Book Club

Book Club: Chip War

It finally happened: Chip War by Chris Miller was unanimously loved by everyone in our book club. Now, full disclosure, most people in my book club are folks I have worked with in semiconductor development and design, systems development and design (relying on semiconductors) or electronic design automation tooling (used to design, layout, and manufacture semiconductors) over the years. So of course this book, which details decades of history about the world’s most critical resource semiconductors, is pandering to the base. Still, this book has important historical context for laypeople as well, specifically if you are curious about trade policy challenges between the United States and China.

This book contained the history of people and companies I’ve known, worked at or with, including drama and intrigues from early phases of the industry that I never knew. It was a page-turner, and one of the best books I have read recently. I wish this were required reading for anyone considering a career in Electrical Engineering as it explains how semiconductors came to play a critical role in modern life and how the U.S. became dominant in chip design and manufacturing (initially spurred by the space race and military systems development). It makes a strong point that America’s victory in the Cold War and its global military dominance stems from its ability to harness computing power more effectively than any other power. 

Personally I have always been shocked, having worked in so many parts of semi, how very much the world takes these incredible pieces of technology for granted. Every part of your day relies on semiconductors: your alarm clock, smart phone, toothbrush, lights, laptop, and every app providing you insights relies on semiconductors. This book really emphasizes how the military, economic, and geopolitical power bases of nearly every nation in the world are built on a foundation of semiconductors. It honestly made me so proud to be a part of this incredible industry, and still grateful everyday to the brilliant minds who invented it, many of whom are still with us.

The book spends a lot of time discussing how America designed and built the fastest chips and maintained its lead as a superpower for the majority of the industry’s history. It also speaks about how America’s role is far more nuanced today, still hosting some of the greatest fabless semiconductor companies, but having lost its lead in many of the industries it invented (DRAM, chip manufacturing, etc.) Frankly these American companies are some of the most multinational conglomerates imaginable for development and design, and through their dispersed supply chains across Taiwan, Korea, Europe, and China. It is interesting, and perhaps a bit hard as someone in the industry to imagine it from the lens of individual countries. When you work for a multinational company, you think about the benefits (around the clock support and development timelines, improved cost of labor, diverse approaches and thinking, etc.) and not from the author’s point of view, which is why it is important to read this book.

Since the book was written from a historical context with an eye to global trade and policy, it ends on a call to action about America’s military superiority and economic prosperity being tied to excellence in chip design and fabrication. Dr. Miller stresses how America has let key components of the chip-building process slip out of its grasp, contributing not only to a worldwide chip shortage (which in my opinion has more to do with a globally dispersed supply chain and would not have been ameliorated by U.S. control), but also a new Cold War with a superpower adversary that is committed to bridging the gap. I found that conclusion interesting since the author often cites America’s lack of policies supporting semiconductor development (at least in the early days) as leading to stronger companies than their nation-backed competitors. That being said the delta now is the sheer cost of R&D at the process nodes required for state-of-the-art logic chips. Either way, this book is a critical piece of history on an industry so often misunderstood, and provides important insights in an accessible manner on the current state of politics, economics, and technology. I highly recommend it.

Book Club

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence

For book club in April we read Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang. This is a historical fantasy novel that explores how the power of language can be used to uphold an empire, or be responsible for its violent and deserved demise. It is opinionated and does not shy away from making its pitch against colonialism and racism.

So first, what I appreciated most about the novel: the research on etymology, and the intricacies of translation is thorough. There are insights across pictoral alphabets, and the poetry implicit in such languages, which I truly felt expanded my appreciation for Chinese characters in particular. Also, having gone to Oxford for a high school summer program, I LOVED the scenes through the city, set in such a different time from when I was there, but which still resonated. It is an institution that has and always will be iconic, and brought up wonderful memories for me.

I also just loved frame of this novel that translation can be harnessed as a tool for empire building, which is of course true of history, but something that was not fundamental in my American education (neither directly nor as a part of my history lessons: this seems like a terrible oversight since there is so much culture in language, and understanding those differences is a fundamental way for us to understand motivation throughout history). Therefore delving into a novel about one of the most transformational phases of our world (global trade and its associated social dynamics), was really interesting. I have read many Western novels focused on this time of exploration and discovery where the life’s blood of news, novels, and fantasy were the mysteries of new empires and nations, but also where rigid hierarchies of humanity were constantly being enforced. I embraced the notion of a book told from the lens of children exploited as goods themselves as a challenge to the supposed glory of those who in so many other novels are painted as heroes.

