The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Month: June, 2016

Purple Cow

By Seth Godin.

I got a little obsessed with Seth Godin earlier this year and subscribed to his blog for months, before I felt it got less interesting. (This seems to be a running theme for me: I can’t subscribe to any email service for more than a couple months at a time.) Then two of his books turned up on someone’s reading list, so I figured I’d give them a shot.

Purple Cow is mostly about how you need to build remarkable products that appeal to specific people, as opposed to building bland products that you need to figure out how to mass market. This concept isn’t super deep but neither is the book super long. However he does dig into a little more than a couple sentences can describe. He makes an argument for the rise and fall of TV marketing and the requirement for successful organizations to constantly innovate. He does short case studies. Actually, every section of the book is super short. He gave the book away for free. It was an easy, engaging read. He’s a good writer with a lot of ideas.

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things

By Ben Horowitz

This book is part Ben’s story about running a company called Loudcloud (and later Opsware) as the CEO and co-founder and part Ben’s advice on how to be a good CEO. He focuses mainly on the hard things; the subtitle of the book is “Building a business when there are no easy answers.” He now runs a venture capitalist business.

I thought his story of running a software company through the dot-com bust and coming out on the other side with a successful sale to HP was gripping; I read the first half of the book the night after I picked it up from the library. But it was his advice throughout the rest of the book that really struck me. It shed a lot of light on what the previous company I worked for did wrong. My last months at that company were anxiety inducing to the point where I dreaded going to work. Yet it was my first job; I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going so very wrong.

Here is one thing Ben articulated that really resonated with me:

In ‘CEOs Should Tell It Like It Is’: “My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day I stopped being too positive. … As the highest-ranking person in the company, I thought that I would be best able to handle bad news. The opposite was true: Nobody took bad news harder than I did.” He lists three key reasons why being transparent about your company’s problems makes sense:  1) Trust. 2) The more brains working on the hard problems, the better. 3) A good culture is like the old RIP routing protocol: Bad news travels fast; good news travels slow.

He talks about a lot of other great, fascinating things as well. Like how setting timelines and guidelines for promotions and raises decreases the amount of politics in a company instead of increasing it– this way employees don’t get these things out of cycle, which always trickles back to others thinking that the best way to get ahead is to go bug someone higher up the chain. Or how CEOs have to take the lonely position of making final decisions often without anyone else’s help. Sure, a CEO can and should get information from others, but the CEO should know far more than every single person she gets information from. She is, therefore, the only one who can truly make an informed decision. Or how there is a difference between a wartime CEO and a peacetime CEO.

In addition, Ben is a great writer. He’s long when it’s story driven and short when it’s advice driven. He’s direct, honest, and every word of the book makes me think he’s a good guy, even when he talks about telling people off or firing employees.

Ubik

By Philip K. Dick

Ubik is weird, a mind-bending game of ‘what is going on here?’ that I really enjoyed. It seems to take place in a similar world to Minority Report, with precogs and people who can read minds, but there are also inertials– people who can cancel out other people’s psychic abilities.

I don’t really want to write about the specifics, because they’re great and unusual and should be read. But to jog my memory for a later, a bunch of inertials from a prudence company are sent to the moon for a mission, which is actually a trap where a bomb goes off in an attempt to kill them. The rest of the book is them trying to figure out why the world is behaving so strangely.

What I really enjoyed about the book is twofold. The primary twist of ‘what is going on here?’ is considered early on but partially rejected and partially just not dealt with by the main characters. The fact that as a reader I could have said, ‘Oh yeah, duh, of course that’s what’s going in,’ but didn’t put me right in the shoes of the characters. At end, when the twist becomes clear, it becomes incredibly obvious. But only because you knew what was going on. This might seem obvious, but again I was in the same position as the characters, who also could not have known what was going on. Without giving it away, neither I nor the characters could have known, because neither of us knew enough about the world of the book. I liked this. Unlike a detective story, you can’t know the ending based on clues.

I will say though that the last chapter was unnecessary and I recommend ignoring it. I think Philip is just throwing us for a spin because he can. It didn’t seem to actually fit with the rest of the well-devised story.

Lab Girl

By Hope Jahren.

Lab Girl is about a scientist. Or rather, a woman who struggled to become and stay a scientist. Or maybe it’s about trees. Actually, I think it’s about friendship. Or just a very strange man called Bill. It’s a bit about manic depression, and climate change, and being a parent.

It’s a wonderful read.

At book club we talked a lot about Bill — Hope’s friend, counterpart, and constant companion. Did we know a ‘Bill’? Many of us did. We all seemed to like and respect ‘Bill’s, but none of us were one, we think. For me, the phrase of the book that best described Hope’s relationship with Bill was fraternal twin. Someone who you’re connected to in an incredibly deep manner, deep as in low-level, subconscious, pre-sexual.

The parts of the book about plants were wonderful almost-scientific reads, beautiful in a way that made me want to study plants. (Though I get that kind of adoration about almost anything presented to me.) Those parts were written poetically, with emphasis on the visual and the sensual and the metaphorical. They were analogies for the chapter to follow. A hint, or a fun story-with-larger-moral.

So much of the book is about struggle, yet Hope is wildly successful, winning awards and grants and obviously a book deal. It’s interesting that the successes she focuses on are small: getting Bill a reliable salary, getting a lab of her own, getting through her pregnancy. Perhaps the other ones are secondary.