What I read in 2020

Last year, 2020 was many things. Historians, authors, and journalists will have lots to explore within the depths of 2020. Yet, with no where to go, it was easy to find time to read in 2020.

Compared with 2019, I read fewer books in 2020, 52 vs. 36. Yet this was my target from the start of the year. In years past, I would rush through books, getting a sense of accomplishment siimply from completing the book. This year’s focus more than ever was to focus on grasping the concepts in the book and considering how I was going to improve from them.

My goal was to read a balance of books. I aimed for four areas of reading: Fun, Technical, Leadership, and Self-Help books. My target was for Fun to take up half of the total, with Technical being a quarter, and Leadership and Self-Help rounding out the rest. In the end, Leadership accounted for 7 of the 36 (instead of 4) and Technical was only 5 of 36. In hindsight, this makes sense as leadership and influence have been my target growth areas for some time.

The following is a summary of a selection of the books I read last year. Instead of listing all books, this list is targeted at the most impactful books or series of books I read.

2018 Book List
2019 Part 1
2019 Part 2

The Expanse Series (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Game, and The Churn)

I’m a huge fan of the TV show “The Expanse. In need of some escape from a pandemic, I decided to read a book about… a pandemic (it made more sense at the time). These books cover the first 5 seasons of the show. Starting out, the series splits the narrative between two viewpoints in Leviathan Wakes (James Holden and Detective Miller), then expands to four or more throughout the rest of the series. This can be a bit jarring as a reader, but keeps the suspense going for a TV show.

The Churn is a novella, set before any of the books, but with a large tie-in with Nemesis Game.

The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking

Dale Carnegie has timeless knowledge to share. After reading his acclaimed book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, I knew this book would have great, practical advice. If you have to present to audiences often and want to improve, this is a great book to study. I suggest adding this to your library as a referece book, because you’ll find yourself returning to it time and again.

Attention Management

Time management skills are critical to success, but recent trends are pointing that what we really need i the modern workd is to better manage our attention. Using our natural rhythms to do work at optimal and staying focused, we can get more done than simply ‘managing our time’. This book provides a good introduction to the concept and some practical advice.

A Year of Living Mindfully

Designed with one section/activity for each week of the year, I started this in 2019 and finished in 2020. There was no better year to focus on mindfulness than 2020! This book contained numerous practices and guidance on being mindful. With 2020 behind us, mindfulness is still an important skilset. If you want to learn more and are willing to put about 15 to 30 minutes towards it a week, this would be a great resource for you.

Atomic Habits

We’va all heard stories of ‘overnight’ successes, people who seemingly in one day achieved success. What we don’t see is all the hard work that went in, the tiny habits that led to the success. This book undercovers the science around habits and gives a framework for establishing new habits: make it visible, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. If you want to establish better habits for yourself, this book can help you get there.

The Compound Effect

I read this shortly after Atomic Habits, and the two books overlap in content quite considerably. While Atomic Habits focuses on the science, The Compound Effect focusses more on being successful and the compounding impact good habits can have over a long period of time. If you want to really learn about habits, read both of these books. If you want to know more about success, check this book out.

Maxwell Daily Reader

John Macwell is a prolific author in the leadership space. This boook contains a page for each day of the year that teaches a different leadership lesson eac day, pulling excerpts from his many books, like the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. This was such a good read that I decided to read through it again this year.

Humble Inquiry

How often do we ask questions from a place of humility, a place where re recognize we are dependent upon the other person to provide the answer? The author outlines what it means to engage in humble inquiry, why it is important for team work and psychological safety for leaders to ask questions in this way, and also whiy it is so difficult in Western culture to adobt this mindset.

Speed of Trust

Trust is crucial to teamwork and to leadership. With trust, we can get many things done quickly. Without trust, things take much longer to accomplish.

Written by the son of the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective Poeple, Speed of Trust provides a framework for building trust, starting with our personal charecter and our track record of results and then expands into our behavior with others. Much like 7 Habits, this book is foundational to leadership and has been included in many leadership classes.

The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell

Leaders often find themselves as story tellers, inspiring and influencing their team. This book outlines ten different types of stories that leaders will find themselves telling to inspire their teams. The book gives an example of each type of story and breaks down the elements of each type so that you can craft your own story for the ten situations provided.

More Effective Agile

As an agilist, I spend a fair amount of time reading articles in my field. In the tech industry, books become stale quickly. Published in 2019 by software engineer and thought leader Steve McConnell, this book takes a hard look at agile in organizations and offers advice at how to structure an agile organization to be more effective. Steve McConnell is also the author of Code Complete, one of my favorite books on software craftsmanship.