The challenge of this novel is not in the premise, nor the research, it is in the fundamentals of the narrative arc. What draws me to a novel is the development of the characters, and the insight into the world and maybe myself that a novel can elicit. The stitching of true historical events into a new narrative should be wonderful, but while the author uses many true events, she assumes a rather myopic motivation for them, I believe to turn up her commentary on racism and colonialism as truly evil. While I agree there were evil outcomes of this time, as a novel the singular lens ends up bypassing real conflict and turmoil of character development and therefore generates a far less interesting story. I don’t advocate for this time in history AT ALL, AND I think there was nuance in the choices and motivations, which ultimately is what made it both a fascinating and horrific time in our history. I personally find novels that delve into that ambiguity much more interesting than one which tries to lay it out in such “good” and “evil” camps.

So the backdrop and history paint demonic imperialists empowered and insistent on exploiting everyone based on their priviledged perspective that they have a right to such dominance, but that doesn’t mean the main characters (who are the victims of this world view) could not be interesting. Sadly they too are not as fully fleshed out as I would have hoped. The main character, Robin, grows up with an abusive guardian and yet he somehow emerges grateful and determined. Maybe such grit could survive his mistreatment (epic memoires have been written on this basis), but even as he enters college there is not significant social and emotional growth–he remains a child-like character insistent on impressing his abusive guardian.

He does build one beautiful and enduring friendship that borders on obsession, but all his other interactions (with the two other women in his cohort and even his half brother) are stilted. He constantly seems like a scared child afraid to engage in any meaningful way with no real motivation except to learn and connect with Rami, his best friend. Then suddently there is an abrupt break in his behavior: he fights back, which somewhat hard to believe given his previous mild-mannered behaviors, and grotesquely dispatches of another human with very little thought. That someone could break I believe, but then I would assume self-protection would generate some semblance of justification. Instead he becomes crippled once again and let’s others take control of his life somehow returning to a mild-mannered (now wracked with guilt) version of himself.

I genuinely wanted to see more development of these characters: they SHOULD have been the heart of this tale, and I really loved the brief back story we got on Victoire at the end, but these were the exceptions and not the general rule of the novel. My favorite part of Robin’s story was his friendship with Rami, but the inconsistency of development of the characters limited their relatability and is the shortcoming of the tale.

In some ways, I think the author did this to try to make her very specific point: that in the face of real racism and colonialism even the most mild mannered and “favored” in the system can turn to violence. While I think this is an interesting perspective, I don’t believe it is an inevitable one, and maybe that is where I struggled the most. Mahatma Gandhi proved rather poetically how untrue this premise could be, and ultimately I would argue his approach led to far more lasting change.

I loved that this book brought me back to history, rereading the events that led to the Opium Wars, and the social and policital forces at play. My favorite part of reading is the inspiration to learn and grow. Upon that research, I sadly found myself less excited about the novel than I was while reading it mostly because there was so much that led to the Opium Wars, and she glosses over all of that with the introduction of magic silver bars. I think by focusing on the need for violence she lost the complexity and nuance of a world where everyone thought they were doing what was right for their people. To me the important lesson is not that violence could be necessary, but rather that through tribalism and dehumanization even the most seemingly noble of people can engage in subjugation and deplorable acts. The lesson for us as society is to appreciate one another for our differences, connect with one another, learn and expand our world view; ultimately then we can avoid the shame and horror of these kinds of events.

Again, I enjoyed the book and have no regrets that I read it. The quotations, historical context, etymology, nuance in translation, depictions of Oxford–I was fully engaged from the first chapter. I just think this could have been SO much better with a bit more nuance and character development. Sociopathy is not common, but in the name of protecting our people, humanity can justify depravity, and that lesson is something that we can never afford to forget. 

Book Club

Wandering Earth

For March, we read The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu in book club. Little did I know The Three Body problem would take Netflix by storm and make this seem like a populist act…I have not seen the Netflix show (full disclosure) and this decision was definitely made before I knew about it. That being said I LOVED The Three Body Problem and whole dark forest trilogy, NOT because the science was correct (spoiler alert–it isn’t), but because it proposed such a novel solution to the Fermi Paradox: if there is such a large probability of extraterrestrial life, why can we not find it.

Novel thought experiments that make you look at the world differently is the heart of Liu’s writing, and why I generally liked The Wandering Earth. The Wandering Earth had 10 short stories (of which the first is a story by the titular name). Each story had a lesson or kernel of something brilliant in it, but I will say that there was a level of cruelty and disregard toward life, ecology, etc. in some of the stories that I found very troubling. Cixin Liu comes from a non-Western culture, and so his science fiction captures different commentary–what is considered dystopic, noble, and even typical gender norms vary greatly from what you might see in a Bradbury, Asimov, or Verne novel.

