Reading List 2015

30 December 2015 by Mathias Meyer

It’s the end of 2015, and in the tradition of 2013 and 2014, here’s my reading list, clocking in at 36 books I’ve read this year. I’ve been enjoying reading more and more with every year, and I’ll set the bar at reading at least 40 books in 2016.

A lot of these books are focused on leadership and organizational topics, which have become more and more interesting to me, so there’s not a lot of technical books in the list, they’re more focused at management, people, growth, organizational health and business.

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Learn from the Worst

This book is a follow-up to “The No-Asshole Rule”, a book I read in 2014, and it’s a great collection of examples from good bosses and bad bosses (big surprise!)

It’s usually not easy to come by honest and real world examples like these in a book, so if you want to learn what it takes to be a good boss, and how not to be a bad boss, this is a good book to read.

There are quite a few essence pieces in here that point to Rob Sutton’s later work “Scaling Up Excellence”, but I found “Good Boss, Bad Boss” to be a lot more useful and less pretentious than “Scaling Up Excellence.”

Snow Crash

I’ve read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon years ago, and this was recommended to me as another of his books to read. The story paints quite an amazing and futuristic picture, given that this book is from 1984. Pictures of the internet, and something like Second Life pop up in what appears like some post-apocalyptic world.

I didn’t get much out of reading this book, though, it felt more like a chore than it felt enticing. Your mileage may vary.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Mary Roach has an incredible skill when it comes to dissecting scientific topics in a humorous ways. Just like when reading “Gulp” last year, I found myself chuckling and laughing at topics that would appear pretty dry an empty (pun intended) in any other context.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

I’ve enjoyed reading Michael Lewis’ “Flash Boys” in 2014, so I gave Moneyball a shot. He has a good writing style that keeps you engaged, even when the topic is something mundane as baseball and using metrics and data to make business decisions, especially to a European like myself, who doesn’t have anything on baseball.

Still, the story is a really interesting one, and it’s at times hard to believe how reluctant baseball as a whole is to changing the way it measures success in the game.

Fahrenheit 451

I was browsing through some classics in the Kindle store, and this came up, so I thought, why not? Turns out it’s a thought-provoking read to boot, definitely among the books one should be reading in a lifetime.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The book has gotten me to appreciate the food I eat every day a lot more, and the path it’s taken to where we are right now, both the good and the bad.

It’s an inspiring story to look after what you eat and look beyond just eating healthy, but also considering where your food is coming from.

Reading the book had me wanting to make my own salami and grow more of our food ourselves, so that’s something.

It’s an inspiring and thought-provoking read.

The Girl on the Train

This was one of the few novels I’ve read this year, and it turned out to be a great one. It only took me two days to read the entire book, and it was really hard to put down. It’s a mystery thriller kind of book with a well laid out and gripping story.

If you’re looking for any kind of novel to read, go for this one, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

Startup CEO: How to Build a Company to Success

There are only few books that focus on what a CEO in a startup or relatively young but fast-growing company does. It focuses a lot on the every day in and outs of a CEO, and it helped me quite a lot in getting a grip on what I should be focusing on as a CEO, what I can and should delegate, what roles to hire into, and so on.

If you find yourself in the rare position of being the CEO of a startup, this is one of the books to get. It’s right up there with “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, and I have both on my desk in print for good reason.

The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

I’ve had this book on my reading list for two or three years, and it was about time to finally read it. It was time well spent. The Phoenix Project is very well written, outlining organizational dysfunctions and the path to improvement as a novel rather than a collection of practices or things you could or should be doing.

Having worked in similar organizations as outlined in the book and having seen what can help improve them, I could relate to a lot of what’s in the book.

The good part is that it’s not just a book for ops or development folks. DevOps is about more than that, it’s about customer focus and organizational health.

It quickly made it on our company-internal book recommendation list for everyone.

Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

“Mindset” looks at two different states of mind. One is the fixed and the other the growth mindset.

The book looks at both from different angles, work, sports, personal life, marriage, children, making the case that the fixed mindset will keep you from becoming a better person, from learning, from growing into something rather than relying on superfluous (or non-existent) things like talent, being born with a certain trait, and so on.

With the right mindset (spoiler: it’s the growth mindset), you can learn pretty much anything.

It’s a rather motivational book, which got me to rethink a lot of my approaches to life, both personally and at work, so it was worth the read.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

This book is written in a similar way as “The Phoenix Project” (though I’d wager that it’s the other way around). It’s the story of a new CEO joining a struggling company and trying to find out what’s broken in the leadership team and working towards fixing it.

I’ve found myself slapping my forehead quite a few times reading this book, and I’d recommend it to anyone in a leadership position, though it makes for great and revelatory reading for everyone working in a team.

