I have a short list of books that I recommend people read; ones that I consider to be important. They may not all be good books, but much can still be learned from them.
The newest book that made grooves in my brain is I, Steve by George Beahm, which includes quotations from Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The book consists of more than 100 pages of bumper stickers – approximately three per page. Many bumper stickers were familiar to me, but some were new. His slogans and comments philosophically match most of the disruptive inventors I know about. It’s an instant speed read. My memory is that he did not award individuals money, but stock. Grow the company, not your position in the company.
The second book is called Winning Angels: The 7 Fundamentals of Early Stage Investing by David Amis and Howard Stevenson. I like this one, partly because I am mentioned in it. Why is this important? Because I am in the book and the authors represented me well, I can extend their observations to the other people in the book and recommend the book as “truthful.”
I was part of the founding group of angels called the Breakfast Club. The lessons learned at the Breakfast Club and in this book were that we should never invest in a Ph.D. as the president, and that the technology – at least today – is irrelevant. Reaching the mind and market of our changing culture are the keys to success.
As angels we invested little money. We allowed the process to start. The angel group has venture capitalists as its customer. Three of the four founders of the Breakfast Club had a physics background. This means that we knew almost nothing, but were confident enough to think we knew everything. The big takeaway is that the business plan should be an elevator talk of no more than several pages. Marketing, technology, finance, management and enthusiasm should be equally regarded. The venture capital and angel process is a key economic benefit.
Another key read is The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. Here, much is made of disruptive innovations. These innovations do not solve problems, but make them. Eighty percent of the people responsible for disruptive innovations and their successful implementation are individuals or small groups. This means that they are on the outside looking in and are asking the question, “How come you do it that way?” A very large corporation needs only one disruptive innovation per year to stay current and grow. Most patents work with a “better, cheaper, faster” algorithm. This protects the corporation’s position but does not improve its position in the culture of competition.
I agree with the philosophical theme presented by this and the other books. I’m also a subject in this book, which again, allows me to check the credence of the authors.
The story of the steam shovel versus the backhoe is typical of his examples. Marketing studies in the days of wooden ships and iron men suggested that we needed to have bigger and better steam shovels to stay competitive with others in the business. This means we could move more earth, faster, at a lower cost. It reminds me somewhat of the computer business. But, no matter how big they made the steam shovel, we had to dig the trench by hand from the sewer to the household. The backhoe was a lesson in connectivity, not in moving earth capacity.
One of my oldest reads is a book entitled The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks. The big leave-behind here is the KISS philosophy. I’m left with the impression that we should never have a software team bigger than seven people. The optimum size is between three and five. Adding more people to the program slows down the entire program and increases costs.
I like to use the example of a 100-man group. If I add another programmer to the group, it doubles the management costs. Why? Because you don’t manage people, you manage the interface between them. Another person added doubles links between the people. This classic book advocates smart people in small groups.
There are plenty of books that I could recommend. I read a lot. My very favourite early physics book is One Two Three… Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamow.
The books recommended here are not necessarily good books in the literary sense. They are good for engineers and they each have lessons to be learned. We, who pursue the illusion of freedom, need a roadmap to avoid the potholes of our journey.
This column originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.