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 Recommendations

Questioning Our Sources

In my last post, I spoke a bit about Gell-Man Amnesia and how it can lead to differential weighting on the accuracy of reporting from the exact same source (despite the fact that such differential weighting is illogical), but I wanted to spend a bit more time delving into why we need to question our sources (and why in fact the more steeped in a discipline we are the MORE we need to be open to questioning given the way brains work).

I decided to create a book list of newer pieces that are questioning key elements of establishment narrative. The first on that list is the Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wegrow, which does no less than question our traditional narrative of the evolution of human society. So let’s recap the basics: the story I was taught in high school (specifically in AP World History) was that agriculture allowed for surplus of food, which led to cities and the formation of centralized governing bodies (whether monarchies or bureaucracies of some sort) because otherwise there would be no redistribution of food to enable specialization of labor, the development of educated classes, technology, and ultimately our technological revolution.

What the authors claim is that this Enlightenment era narrative is actually not correct in light of the latest archeological evidence (agriculture existed in many forms before city-states and specialization of labor existing before agriculture), and that centralized power is not inevitable or predestined for effective redistribution models. Thanks to increased investigations in South America and Africa leveraging technology like drones many new discoveries are calling these early conclusions into question. Their argument is that the formation of a State was not an inevitable progression of agriculture; in fact agriculture and centralized power are not the denouement of human civilization (necessary for economic prosperity), but for the vast majority of our history human societies tried MANY different organizing principles. They walk through a huge body of knowledge showing that society vacillated between egalitarianism (communal councils and equal rights for all citizens), and some form of centralized power, and that the power centralization was as often due to the consolidation of physical strength–barbarians/warrior classes who could overwhelm their neighbors, or through food surplus that could benefit through management for distribution purposes).

Interestingly in the examples they share sometimes power centralization happened due to food production/surplus, but often that happened in small regions: it was hard for those communities to move given their ties to their crops, and they couldn’t really spread their influence outside of a limited geographic region. If their communities were too awful/repressive, people would just leave, or they would revolt and join an external community with no skill in farming, but strong warriors who could overrule the current era. What this pattern teaches is not that state is inevitable, and that we must subjugate ourselves to our leadership for technological and economic advancement, but rather that societies self-corrected on these premises throughout the course of human evolution except for these past 3-4 centuries…why is that? What has changed? That is what the book questions. (It is really a phenomenal read, and I highly recommend it if you love history, anthropology, and archeology.)

Second on the book list of “question what you know” was Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts. There are a huge number of pieces written about Churchill (including his own biographies), and while I know he is a difficult character for many, this piece is so well-researched it clarifies many of the discrepancies and decisions that were made (where he is honest, and strove to aid individuals, and where he was influenced by his biases) backed by extensive source material, including King George VI’s diaries and many more. I fundamentally do not believe that we can ignore history and its implications because we don’t agree with the decisions people made. We have to study what mistakes were made and why so we can endeavor to not repeat them. That he was a light in the dark for many through arguably one of the most difficult periods of human history is true, and his intelligence, work ethic, and inspirational leadership are traits worth study even with the racism, colonialism, and chauvinism that is also apparent and difficult to understand given the era in which I was raised. People are nuanced, as is our history. We cannot afford to erase the ugly–inevitably we will then miss the beauty and the learning.

I’ll keep sharing good books that I find help me question my assumptions like these–if you have recommendations, please do share.

Book Recommendations

Best Hardware Engineering Papers

It is somewhat amazing to me how often I get the question, “where do I learn more about systems engineering?” The books for learning the fundamentals of computer architecture and systems engineering are excellent: Patterson and Hennessey’s Computer Architecture is the bible of computer architecture, but other essentials include Applied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms and Source Code in C, Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools, Signals and Systems, Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems, etc. and I must give a shout out to my alma mater for beating the Covid “remote learning” trend, and having launched MIT Open Courseware long before it was cool. There is free content on there from some of the best minds in computer science and architecture to learn the basics. Truly though, one of the things I find most incredible about this industry is how many innovations are driven by engineers in the industry, are spoken of openly at conferences, and are on corporate blogs and research pages. This field is constantly evolving, in a Renaissance of creative reimagining, and some of the greatest minds in the world are actively creating silicon and the specifications to build them into systems not based on theory, but through the hard-fought lessons of operation. So this is a list of some of my FAVORITE papers / blogs / videos in no particular order, the ones I think are seminal to understand critical innovation in distributed systems from the silicon to systems:

  1. Datacenter Networks are in my Way – by James Hamilton

What I love most about this is the economical approach to viewing the technical problem. So rarely do architects have that insight–it isn’t just solving the problem elegantly, it is doing it in a way that actually makes economic sense. Industry innovators know this and hold their teams accountable. If you’ve never read James Hamilton’s blog, you are welcome. Grab your popcorn and get ready to be schooled!