Intercom on Product Management

A handy little guide from the folks at Intercom on the how and why of product management, on figuring out what to build and what not to build.

Veins

This novel-ish book gets a mention here mostly because I read it, and that’s it. It’s neither particularly thrilling nor is it exciting or humorous. I just found it sad to read, but maybe that’s what the author intended, who knows?

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business

This book picks up where “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” left off. It outlines clear advice on how to get a team to focus and to fix its dysfunctions. The fixes outlined in this book are surprisingly simple, and I can confirm that I’ve tried a few of them out already, to great success.

If you’re reading “The Five Dysfunctions”, you should be reading this too.

Making It Right: Product Management for a Startup World

Another relatively short and approachable book on product management, and very much focused on the practical side of it, and how it might work in an engineering organization.

Rather helpful if you want to figure out what product management is, how to approach it and where it might sit in your organization.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I’m a big fan of Murakami’s books and his writing style, and this one was a great read, as to be expected. One of the few novels I’ve read in 2015, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My Life and Work

You could say this was an out-of-the-ordinary book with the others mentioned in this list, but it really wasn’t. This is Henry Ford’s auto-biography with a heavy focus on how he’s built his business building and selling cars.

Some noteworthy key points: instead of taking funding, he built his business brick by brick, building and selling several different car models until he’s finally reached the infamous Model T, which he turned into multiple revenue streams, being able to turn the base structure of the car into cars, convertibles, trucks, tractors, and so on.

While he’s considered the father of integrated factories that build cars on an assembly line, I found some of his views on building a business rather surprising, positively so.

He hired people no matter their background, assuming that everyone wanted to come to work to do a great job. He restricted work to a reasonable set of hours. He built factories that, while compact, made sure that there’s enough room for people to move about without feeling crammed and that have enough natural light rather than feeling closed off.

This was a surprisingly good book to read.

Not everything that Ford valued made it into the future, though. His prediction was that cities would vanish, and that people would favor a lifestyle of living in the countryside, where they could grow their own crops in summer and work in factories like Ford’s in winter. Not really that bad of an idea, if you ask me.

Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager

This book was recommended to me when looking for books on management, so I gave it a read. I’ve been an avid reader of Michael Lopp’s blog, so this seemed like a useful book to read.

Unfortunately I didn’t really get much out of it. The book reads exactly like what it is, a collection of blog posts, loosely grouped around similar topics.

I find some entertainment in Lopp’s writing style on his blog, though I do find it a bit glorified (both when talking about engineers and engineering managers) and pretentious at times.

The collected blog post content doesn’t really jell, it doesn’t flow well from one chapter to the next. It’s like reading a collection of blog posts, which you might as well do on his blog.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups and How to Build the Future

This was one of the celebrated books on startups coming out in 2014, so I thought, why not? Let’s see what Peter Thiel has to say. Given the companies he’s been involved and invested in, he probably knows a thing or two on the topic.

As someone who’s been rather critical of the funding-heavy startup culture of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I tried to approach this book with an open mind.

Unfortunately the Thielian Reality (you heard it here first) conflicts deeply with how I view building a business. His focus is on building monopolies, unicorns, companies that dominate markets, and therefore determine the future.

The entire book talks about companies that have grown very fast, that have captured huge markets, companies that have broken or build monopolies. They do exist, there’s no denying that.

I find Thiel’s advice as a whole to be rather toxic. His reality is a perfect outline of how I perceive Silicon Valley, which is good when you’re part of that culture. It’s repelling to me as someone so removed from that culture.

The book finishes by describing that founders need to be on the extreme end with their personal trait. He brings in Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and other pop culture heroes to make his case.

Thiel’s Reality is a very one-side one, and I want as little part of it as I can.

Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook

This book came fresh off the press, and it was recommended to me by a friend. As books on being a startup CEO are rare, I had to read this one.

It’s really well written, and it’s full of good advice when you’re starting up a company. The first part focuses heavily on topics like founding and how to split up the company, approaching funding, getting investors on board, pitching, and so on. I found this part very interesting to read as someone who’s so removed from all of that. On the other hand, this topic makes up almost half of the book, and it’s heavily leaning towards setting up your company in the US.

With so much content focused on founding and funding, I felt like the rest fell a bit short. Management and leadership get their due pages, and so does the topic of acquisition, but they do feel unfinished, especially compared to how dense the part on founding and funding is.

From my perception, the book is great for when you’re just starting out. There are a few things in there, especially from the early stages, and the end bits about going through an acquisition, that I found rather interesting and that got me to dive into other books the author mentioned to learn more. They’re stories that you don’t hear about very often.

