Books Read in the Second Half of 2016

Due to a very busy start to 2017, it’s taken a couple months to play catch-up on writing the latest set of reviews. My reading material in second half of 2016 was heavily influenced by career changes throughout the year, moving into product management, marketing and analytics. For everyone who reads my book reviews looking for something novel and/or thought-provoking, there are still a couple of hopefully unexpected picks (often picked up during my random but frequent stops at local bookstores).

One Star (Not Recommended):

Growth Hacker Marketing- A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising by Ryan Holiday:
I picked this up mostly due to Holiday’s online reputation as a prominent “growth hacker” blogger and marketer. This book in particular was disappointing as Holiday admits it was basically compiled from blog posts and smaller eBooks he’s already written. It’s very thin, repeats some already well-known online viral marketing tales. The target for this book really old-school marketers who haven’t figured out the digital era. For anyone in the demographic of having an active online life, Growth Hacker Marketing really doesn’t have much to teach.

Two Stars (Limited Recommendation for those interested in subject):

Straight to Hell – True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion Dollar Deals by John LeFevre:
When I was taking finance and economics classes in college, the Goldman Sachs Elevator twitter feed was all the rage with the bankers-to-be. LeFevre was able to leverage his viral Twitter feed into a book deal, though not without controversy regarding the accuracy of the content and the author’s employment background. Straight to Hell reads like the twitter account (including excerpts from the feed). The problem is the online material lends itself better to pithy one-liners than a full-length book. Compared to “Monkey Business” and “Liars Poker”, it’s not as informative on the actual going-ons of investment banking, and the coke-and-hookers antics are less extreme than “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Inbound Marketing – Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah: Halligan and Shah are the co-founders of Hubspot, a marketing software company that helps any company grow their business through “inbound” marketing. What this means is figuring out how to attract customers into seeking you out, instead of a company having to do paid advertising or have sales teams.

This book is Hubspot’s introductory guide into the digital techniques for inbound marketing, and it’s a disappointment. Published in 2014, much of the content is either already outdated (use the StumbleUpon browser plugin bar), oversimplified (the definition of a prospective customer funnel), or obvious (how to set up a Twitter account). I picked this up to see if it provided any insights for my work in online marketing, and while it’s not really incorrect on anything and has some ideas worth thinking over, there’s not much value here you can’t find elsewhere.

Three Stars (Recommended):

Inspired – How to Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan:
Purchased by my boss’s boss for the product management team at my last job (iLoan.com), Inspired seems to be one of the most popular books on the role of Product Manager. Given the content, I’m a little surprised by this fact and I feel like there’s a market opportunity for a deeper guide or story about product management. Inspired works much better as an introduction to product management for the uninitiated than a textbook for teaching expert-level PM techniques to those already in it. Most of the material is covers what someone who has knowledge or has worked as a PM would/should already know (the difference between “product” and “project” management, balancing tradeoffs between design, engineering, and business, customer and market research, etc). It’s also a surprisingly quick read. If you’re someone who works with product managers (as an engineer, designer, or marketer), this is a helpful read which will educate you on what these people do (or should be doing).

Winning with Data – Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future by Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien:
Written by the CEO of business intelligence company Looker and one of his investors, Winning With Data is clearly self-promotional. But it’s not without value. Tunguz and Bien’s brief guide to building a “data-driven” organization has a couple of novel chapters (data applied to human resources and sales departments). But for the most parts, the chapters and examples are all centered around Looker’s own customers, and the briefness of the book really make it feel like marketing material. Because of how thin it is, I’m inclined to say it should be picked up in a cheaper e-book format and read on a flight.

Traction – How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares:
A good skim for anyone working in a startup wanting to experiment with new ideas for growing your organization. Weinberg and Mares, through dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs and marketers, have compiled a collection of diverse methods for new customer acquisition. The only catch is that they’ve done such a good job blogging their work, you can get a good chunk of the knowledge for free online!

Crossing the Chasm – Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers by Geoffrey Moore
Considered one of the canonical books on marketing, particularly for technology products, Crossing the Chasm describes a common dilemma new companies face: How do I grow my business beyond early enthusiasts who will experiment on untested technology and into mainstream markets expecting polished products? Moore’s prescribed solution is a combination of defining a subset of the mainstream that you can land on as your “beachhead” and then what additions you need to make to your early technology to make it a complete solution to that beachhead’s problems to the point they’ll pay you for it.

