging process) contributes to directing a blank commodity like milk into the nearly infinite array of different products that exist in the world.

Rubens_Honeysuckle Bower.jpg

How many accessories does your head need??

I never liked the 1600s. The fashions in Europe were hideously unflattering, the art overwrought, and they spent way too much of that century killing each other over theology. But in the last year I’ve also come to accept that it was also the century that shaped the national boundaries, institutions and legal frameworks that largely characterize our world today. It saw the advent of capitalism and hand-in-hand with it, truly global imperialism. I bring this up because of the next 2 books…

 

Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America, by Peter Wood, is a book I picked up on the basis of an interesting Slate article covering slavery in 1600s North America, and how it got relegitimized and codified around race (as opposed to religion) after mostly dying out in Europe during the middle ages. It turned out that the Slate article contained all the most interesting bits, so I’d recommend skipping the book and just reading the article.

Invisible China, by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson is mildly interesting as a travelogue of the ethnic-majority borderlands of China; the authors go slightly beyond the standard backpacker circuit of those areas, though if you’ve traveled in any of those regions, much of it will seem familiar.  Unfortunately it falls far short of its intended exploration of China’s approach to constructing a multi-ethnic society. The authors very lightly touch upon the “melting pot” vs “mosaic” debates that were held when the Republic was founded in 1911, but without much explanation. More recent policies regarding minority groups are discussed, and although the authors don’t make any such allusions, there are clear parallels with U.S. history–notably with regard to Native Americans–and contemporary debates around minority rights and the evolution of our national character. There’s a deeper history, however, which Invisible China never touches on: the way that border regions and their native peoples, especially in the western half of what is now China, became formally incorporated into the Chinese state during…the Qing Dynasty in the 1600-1700s. (Interesting related article here.) I’ve now got a number of books in queue about Qing policy with regard to Tibet and Central Asia in particular…timely given that China seems to be returning to that playbook in its current foreign policy.

1491, by Charles Mann is a book I’ve already recommended to a number of friends. It’s an excellent survey of recent discoveries and debates in the field of Pre-Columbian archaeology. I’d read articles here and there on many of the things touched on in the book, but others were completely new to me. Mann is a science journalist who’s been on the Pre-Columbian beat for a long time, and a compelling writer.

As always, I consumed a number of historical novels, most of which simply passed the time. But I have to recommend The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. It’s a retelling of one of my favorite adventure tales of all-time, that of Cabeza de Vaca and his 3 comrades, who were shiprecked in Florida in 1527, and over the course of 8 years, made their way across what is now the southern U.S. to Mexico City. Three of the four were Spaniards, and made formal depositions about their experience to the government of New Spain. The fourth was a Moorish slave, who therefore had no official voice. Yet there are enough hints about his real role in the others’ accounts to support this novel, which is beautifully written and very true to the original sources.

Finally, I closed out the last few days of the year reading Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King, while lounging in a cabana on tropical beach. It’s another tale of shipwreck and privation, perhaps even more harrowing than that of de Vaca and co. In this case, a group of New Englanders foundered off the west coast of Africa in 1815 and spent several months enslaved to various Berber families wandering the Sahara, eventually getting ransomed by a British official residing in a trading outpost in Spanish Morocco. The ship’s captain, formerly a strapping 6-footer, weighed 90 pounds at the time of his ransom. Two of his crew were closer to 40 pounds. The book unites accounts published by the captain, one of his crew members, and the British official, into a well-written non-fiction narrative.

What stands out from your reading this year?

Hello, Security, My Old Friend

Back before software-defined networking, I spent time promoting a different “SDN”: “Self-Defending Networks”. That was Cisco’s marketing tagline for their Security portfolio. At the time that I joined, they had just brought together security-related products from different BUs as the Security Technology Group, under Jayshree Ullal.

Now, Self-Defending Networks wasn’t something that held up under even the lightest technical scrutiny. All of the products except for NAC were acquired, so each had its own element manager with its own policy schema, and none of them really talked to each other. And it’s kind of hard to run an effective security team if each member speaks a different language and operates from a different rule book, regardless of how individually skilled they may be. That’s why I find the possibilities of having a common layer of abstraction (a la ODL) so compelling: you can’t have reliable security without holistic, end-to-end management (too many gaps), and if you have good holistic, end-to-end management, you can spend less time and energy on security.

I’m joining Skyport Systems because it resolves a lot of these challenges in a very streamlined way. It also manages to simultaneously address many of the reservations people have about entrusting sensitive data to external cloud providers, while also providing a consumable Security-as-a-Service offering that eliminates a lot of those security tool integration challenges. That’s a pretty good trick, in my opinion.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve worked with several members of the team before. (Fun fact: I accepted the Skyport offer during Back to the Future week. I think I’ve identified the team’s Doc, too.) It’s an intense, high-energy crew, but importantly, one that is generally pretty strong in the Sense of Humor department as well. The leadership team members each have both startup experience and successful track records in large companies, meaning that they’re not afraid of getting their hands dirty, but also have the mindset and rolodexes to scale the company.