Bonus points for this book focusing so much on the importance of diversity in a startup!

Read this if you’re just starting out setting up a company. At later stages, go for “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and “Startup CEO”.

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency

This turned out to be one of the best and most insightful books I’ve read in 2015, recommended by a friend. I’ve read Tom DeMarco’s “Peopleware”, a project management and software engineering classic, years ago, and it was already a very insightful book, so reading this one seemed like a no-brainer.

It’s wonderfully short, and it’s easy to read the entire thing in an afternoon.

The core of the book is that it’s important not to keep yourself (as a manager) and your team busy and working at full capacity. Doing that restricts your team and company in experimenting and innovating, leaving little room to find new ways of doing things, exploring new features or even new products.

If you’re a manager or leader, this is a must-read book. And when I say must-read, I mean must-read.

Startupland: How Three Guys Risked Everything to Turn an Idea Into a Global Business

Startupland is the story of how Zendesk, a widely respected company in customer support, grew from three guys in a Copenhagen apartment to going public on the New York Stock Exchange.

It’s a pleasant story to read, and it’s an honest one too. It touches on struggles in the founding team just as much as the struggles of scaling out a company, working with investors, moving countries as a company, and finally, about going public.

There’s not much in terms of advice in here, it’s just a nice story to read on how you can grow a company from the very small to the very big.

The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup

This was one of the books recommended in “Hot Seat”, and it was one of the few books that I devoured and thoroughly enjoyed reading, having many facepalm and lightbulb moments.

It’s one of the few (maybe the only?) books that dives into real world data on startups. The data set feels a bit outdated (at least speaking in terms of internet time), but it still gives you good indicators on what you need to focus on and keep in mind when you start a company.

It touches on topics like splitting up equity, balancing (or rather, choosing one or the other), keeping control of the company versus building wealth, taking on investors, challenges and struggles of a founding team, and heaps more.

This book is a treasure trove, and I wish I’d read it years ago (or at least in 2012, when it came out).

If you’re planning on setting up a company, if you’re just setting one up, or even if you’re years into building it, this book is a must-read for an entrepreneur.

It’s helped me gain some clarity on topics that I couldn’t quite put my finger on before or argue for against, and that’s true for every topic it touches on. Quite a few of the problems outlined are familiar to me, and it was interesting to learn how this has panned out at hundreds or thousands of other companies in similar situations.

A couple of years ago, an investor asked me “Do you want to be rich or do you want to be the king?” Back then, I didn’t really understand what he’d meant. Thanks to this book, I have a much better understanding about it now.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist

Another book coming out of “Hot Seat” that I decided to read on a whim. I’m a critical person of the prevailing funding culture, but I still wanted to learn more about what’s happening inside that other reality, so I can at least understand it better, maybe open up my mind along the way.

It sure helped to read this book. It’s straight to the point, and if you’re looking into getting funding for your company, you’d probably be well-advised to read it. Though you shouldn’t really take that from me, as I have very little experience looking for let alone going through the process of getting funding.

It definitely helped me get some more insight into funding from an investor’s perspective, which was helpful after getting the founder’s perspective in “Hot Seat”.

What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Not being an avid read of xkcd, it took me a while to get to the point of wanting to read this book. I’m glad that I did, because it’s hilarious. It starts out by explaining what it would look like if a baseball was pitched at near light speed, and it just goes from one hysterical and outrageously impossible topic to the next.

I laughed a lot reading this book, so you should probably read it.

Beyond Blame: Learning from Failure and Success

I had the pleasure of reviewing this book as it was written by my friend Dave Zwieback. It follows the footsteps of “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Phoenix Project”, using a novel-like narrative to explain the importance of a blameless organizational culture and trusting your team.

It’s a wonderful and short read, so you should probably read it. If you’re new to the topics of blameless culture, normalization of deviance, practical drift, the ETTO principle, and the like, you’ll find plenty of inspiration and starting points in this book.

The Road to Little Dribbling

I’ve been a big fan of Bill Bryson’s books, having racked up quite the stack over the years. “The Road to Little Dribbling” picks up where “Notes from a Small Island” left off, revisiting Britain 20 years later.

I found the book rather disappointing. While it still has heaps of Bryson’s witty and humorous writing style, a big part of it reads like the ramblings of an old man who’s mad at how things have changed since he was last in the country. Maybe he’s right in being mad, but there are so many complaints in the book, it’s been a bit dreadful to read at times.

It’s not the same as “Notes from a Small Island”, or any of his other, previous books. If there’s one thing I appreciate out of this book as much as his earlier works, it’s that he walks around so much to explore. I can certainly relate to and appreciate that.