Since there were 10 stories, I won’t try to summarize them all–just share some of the high and low lights. The Wandering Earth was from a scientific perspective the most interesting to me (e.g. move the earth as a spaceship, instead of abandoning it in favor of building big enough spaceships/rockets).  To the comment on culture above, there is a degree of stoicism (the husband has an affair and the wife and child don’t even seem to notice his absence or ultimate return) and utter chaos from an environmental perspective that I cannot imagine seeing in a Western short story. There also are stories of resilience for the good of all, and ultimately resistance that does seem universal (conspiracy theories upsetting rational thought in the public dialogue–felt like a social media commentary was embedded even without any such technology referred to in the story). In general I found the story a bit cold, but also interesting.

The next story I liked was Sun of China. It was absolutely a hero’s quest (leaving home to work in the coal mines, then migrating continually for work becoming a “spiderman”–skyscraper window cleaner, and eventually a space explorer). It had the elements of manifest destiny that I have seen in 1900s literature from Western writers, but with a very different technological backdrop (again the concept of using technology to change weather patterns despite significant implications to world-wide ecology, and then the lack of any call to be home or with family other than to know they are proud of him). His motivation didn’t resonate with me from a values point of view, but it was a beautiful story all the same. 

Another one I really enjoyed (and found mind-bending in the best of ways) was Micro-era. A navigator returns to Earth from a deep space mission seeking the next habitable planet for humans to migrate to, fails to find such a planet, learns all of the other navigators also failed and died, returns home to earth, only to discover that the great cataclysmic event from which he was trying to find an escape for humanity has occurred and all life appears to be dead. THEN he realizes there is life, and the form factor is unexpected. It is a fun concept that enables a difficult reality to be faced, and new hope to be found. I thought it was…fascinating (and one of the few stories with an ecological angle that wasn’t catastrophic at least from the lens of human impact on the Earth.)

With Her Eyes was again an interesting thought experiment, and one of the most relatable stories in the novel (as it came down to gratitude, empathy, and the value of human connection). It is really a simple story with the lesson of cherishing the moment because we never know when we might lose it. 

Cannonball was very true-to-form Liu in my eyes: hard science where the joy of discovery is juxtaposed against the impact on society: “yes we can do amazing things…should we?”  I didn’t love the characters (this is fairly consistent feedback for me: outside of the characters in With Her Eyes, and the Captain in The Devourer, I didn’t find the character development to be fantastic), but I did find it to be an awesome thought experiment.

In Book Club we had a fabulous discussion led by two members who have background in Chinese history and culture about some of the nuance and commentary within the stories of the novel. With that lens, I found a deeper appreciation for the subtlety and elegance of Liu’s writing than I had previously had. In general I would recommend the novel (although For the Benefit of All Mankind was a brutal read for me personally). I would definitely recommend the collection, but maybe skip that one. 😉

Book Club

Cassandra Speaks

For February, our book club read Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser. In general everyone in book club enjoyed this book–new perspective on old tales, well-written, and inviting self-inquiry, which generally resonates with the folks who attend. I always write out my thoughts before book club, which I find allows me to avoid some of the group-think nature discussions can take, and in this case I was really glad that I did since I also enjoyed the book, but felt it was three books in one, and would really have preferred an entire book dedicated to the themes of the first section.

In Cassandra Speaks, Lesser starts by retelling stories from Western literature as if they were told from the woman’s perspective. This, along with her thoughtful commentary, pulling out quotations from the original texts is incredibly impactful. She walks through the stories of Eve, Pandora, Cassandra and others, urging us to look at these as tales of curiousity, inquiry, self-actualization–effectively hero’s journies rather than tales of women luring men into sin. She consistently speculates on why these stories are told/retold and the impact that have on people in Western society, and then she encourages us to be willing to see the stories differently. In all ways I found this to be the most thought-provoking and interesting section of the book.

In the second section of the book she transitions into a discussion of power, and how many women reject power, while admitting that powerlessness is dangerous. She endeavors to reframe power from the historical notion of “power over others” to the ability to change and improve the lives of ourselves and others. While I resonate with this definition, I found it a bit idealistic: of course I attempt to empower others through connection, love, engagement, etc., but that doesn’t change certain structural elements of society, nor maybe do I feel I personally need to change society, if I can approach my life with the lens of empowering others instead of asserting my power over them.

