Books in March 2019, Part 3

Creativity, Inc.
Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

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I didn’t know if I would enjoy this book and it took some time before I finally borrowed it. Super happy I did, and I’m glad that I managed to finish it before I start my new gig. 

I did not know that Pixar has been around since 1980s! A sorta-aside, I loved Toy Story and was really pleased to read the stories around its origin and development in here!

I enjoyed reading about Pixar’s culture and the methods put in place to protect and nurture its creative culture. 

Catmull concluded this book with a list of starting points, which was an awesomely succinct and useful list of reminders. From that list, here are my favourites:

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them. 

  • Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

  • Similarly, it’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them. 

  • The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal — it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.

  • The healthiest organisations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose. 

  • Do not accidentally make stability a goal. Balance is more important than stability.

  • Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on — but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal.

(Goodreads)


Escaping the Build Trap
Melissa Perri

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I heard Melissa Perri speak last month at UX Thailand; she was the opening keynote speaker and her talk on product-led organisations was insightful and engaging. 

Perri used a fictitious company Marquetly and their journey to  describe and illustrate the four components essential to build a product-led company — role, strategy, process, and organisation.

For the most part, I found the stories helpful and highly relatable (sadface). I saw lots of parallels between Marquetly and my previous workplace, and I wish that I had this book then so I could borrow its articulation and eloquence. 

(Goodreads)


Lean UX
Jeff Gothelf with Josh Seiden

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Sometimes you read so much about a topic that every new thing you read feels derivative. To be fair, this book was published in 2013, so it is possible (and probably so) that the hundreds of Medium, Smashing Magazine etc articles were developed from this book then vice versa.

Read for background.

I did wish I read this before UX for Lean Startups. The two books aren’t exactly overlapping, but I would say that the principles and concepts are similar.

(Goodreads)


The Making of a Manager
Julie Zhuo

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Last year, I managed a team for the first time. Many times during the reading of this book, I wished that I had its advice and assurances. That Zhuo led a design team made the examples and advice here more relatable.

For a short excerpt, read Zhuo’s Making the Most of Your First Three Months as a New Manager on Medium.

There are great tips in here on giving and receiving feedback, hiring, managing yourself, and driving outcomes. I’m still making notes, and am foreseeing that I’ll be rereading some of these chapters in the near future.

(Goodreads)

Books in March 2019, Part 2

UX for Lean Startups
Laura Klein

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Lean startup or not, it is more than likely that few design teams have the luxury of time. If you are not new to UX or design and have been keeping a somewhat conscientious tab on learning, you probably don’t need to read this book. I did anyway, just to let you know that you don’t have to. 🧐 

It did drive home several points for me (your mileage may vary) and while these aren’t new insights, it’s good to be reminded: 1. User research need not be a mammoth task; be clear about what you want to achieve and don’t boil the ocean; 2. Qualitative research helps create hypotheses and narrows down what to test; 3. Experiment, test, and iterate; set up a cadence for continuous discovery and design. 


Measure What Matters
John Doerr

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I’m going to be brief here and say that I like what I hear and read about OKRs.

I liked this book too, and though I’ve read slightly negative reviews about how this is just a book of case studies (which truthfully, it is), I enjoyed it because of them case studies. Stories are more engaging, and it is easier to believe them. However, I shall also acknowledge that stories are often flawed, misremembered, glorified collections of details and incidents. Doesn’t make them less memorable. 

The concept of OKRs is straightforward. Make a goal or an objective, then put in place activities to achieve it and metrics to measure these activities. Reviewing them is simple and impartial — were the key results achieved? While the book talks about implementing OKRs on an organisational level (I very sincerely wish that they really do help with strategic alignment and focus like the stories here mentioned, because it makes me hopeful), I think personal OKRs would be a good substitute for new year resolutions. I like that it is a goal and a plan -in-one, so you can’t make one without the other.  


AI Superpowers
Kai-Fu Lee

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I don’t know enough about artificial intelligence, and I want to know what lies beyond sensationalistic headlines and hopeful high-level discussions. And, this is a great book to start acquiring that knowledge. There is a lot to know about AI as well as its development in past and present technologies. Its role in the future products and services can’t possibly be overstated, given how pervasive technology is in our day-to-day. 

But the part I enjoyed most was reading about how China came to be a major player in AI and digital technologies. The country’s rise to being a digital and data powerhouse did not come by sheer luck. China’s first internet boom in the 1990s yielded copycat companies (Wang Xing’s Xiaonei and Meituan, Charles Zhang’s Sohu etc), and the fierce competition amongst these companies and their other copycats meant that only the fittest would survive. They learnt what worked and what failed with Chinese users, and continuously iterated and localised their products and services. “Every divergence between Chinese user preferences and a global product became an opening that local competitors could attack”, and Silicon Valley’s reluctance to adapt their global products (eBay, Groupon, Google) for Chinese users precipitated their demise.   

The government’s campaign and support for mass entrepreneurship and innovation + the emergence and subsequent ubiquity of internet-enabled mobile devices in China in the late 2000s and early 2010s = enabled companies and enabled users. Tencent’s angbao move / attack into the mobile payments space was very smart! On a local note, I wonder if Grab’s angbao campaign during this year’s Chinese New Year had similar intentions.  