The Martian

I saw posters of some movie called “The Martian” feat. Matt Damon, so I did the only thing I could think of and bought the book so I don’t have to go to the movies.

It’s a great novel, both for the geek in me (and you!), and for the hopeful person, and you should probably read it. It’s interspersed with scientific detail, and you can tell that the author did their homework.

Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!

I read the introduction to this book earlier this year, and that got me hooked on wanting to read more.

The book is part a history of Google and part a history of Yahoo!, both sides with a focus on Mayer’s role in them.

It’s incredibly well written, and I had a hard time putting it down (so I didn’t!) It’s odd to call a book like this gripping, but that’s exactly what it was.

Looking at recent news out of and around Yahoo!, the story isn’t finished yet, but it’s a great introduction to where Yahoo!, Google and Mayer came from.

Inceptions

A friend recommended this to me to find some inspiration on how to approach our company offsite.

Inceptions is a workshop method to plan a product, or the next quarter of it, working through features, their motivations, goals and so on.

While it was not the kind of thing I’d planned on doing at our company offsite, this is sure to be helpful in the future.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

I saw a movie poster that had Robert Redford on it, and I thought “Hey, I’ve heard that movie title before!” Once again, I did the only thing I could think of and bought the book.

The book is from 1998, and it does read like it at times, but it’s written by the wonderfully humorous and witty Bill Bryson that I’ve come to enjoy a couple of years ago.

It’s a story to indulge in without clinging to any of the detail, just living through what Bryson has experienced walking the Appalachian Trail, making you dream about maybe doing that Trail yourself one day.

Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home

This book was written by my friend Jessica Fechtor, and it’s a mix of personal story interspersed with food and recipes.

I do enjoy reading these kinds of books, and even more so when I know the author personally, as the stories here share so much more about their personal lives, bits that I didn’t know of. It makes me appreciate them as friends even more.

If you like these kinds of books, may I also recommend Luisa Weiss’ “My Berlin Kitchen” and Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life”?

Girl in a Band

This is Kim Gordon’s memoir. She was a founding member of Sonic Youth, she directed heaps of music videos, is an artist, and so much more.

In my grunge days, I didn’t really listen to Sonic Youth, which maybe helped me appreciate this book and Kim’s many talents a lot more.

A big part of this book is about feminism, being the girl in a band, being a rock mother, and the struggles going along with it.

This was an inspiring book to read and has gotten me wanting to read more biographies and more personal stories.

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

I came across this book often enough that I figured I might as well.

First things first, there’s very little in terms of technical details in here. The story starts at Ada Lovelace and follows the path towards computing and computers as we know it to do.

The path is fascinating, and it’s filled with amazing and smart people building on top of each other’s work, triggering innovation after innovation, to get us to where we are now with computers.

The most inspiring part of the book was to me that it only talks about people and how they work together. The innovations that have lead us to where we are now in computers were more team work than they were an individual’s achievements, even if some of the individuals involved would like to tell a different tale. It tells the stories of unlikely couples working together, playing off each other’s strength to build transistors, computers, microchips and so much more.

I found the first part to be the one I enjoyed the most, because I knew very little about Ada Lovelace and her involvement in defining computing today, and I was happy to have that fixed.

If computers and how they came about are your thing, this is a good book to read.

Managing Oneself

This book was my first contact with Peter Drucker, and it got me hooked on reading more. It’s really, really short, really. You can read it in half an hour. It’s still full of great advice on the importance of managing yourself, figuring out your values, your strengths, what you’re not good at, and how you can measure your own success.

The title suggest it’s aimed at managers, but he’s talking to anyone who can be considered a knowledge worker.

The core of the book is that it’s just as important to reflect on yourself as it is to reflect on the bigger picture you’re a part of. That message I’ll gladly sign off on.

How We Got to Now

I came across this book on Brain Pickings and, having an appreciation for learning about how things came about that we consider part of our everyday life now.

Steven Johnson talks about six innovations, some of them arguably under-appreciated, that have lead us to where we are now.

The innovations he talks about are glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. If you think about it, at the surface, all of them sound so minuscule, hardly worth calling innovations, let alone innovations that have had a key part in getting us to where we are now.

Sometimes the book reads like it suffers from outcome bias, but on the other hand, Johnson is probably right that our civilization wouldn’t be exactly where it is right now without the innovations he introduces.

I found this a fascinating book to read. If you’d like to learn more about sleep and time in particular, I have two book recommendations for you: ”Dreamland” and “In Search of Time”

What books did you read in 2015? Make sure to share your list, so the rest of us can make sure we never run out of interesting things to read.

See you in 2016! I already got my reading list for the first couple of weeks sorted.

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