In this section she also talks about the importance of activism and innervism. Innervism is a term I believe Lesser has coined (certainly I hadn’t heard it before), which she defines as self-work feeding “the part of me that seeks inner change, inner healing.” She says activism and innervism are not things we practice either or, but rather these are mutual pursuits that are a check and balance upon one another. The importance of this mutual work, fighting for change in the world, while acknowledging that sometimes the change that needs to be seen is actually work within yourself, resonated. So often do I see people who fight so hard for their truth that they miss the opportunity to hear the truths of others, and ultimately become myopic and misguided. She walks through concepts here from Jung and others about shadow work, which for those who have never read about it is a form of psychotherapy that involves exploring the aspects of the self that a person hides, ignores, or dislikes. The basis is effectively that we learn to withold certain elements of ourselves in childhood because they are not received well by others (our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc.) and in that process we can feel shame, etc. about these sometimes very normal feelings or desires. Understanding the parts of yourself you have learned to withhold, and reclaiming the parts you want or need is important. Of this section, the importance of continuing self-actualization in any pursuit was my favorite part.

In the final section of the book she lays out some tools and techniques to aid in being a force for good in the fight for equality. While I still found her insights here powerful (e.g. the concept of “do no hard, and take no sh*t”), I really didn’t love this part because I found it held moments of dissonance with me. For example, she talks about the need for new voices in literature, but then gives her list of best literature, which only includes female voices. I am sure she was trying to turn up the contrast, but for a book whose general theme is to increase equality it rubbed me a bit.

At its best, this book encourages you to think about the influences behind your own thoughts, whether literary, societal, or familial. Questioning the parts that don’t resonate with your life and reclaiming surpressed aspects of yourself that you want to embrace is a beautiful call to action. Our past is and always will be pertinent to our reality, but every day is a new chance to choose who we want to be and how we want to show up. There is something deeply beautiful in that call to action, so less for activism and more for the insights on innervism, I really enjoyed the book.

Book Club

The Age of AI: And Our Human Future

For book club in January we read The Age of AI: And Our Human Future by Eric Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, and Daniel Huttenkolcher. This book while recent (published at the end of ’21) is actually already a bit out-of-date given the rate of innovation in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, but still a good read. Everyone at Book Club enjoyed the book (actually more than I did I think!)

Pros: the book provides an excellent recap of AI’s progression through to generative artificial intelligence (including ChatGPT) in ways that feel prescient given where we are two years after its publication. The authors delve into the implications for society and governments, and make recommendations (not on specific policy, but on previous methodologies used to craft such doctrine) with the goal of ensuring that AI can continue to be a force for good, and not a case of further enmity and inequity between societies that can and cannot embrace the technology.

Cons: there was far more attention given to war-time implications of AI, and the risks of this technology without specific solution-oriented recommendations. There are many things being done in academia and at public companies to reduce bias and also to increase participation across the world of the use of AI for solving important problems from healthcare to environmental protection; this was barely glossed over in initial chapters, and that felt like a miss. Ethical AI, and its distribution is a matter of major research and industry engagement right now. The main focus of the book was more on the implications for nation states and how critical it was to begin bringing companies and countries together to align on an appropriate iteration of a deterrence doctrine. While I don’t disagree that policy makers need to include technologists and companies advancing the state of the art here, I felt that was a narrow and defensive focus for a book whose title at least has far greater implications.

My other critique of the book (shared by more folks than my feeling that it was too focused on national defense implications) was that this book is VERY Eurocentric. All of the examples from the Renaissance to the research are centered in Europe and America. While there is discussion about China and its specific national investments, no other nation outside of America and Europe is specifically mentioned (except Iran as a historical example of how nuclear policies unfolded). If one truly wants to give a call to action about the role of AI in international policy, it would have been better to be more inclusive in one’s world view.

In general I liked the book, but I have found classes and books on LLMs, and the advancements in gene therapy, protein folding, etc. so much more interesting than the national security and defense implications. I was in the minority of our book club with that perspective, which is more likely a testament to my pacifism than a real critique of the book. It is exactly what I would have pictured coming from a Kissinger book. Definitely worth a read for the historical recap if nothing else.

Book Recommendations

My Favorite 2023 Reads

This year I read a lot of books. I have posted mostly about business/management books I read for Book Club, but I also read books with my kiddos and for fun, and so I thought I would put together my 10 favorites (in no particular order).