One other consideration I had, as a marketer: technical realities aside, I liked that Self-Defending Networks was a fundamentally positive, hopeful vision to strive for. Too much of security marketing (in IT and in modern politics) is all about instilling fear–which often skews perceptions of and responses to risk in wasteful and even counterproductive ways. I prefer a more positive message: providing a foundation of trust. I think Skyport has the right bones to support that.

More soon.

Things I’ve (Re)learned on Break

Every so often, I ask people what they would do with themselves (not their money–their time) if they won the lottery or otherwise didn’t have to work again. Most people respond with things they’d buy–for themselves, and for other people. So I ask again about how they’d spend their time. Very often, they’re at a loss. They mention trips they’d like to go on, things they’ve been meaning to get around to for forever, maybe spend more time with their kids and friends, but it’s almost always stuff that would only last them a few months. I always notice this, because I spent a fair amount of time a few years back thinking about what exactly I would do if I won the lottery, and I revisit the question every so often. I never really get much past the first year.

Even so, there have been many days in the last couple of years when I’ve wished I could just…stop… running. Stop running around in circles. Stop always dashing from kid-thing to work-thing to home-thing to kid-thing. Stop always being the mom who’s always in a rush and seems unfriendly because she doesn’t have 15 minutes to stop and chat. Stop spending two or more hours a day behind a steering wheel. Have time to think, without interruption. Read. Think about what I’ve read. Move. Get outside. Have a conversation with a family member that doesn’t start and end with “Hurry up”. You know the feeling, I’m sure.

    *     *     *     *     *

My two weeks off are nearly over. I could use another 2-3 days, really, but I’ve gotten to most of the things on my to-do list:

  • Purge dressers. My kids hadn’t been able to close their drawers easily in months because they had clothes from last winter as well as the summer in them. I didn’t even know if they had winter clothes that still fit, or how many. Bad Mom Karma was hovering over me. It took most of last week, but I’m close to ensuring that my children won’t freeze in the coming frigid winter (ok, we live in coastal California, but still…) I’ve also purged the house of ALL of the too-small clothes–some 15 trashbags worth. THAT felt really good.
  • Exercise and physical health. In my 20s, I used to do a 4-mile loop hike in the nearby hills several times a week after work. My plan was to get back to doing that hike in the mornings after I dropped my daughter off at school. I have to give myself a middling grade on this: I’ve managed to do it 3 times. Morning appointments have come up, and I’ve been sick for a few days. It also takes quite a bit longer than it did when I did it before: I live further away, and I’m slower and flabbier, so it takes up about half the day, all in all. Still, I so rarely get outdoors during my normal life that even that little bit of nature time has been good. I’ve also finally done something about the constant neck and shoulder pain that’s been dogging me for months. It’s not all better, but certainly improved. We’ll see how long that lasts.
  • Book hotels for an upcoming family vacation. Still not done. Hopefully by tomorrow.
  • Clear off my desk and deal with household administrivia. Also not done.

On the other hand, I’ve made a number of good meals. I got together yesterday with one friend I haven’t seen in months, and I have a date tomorrow with another I haven’t seen in over a year. (Yeah, I know.)

But it struck me the other day, as I was running one of the numerous little errands that we normally cram into our hectic weekends, that the last time I was running errands in the middle of the day–during the two years I was a stay-at-home mom (SAHM)–that…that’s all there was. Running errands. Changing diapers. Meals. Dishes. More diapers. More errands. I used to struggle desperately to come up with something that I (or more often, my kid) had accomplished during the day just to have something interesting to say to my husband when he got home. I did have some time to read, but on the whole…let’s just say I was not cut out for SAHMdom.

It was a good reminder. Because while I’m really appreciating the opportunity to slow down a bit for a couple of weeks, I still have a number of things I needed to get done in a finite amount of time. I appreciate the finiteness of that time. And I know I have a big new thing in front of me that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m not looking at the quiet desperation that comes with frittering away endless weeks and months with nothing but domestic minutiae.

Basically, because the time is finite and the goals are specific and concrete, it’s still easy to maintain a sense of drive and purpose, even as I take my foot off the gas pedal for a bit. (Metaphorical gas pedal–if anything, I’m driving around more than usual.) That’s a lot harder when the time seems infinite. The other element that’s still largely missing is the social element. Work–when it’s a healthy environment–provides a shared sense of purpose. I have some specific things I just need to get done right now because they need to get done, but the kids aren’t that excited about their newly manageable drawers.