More Effective Agile is not meant as an introduction into agile softare deveopment. In this book you will find tips for a practical, analytical approach to agile software development. Check this out if you want practical advice on advancing an agile organization.

Succeeding with Agile

Another book on Agile, I started this lengthy tome many years ago (more than I’d like to admit). The first part of the book gives an introductory overview of Scrum, but like with More Effective Agile, I would consider this an intermediate book on the subject. Succeeding with Agile covers a large gamut of agile topics like how to lead a team, build a backog, do estimation, and work with a large number of teams.

Measure What Matters

Not an agile book per se, Measure What Matters introduces the topic of Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs. Used by Intel, Google, and many other companies, OKRs are an alternative to the cascading goal cycle that many companies have fallen into. Paired with an agile transformation, I see OKRs as a way for an organzation to set goals (both business and improvement goals) in an agile fashion.

The Unicorn Project

Years ago, I read the Phoenix Project, which in the form of a fable, outlines the case for DevOps in modern Software Development. Set in a fictionaly company, the Phoenix Project follows a leader in the production engineering organization. The Unicorn Project, written a few years later, is set in the same fictional company at the same time, but this time we follow a software developer as she joins a new team, witnesses the struggles the run into while trying to get things done and work together to build a cross-functional team that delivers results for the company.

Thinking in Bets

Written by a professional poker player, Thinking in Bets explores the idea of betting and the idea if we treated our thoughts as if we were to place a bet on it. If we did, we’d likely do more research if our confidence was low. Further, we might consider our confidence to our thoughts to aid in quick decision making, both for ourself as well as others.

Influencer

Written by the authors behind Crucial Conversations (plus one newcomer), Influencer breaks down the nature of influence into discrete areas, using a matrix of motivation and ability on one axis and personal, social, and structural areas on the other. Thus, to achieve influence on a change, we must ensure that individuals, groups, and the environment all provide the proper motivation to make a change and that each enable the ability to do so.

When we look at habits, we encounter similar challenges implementing a change. Are we personally able and motivated to make a change? Does our environment setup to make the new habit easy to do and help us be motivated to make the change? When thinking of influence, the science of habits plays a crucial part, as when we try to change others, we are asking that we change other people’s habits.

Why Buddhism is True

As a recent student of mediation, a number of mediation resources are inspired by Buddhism. In learning more about meditation and mindfulness, I’ve also learned more about Buddhism. This book, written by a professor, is not a religous book, but instead takes a scientific lens to the core, secular tenants of Buddhism. In the course of the book, the author argues that there is scientific research to support these ideas.

I find it fascinating when we find that ‘ancient wisdom’ has some grounding in reality. It reminds me that humans hundreds and thousands of years ago had minds just as capable as ours, they just had less access to knowledge of others before them. As we continue to build upon the knowledge of each other, just think what we can achieve.

Radical Candor

Written by a software executive, Radical Candor offers guidance on how to give feedback to others. Radical Candor occurs at the junction of caring personally about someone and challenging them directly. If we lack one element or the other, we are not radically candid.

While the book makes some good points, in practice it can easily be used by naturally aggressive people to encourage them to continue to be aggressive. The back half of the book is aimed more at managers, making the book less useful as a general leadership book.

On Forming New Habits

If you’re like most people, you struggle to form a new habit, regardless of how motivated you are to establish the new habit. Some say that it takes discipline, and if we just had more of it, we could follow our dreams to new habits.

I won’t deny that discipline can help to establish a new habit. But saying one just needs to learn discipline to form a new habit is like telling someone who is drowning that they need to learn to swim. The advice is both obvious and un-useful.

The good news is that we can fake discipline if we use tools, techniques, and technology to our advantage. Following are five techniques that I’ve used to establish new habits.

Structure

If you struggle with discipline, the good news is that you can fake it until you make it. By recruiting the aid of your technology, you can institute new habits. When I wanted to get serious about meditating, I looked to the app Calm, which offers many guided meditation sessions, to remind me to meditate each day. Initially, the app would remind me at noon, but I found that midday was too late for me to remember to do it. For your new habit, find the best time that works for you, and set your reminder to alert you at that sweet spot.

Your work or personal electronic calendar can provide similar functionality as the Calm app. Need to do something at the start of each day? Just add a calendar invite for each day. You’ll have a visible reminder, but you can also block off time on your calendar to get the task done.

