Mathias Meyer
Mathias Meyer


2014 has been a good year of reading for me, and below is the list of books I’ve read and a bit of commentary on each. As you’ll notice, I’ve been focusing on leadership, management and the likes a lot, the area where I still have so much to learn and where I’m thankful for some of the books that shed light on how other companies have handled the hard bits of building and growing a business.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

One of the best books I’ve read in 2014. Consider it an introduction to our hidden biases and how they influence our behaviour and our analysis of high-stress situations. Very relevant when you’re working on high resiliency systems in web operations.

Distributed Systems for Fun and Profit

This book is a great little primer on the challenges of building and running distributed systems, with lots of references to dig deeper into algorithms, books and papers. Plus, it’s free, so how can you not?

Flash Boys

This book was recommended to me by way of John Allspaw with the hint that it mentions a blog post on human error I’d published in 2013. It’s a book about high-frequency trading and about a little company that’s trying to build an ethical exchange for high-frequency traders. It’s a great read and sheds a whole new light on challenges like front-running orders and gaining competitive advantages by cutting response times just by one millisecond.

No Exit: Struggling to Survive a Modern Gold Rush

I came across a Wired article on a team of founders and their challenges of raising money for their financially struggling startup in San Francisco. This book is the extended version, and a good read. I can relate to the struggles, but I’m also glad that our company is neither in the Valley nor is it pursuing funding as a means of growing.

In Search of Certainty

This book came on my radar as it’s relevant to web operations, and it’s been hailed as a great book on the theoretical aspects of it. Theoretical the book is indeed. It’s hard to figure out where it’s going most of the time. Most of what’s mentioned in the book seems much more relevant than say, Nassim Taleb’s work, but it’s hard to grasp the relevance until you reach the last chapter.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book. The last chapter, which brings everything together, was the only thing that made sense to me. It’s not like the rest of the book doesn’t make any sense, but it’s struggling to bring out the relevance in what it’s trying to say.

This book feels like the scientific antidote of Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. Where Taleb uses big words, dishes out on people and makes up his own vocabulary, “In Search of Certainty” appears much more logically sound.

Start With Why

I came across a talk by Simon Sinek, which relates to his newer book (see below), and figured I might as well start with his earlier works.

Turns out this is a great read, and has been very relevant to what our last year at Travis CI has been about, trying to figure out what our purpose is and why we do what we do. We’re still working on figuring it out, but this book has kicked off a lot of my strategic thinking recently. Highly recommended.

Leading Snowflakes

I came across this book looking for introduction resources on how to be a manager, as that was my transition in 2014. “Leading Snowflakes” is a very practical book, giving you actionable things to improve your management and leadership skill set, I highly recommend it to anyone moving into a leadership position.

The Year Without Pants

Scott Berkun writes about his time working for Automattic, the company behind This turns out to be a great read on how to manage teams of engineers, give them direction, and how to function in a remote team.

A highly recommended read.

Mature Optimization Handbook

Optimization is one of the harder parts of engineering. It’s easy to do wrong, and it’s easy to do in the wrong places and with the wrong investment. This book is a great call for sanity and a very good guide in how to approach optimization in larger (and smaller) systems. Plus, it’s free!

Leaders Eat Last

This is sort of the sequel to “Start With Why” (see above), a great book on leadership, empathy and great teams. Sinek has a very anecdotal writing style, which is compelling at the same time. Will definitely read this book again. This book also brings together how people feel with the hormones that drive stress and happiness.

If you’re uncertain, go watch his talk on what’s in the book.

Creativity, Inc.

One of the greatest books of 2014, this one goes through the entire history of Pixar from the leadership perspective. It tells a lot of great stories, both good and bad, making it a rare breed among books on leadership, which isn’t just about how to make people great, it’s also about going through rough times, which in turn can mean making tough decisions or having to deal with situations you’ve never seen before.

A very highly super recommended read, whether you’re in a leadership position or not. On top of that, you get a whole new level of appreciation for how the Pixar movies like Toy Story came about.

Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age

I picked this one up from Brain Pickings as my vacation reading. I hadn’t known a lot about Turing beyond what I’d learned in university, and this turned out to be a great read to learn more about his life.

If you’re remotely interested in computer science, this book is a must read, as we owe so much of what we now take for granted to Alan Turing.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep

From my vacation reading list, the first thing this book has taught me was that we used to have very different sleep patterns before artificial light became a common part of our daily lives.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, which makes you painfully aware of how little we still know about sleep, dreaming and all that. One thing’s for sure, it got me to care more for my sleep, going to bed earlier, not spending too much time in front of computers at night, so that’s good.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

This book is making a very simple point, one I can very much agree with. It encourages you to say no. Saying no is something that’s very hard for me, but saying no allows you to focus on what’s important to you rather than what other people want from you. It also encourages you to cut out unnecessary distractions from your daily life to focus on the essentials, on what’s truly important.

Unfortunately it quite a few questionable examples to make its case, and it’s also overly long at that. It’s an okay-ish read, but you won’t miss out on too much.

Failure Is Not An Option

A great story of how the Apollo program came about from one of their controllers. Putting aside the continual references to god, this book is a great read for anyone interested in space travels, but also in complex systems and their failure modes.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Apollo was so successful. It feels like so much involved Duct tape and good luck, but digging deeper, you realize that they have been very thorough about testing. Even in the sixties, they had fully automated systems that allowed them to emulate all kinds of problems that astronauts could run into when in space.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Mary Roach has a knack for turning a topic like the digestive system into something hilarious. I’ve chuckled a lot reading this book, and it’s given me a lot of great dinner conversation starters to boot.

In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension

If this book has done anything, it has peaked my interest on quantum theory and mechanics, and on string theory, which definitely surprised my mom, a retired physics teacher, when I brought up these topics over a family brunch.

Beyond that, though, I’ve been only vaguely aware of how artificial and imprecise of a measurement time is. This book is definitely one to make you think about what time is, how we experience it, and why it’s a flawed concept.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

This book introduces a simple concept, but it’s one that has changed how surgeons approach their daily work, checklists. Checklists are such an amazingly great concept, but they can help not only save lives, they can help you be more productive and more careful about work that you assume to be normal.

A great and short read, highly recommended for people interested in complex systems as much as people starting and running companies.

Stumbling on Happiness

This book looks at all the facets of what makes us happy. It comes with a scientific background, so what it’s talking about seems to have good merit.

What it boils down to is a simple question: How can be know if something is going to make us happy or not?

In the words of Buzzfeed, the answers may surprise you (after you’ve read the book of course, which you should).

Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

This book is filled with great and concise advice on how to be more productive in your every day work. It’s so good that you should buy and read it right now.

Startup Growth Engines

The authors claim that this book is filled with case studies on how successful companies have managed to grow to what they are now.

What this book turns out to be is a random collection of blog posts filled with hearsay “research” based on press releases and blog posts from said companies.

Reading this book is a waste of time, as it won’t teach you anything interesting or that you can apply yourself.

Just Culture

The new view on human error brings up an interesting question. When it’s not humans who are at fault when something goes wrong, or when human lives are lost, who do you hold accountable? Can you even hold anyone accountable?

This book is an exploration of the legal issues and challenges involved in the balance of accountability and a just culture.

If you have any interest in the new view on human error, this book is a thought-provoking read on how to manage accountability in your company.

Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety

In one of the few books that looks for practical applications of complex systems thinking in engineering. Nancy Leveson combines the ideas of complex systems and also a new view on human error to find a better way of building resilient systems.

While the book is dry at times, it’s a great rundown of the current thinking on complex systems in engineering, and in the end offers a surprising simple solution to build better systems.

Hint: premortems.

The book is also available as a free PDF. It’s a long read, but if you’re interested in the topic, a relevant one.

