Category Archives: books

Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind


As the subtitle indicates, Sapiens by Yuval Harari aims to give a brief overview of homo sapiens. He does this by highlighting the following key moments in our history.

Cognitive Revolution – 300,000 years ago many species of humans wandered the world. Why did only one emerge? Yuval believes that this was the result of the brain’s evolution around 70,000 years ago that resulted in our unique languages which allows for the creation and shared belief of myths. For e.g. our languages permit us to imagine gods and concepts such as nationalism, capitalism, consumerism etc. This allows for co-operation between groups that were much larger in size that other animals.

Furthermore, while all other animals adapt to change by evolving, which is an extremely slow process limited by their biology. Thanks to shared myths, sapiens can evolve by simply changing their myths. This allowed them to become masters of the planet.

Agricultural Revolution – The cultivation of crops resulted in a population explosion. Though humans were not necessarily better off individually, they were able to grow in numbers. The invention of math and writing was the result of attempts to solve the problem of accounting that rose due to the agricultural revolution.

The Unification of Humankind – For much of history, humans lived in small tribes and groups. Today we live in massive nation states. The following developments unified humans by enabling greater co-operation between them.

  • Money – Allowed strangers to co-operate and exchange goods and services
  • Empires – Assimilated smaller cultures into larger ones
  • Religion – Though we think of religion as a divider today, it was one of the biggest unifiers in history

The Scientific Revolution – For much of human history, the average productivity remained the same. Around 500 years ago, it started to explode. The reasons were as follows

  • The Discovery of Ignorance –  The scientific revolution kicked off when humans began to admit that they did not understand things around them. Empires played a part as they raced to find new lands and discover technologies that would enable supremacy in the battlefield.
  • Finance – Financial systems such as banks, stocks, bonds enabled the expansion in resources that fuelled scientific discoveries.
  • Industrial Revolution – The discovery of the steam engine enabled the conversion of energy from one type to another (steam -> movement).

This book won critical acclaim upon release and deservedly so. Highly recommended.


Care Deeply and Challenge Directly


One of my goals in 2018 was to learn more about management as I transition from being  an individual contributor to a manager. I have started attending management training at work, but have also been looking for books, podcasts, articles to learn more. Radical Candor was the one of the most recommeded books on this topic. The author Kim Scott traces her journey from a startup where she was CEO to Apple and Google where she effectively managed people and even ran management bootcamps.

As CEO, Kim was afraid of giving hard feedback as she did not want to be seen as a jerk. However this meant that her employees were not aware of their flaws and did not correct them which led to even more uncomfortable conversations down the line.

radical-candor-2x2.pngShe set out to investigate how to “be a kick ass boss without losing your humanity”. The answer which is in the top right of the quadrant is the title of the book and it consists of the following two steps.

Care Deeply – The first step to understand the employee’s goals (both personal and professional) deeply. This can be done through a series of 1-1 meetings with the employee. It is then the manager’s job to put the employee in a position where they can make progress towards those goals. Too often, managers assume that all employees want to be star performers – there are many who derive satisfaction from working 8 hours a day and spending their free time with family and friends.

Challenge Directly – The next step is to challenge the employee whenever they fall short of the goals that they have set for themselves. If the manager has established a good rapport (step 1), then the employee will see these challenges as an attempt by the manager to guide them rather than attack on their performance. Feedback should happen quickly and be not reserved for 1-1 meetings or annual reviews. The “directly” in “Challenge directly” advices that feedback cannot be diluted lest it be ignored.

One thing that the book does not detail is how personality type may influence the efficacy of the book’s advice. Most managers are familiar with Myers-Briggs or similar personality tests which specify that employees should be motivated or challenged differently depending on their personality. For e.g. certain employees may not take too kindly to being challenged, even if the manager has a good rapport with them.

Overall, the book is a great read and full of useful advice. It goes into great detail on how to establish a culture of radical cantor in the workplace. I highly recommend it to managers especially new ones like me.

Product Leadership by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, and Nate Walkingshaw


Product Leadership is a book that distills the best practices of Product Management into one source. Mark Ericsson is the founder of Product Tank and Mind the Product and  has a wealth of experience in Product Management. The book covers topics such as leadership, vision, strategy, prioritising, user research, and many more.

I skimmed through this book very quickly since I found that it covered a lot of material that I was already familiar with and there was very little that was new. I’m probably going to skip reading Product Management books for a while. However, if you are a new  or aspiring PM, reading books such as this one or Inspired are a quick way to get up to speed.

The Everything Store by Brad Stone


A lot has been written recently about the big five technology giants (Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook) that dominate the technology sector. There are fears about the power and influence that they will wield and that they will crush all competitors and stifle innovation. One of my goals for 2017 was to understand these five giants better. I started off last year with Apple by reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs.

The Everything Store tells the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Jeff Bezos possessed an extremely high IQ and attended a school for gifted children. His first job out of college was with DE Shaw a hedge fund that used algorithms to identify opportunities. As the internet started to become big in the early 90’s, Shaw had Bezos investigate a number of potential internet enabled businesses including an “everything store”. Realising that it would never truly be his if he stayed at DE Shaw, Bezos made the decision to quit and start up by himself. He made the decision using what he called the “regret minimisation framework” i.e. what would he regret more at the age of 80, giving up a big bonus or not starting a business that he was excited about?