2. Towards a Next Generation Data Center Architecture: Scalability and Commoditization – by Albert Greenberg, Parantap Lahiri, Dave Maltz, Parveen Patel, Sudipta Sengupta

Of a similar time to the above blog, I view this as one of the seminal papers that started the Open Networking movement–speaking about the real challenges of managing large scale distributed systems with a chassis-based network design. It is BRILLIANT.

3. Cores That Don’t Count – by Peter H. Hochschild, Paul Jack Turner, Jeffrey C. MogulRama Krishna Govindaraju, Parthasarathy RanganathanDavid E Culler, and Amin Vahdat

This paper shares how hardware systems have hit a level of complexity (shrinking die sizes, 2/3D stacking techniques, leakage issues with substrate thickness, aging effects, etc.) that you cannot always trust them to be “correct” and how software designers must change methodologies to embrace the next phase of “chaos engineering” to prepare for our industry’s transformation. I found this paper enlightening, and somewhat terrifying.

4. Attack of Killer Microseconds – by L. BarrosoMichael R. MartyDavid A. PattersonP. Ranganathan

If someone has ever spoken about “tail at scale” and you wondered what it meant, read this paper.

5. Jupiter Evolving: Transforming Google’s Datacenter Network via Optical Circuit Switches and Software Defined Networking – by Leon Poutievski, Omid Mashayekh, Joon Ong, Arjun Singh, Mukarram Tariq, Rui Wang, Jianan Zhang, Virginia Beauregard, Patrick Conner, Steve Gribble, Rishi Kapoor, Stephen Kratzer, Nanfang Li, Hong Liu, Karthik Nagaraj, Jason Ornstein, Samir Sawhney, Ryohei Urata, Lorenzo Vicisano, Kevin Yasumura, Shidong Zhang, Junlan Zhou, Amin Vahdat

If you wonder about what Software Defined Networking really means, read this paper. It is probably the most logical introduction to what it means in application to a real problem.

6. Maglev: A Fast and Reliable Software Network Load Balancer – by Daniel E. Eisenbud, Cheng Yi, Carlo Contavalli, Cody Smith, Roman Kononov, Eric Mann-Hielscher, Ardas Cilingiroglu, Bin Cheyney, Wentao Shang, Jinnah Dylan Hosein

If you start with Jupiter, then you can deep dive here on dynamic reconfiguration of the function of load balancing–a critical aspect of SDN.

7. Large-Scale Cluster Management at Google with Borg – by Abhishek Verma, Luis Pedrosa, Madhukar R. Korupolu, David Oppenheimer, Eric TuneJohn Wilkes

Before there was Kubernetes, there was Borg. Distributed computing at scale forces innovation not just in application development, but in the orchestration and management of workload distribution.

8. TMO: Transparent Memory Offloading in Datacenters – by Johannes Weiner, Niket Agarwal, Dan Schatzberg, Leon Yang, Hao Wang, Blaise Sanouillet, Bikash Sharma, Tejun Heo, Mayank Jain, Chunqiang Tang, Dimitrios Skarlatos

This is one of the many papers starting to really address the mounting memory problems facing us in datacenters. Memory continues to rise as a percentage of our cost of ownership–cores increase, while reducing cost/core consistently, but memory just continues to increase in cost structure. Add to that the increased percentage of memory getting stranded in systems, and the inability to unlock that more dynamically. MUCH more innovation needs to be done in this domain, but Meta is absolutely leading the charge in attempting to reasonably address the rising costs of memory as a portion of the bill of materials in an easily adoptable fashion. If we don’t have innovation in memory disaggregation hand-in-hand with transparent software adoption, it will be yet another buffer strategy gone awry.

