Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 Reading List

It's that time of the year where I get away from hacking and instead spend quality time doing a Think Week (more of a Read Week) of sorts.

Book Reviews

This is a compilation of some of the books I have been reading this year.

Mature Optimization Handbook (pdf) by Carlos Bueno

Bueno taps on his 19 years of software engineering experience to write this handbook on how to approach performance optimization within the framework of a telemetry-based feedback system (aka Scuba) from the perspective of Facebook. This handbook provided fascinating insights into what pieces should constitute a modern telemetry stack to enable effective performance optimization and monitoring. Beuno left Facebook for MemSQL after the publication of this handbook.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

This is a must-read for any serious entrepreneur. The first half the book focuses on Loudcloud and Opsware, and how Horowitz led the company through some really tough times with a ton of sheer determination and luck. The second half of the book is more relevant: Ben Horowitz dispenses advice from management to leadership.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

This book is suppose to be a summary/extension of the original CS183 course that Thiel taught at Stanford and some of his talks. I felt this book was over-hyped and was disappointed by Thiel's generalizations. It took me a while to really understand the crux of Thiel's thinking -- Thiel's thinking is based around a contrarian philosophy where he postulates a non-conventional or seemingly incongruent viewpoint and rationalizes it to explain worldly and human behavior within the confines of a specific domain. Such a thinking methodology requires one to be fairly comfortable with thinking from first principles and be flexible enough to avoid the pitfalls of framework-based thinking.

Marc Andressen pretty much sums up the way to approach Thiel's writings: "'exactly half' of whatever Thiel says" [Fortune article] (i.e. with a pinch of salt). That said, Thiel does have some keen and valid observations such as his theory on mafia.

Blake Master's original CS183 notes made for more interesting reading.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

Brad Stone put together impressive research for an auto-biography on Jeff and Amazon. Reading this book made me understand the growth of Amazon, its many flops, successes and business secrets, and the almost Jobsian personality of Bezos.

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

To me, this book felt like an attempt by Eric Schmidt to cement his achievements as the CEO of Google and to take some credits for Googly operating and management methods. However, this book did have some compelling and insightful ideas (which might work at Google since Google is cash-rich, but not work elsewhere). I found Schmidt's definition of "smart creatives" to be enlightening and relevant in the context of the contemporary technological company. A fairly accurate TL;DR of the book is on Slideshare.

World Order by Henry Kissinger

This is a pretty dense book written in classic Kissinger style with great insights. This is my second Kissinger book after On China (which some say is Kissinger's seminal piece). I am a newbie to the topic of International Relations and so I am taking this slowly.

How to Start a Startup (Stanford CS183b) by Sam Altman

This isn't exactly a book, but an online course I took. I have mixed reactions to this course -- some lectures were structured and valuable while some were unstructured Q&As and the questions asked had a tendency to be off-tangent or boring. The Q&A format usually leads to impromptu responses from the speakers which sometimes lack insights. My favorite lectures were: GrowthBuilding for the Enterprise and How to Operate.

Y-Combinator is perhaps one of the seed accelerators to have taken a distinctive approach to mentoring startups. Paul Graham and his team are able to break down the process of starting a startup into components that could be easily understood, and engineer success by adhering to a set of guiding methodologies backed by real historical data compiled over a decade of the YC program. The CS183b course and the continued success and recognition of the YC program is a result of that unique effort.

Bonus: A Brave New World In Which Men Ruled by Jodi Kantor

This is a NYT interactive article that explores gender inequality from the perspective of Stanford's graduating class of 1994 which entered society 20 years before this year and a time before the Internet came of age. It features soundbites and (contrarian) viewpoints from the Paypal Mafia. The article itself did not exactly explore gender inequality in great detail, but rather exploited the setting of Stanford alumni (as actors) and Silicon Valley (as the stage) to tell an intriguing story of careers and lives.

Lastly, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy 2015!