Steve Jobs loved music and this passion surely had an impact on Apple’s decision to make music a big part of the company’s offerings. Jeff Bezos on the other hand loved books and it’s probably why it entered consideration as the item that Amazon launched with. However, there was a solid business reason as well – a book is a commodity that is the same in every store, the SKUs are large, no physical store would have them all and the number of distributors was low. Even when Amazon started to expand, the products were chosen the same way i.e. CDs, DVDs etc.

The big book stores at the time Borders, Barnes and Nobles did not take the internet seriously. Eventually, they realised the threat and began building out e-commerce departments. Analysts thought that Amazon was toast but the large companies had trouble competing as their distribution centres were optimised for their large physical stores. Secondly, in big companies, it is hard to move your best people away from the cash cow and onto emerging areas as demonstrated by Clayton Christensen (whose work had a big influence on Jeff Bezos.

Amazon is a very interesting company to study for a variety of reasons. Some of the things that struck me are as follows:

  1. Intense customer focus: Many companies say this, but few actually mean it. An example of this is the Amazon Marketplace. Facing a threat from Ebay, Amazon was under pressure to respond. The problem was that the Amazon website and the marketplace were two different sites and the marketplace had very very low traffic. Bezos’s genius was to allow third party sellers to be listed alongside the Amazon listing on one site. In most companies, internal politics would have prevented this move and even in Amazon there was strident opposition, but Bezos prevailed.
  2. Work Culture: Treatment of workers is in stark contrast to the rest of Silicon Valley where employers compete to offer perks. Work culture at Amazon is intense, with people burning out frequently. The behaviour of some of the managers at Amazon would not be accepted in most other places, yet they clearly seem to attract talented  workers who are highly driven and ambitious (like Wall Street??).
  3. Continuous Innovation: Most companies innovate when they are small, but become more risk averse as they grow larger. Amazon has a very interesting organisational structure. Teams are highly autonomous and can choose their own technology stack. Multiple teams can work on the same problems. Bezos also formed secret teams whose mandate was to disrupt existing businesses. Amazon’s many innovations came from diverse sources.
    1. Kindle – Observing Apple’s disruption of the music industry and fearing the same would happen to books, Amazon had a secret team work on the Kindle.
    2. Prime Membership – An internal tool where employees can submit ideas was the source of this idea.
  4. Amazon Web Services: How did a e-commerce store become the largest seller of technology infrastructure? Bezos had always harboured ambition of being a technological innovator. The motivation was the increasingly hard process for teams to get access to resources at Amazon. Bezos was also influenced by a book called Creation that describes a video game where players guide intelligent creations rather than control them. He mandated that the primitive building blocks (storage, computation) be available for developers to use as they saw fit.
    1. Since the book was published Amazon has expanded its AWS offerings and released Alexa a voice activated speaker that uses AI.

Overall, I found the book quite interesting and I recommend it. I think it’s a must read for anyone who wants to understand the current technology landscape.


Emotional Design by Don Norman


I’m a big fan of “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman so I picked up the sequel. When the author wrote DOET, he was was frustrated about the lack of importance given to behavioural or functional aspects of design. Therefore, that book is entirely composed of functional design critiques and advice. However, he received criticisms that he ignored the other aspects of design that he then addressed in this book.

There are three aspects of design – visceral, behavioural, and reflective. Visceral is how a product looks, behavioural is about usability, and reflective is how it makes you feel.


Take the teapot above for example. The author notes that he loves it, even though it’s hard to use. The unique look (visceral) and satisfaction (reflective) that it gives him more than make up for its behavioural deficiencies.

Reflective: It’s the third component of design that the book spends most of its time on. Norman uses the example of souvenirs to highlight the role that emotions play in our attitude towards products. For e.g. souvenirs that look cheap and have little utility value are loved as they are usually associated with fond memories.

Humans have an intrinsic need to create a sense of identity. They often purchase products that reflect their identity. This is reflected in the demand for branded goods that are often similar to cheaper generic versions. Brands exploit this by attaching emotions to their brands through advertising. Hence a brand such as Rolex will associate itself with top athletes to signal high class and success.


Prior to reading this book, I had been puzzled by some of the design decisions made by Apple. For example, the mouse pictured above is usually panned for the fact that the side buttons are in fact not buttons but for design alone. After reading this book, I understood that the designers made a conscious decision to sacrifice functionality to appeal to the visceral and reflective aspects of the buyers. They went too far in my opinion, but I now understand why.

Overall, the first few chapters were interesting, but the second half of the book that goes deep into the role of emotion bored me and I skimmed over most of it. It’s not a must read in my opinion.


What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro


Joe Navarro is an ex FBI agent who was a founding member of the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Program. He was a body language expert who he used his ability to successfully identify suspects who were lying or attempting to conceal their involvement in any wrongdoing.