9. Azure Accelerated Networking: Smart-NICs in the Public Cloud – by Daniel Firestone, Andrew Putnam, Sambhrama Mundkur, Derek Chiou, Alireza Dabagh, Mike Andrewartha, Hari Angepat, Vivek Bhanu, Adrian Caulfield, Eric Chung, Harish Kumar Chandrappa, Somesh Chaturmohta, Matt Humphrey, Jack Lavier, Norman Lam, Fengfen Liu, Kalin Ovtcharov, Jitu Padhye, Gautham Popuri, Shachar Raindel, Tejas Sapre, Mark Shaw, Gabriel Silva, Madhan Sivakumar, Nisheeth Srivastava, Anshuman Verma, Qasim Zuhair, Deepak Bansal, Doug Burger, Kushagra Vaid, David A. Maltz, Albert Greenberg

Much has been made of the IPU, DPU, etc. but it all started with this paper on SmartNICs. While many in the industry were innovating with NPUs, Microsoft is the first I know of who published on the topic. I love this paper, and the writers are the brains behind infrastructure acceleration, SONiC, and many more innovations in Open Networking.

10. A New Golden Age for Computer Architecture: History, Challenges and Opportunities – David Patterson

I often wax poetical about David Patterson–his book on computer architecture, which was part of the hardest course in my entire formal education, is the bible for electrical engineering. This presentation should be required for any student who wants to build something innovative. We don’t have enough Electrical Engineers graduating in the world…I think those folks haven’t listening to Dr. Patterson and if only they would, we would see a world of Electrical Engineers, Hardware Designers, Systems Engineers, SREs, and so much more. The time to embrace this industry is NOW. I cannot wait to see what we all will continue to do. If you have additional papers you recommend, please add them to comments.

Book Recommendations

Summer Reading List

I’ve been asked by a few folks recently for book recommendations as they go into summer travel season. In specific the request was for authentic leadership: which books helped cultivate an authentic leadership style. Honestly, that topic transcends books to friendships, therapy, and a lot of running, but I’ll still write up my favorite books on management and leadership. As background I’m an avid reader, and tend to find nuggets in everything I read, so a focused list on one topic is not usually my jam. However, every book I’m recommending below has contributed at least something to how I approach management, so I’ll try to break that down in the recommendation without giving away too much.

  • Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny. I honestly believe this book made me a better partner and parent…not just a better manager. It is focused on how to prepare for saying what you want to say in a critical situation with tools, techniques, frameworks, and methodologies. So if you are concerned about presentation skills, running effective meetings, hiring or firing someone, this book helps you ensure you say what needs to be said in an authentic and clear manner.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. Anyone who has ever worked for me has definitely heard me ask the phase “are the behaviors you are using achieving the outcomes you desire.” That phrase (which I ask myself regularly) was one of my key takeaways from reading this book. Also the concept of winning together–real clarity around how rarely scenarios are zero-sum especially if you are working at the same company with a clear mission. If you are ready to delve into who you are and how that manifests in your work, this book is a great journey.
  • The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy C. Edmondson. When I first read the title of this book, I cringed a bit. I hate the term “fearless.” We all have fear, but we also have the capacity to be brave–to do something even though we are afraid, and that is actually the goal in my mind. Still, I REALLY recommend this book. The most important thing I took away was not that psychological safety would mean everyone was nice, there would be no conflict, etc. but that high quality innovation requires a commitment to excellence, operational urgency, and the belief that all voices matter. Cultivating that environment is what leadership is, and methodologies to build your approach is the goal of the book.
  • Strengths Based Leadership from Gallup is all about self-reflection (with a question-based “strengths” analysis, which is a great tool for allowing teams to get to know themselves and one another). This is definitely one of my go-to books for team-building. Sharing each other’s results, and discussing how the variance makes us better and stronger as a team is a great way to connect and create space for one another to bring their best self to work. Knowing your team, their strengths and opportunities for development always makes you a better manager and leader.
  • Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury was a really important book for me and a very hard one. I am a youngest child of a large family and by nature an appeaser. Negotiation for me historically meant drawing a line around the things I absolutely NEEDED and then letting everything else go. Woe be it to the person who tried to take away one of the things I needed, but outside of that box, I was pretty easy going. I also am not a fan of conflict–raised voices, etc. shut me down quickly. So, when I picked up a book about negotiation my first thought was, “this isn’t me. I just want to do what is right and if it truly is, then everything will work out.” This framing is actually incredibly unhelpful (in life and business)–it took for granted that what I initially wanted was “right”, and if it wasn’t right, I lost (without inviting inquiry as to how the process I used contributed to the outcome). This book is all about identifying common ground, what is needed for parties to “win”, and what is negotiable, and then optimizing for the best joint outcomes with clarity. It absolutely changed my personal relationship with negotiation by providing a healthy and proactive framework for it. So much of work and life is actually a negotiation, which I truly never saw until reading this book.
  • Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership by Joseph Jaworski was a book I read really early in my life (I think I was 16-years-old) and had a huge impact on education and career choices I made, and more generally the approach I’ve taken to life. This book is the personal journey of the author from his original life path (which followed the steps of his successful father) to one that was more meaningful for him. He is the founder of the American Leadership Forum and the Global Leadership Initiative, and his journey was one that inspired me to read Rilke, Goethe, and Bohm (particularly On Dialogue, which is incredibly accessible and fascinating in terms of helping understand why we don’t always connect with one another despite our desire to do so). Sometimes you read the right book at the right time–this book was that for me, and may not be as meaningful to others, but it is an easy read and a calling to reflect on what is truly important to you.
  • Radical Focus 2.0: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke is a quick read (told as a story) and a great one for making sure you are thinking through how to help your organization or team be successful. Creating operational urgency and accountability is hard–if you do it with too strong a focus on accountability you can nip innovation and psychological safety in the bud, but if you are completely unstructured in your approach to innovation you’ll never achieve those wins that generate momentum and help bring the broader organization together in joint purpose. This book absolutely makes the “must read” list for companies big and small trying to actually drive a common approach toward a culture of achievement and success.
  • Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All The Facts by Annie Duke is AMAZING. I think it is likely my desire to be perfect (which is something I’m always working on) that made me so adore this book because in a sense it gave me permission to be wrong. The crux of the book (for me at least) was to realize you have to make decisions without all the facts, and the best way to do that is to clearly elucidate what you know and what you don’t know, eliminate the knee-jerk bias/self-destructive inclinations in that process (a TEAM/partner/buddy are really helpful in ensuring you see more perspectives than your own bias, also walking away and coming back to the decision later, etc.) and then giving yourself permission to know that you did your best with the best data you had, and sometimes that will still yield a bad outcome. This book invites you to think of decision making as a process in your learning journey, and with that framing even bad outcomes are great learning opportunities.
  • The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company by David Packard is a classic; my absolute love of hardware, and admiration for the humans who made sand into semiconductors (I could do a whole post on my favorite biographies and autobiographies of this era) is likely why I love this book so much. My very first engineering awareness seminar was at HP in Roseville, near where I grew up, so that is likely the other reason this one stuck with me so much. In that weekend full of building popsicle bridges, egg drops, and early Pong programming, I fell in love, and I’ve never looked back. If you want a glimpse into the journey of one of the titans of this industry, I struggle to recommend a better one. The concept of “walk-around management” is one that really stuck with me, and something that I strive to create even in this world of remote/hybrid work through regular skip-level meetings, emails/chat room threads focused on inspiration as much as work, and asking questions of my people for the purpose of listening…truly listening. In my head I try to tally up who is doing more of the talking…them or me, and if it is the later, I stop.
  • Dare to Lead by Brene Brown–I actually just read this one. I had read Atlas of the Heart and Rising Strong (both great books), but mostly looked to Brene’s work as part of my personal journey: understanding and naming emotions, so I can manage my reaction to them, work on communication skills, so I can show up better with the people I love: family, friends, etc. to live and love one another even (and maybe especially) when we DON’T agree. Dare to Lead applies those lessons in a business context, and while much of the research and conclusions for self-management are the same/similar among books, one application in the business context as a leader REALLY stood out to me: be consistent in your communication. When a leader says “I wouldn’t say this to <other person>, but I’ll tell you…” they are creating rumors/secrets/inconsistency. Now there may be a reason: that leader may be able to say something to a manager that cannot be shared with the broader team yet, there may be financial data that is limited to need to know, etc. but the reasoning should be clearly called out. The risk is that the leader comes across as spinning it one way for one crowd and a different way for another crowd, and a leader who plays games is hard to trust. It is human nature to try to establish camaraderie, and a normal way to do that is to share secrets/gossip/etc., but sharing data inconsistently or data that isn’t your own to share sends an implicit message to the confidant that you would do this behind their back as well. Trust in an organization is vital. One cannot afford to have “in crowds” or inconsistent communication. Your job as a leader is to set priorities. Clearly. Consistently. And when they change, even if that negatively impacts someone, you owe them the truth. This is a critical part of being a brave leader. I have so often seen this behavior. I have occasionally participated in this behavior, and my key takeaway from the book was DON’T. It isn’t making you closer to anyone, it just makes you appear biased and untrustworthy.