Scaling up Excellence

This book is filled with anecdotes on how great companies have manage to scale up their business while keeping true to their ideals of excellency. A lot in the book is claimed to stem from research, but reading it, I couldn’t help but notice the mixed nature of the anecdotes. In the end, the book doesn’t really include any useful advice on how to scale up excellence in my opinion, and it focuses a hell lot on IDEO.

I don’t doubt that the authors have insight into many great companies, but I found previous works (see below) to be much more useful and on point. It’s a noble cause trying to extract patterns from other companies’ experiences, but in the end, the book read like there are many ways to get to the finish line, for every single pattern they identified. Which is exactly what you’d expect, as there’s no one true way to scale up excellence.

Your mileage may vary.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

I got curious about this book because my friend Daniel Schauenberg mentioned it. I’ve never looked at myself as an introvert, but reading through some of the review and book summary, I recognized some of the attributes in myself, so I started reading it.

Based on the book, I wouldn’t call myself a full blown introvert, but I do value alone time to recharge, I feel awkward with small talk and in bigger groups. I’ve had my fair share of stage fright and still do.

The book was an interesting read, as I’ve been wrestling with my introvert side and being part of the leadership team of a small company, which seems to be a common challenge, all the more so in engineering-driven companies.

Tribal Leadership

If this book has taught me anything, it’s to move my own narrative from “I” to “we” when it comes to talking about work, the company, and the team.

It’s introducing the concept of five stages that people go through, basically from “everything sucks” to “we’re great”, and how you can get from one stage to another.

A lot of what it’s talking about resonated with me, and I’d recommend it for anyone in a leading position.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Most of the books on leadership and management I’ve read this year focus on positive things or only on the surface area of certain problems. Building a company is a struggle that involves things you’ve never had to do before, like hiring and firing people, going through periods of close to bankruptcy and other things that you feel alone with as the CEO of a company.

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” is one of the few real talk books out there. It doesn’t just brush on the really hard things, it puts a big focus on them.

The book talks a lot about the hustle of quickly growing a startup, but putting that aside, the problems you’ll have even in a bootstrapped company are very similar. You’ll be faced with tough decisions, and you’ll have to make them alone.

Even though I just finished this book, I’ve been coming back to parts of it already, re-reading certain parts of it.

Next to “Creativity, Inc.”, a similar book that focuses on the hard parts of building a company, this is one of the greatest books on building and leading a company of 2014.

The No Asshole Rule

From the authors of “Scaling Up Excellence”, this book is much more helpful, even though it uses the a-word a lot. I’ve been enamored with building and fostering company culture for the last 12 months, and this book hits right home. No one wants to work in a place where assholes rule, and I’m trying my best not to be one. Whether I succeed, I can’t say with 100% confidence, but I can try my best.

I’d almost say that this book is required reading for anyone trying to build a healthy team environment. While it might use strong language, it’s straight to the point. You don’t want to be someone who’s draining people’s energy, you want to give them energy. And to do that, don’t be an asshole and read this book.

Bonus: Antifragile

This book is a bonus because it’s the only one I stopped reading like 100 pages in. I liked Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, as I agree with its core message. But Taleb’s writing style is full of vile, he likes to dish out, he likes to make up his own vocabulary (antifragile) all the while ignoring scientific research. He calls resilience a wuss concept, trying to sell you on antifragility (Warning: not a real word) instead.

I couldn’t bear his tone for hundreds of pages a second time around, after already barely making it through “The Black Swan” the previous year.

People have said good things about this book, but I found a lot more insight reading books like “The Field Guide to Human Error” or other work relevant to resilience and human error.

Read Taleb at your own risk, his resolve might be swaying, but I’ve gotten very doubtful of how he’s trying to sell it.

Read more books

I’ve read 28 books in 2014, and I aim to read more in 2015. I’ve been setting regular time aside every day to read, and it’s been working well. One thing I need to get better at is taking notes and keeping track of my highlights from Kindle books.

If you’re looking for even more stuff to read, make sure to check out last year’s reading list.

Go read, kids!