In this book he draws from his years of experience to list the various ‘tells’ that different part of the human body exhibit and why they do so. I enjoyed the ‘why’ much more than the ‘what’ and therefore my summary is all about the ‘why’ but I think it’s worth a quick read if you are interested in understanding non verbal behaviour.

Why ‘Tells’ Exist: When our ancestors encountered danger they were typically a few standard responses. Most of us are familiar with the first two – flight or fight. The third response – freeze is unfamiliar but actually the most common response to perceived danger. The modern incarnations of these responses and ‘pacifying’ behaviours that accompany them are the reason that these tells exist.

Freezing is a mechanism that our ancestors deployed to make themselves less visible to perceived predators. Today we use it when we make ourselves small or perhaps unnoticed when we feel uncomfortable or threatened. The reverse is true, we make ourselves large to show dominance.

Flight is another way to escape danger. While today, we cannot run away when uncomfortable, we try to cope by blocking behaviours such as looking away, closing our eyes, placing barriers between ourselves or leaning away from people. The feet are excellent indicators here – feet pointed towards exits or preparing to leave are clear signs that the person wants to end a conversation.

Fight is the final option when facing a threat. Thankfully, it’s becoming quite rare and people tend to restrain or limit themselves.

Pacifying behaviours are those that people deploy to calm themselves when they are agitated. Common pacifying behaviours include massaging the neck or touching their face. Since these behaviours are employed when a person is agitated, they provide valuable clues about their state of mind.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking


Yet another book that I had wanting to read for a long time. This book entered my radar after I watched Susan Cain‘s TED talk on the power of introverts. The talk was viewed nearly four million times in its first year alone.

As an introvert, I found the book really interesting. In particular the first part of the book was a real eye opener and resonated strongly with me. I had not realised how biased everyday life is towards the ‘extrovert ideal’ and how I should respond. Therefore, this book is a must read for all introverts.

The Extrovert Ideal
As adults, many of us work for organizations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t always like this. In the early 1900s, there was a shift from the culture of character to a culture of personality. This coincided with a migration to urban centres where you had to interact with people that you didn’t know and extroverts gained an advantage in this new reality.

The Myth of the Charismatic Leader
“Among the most effective leaders I have encountered and worked with in half a century,” the management guru Peter Drucker has written, “some locked themselves into their office and others were ultra-gregarious. Some were quick and impulsive, while others studied the situation and took forever to come to a decision.… The one and only personality trait the effective ones I have encountered did have in common was something they did not have: they had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”

Nature vs Nuture
There is a strong biological aspect but it can be altered by upbringing (like a rubber band, you cannot stretch too far from your default state). The intricate interaction between the two that makes us who we are.

Impact of Culture
Migrant cultures are considered more extroverted as they had to move around while others were introverted. Hence, Asian cultures are not as extroverted as American ones. Yet, they too are following the American example of the ideal worker.

Introverts in the Workplace 
Research suggests that extroverted leaders enhance group performance when employees are passive, but that introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees. This makes sense as introverts tend to listen more and are therefore more likely to be open to new ideas. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.

INSPIRED: How to Create Products Customers Love


Marty Cagan is founding partner of the Silicon Valley Product Group, a consulting firm that helps companies with their product strategy. Prior to that he held product roles at EBay, Aol, Netscape among others. He is a well respected product thinker and several of the ideas in this book can also be gleaned from his insight blog on the SVPG website.

I had bought this book over a year ago as it was one of the highly recommended books for new PMs, but it sat in my Kindle until I finally got around to it recently. I concur with the advice about this book being an excellent read for new PMs, it covers an incredibly broad range of topics.

There are more than 40 (short) chapters in this book, so it’s impossible to talk about them all, but here are the parts that resonated the most with me.

Importance of product design – Even though the author was a platform product manager, much of the book is targeted towards products which have a UI and therefore there is a lot of advice on the importance of designers. He recommends doing away with PRDs in favour of high fidelity prototypes that can be tested on actual users.

Startup vs Large companies – Startups that are still trying to find product market fit are places where the emphasis is on getting things out of the door. They learn by shipping and mistakes are accepted. By contrast, large companies have a lot to lose by shipping an ill thought out feature and are much more risk averse and detail oriented.

Leadership by objective and roadmaps – This management style advocates giving people a goal and letting them figure out how to achieve it. Marty advocates a similar approach to road mapping. Leadership comes with a central theme and then rather than features, gives individual teams a set of goals and lets them decide what features to ship in pursuit of that goal.

Role of emotion in purchasing decisions – In the enterprise the dominant emotions are greed (If I buy this, I can save money or time) and fear (If I don’t buy this, I will lose to my competitors). In the consumer space, the emotions are more personal – pride, greed, love, lust etc.

Platform product management – There are three user personas a platform PM has to consider 1) Developers 2) Business head of the developers, and 3) End users. A common error is to think that since developers are the most important as they use the platform to create apps for end users. However, the reality is that the end user and the business head are much more important.

This resonated with me as it was a mistake that I made. It can be hard when your passionate development team comes up with lots of ideas on how to improve the development experience. You give in only to realise later that they didn’t really make a difference to the key objective of the product.