The rest of the book delves into the details of the decisions that go into all of this (product development, pricing, marketing tactics) paired with numerous case studies. It’s got enough business jargon (“Positioning is a noun, not a verb”) that might turn off readers not interested in the topic. Due to originally being published in 1991, it also suffers from most aspiring tech entrepreneurs already having learned it’s insights through osmosis elsewhere. But I personally always enjoy reading the original sources.

The Death of WCW: 10th Anniversary Edition by Bryan Alvarez and R.D. Reynolds:
A lot of people in modern America forget just how popular professional wrestling was in the late 1990s, which were the peak adolescent years for my generation. And during what the industry has coined “The Monday Night Wars”, WCW became the only wrestling company, for a brief couple years, to make more money and be more popular than the now monopolistic World Wrestling Entertainment. In fact, WCW would at one point in 1997 be not only the most popular wrestling company in the world, but the single most-watched television show in all of cable television. This is a fact that seems lost on people today due to how far wrestling has fallen in pop culture. But there was a time only 15 years ago when wrestling was the most popular show on cable television.

“WCW” stands for “World Championship Wrestling”, which was a wrestling company created by media mogul Ted Turner through an acquisition of another failing wrestling business based in the American South in the late 1980s. Off the back of creative storytelling and large investments by billionaire Ted Turner, it would rise to a valuation (based on proposed acquisition offers from other media companies) of $500 million in 1999, mirroring the rise of the dot-com boom in that same era. It would turn out that the dot-com boom would lead to WCW’s bust, as a series of corporate deals led WCW to be owned by America Online (yes, AOL at one time owned a professional wrestling company), whose new public company status could not support the $60 million WCW lost in the year 2000. AOL would pull the plug on WCW by selling its assets to the WWE for a mere $3 million, a stunning plummet for a business in a year and a half.

“The Death of WCW” is a business book as much as it is a wrestling book. The overarching business lesson is that customers of any business just want a good product, and if you start sacrificing on the core quality of your offering, no other antics or promotions or salesmanship will keep them. And if things are going well, limited success will cover a lot of internal mistakes. Once business turns for the worse, the whole house of cards collapses so quickly, there is no time to wait for a rebuilding.

I first came across this book when it was originally published in 2004. This 10th anniversary edition is double the size and almost goes into too much detail of the week-to-week changes in the wrestling industry for the uninitiated. However, this is also a testament to the work Alvarez has done in thoroughly researching and documenting the story of a company who, most importantly, played a significant role in the childhoods of tens of millions of Americans in the 1990s.

Disrupted – My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons:
Dan Lyons made a name for himself with his sardonic parody of Apple’s cofounder via his blog Fake Steve Jobs. Since winding down the blogging, his career has taken a series of unexpected turns. Laid off from role as a Newsweek reporter, Dan decided to take his wordsmithing into the startup land he once covered.

The company he lands at is Hubspot. For those unaware, Hubspot is a billion dollar company which sells marketing and sales software for businesses (it’s a mix of basic website form builders, customer relationship tracking, and some other minimum odds and ends a business might need to manage its online presence).

Dan’s year there turns into a nightmare for himself and the company, and Lyon’s journalistic roots motivated him to write this scathing expose of the company and startup culture at large. Dan, in his mid-50s, has immediate cultural clash with a company staffed by twenty-somethings. I’m an old soul, so I particularly enjoyed relating to the young startup employees working for low salary but free beer and candy and team praise in the form of emails ending in exclamation points, while at the same time understanding Dan’s insight into how vapid and fleeting a culture like this is. It may be surprising if even 50% of Hubspot’s current full time employees are there five years from now, and Disrupted does an adequate job of juxtapositioning this against the employment world Dan grew up in.

On one hand, Hubspot clearly has operational issues. Specifically, it seems like they’re growing their “inbound marketing” business through traditional “outbound” sales methods of having call centers staffed with low wage phone jockeys calling up small businesses and pushing them to buy a $10,000 piece of software they may not need.

If I have any issue with this story, it’s that it does seem somewhat sour to very publicly trash a company’s reputation that did pay you for a year and hired you when you were unemployed.

However, when it came to light that Hubspot executives were using illegal means to try to hack Lyon’s life and prevent this book from getting published, the company surely deserves the public relations hit it has taken since Disrupted was published.

