Professional Development Reads of 2019

12 Jan 2020

In 2018, after having read Jake Knapp’s Sprint toward the end of the year, I decided I wanted to read at least one book every quarter that would contribute to my professional development or impact my career. I think this first year has been a really valuable exercise and I wanted to write up which books I chose, how I chose them, and what stuck with me about each of them.

My criteria for what books fall into this bucket is, admittedly, a little squishy. These are books that I am interested in but would may never get around to picking up without a little nudge. Anything that I would consider a “page-turner” doesn’t qualify. I loved reading Shoe Dog and Bad Blood this year and they had some takeaways about how to bootstrap a business, but I was mostly reading them to get wrapped up in a really fun story.

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

This book kicked off this entire exercise after my manager praised it repeatedly over the past few years. The philosophy at the core of the book is that expertise is gained through “deliberate practice” and that people are able to improve any desired skill by engaging with the skill through intentional, targeted exercises. Colvin cites the same psychology research referenced by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller [Outliers], although I have not yet read Gladwell’s take on the subject (for what it’s worth, Colvin recieved signficantly less blowback from the original authors of the research on which the books are based). The case studies provided illustrate how working on the small competencies that make up the desired expertise are the most efficient path to mastery, even if they seem only seem tangentially related. It was a much easier read than I expected and I would still recommend it to folks despite the log line having permeated the public consciousness over the past few decades.

A couple examples have really stuck with me almost a year after having read it. First was the example of Jerry Rice, famed NFL receiver, spending his offseason working solely on his physique and fitness instead of running football drills. This regimen enabled Rice to outrun and outmuscle his opposition during the season. I think this translates well to tech, but espeically data science: model construction is important, but having plenty of experience doing exploratory analysis of datasets is necessary in order to construct valid, unbiased predictors. The second example was that of expert chess players who have enough experience with chess as a system they recognize and intuit about the game in terms of high-level patterns and abstractions that are built over time. It makes me think about how I now approach an exploratory data analysis, sometimes operating at an intuitive level that I’d have a hard time explaining to anyone watching over my shoulder. This feeling only gets magnified the more domain expertise I have with the data.

Design Thinking by Nigel Cross

Design Thinking was brought to me as the first entry in the Not So Standard Deviations book club. As a huge fan of the podcast, I made a point to snap up a copy of the book so I could follow along at home. The book alternates between Cross’s explanation of his understanding of how the design process works with examples of case studies Cross observed to come to his conclusions. Despite being a slim volume, it can be a pretty dry read- the academic chapters often feel like whitepapers. My favorite bit was Cross’s description of the fleeting feeling right as a designer has a breakthrough where they oscillate rapidly between ideation and creation. It holds VERY true to those moments at my desk when I have a good idea and can’t translate it into code fast enough, figuring out a way to improve my idea before I even finish typing my first idea. I’m not sure the book is worth the cost of entry, but I do highly recommend the NSSD episodes where Roger and Hilary discuss the book. I found the discussions of how industrial design relates to data science more intriguing and thought-provoking than most of the material as presented in the book.

Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury

Getting to Yes was another NSSD Book Club selection. It breaks down the authors’ “principled negotiation” tactics to help readers reach agreements that are, as often as possible, satisfying for all parties. NSSD discussed the book in terms of the inherent consulting relationship at the heart of most data analysis engagements, which I thought added interesting color to the concepts at the core of the book.

I had a very curious relationship with Getting to Yes: I thought the material was informative and helpful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that so many of these concepts have already permeated American business culture that it did not land like the bombshell I anticipated. Some of the relationships and examples of “deals gone bad” in the book felt cartoonish to the point that it was hard to believe they were real examples. It probably just speaks to the strength of the book, but suggestions such as to try and “remove the people from the problem” rang true as both very helpful and very obvious advice. For most readers, I think the book will serve as a refresher of best practices or put a finer point on names or concepts they’ve already internalized. I’d still recommend the book to folks who have an acute desire to improve their consulting relationships or prepare for a new business relationship.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow (TFAS from here on out) explores Kahneman’s understanding the biases of the human mind after spending decades researching the intersection of Psychology and Economics, becoming the de facto founding father of behavioral economics. TFAS is the go-to book for Silicon Valley Guys That Also Read Books and I wanted to see what the hype was about after seeing it cited for years and years. It would be disingenuous to not admit that Michael Lewis’s book about Kahneman legitimized the internet’s obsession with the book for me; I have repeatedly bounced off another notable writer adored by the Hacker News set. My paperback copy of TFAS is an intimidating 500-page tome that I had never even bothered to bring with me on a vacation, but all the stars aligned for me to give this a shot when I found myself feeling particularly inspired after my fall semester ended.

TFAS is the book on the list that will probably impact how I think about my career the least, although it may be the book that will affect how I think the most. Although it has chapters devoted to perceptional biases of statistical information (such as regression to the mean and anchoring), its scope is much broader than “information professionals.” Every chapter was able to describe patterns of thinking I had a vague notion of but could not summarise or add new, interesting context to material I covered in my psych minor (probably stemming from Kahneman’s own research). The last section of the book, contrasting how we think about our experiences compared to our memories, was easily the my favorite section of writing from any of the books on this list.

Despite its incredible density, I think TFAS is the one book from this set I would happily recommend to any curious reader. For anyone with any interest in economics or psychology or human behavior, they’ll find plenty of interesting nuggets illustrating some flaw in human logic or decision-making. I think most readers will find Kahneman’s writing rather demanding not because he’s trying to be academic or obtuse but simply because our dude is distilling and reframing decades of research for the layperson. It was a book that I felt demanded much more attention and prescece from the reader, but one that rewarded that attention significantly more than anything else I picked up. It scratched an itch I forgot I had and served as a great reminder as to why I read all of these books in the first place: I still have a ton of stuff to learn.

Lastly, I want to give a quick shout-out to the best “non-book” collection of readings that belongs to this category: Normcore Tech, the weekly newsletter from Vicki Boykis. NCT is smart, opinionated, funny, and thought-provoking in a way that feels impossible to find anywhere else. It is almost always my favorite thing I’ve read in a given month, and I would recommend it over any of the above books for anyone interested in tech.

If you have read anyhing on this list and want to chat or have a book recommendation, Please reach out! I also keep track of my reading on Goodreads if you’re interested in what other (unprofessional) reading I’m doing.

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