Kindred by Octavia Butler: poignant, disturbing, meaningful–absolutely worth reading, but was at times disruptive to sleep.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: touching, delightful, amusing, and thought-provoking in a beautiful way that helped me appreciate how far women have come in the workplace, even if we still have work to do.
The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow: a retelling of much of world history with a very unique perspective. It made me question a lot of my post-Enlightenment narrative, and ultimately what is inevitable and necessary for society to function.
Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt: light, lovely, a stitching of a beautiful place, loveable characters, and missed opportunities into a life of meaning. I just came away feeling hopeful about life.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb: literally I felt like I was walking into a picture of my mother’s life, and for that felt joy, sadness at points, and just the ambiguity that relationships are complex. Trauma lasts for generations, but ultimately what matters is love.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: I cannot say enough about the prose of this book. It was truly lyrical. I also loved that it was set in California and Boston (specifically at my alma mater), so I literally could see places and experiences the book described in my own memories. The characters have difficult moments, but don’t we all, and did I mention the writing??? If you read no other book I recommend, read this one!
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: at first I felt like this was a knockoff of A Confederacy of Dunces (which is a book I loved, and am glad I read, but I HATED the primary character, which rarely describes a book I like let alone love). At the onset of this book, there is a similar sort of dislike the primary character engenders. Then somehow through the course of the book your feelings about everyone flip, and there is such beauty and tragedy in it. I cried. Loved it.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: inspiring true story that just made me proud of what humanity can achieve. I was so glad I finally read it (have had it on my bookshelf for WAY too long).
Bittersweet by Susan Cain: lovely book about how American culture pushes positivity sometimes to the detriment of creativity, and authenticity. As someone who literally smiles when I cry, I found this book to be an interesting reflection, and I’m glad I read it. I also found the research interesting as a parent with one child far more sensitive than the other–great tips on how to respect each one’s strengths and support their development in proactive ways.
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller: I love books that teach you something. Ostensibly this book is a biography of David Star Jordan, but truly it is a book about loss, love, humanity, and the deconstruction of our assumed beliefs. I loved it.

Those were my absolute favorites, but I also loved What Bravery Looks Like, by Laurel Braitman, Lost and Found by Kathryn Shulz, Death’s End by Cixin Liu (although the Three Body Problem remains my favorite of the trilogy), Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, which was a fun whodunnit set in India, Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, and the Andrew Roberts biography on Churchill.

Book Club

Book Club: Measure What Matters

We have ended year one of our little book club! 12 different books around leadership, management, goal setting, organizational behavior, and systems thinking. I hope it was an opportunity for folks to think through their leadership styles and reflect a bit on how they want to show up in the world whether they are a people manager or a technical leader, at a small or large corporation, or within an open source consortium–we have such a range of folks and styles I know I have learned from so many folks. In the new year, our book club will take an alternative shape focusing less on leadership, and more on the trends happening in technology and their ethical implications. Please sign up here and recommend a book in theme if you want to participate.

Our last book of the year was Measure What Matters, which is definitely a canonical piece. Most folks enjoyed the book, although it definitely hasn’t aged all that well (looking at the outcomes of so many of the companies he highlighted as poster children of OKRs). I loved it because goal setting and accountability are core to execution and I like to be the kind of person who accomplishes things. It is definitely a US-centric book, and we discussed as a group what that “means” in other contexts, since so many of us manage global teams or at least work closely with teams all over the world. It also is light on implementation details (more on impact of where it was rolled out successfully, but not necessarily HOW to roll it our successfully, particularly now when so many of us are in a remote-first work environment and with globally-distributed teams). There was also some commentary about the fact that the book really speaks to a time with few female leaders. Sadly I think this is just the reality of the time frame and not really a critique of the book (e.g. Andy Grove’s Intel was not all that diverse–no company was 40 years ago, and that was the birthplace of OKRs).

In general though we had a great discussion on the value of these efforts: the checkpoints and discussions. Whatever systems you use for goal setting (V2MOM , OKRs, etc.) the magic is in the discussion with your teams and employees. It is in the bottoms up strategic alignment WITH upper management (it cannot just cascade down, it has to go in both directions) and it is in the discussions when you grade them with your team. I have learned so much with my team members: the folks who CANNOT handle seeing anything less than a 1, but who also didn’t quite feel like it was a WIN; those who grade themselves at .95, when they clearly didn’t do the work they said they would do; and the folks who have nailed all but one of their key results, but still feel horrible that they left anything undone. There is no right way to do this, but an engaged manager learns so much from discussing output in a framework with their employees. Too few do this, but there is no better recipe for helping someone be successful in their career than setting clear goals and helping them make progress against them to drive the objectives of the company.

