Provoking thought

HOWTO: Look Smart

There’s a rare gem buried in most companies’ secondary benefits: the training budget.

Every year we’re allowed to spend a certain amount on “personal development.” Traditionally the intention of these budgets is to send you off on some training course, or attend a conference. However, it’s 2023. Those things require travel, actually meeting people, and exposing yourself to disease. So, what can we do instead?

My suggestion: spend it on books.

Why would you invest in books? There are two important reasons that I can see.

1. Boost your meeting ethos

Step 1: If you don’t have one, get yourself a bookshelf (some of the better employers will allow you to expense this), and make sure it’s visible on your Zoom, Google Meet or MS Team’s camera frame. Then, buy some impressive-looking books (suggestions later) and put them on that shelf.

Step 2: Hold back in meetings. Be the last to speak. Then, when the timing is right, raise your (virtual) hand dramatically. Turn around, pull one of the books from the shelf behind you, open it at a random page, and utter the words “As Marcel Proust would say...” Be sure to have a relevant quote here that just nails it. I have never read Proust myself, so I cannot help you with the specifics.

(I just made an extremely obscure pop-culture reference. Please reach out if you got it, so we can become BFFs.)

Boost in perceived wisdom guaranteed!

2. Learn stuff

The second reason to buy books is that you may actually learn something from reading them. I hear you, this one’s a bit of a stretch, but hear me out.

When I was young and naive, I bought a whole bunch of books on fancy programming topics. My strategy was to buy the thickest book on a particular topic available in the store. Every time I’m at my parents I still see my “PHP4 for dummies” and “XSLT the ultimate guide” using up an impressive amount of shelf space. We didn’t have Zoom calls yet back then to impress people, so let’s just say I was ahead of my time. Today’s reality is that by the time a programming-related book comes out, it’s already way out of date. I’m pretty sure there’s a PHP5 now, for instance. I’m pretty sure XSLT is still pretty hot, some things are just evergreen.

So, what books to buy instead? In order not to overwhelm, I’ll limit my suggestions and include Amazon links for convenience, usually Kindle links, but if you want to use them as shelf fillers, be sure to get physical, hard-cover copies.

A philosophy of software design by John Ousterhout: This is a great book on how to approach software design, both from a philosophical but also tactical perspective. I keep hearing recommendations from many sources, so there must be something here.

Then, a few “pick your career path adventure” suggestions.

If you’re interested in exploring the “IC path”: that is, to remain focused on the technology and growing there. There are two books on this topic for those farther into their career (senior and above):

If you’re interested in exploring the management path, the canonical book to get (even if you’re not really sure) is The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier. And I’ll add Kim Scott’s Radical Candor to that well, you can’t really go wrong with these. I recently re-reread both and they’re excellent.

If you’re interested in exploring some more of these “people topics” (as you should), I’ll recommend three more books:

  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. This completely changed my thinking about how we (ought to) communicate.
  • The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. This is extremely relevant especially for those working with people from a wide diversity of cultures.
  • Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn, which really challenges the standard thinking on how we use rewards (I wrote about this topic at length based on reading this book).

Some advice

One last important thing. I own hundreds of books. I have even read most of them. However, I made one mistake: for most, I didn’t take notes. And while this may due to my age, I don’t remember all that much.

It often happens that somebody mentions “Oh yeah, I’m reading book X” and I’m thinking: yeah, I’m 99% sure I’ve read that — but I remember zip. Nothing.

Partially this may be because I reached a tipping point in reading enough “management fiction” books, where they all become a blur as they all summarize and quote each other. New ideas seem to be rare.

Another reason may be that I never took notes.

Don’t be like me. Make notes. I’ve made an agreement with myself some time ago that I will only claim to have read something if I have notes to show for it. Not only does writing notes help with retention, but they’re generally also easily retrievable.

If you’re looking for a tool to keep such notes and externalize more of your knowledge — I saw something on the front page of Hacker News and the Self-hosted Reddit some time ago, seems like a pretty cool tool. You should check it out.