I was thinking this morning about my parents’ friends, who are all now retirement age. A lot of the men are kind of at loose ends, trying to find ways to fill their days. The women, on average, are doing better: they mostly have already in place social networks that were unrelated to work, and/or have created new ones through volunteer activities. The two who really seem to be doing well are ones who really haven’t retired at all–they’re just doing work on their own time and terms, and not worrying about the money. One started a non-profit focused on science education, especially targeting underprivileged schools. She also volunteers in the science classes of those same schools, and helped her son get his startup off the ground. The other first did a tech startup with a friend–he had this huge grin as he told me about figuring out how to work a label-printing machine and packing up widgets in boxes for shipment–and then started a mineral water label with his ex-marketer wife, so now he’s learning all about retail considerations and the food business.

So: however crazy it makes other things–I, personally, need to have interesting work to do with interesting, curious, creative people. I’m not good at not having any concrete goals. I should probably figure out how to balance things a bit better so I don’t wind up like the retired gentlemen at loose ends, but as the kids get older and more independent, that seems like it will be increasingly more possible. I’ll probably “retire” someday, even without the benefit of the lottery, so I should probably have some notion of what to do with myself. Beyond the first year.

Stop Hiding. Just Ask.

I came across an exchange on Twitter the other day that made me sad. In part:

Opensource newbie

It made me sad because I spent longer than I should have in a similar place: curious, interested, wanting to know more and also to have input, but being surrounded by people who’d been doing “this stuff’ for 20+ years. I was at a loss as to how I’d ever “catch up”, never mind be in a position to provide value.

Here’s the thing: I wound up in that place because I’d invested a good 20-25 years of my life by that point in making sure I was really competent. Competence and knowing what you’re talking about are things that are valued very highly in my family. Moreover, I grew up surrounded by engineers, who tend to enjoy arguing and sometimes pounce with delight on logical lapses or other types of weak arguments. So from an early age, I shied away from spending a lot of time on things that didn’t come naturally. Early in my career, I did the same: I carefully stayed in roles that didn’t require me to have any specialized knowledge. By my mid-30s, I was in a rather small box–one entirely of my own making.

Now, had anyone else told me I just didn’t have what it takes to do any particular kind of job, I most likely would have furiously plunged into proving them wrong. Instead, I took great care to avoid fulfilling the stereotype of the clueless (female) marketeer: I asked no questions that could be “dumb” questions. I’d quietly go read up on things on my own, but a lot of the time I didn’t have enough context to make total sense of what I read. Still, I avoided asking questions.

What finally did it was screaming boredom. I just didn’t want to keep doing what I’d been doing any more. I decided I’d rather be dumb than bored.

It was terrifying.

Eventually I found a colleague who was working in a similar area, but was coming into marketing after a long time as a engineer. We’ll call him Fred. Every so often I’d walk over to Fred’s cube and announce (pre-emptively, in my mind), “Hi, I have another stupid question,” to which he would helpfully reply, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid people.” And then proceed to explain both the theory and the depressing reality of whatever I was asking about. I have since learned to spot Freds fairly quickly, and over the last few years I’ve built up a wonderful network of Freds. Thanks to social media, most of them are not in a nearby cube, but several states or even a continent away–but that means I get a much broader perspective on whatever I’m curious about than if I just asked the person in the next cube whose vantage point on the world likely only differs from mine by a few degrees.

This brings me to a wonderful talk I unexpectedly attended a few months back. My daughter had been taking a Scratch class through Coder Dojo, and the last night of the session, the parents were all asked to gather in a different room for a pitch from one of the Coder Dojo cofounders, Bill Liao (@liaonet).

Liao opened by stating that coding is poetry, which won me over right there. To be good at poetry, he said, you have to be deeply fluent in a language, in a way you can be only if you speak it from a very young age. It goes without saying, perhaps, that when you learn to speak a language in a fluent, natural way, you do it by interacting with other people. Or as Liao put it,  “I learned to code in my bedroom, and I think working alone in your bedroom is a terrible way to learn to code. I think working with others on a project is a great way to learn to code.”  You can watch an abbreviated version of his talk below.

And this, in turn, brings me to a lesson taught to me by my friend Brent Salisbury (@networkstatic), who became active in OpenDaylight in its very early days. He was trying to convince me to get involved. “But Brent,” I protested, “I haven’t coded in 20 years, and I never got good at it even then.” He told me it didn’t matter. ODL desperately needed documentation. QA. “Play around with Python,” he said. “Hell, I’m dyslexic–if I can code anyone can.” The point being that any project in which people are doing things mostly on their own time–which is most open source projects–desperately needs help of all kinds, and will usually gladly welcome a range of skills, not just narrow technical ones. “I’m just learning how to code, but this is really interesting to me–how can I help?” is as good a door-opener as any.