Corporate-wide OKRs also help everyone see that the enemy is outside the walls, and not within. So often in my career I have seen different teams fighting over headcount or budget, but when leadership is clear about the priorities and goals, and there is transparency and visibility in who is doing what and the dependencies on each other, THAT is when I’ve seen leaders say “don’t fund me until you fund that team; I won’t have anything to do/scale/sell/etc.” Ultimately leadership is not just about vision, it is about execution, and ensuring folks execute collectively means aligning on what success looks like, and then enabling each other to get there. This book is a great reminder (even if a little light on the how-tos). Definitely read all the way to the resource section at the end with the how-tos from Google. That is the most concrete “how to do it”, and know you will have to iterate. No one company does OKRs in the same way.

Book Club

Book Club: Leadership and the New Science

For October’s Book Club session we read Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. This book felt more like a metaphor than a guide. Dr. Wheatley pokes at what is wrong with the traditional 19th century leadership mindset (hierarchical in nature, where the organization runs best in an autocratic fashion–think Henry Ford and factories where every person performed a specific physical function in the line). She uses Newtonian dynamics to describe both why we are inclined to believe this is “the way”, but also what we have learned about how the world functions at the subatomic level invalidating this approach. The heart of her argument is that as descriptive and measurable as these kinds of cause and effect relationships are for describing the dynamics of large objects, it isn’t actually how humans, relationships, or organizations function.

Dr. Wheatley draws analogies between “new science” (chaos theory, quantum physics, and deeper understanding of biology) and organizational dynamics. In many ways we are chaotic, but our chaos is actually a path to self-organization, and her postulate is chaos is actually how we maximize creativity, learning, and fundamentally innovation. Chaos Theory is derived from the discoveries of “strange attractors” and fractals. “Strange attractors” prove that amidst seeming chaos and randomness, patterns evolve revealing an order that is at work in the universe. This evolution is non-linear which means that the slightest variation in the inputs can result in vastly different outputs. Applying this to organizations implies organizational behavior can be unpredictable (which anyone who has lived through change management knows).

On the other hand, fractals prove that the same simple pattern can be found repeated at many levels of observation forming an intricate object when viewed as a whole. Wheatley draws the analogy between an organization’s culture and fractals implying that “simply expressed expectations of purpose, intent, and values, and the freedom for responsible individuals to make sense of these in their own way” will enable individuals to self-organize without strict enforcement, and in fact that will be more predictable than a “structured” approach, since it is fundamentally how we all work. My engineering mind has a hard time believing values alone will enable self-organization, but I have definitely seen how clear goals with transparency around the measured results can rally people to a cause more effectively than tops-down micromanagement. Align with the team on what success looks like, and how we will measure; then see them execute.

One of my favorite sections was on Quantum Physics and its applicability to organizational dynamics. The analogy here is between humans and subatomic interactions “…no particle can be drawn independent from others (p. 34)” and “what is critical is the relationship created between two or more elements. Systems influence individuals, and individuals call forth systems (p.36).” This feels incredibly true in my observations. How someone shows up in a meeting depends on who else is present, and how that individual relates to those others. We are points on a wave, not individuals fixed in time and space. I have seen how teams can overdeliver (or under) relative to their intellectual capacity based entirely on the relationships between the individuals and their partners and customers. Our relative position is what matters most.

This book is an alternate paradigm to describe work and human relationships, and it is in no way a guidebook for managers. As such, I found myself seeing these analogies across work and life at every turn, but in no way felt clearer on how to execute effectively in that world. Sometimes uncertainty is the kind of discomfort that drives insight and breakthroughs. Nearly everyone in the book club enjoyed this book, and felt similarly around its lack of direct applicability, but beauty in terms of insight. I definitely recommend this book philosophically to question your assumptions about life and work. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from one of my favorite books of all time “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer,” – Rainer Maria Rilke


On Resilience: SWE 2023

Last week I was on a panel at the Society of Women Engineers Annual Conference on the topic of resiliency. This talk was not about system reliability (although I do love that topic); this was about personal resiliency. Resilience is a muscle I built over the past 20+ years in the industry, and speaking at a conference of 17,000 engineers who happen to be female on this topic was an honor. My hope was to help our upcoming generation of engineers find their strength a bit faster than I did, which feels ESPECIALLY critical for young people graduating now having had school interrupted by Covid and emerging into a tighter job market.

So first the baseline. What helps with resiliency?

