Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Notes - The Hard Thing About Hard Things

This will be the best book I will have read in 2014. In 1994, after finishing a masters degree in computer science, I went to work for a small technology consulting firm here in Merryland. It was during that time that the Internet became consumer worthy [I know to some of you, that seems ridiculous.] I remember the afternoon that some of us nerds got the corporate network connected to the Internet and fired up the NCSA Mosaic browser, the very first web browser, ever.

Since then, I've been following Marc Anderseen, the inventor of that paradigm shifting tool. And then I started reading the blog of his business partner, Ben Horowitz. Horowitz writes a blog about being a CEO, entrepreneurship, leadership and creating culture. It is fantastic and highly relevant for someone starting something from nothing. Highly recommended for people in my circles who do these same kinds of thing in various different domains - you know who you are. Lots of what I read in here applied to Ember too - although on a smaller or different kind of scale.

When I heard about Horowitz's book, I instantly pre ordered it. Herein are notes from it.
Former secretary of state Colin Powell says that leadership is the ability to get someone to follow you even if only out curiosity.

The simple existence of an alternate, plausible scenario is often all that's needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce.

In my weekly staff meeting, I inserted an agenda item titled "What Are We Not Doing?" Ordinarily in a staff meeting, you spend lots of time reviewing, evaluating, and improving all of the things that you do…. Sometimes however, the things you're not doing are the things you should actually be focused on.

Early in my career as an engineer, I'd learned that all decisions were objective until the first line of code was written. After that, all decisions were emotional.

Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same.

In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust...As a company grows, communication becomes its biggest challenge. If the employees fundamentally trust the CEO, the communication will be vastly more efficient than if they don't. Telling things as they are is a critical part of building this trust. A CEO's ability to build this trust over time is often the difference between companies that execute well and companies that are chaotic. [Love this concept. My system is my weekly staff email.]

Being a good company doesn't matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong.
Things always go wrong.
Being a good company is an end in itself.

From Andy Grove
Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let's count on three hours preparation for each hour of course time - twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class.
Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinate's performance, your company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.

Running a large org versus creating and building an org:
When you are building an organization, there is no organization to design, there are no processes to improve, and communicating with the organization is simple. On the other hand, you have to be very adept at running a high-quality hiring process, have terrific domain expertise (you are personally responsible for quality control), know how to create process from scratch and be extremely creative about initiating new directions and tasks.

The most important difference between big and small companies is the amount of time running versus creating.

Screening for the right kind of ambition - a me or team prism.

Perhaps the CEO's most important operational responsibility is designing and implementing the communication architecture for her company. The architecture might include the organizational design, meetings, processes, email, yammer, and even one-on-one meetings with managers and employees. Absent a well-designed communication architecture, information and ideas will stagnate, and your company will degenerate into a bad place to work.

The primary thing that any technology startup must do is build a product that's at least ten times better at doing something than the current prevailing way of doing that thing. Two or three times will not be good enough to get people to switch to the new thing fast enough or in large enough volume to matter. The second thing that any technology startup must do is to take the market.

The first rule of organizational design is that all organization designs are bad. With any design, you will optimize communication among some parts of the organization at the expense of other parts.

Choices like these cause migraine headaches. Tip to aspiring entrepreneurs: If you don't like choosing between horrible and cataclysmic, don't become CEO.

In all the difficult decisions that I made through the course of running Loudcloud and Opsware, I never once felt brave. In fact, I often felt scared to death. I never lost those feelings, but after much practice I learned to ignore them. That learning process might also be called the courage development process.

Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly. If you are CEO, these choices will lead to a courageous or cowardly company.

Over the past ten years, technological advance have dramatically lowered the financial bar for starting a new company, but the courage bar for building a great company remains as high as it has ever been. [Amen.]

High quality company cultures get their cue from data networking routing protocols: Bad news travels fast and good news travels slowly. Low-quality company cultures take on the personality of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wiz: "Don't nobody bring me no bad news."

The first thing to understand is that just because somebody interviewed well and reference-checked great, that does not mean she will perform superbly in your company. There are two kinds of cultures in this world: cultures where what you do matters and cultures where all that matters is who you are. You can be the former or you can suck.

But what about being loyal to the team that got you here? If your current executive team helped you grow your company tenfold, how can you dismiss them when they fall behind in running the behemoth they created? The answer is that your loyalty must go to your employees - the people who report to your executives. Your engineers, marketing people, salespeople, and finance and HR people who are doing the work. You owe them a world-class management team. That's the priority.

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