And of course the way to make book-learning–or any learning–really stick is to try to use it. At Brocade, we have a couple of SEs who have spent most of their careers as network engineers, but are really excited about SDN. They’ve been delving into the documentation–both on the ODL site as well as the materials for my company’s distribution–and making notes about how it works in ways that make more sense to someone accustomed to running a network. I myself had learned about SDN and ODL from a more classical software perspective, so reading what they’ve written was really helpful to me, as they naturally point out very practical nits and concerns that hadn’t occurred to me. Now we’re in the process of converting their work into papers the bigger world can access, which should be helpful to a lot of other network engineers trying to get their heads around this stuff. Note: none of us is writing Java code. All of us are contributing to the growth of an open source effort. It takes a village.

Becoming an expert also takes a village. It’s why throughout history, you find innovation happens in clusters, where talented people gather, get to know each other, and exchange ideas. The lone genius is a myth. Mozart was mentored by Haydn, among others.

Ask for help, and ask how you can help.

First, Let’s Define the Problem

So, Women in Tech. It’s become a hot topic in the last year. That’s a good thing in many ways. It also means, as happens with most hot topics, that lots of ideas and statistics get thrown around, increasingly willy-nilly and context-free. This is less good, because it tends to make the conversation more heated without producing anything useful as a result, and because it means that while more people can recite depressing stats and thereby convince themselves they’re enlightened, there isn’t actually any deeper understanding of the problem for most.

Which brings me to my next point: which problem, exactly? The real answer of course, is that there are many, and often they’re linked to one another, but far too many articles on the Women in Tech topic recite a litany of statistics (most of which are from studies about women workers in all industries, or write-ups of polls of college students) that relate to a bunch of different problems and then conclude “Tech Hates Women!”

I take issue with this. Continue reading

Books I Read in 2014

Often when you read interviews with business leaders, they get asked about their favorite book, or what they’re currently reading. Invariably the answer is some business tome, which led me to make this observation one day:

Continue reading

Deploying Out of Context: Behavioral Findings

I conducted a practical anthropology experiment recently: I wore an 18th century dress with a long train out to a masquerade-themed event, and then to a private party. Some of the things I learned about how unfamiliar things affect behavior were unexpected, and applicable outside the realm of retro fashion. I detail my findings below.

Introduction

You get dressed every day. You’ve been doing it for years. You might give some thought in the morning to the design of how you will be presenting yourself that day, but probably almost none to the mechanics of getting dressed and moving about in your clothes.

You can do that because the clothes you own are designed for the social context AND the physical environment in which you operate. But change any of those things and you quickly find you have to adapt to all of them. Continue reading

If content is created, does it have to make a sound?

Amy Lewis just published a post I like a lot, “Consume and Be Thankful“. The executive summary is “Shut up and listen”. In other words, publishing content should not be the sole focus of being a community member, much less a leader. This is exactly the opposite approach advocated lately by Om Malik, Greg Ferro and others, challenging themselves and others to publish 30 blogs in 30 days. Continue reading

On Success and Happiness

Robin Williams died today. Normally I don’t give much thought to celebrity deaths—what about all the other people who died today? is my usual unvoiced response to the expressions of sadness that promptly pour out on social media. But this one struck me for a few different reasons.

Much of my generation of Americans grew up with Williams in his most goofy and manic role, Mork from Ork. His later roles, even the relatively serious ones, continued to be driven by the manic motormouth compulsion that first brought him fame. They were leavened by an increasing humanity, but it was clear that giving free rein to his frenetic free association was what really energized him. I had the opportunity to see him live twice—he lived in Marin and would occasionally test out new material at a smallish club in San Francisco—and his barely contained energy, which would grow over the evening as he got going, was practically a force of a nature that swept everyone in the room along with him. It’s hard to imagine Williams surviving, yet alone thriving, in any other profession. Watching him live, I became convinced that Mork the alien was the real Williams, and that he spent much of his later years trying to figure out how to be human. His more touching moments on screen typically had to do with realizing and articulating a failure to be what other characters needed his to be. Continue reading

Rant Addendum: Radical Deperimeterization

This is part 5 of an occasional series. The initial post is here.

At the end of my marketing rant a few weeks ago, I suggested that corporations might need to reimagine their places in the universe in order to be effective in the new marketing world order—not as central sources of information, but as minor nodes in a much larger network.

I know, I know. That’s kind of a big blow to the corporate ego. But let’s be honest, with few exceptions, potential and even actual users of your products just aren’t that into you. They may like your products just fine because they serve a useful purpose somehow. That’s a different thing than being into a “brand” in itself. But so what? Everybody talks about customer-centricity and solution selling, right? So what really needs to change?

Well, almost everything about how a typical corporation runs, really. Continue reading