  1. Authenticity: seek to know who you are, and get clarity on your personal values. Identify and optimize for your strengths. Work to cultivate a good level of emotional awareness and regulation (friends and mentors help a lot with this! So do coaches and therapists!)
  2. Purpose: seek purpose and a sense of belonging in your work. You cannot work where you don’t feel like you belong. You cannot work at a place whose culture doesn’t align with your core values and beliefs. If you are in such a place, you need to find a new home.
  3. Adaptability: find methodologies to be solution-focused when things go wrong. Try to reframe setbacks and challenges. Work to minimize the impact of negativity (personally and professionally).
  4. Self-care: You have to find the work and life routines that help you manage your everyday stressors. It takes work to create time for relaxation and recovery (which sounds totally unfair, but it is just the reality friends). When I was taking a parenting class they spoke about combating post-partum depression with the 5 ‘s’s: Sleep, Sunshine, Sweat, Social, and Snuggles. This stuck with me from that super stressful (and wonderful) time in my life, and is the heart of my personal approach to stress-management.
  5. Support: build a community that can provide you with advice and support, and seek to provide support readily to others. Many times the process of helping others may help you feel more connected than asking for support yourself, but it is brave to ask for help, and far better than letting yourself operate in the dark.
  6. Energy: maintain physical fitness with a healthy diet and adequate sleep. The analogy I would use is put your own Oxygen mask on before you help others. You really cannot be present if you are exhausted.
  7. Networks: develop and maintain the personal and professional support networks you need at home and at work in order to perform well in your job. These are not just about emotional support for today’s challenges, but this is about supporting you through the transitions of the future, be it new jobs, projects, or personal transitions and challenges.

I offer this as a framework, but each individual has to find their own recipe. You have to allocate time for that in your life, and recognize that the process is continuous. As your life, responsibilities, and needs evolve, you will need to reassess.

So that is the framework I’ve used, but the panel specifically asked three questions. The first was to share a career challenge or setback and how resilience came into play in moving through it. The example I shared was from a recent project launch. How upon the first review of my plan internally I was basically told that my plan wasn’t even worth discussing and how I had to pivot and expand the entire scope with fewer weeks than the lead time to acquire the components. I shared the approach I tend to use in high stakes scenarios when I could get triggered. 1. Take a deep breath. 2. Ask yourself why a reasonable, rational person would behave in this fashion? The trick is to get myself out of reacting and into thinking mode (a great book on this is Radical Candor, which I highly recommend). When we are triggered, we cannot be our best self (literally your amygdala is firing and you are going to be in fight or flight mode). If you can get yourself into “thinking mode” (activating your prefrontal cortex), then you can react in a thoughtful manner, and not out of fear or frustration. In every aspect of work I try to cultivate my curiosity. Most of the time one’s knee jerk assumptions of why something is happening are wrong (and that is largely because we tend to assume people’s behavior is because of something we did or said, and it rarely is). The person who told me my plan was insufficient was trying to lead a transformative change–he wasn’t trying to tell me I was insufficient. The sooner we get out of personalizing, and into problem solving, the more resilient we will be in executing.

The second question was about leading my team through challenges and how I role-modeled, built, and supported resilience in the team. What I really focused on here was the fact that resilience comes from self-care (which I cannot control, but I can encourage), and a sense of belonging and purpose (which is my responsibility to help build). SO, I focus on helping make sure my team understands how their work impacts our customers and overall business. I also try to make sure that they feel like they are cared about. A leader I truly admire, Rani Borkar, once told me that her motto is “people first, business always.” I have always loved that. Your people will know if you care about them, and hopefully if you are there and present for them in the good times, they will know to come to you in the tough ones. So I check in on them. I invest in skip level meetings. I pay careful attention to employee engagement surveys. I gather and analyze manager feedback. I ask the questions, try to reflect back what I have heard to make sure I really understand the perspective correctly, and then I make sure I am taking action based on the feedback.

The last question was about a time when things did NOT go well with respect to resiliency and in retrospect what you wish you had done instead. The experience I shared here was when I was coming back from maternity leave, exhausted and less capable of self-care because of my new role at home. It happened to also be a time when my husband was traveling a lot to be with his father who had been diagnosed with cancer, and he was trying to help manage his father’s care from the opposite coast.

This time was one of the most difficult in my career: everything got under my skin because I was often solo parenting with an infant and a two-year-old, not getting enough sleep, exercise, support, etc. There are many work experiences I could share where I wish I had been able to show up with more grace. I gritted through it, unfortunately my father-in-law did not make it, my husband’s travel slowed down, and our family entered the phase of mourning and healing, but every single day was so hard. I wish I had been willing to cut myself some slack: specifically get extra help in terms of childcare, reach out for more emotional support, seek coaching and mentorship at my company, etc. When I came through that experience, I absolutely learned what NOT to do, and have since handled periods of extreme stress much better.