Four Stars (Highly recommended for those interested in topic, or generally recommended for anyone):

Seinlanguage by Jerry Seinfeld:

I found this 90’s gem in the discount bookshelf at a thrift store somewhere in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Seinlanguage is a collection of essays Jerry wrote before starting his famous sitcom, and the stories served as the basis for many of his standup routines and TV episodes. So if you’re a fan of Seinfeld (the man or the show), much of the material will be familiar, yet I found enough original bits which made me genuinely laugh out loud. Seinfeld’s legendary abilities as an observational comic have been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere, so I’ll just reiterate that his insights into human behavior or so keen, and so clearly conveyed in Seinlanguage, it’s absolutely worth the $7 it costs for a copy online.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli:
One of the greatest joys in life is walking into an old, small bookstore in an unknown land with no deadlines and no worries. While in New Orleans last Autumn for a family wedding, I had a lull in between festivities where I got to walk around the city and stumbled upon Faulkner House Books, a cozy floor-to-ceiling packed store. Befitting the store where I found this book, Rovelli’s brief history of physics was a fantastic find. It’s a sub-100 page, double-spaced explanation of the major concepts of physics since Einstein. One might not expect a physicist to be so eloquent. Rovelli’s writing (likely aided for American readers by translators) is clear and clever. He’s also demonstrably a deep thinker, sprinkling philosophical thoughts throughout the physics. It was such a perfect breezy read I flew through it in one coffee shop trip and on the flight home.

Creativity Inc – Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace:
Ed Catmull may not be a household name, but his work certainly is. As the President of Pixar since it’s inception (when the Pixar team and technology was purchased from George Lucas by Steve Jobs), Catmull and his team have had an immeasurable impact on the happiness of humanity.

This is his half-personal, half-business biography, with the book itself split into two major portions: The first half is the biography of Catmull’s childhood and education breaking into the burgeoning field of computer graphics, working for George Lucas at Lucasfilm, and then founding Pixar with the support of Steve Jobs. The second half is a collection of lessons learned over his 30+ year career at Pixar as they faced specific challenges ranging from the technological, financial, and personal.

The book this most reminded me of is the previously reviewed Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. They both follow the same format described above, and it’s a format I enjoy. When it comes to “business books”, I think it’s much more meaningful if the authors take the approach of “Here are problems I faced and how I dealt with them at the time. In retrospect, I maybe should’ve done this differently,” as opposed to the direct, infomercial-ly, self-help approach of, “This is how you can make a million dollars!”

Creativity Inc is a solid read for anything interested in working in any business or creative profession.

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook:
I think a majority of people have an instinctual knowledge that modern mainstream music is formulaic in sound and structure. But most haven’t delved into why music all sounds the same, when it started (The Beatles certainly didn’t sound like our current pop and hip hop stars) and how it got this way.

Seabrook’s “Song Machine” unveils the history of the greatest hit song machine in musical history, as measured by quantity of Top 100 hits (only behind The Beatles), length of time (30 years), and variety of artists. The machine? Swedish record studio Cheiron Studios was founded by Denniz PoP and taken to greater heights and legendary status by his protege Max Martin.

Their resume as song makers is unprecedented, starting with the major hits for both the Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC, followed by Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift. And what made them so special was nailing the modern formula: 80s stadium rock mixed with hip-hop dance-ability and rhythm mixed with choruses that can be both sung and danced to.

Along with the mythic story of Cheiron Studios’ creation and steady growth to industry powerhouse, “Song Machine” follows the beginning of the careers for the 90s major boy bands, Rihanna, and Ke$ha, along with the colorful and volatile personalities of their managers and producers.

Overall, it’s a succinct look at the history of modern pop told through the lens of its primary rainmakers. I am always personally fascinated by stories of how a small group of people (a few guys in a recording studio in Sweden) can have an inordinate impact on culture worldwide. It is profound to think that this handful of people essentially created the soundtrack to my generation, and the legend of their music factory, with the help of this book, will not be forgotten.

Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone):

Chaos Monkeys – Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez:

This book is the best representation and explanation of current Silicon Valley. Chaos Monkeys, named after a technical tool from Netflix, is a memoir of Antonio’s professional career from 2010 to 2014 which included stops at many of the brand names of the Valley: Quant at Goldman Sachs and an adtech firm, starting his own adtech company funded by Y Combinator, selling that company to Twitter, and landing at Facebook.