Ok, back to AI. According to Lee, most of what AI is and will be in the near future is based on what has already been existing in the AI world. Breakthroughs in AI research will be harder to come by, contrary to popular media representation. The implementation of AI is the innovation. Lee mentions 4 waves of AI: 1. Internet AI (data, machine learning, and algorithms to serve up more accurate and relevant content/recommendations); 2. Business AI (Leveraging huge structured datasets to identify weak features or recognise correlations, and predict or execute outcomes); 3. Perception AI (OMO — online-merge-offline — environments where data generated and collected in the digital space is used to inform our offline and physical environments); 4. Autonomous AI (your lovely robots and self-driving cars). 

However, as AI revolutionises manufacturing and production, it will “deprive poor countries of the opportunity to kick-start economic growth through low-cost exports”. Even within developed economies, the gap between companies or industries with a foothold in AI and those without will continue to widen, as the former leverages AI-enabled productivity advantages and benefits. This may have the worrying effect of driving down prices and eliminating competition. 

Lastly, and one that hits closer to home, is the concern about jobs. The author mentions two different kinds of job losses: one-to-one replacement (your job is lost because technology can do it better); and one that results from ground-up disruption (essentially, your job no longer exists because the capabilities involved are no longer necessary). 

In the last few chapters, Lee laid out a blueprint for “human coexistence with AI”. Among his suggestions, I found the stipend for social investment, where individuals are rewarded for socially-beneficial activities, intriguing and frankly, a possible one (though the reward matrix would be a tricky one). 

Ah, this is more a book summary than I expected it to be. Good for forgetful ol’ future me.  


The Coddling of the American Mind
Greg Lukianoff, and Jonathan Haidt

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Do you remember how old you were when you were first allowed to venture outdoors alone? I remember evening sessions at the playground when I was in kindergarten, and the adult supervision was a handful of parents or grandparents of a couple of kids also at the playground. Sometimes my mum would be there, but most times, she would be back at our flat. We would get summoned for dinner, or when chores awaited. My parents were pretty laid-back, but to be fair, Singapore was and is still a very safe country, and accidents at the playground and elsewhere were far and few between.  

Despite knowing that the crime rates in American cities have declined, it wasn’t a great surprise to learn from the book that American kids and teenagers don’t quite enjoy this kind of freedom (well, it is all thanks to all these crazy shooting incidents). It also wasn’t surprising to read that freedom beyond physical whereabouts and activities has also increasingly been curtailed. Even in Singapore, I’ve noticed that parents have gotten more watchful and anxious; expectations have gotten to be rather plentiful in an ever-increasing number of areas. With expectations, I would say, come anxieties. With anxieties, comes overprotective and overindulgent “helicopter” parenting that ironically has failed to ready our youth’s attitudes and mindsets for well, real life. 

The book talks about three great untruths that have contributed to this coddling: 1. The Untruth of Fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker); 2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (Always trust your feelings); 3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them (Life is a battle between good people and evil people). To elaborate the effects of these untruths, the authors raised various events that happened on American campuses in the past decade — pointless witch hunts and actual violence arising from a “common-enemy” mindset in reaction to presumed threats to emotional “safety”, resulting in a call-out culture and a lack of rigour in exploring diverse and necessary viewpoints. This is a worrisome self-perpetuating cycle.

While the book is ostensibly about American youth, I found the ideas and the described effects relevant for my non-American and non-youth life. A particularly sobering one is the “concept creep” of the meaning “safety”. Where it used to refer to physical safety — and it is never wrong to ensure physical safety — the term “safety” has now expanded to include “emotional safety”. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But “emotional safety” is fraught with subjectivity and personal biases. It also sounds very much like an echo chamber to me. Expecting others to maintain your “emotional safety” is training in fragility, and that will make you weaker over time. 

“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need to become strong and healthy.” 

“When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay ‘emotionally safe’ while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient.” 

Needing some Guang 光

I watched Guang 光 on a half-whim, half because while I didn’t know I was heading to the cinema and I didn’t know about the film until today, I had thought of watching a movie and had checked for possible can-watch movies just before I went for my driving lesson. 

Guang is a story about a pair of brothers, one of whom is autistic and has a penchant for collecting glasses (the drinking type). Based in Kuala Lumpur and directed by Quek Shio Chuan, the film was an authentic blend of sentiment, humour, empathy, and love. I particularly loved how natural the dialogue felt, and also the bigger-than-life scenes of Guang’s elation because I’m pretty sure/hopeful that they are representations of how the protagonist felt. 

This is the second movie I’ve watched this year, the first being Captain Marvel a couple of weeks ago. It seems a little ridiculous to compare these two movies because they are as different as they possibly can get, but there I was, minutes after the lights went back on, evaluating both shows against each other. 

Captain Marvel is a huge show. It’s big on everything — the budget, the actors, the plot, the intergalactic setting etc. There are aliens and super powers and supreme intelligences. Humans are the hapless beings, serving only to foil a plan, or squirm as hostages, or die as collateral damage. Agent Fury no doubt realised that because look who decided to set up a superhero task force. That’s fine, superhero shows have a place in cinema and I’m waiting to book tickets for the next Avengers movie. 

Watching Guang, on the other hand, made me feel less helpless, more hopeful, and more assured of our tenacity. It’s a small story set in a small cinematic world, but the introspection it provides beats any intergalactic alien war.