My parting advice was this: engineering and product development are careers where you are constantly learning, and there will always be phases where you have to work through ambiguity, solve complex problems, and manage stressful situations (quality challenges, gnarly bugs, high priority launches with many moving pieces, stakeholders who disagree strongly, etc.) In order to do this work well, you HAVE to be able to show up as your best self, which means you need to prioritize resilience.


Where I’ll be at OCP Global Summit

Every year I try to do a write up on the content I’m most excited about for OCP’s Global Summit. Full disclosure: I’m a former Board Member and Chairperson, still involved in the Future Technologies Initiative/Symposium, and I was one of the content advisors on the Artificial Intelligence track this year, so I definitely am biased.

The full schedule for OCP Global Summit is jam packed with sessions covering Security, Reliability, Artificial Intelligence, Open Networking, Sustainability, Composable Memory, Chiplets, Optics, Coherent Interconnects, Automation, Facilities Innovation, Cooling, and a lot more. This three day industry event literally brings thousands of people, and hundreds of companies together to discuss the future of our industry, and how we need to collaborate to drive the changes that any one company alone cannot facilitate.

So first thing on Tuesday, we have Keynotes. There is an overwhelming theme across the keynotes: how Artificial Intelligence is changing the computing landscape exacerbating challenges with power, cooling, and networking, and creating new threats for security. If you want to hear from a broad range of hyperscalers and leading semiconductor companies on how they are preparing for this explosion of generative AI, you should not miss it.

Unlike many other conferences, the Keynotes are not the sole reason to attend. This conference is full of breakout sessions led by the engineers who are actually building systems, solutions, silicon, and software to solve novel challenges. On Tuesday afternoon I will be torn between the AI track and the SONiC track, but since I was on the content advisory committee for the AI track, I will definitely be there to see it live. There is everything from processor-in-memory inferencing solutions to open source efforts to align upon a hardware abstraction layer in order to unlock AI accelerator innovation while continuing to enable model development rapidly and consistently. Google, nVidia, Meta, Microsoft, and many more will be presenting on use cases, challenges, and opportunities across the Data Center from silicon to software, and facilities to network observability.

On Wednesday, Andy Bechtolsheim is kicking it off with network architecture and optics for large scale AI clusters. Then we will transition to the Future Technologies Symposium, which is one of my favorite sections of the conference because it isn’t just about the challenges of today, it is about the challenges facing us as an industry from researchers to start ups and well-established companies. Several critical projects for storage disaggregation, the evolution of the Network Operating System, from the Linux Foundation, the journey to composable memory, how we have to continue to evolve hardware management solutions in an increasingly complex system, and much more. DENT will have its first sessions at OCP this year along with SONiC, highlighting the breadth and depth of open source NOS solutions available, and how we will continue to evolve to optimize for usability. Optics, open edge servers, efforts on a RAS (reliability, availability, and serviceability) standard API, RAS to contain the impact of PCIe uncorrected errors, RAS and enhancements in MCTP, SPDM, PLDM, OpenBMC, and Redfish support for GPUs and accelerators (a critical workstream we need significant standardization upon), and memory fault management also will be providing updates on Wednesday. Last but in no way least, we will hear a lot about improvements in the sustainability and usability of immersive solutions, and circularity initiatives from Open System Firmware to eWaste reclamation improvements.

On Wednesday afternoon, we will go even further down the future-looking data center “rabbit hole”, discussing Quantum Computing, advancements in composable memory including much needed real-time telemetry, Silent Data Corruption research progress, automation and robotics in the data center, and hacking away at AI opportunities (predictive analytics, resource optimization using AI for sustainable operations, and localization) within the data center domain. My team will also be presenting our DC-SCM 2.0 compliant solution for hardware management designed in conjunction with Lenovo, and I definitely won’t miss that!

Thursday ushers in security, chiplets, time synchronization, more on modularity, and networking (beyond Optics and Open Networking well covered in the first two days). Updates on Caliptra, DC-MHS progress, SONiC, QUIC offload on the Linux kernel, and significantly more user updates in the domains of sustainability, storage, and facilities enhancements.

OCP Global Summit is designed for teams, where each can divide and conquer to expand insight across security, manageability, reliability, modularity, networking, thermal/mechanical design, and future-looking initiatives such as chiplets and composable memory. The opportunity to learn, connect, and share is how OCP continues to empower open communities, and I look forward to seeing you there!