What stood out to me is that someone so seemingly ingrained in the system would be willing to write a tell-all, including naming names, at a still relatively young age, when he could seemingly still milk it. However, two points become apparent while reading:

  1. The easy money is not as easy, or large, as headlines make it sound.
  2. In the machine of Silicon Valley, people’s memories are short and he’ll have little trouble remaining in the system.

Since it is a memoir, the reader’s reaction to the book will largely be influenced by their perception of the author. Antonio seems like someone who is not honest in the sense of strict truth-telling, but is honest with himself and his worldviews. His own opinionatedness and outspokenness comes through clearly, as does his self-awareness.

Beyond the author’s life story, readers are treated to inside scoop on the machinations of America’s glory industry: web businesses. The acquisition dance between startups and tech giants, and the inner managerial dysfunctions of Twitter and Facebook are elaborated from Antonio’s quasi-insider vantage point.

Chaos Monkeys and Silicon Valley as a whole is well summarized in this book excerpt, surely written to be quoted in reviews such as this:

“Investors are people with more money than time.
Employees are people with more time than money.
Entrepreneurs are simply the seductive go-betweens.
Startups are business experiments performed with other people’s money.
Marketing is like sex: only losers pay for it.”

Why We Get Fat – And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes:
Nowadays the dangers of sugar and excess carbohydrates are increasingly household knowledge. This was not nearly as true in 2010 when Taubes published “Why We Get Fat”, and the knowledge contained within is still not pervasive enough in American society.

“Why We Get Fat” is essentially a slimmer, more consumable take on Taubes’ 2008 book “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. He does a concise yet convincing job of disproving many of the common theories around weight gain and loss, particularly the ideas of calories-in versus calories out (the biology and chemistry of what kinds of calories consumed does influence on fat creation/destruction), overeating and laziness as causes of obesity (anecdotal and genetic evidence says otherwise), and that socioeconomics factors cause obesity (supporting academic research from both the humanities and natural sciences can demonstrate the social/economic evidence is symptomatic, not causal, of obesity).

Next, Taubes takes the time to explain the real causes of obesity, which delves into the specifics of hormone chemistry and how the body metabolizes different sugars. Thankfully Taubes is a journalist by trade (with a graduate degree in engineering) and has the ability to make the complex readable, while providing extensive references for those requiring scientific sources.

This isn’t a diet book (though it does contain an appendix with food suggestions). It isn’t a biology textbook. It’s just a well-written, high-level read for anyone who wants to improve his or her own health.

Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2016

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D.:
I first started this book in 2012, when I decided to buy it on a whim during a random trip to Barnes and Noble senior year of college. A few months later, it was one of the few items I packed in my bag carried with me onto a Megabus as I moved to a new city to start a new post-college life. On that 8 hour bus ride from Columbus to Chicago, I got through a majority of the book and purposefully set it aside because I didn’t want to finish it until I was ready to write a review for it and wanted the content to be fresh in my mind when I did. A few months ago, as 2016 was ending, I was ready to revisit this book and complete it knowing it would receive my highest recommendation in this set of reviews.

How Doctors Think covers a lot of examples of one overarching theme: how do doctors make decisions? As the back cover adds, the major sub-topics include why doctors succeed in decision-making and diagnosis (where expertise comes is useful), where they make errors (where expertise and experience blinds them), and how patients can influence their doctors (emphasizing that individuals can both take control of their health while also avoiding their own set of cognitive biases).

Groopman tells a story familiar to anyone interested in economics such as myself. It’s the story behavioral economics (Nobel-winning psychologists Kahneman and Tversky are cited early in the book) and fallibility of the human mind. The author does a few things tremendously well here:

  • Apply the academic work of behavioral economics to a different domain
  • Turning intellectual questions into a narrative
  • Creating this narrative out of real world anecdotes.

It is this third bullet where How Doctors Think really makes a profound impression on the reader. It is one thing to discuss human biases in academic exercises and brain teasers. Mental errors take on a deeper meaning when the results are doctors missing cancer in someone’s body because they ignored certain symptoms, or suggesting a surgery that kills someone who didn’t need to cut open. These heart wrenching stories of debt and death in our medical system due to human error should concern everyone. Luckily, Groopman summarizes these stories with lessons and suggestions to doctors and patients for improving decision-making and ultimately healthcare. I’m not listing these lessons here because you might not internalize them without the profound emotional impact How Doctors Think conveys.