If you use a personal organization system, like the classic Getting Things Done (GTD) or more modern tools like the Bullet Journal or Panda Planner, you already have a system in place that provides you the structure you need for new habits. For instance, I use the app Facile Things to organize my list of Next Actions. This app has a routine function that I utilize to add various weekly reminders of new habits. For instance, I have a routine to remind me to check for any birthdays on my team once a week so I can get a card around for them. By using an existing structure already in place, I can establish a new habit.

Eat that Frog

When we start our day and survey the landscape of the day in front of us, what’s the biggest, scaries thing we have to confront? Whatever it is, we should do that first. Or, in the words of the best selling book, we should Eat that Frog, the biggest frog we have in front of us.

If that frog is a new habit that you want to establish, then commit to yourself to tackle that frog first each day.

Habit Loading

My friend Aimee taught me this technique, and it is one of the many techniques outlined in Atomic Habits. Habit loading, as Aimee defined it for me, is when you build a new habit on top of an existing habit. For instance, while waiting for the shower to warm up for my morning shower (existing habit), I brush and floss my teeth (new habit).

You can also try this with 2 new habits like I did last year. I wanted to start a daily meditation practice while also learning something new each day. I would start each day reading a page from The Intellectual Devotional, then proceed to meditate for 5 minutes or more. These 2 new habits, by relying on each other such that I couldn’t do one without the other, gave me more motivation to do both. And I’ve been doing them for over a year now.

Jerry Seinfeld Technique

For this technique, you need a wall calendar and a marker. If you are young enough that you don’t own a wall calendar (or, you don’t even know what one is), ask you’re parents - they’ll have a couple of spare ones lying around.

This technique was created by Jerry Seinfeld as advice to aspiring comics. They key to comedy, Jerry would say, is to write jokes every day. So he would inform comics to get a calendar, write a joke today, then put an ‘X’ through today’s date on the calendar. Then, repeat the process tomorrow, then the next day, and so on. The goal is to not break that streak. Keep ‘X’-ing out days by following through on the new habit, day after day.

I use this technique to ensure that I write at least half a page a day, plus a half page of journaling the highs and lows of the day. I started on January 1st, 2019 with a new calendar and only missed 2 days so far - January 10th 2019 and May 15th 2019. Two years later and this new behavior has become a habit.

Start Small

Success breeds success. So if you are struggling to start a new habit, start with a small habit. What is the simplest thing that you can do for your new habit? Let’s say that you want to establish a habit of exercising daily. Instead of stating that you want to exercise daily for an hour a day, choose a much smaller time frame, such at 5 minutes. By setting a more achievable goal, it will be easier to find time to do the new habit each day. After stringing together a few weeks of successes, you may be able to set a higher goal. When I started my daily meditation practice, I started with just 5 minutes a day. Once I had done this for 6 months or so, I aimed to increase to 10 minutes a day, and later to a total of 90 minutes a week. By slowly raising the bar, I gave myself room to establish the habit and I had confidence when I raised it that I could continue to succeed, because of the previous successes I had.

Conclusion

New habits can be hard to form. They take discipline to stick with a new behavior long enough for it to become a habit. Structure, habit loading, starting small, tackling the new habit at the start of the day, and tracking the habit visually can help establish the new habit. Success with other habits also leads to further success. If you find yourself struggling to establish a new habit, remember to try a simpler habit first. Build up your own confidence, establish structure to support you, and people will start to call you ‘disciplined’.

What I read in 2019 - Part 2

I have a bit of a problem. I love books. Going to bookstores, I would pick up 2 or 3 new books each trip. Books on history, books on leadership, books on mindfulness, and fiction books. On the surface, this may not seem like a problem. Except, I was buying books faster than I was reading them. I took inventory, and found that I had over 500 books in my personal library, yet had read only 240 of them. Owning 260 books that I haven’t read, I wondered how I would ever find time to read all of those books! So much knowledge, lessons, and good stories just waiting for me to open them and enjoy them. In 2018, I read 27 books. I set out to read 36 books in 2019, or 3 books a month. At the end of the year, I had managed to complete 52 books, or over 4 books a month, or 1 book a week!

In part 1, I discussed about half of the books I read in 2019. Mid way through the year, I was clearly on a record setting pace, but I was also burning out a bit. The first half of the year was litterred with business, leadership, mindfulness, and self-help books. While all of these books helped me connect various different dots in my own life and leadership, I needed a break. In July, I made a conscious effort to read one book for fun while also reading one book on business or leadership.

One of the funnest finds in the 2nd half of the year was a new favorite author and book series. I went to my local Barnes & Noble store, looking specifically for a new book series in the fantasy fiction vein, but one where the author doesn’t sadistically kill off charecters every other chapter (I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin). I stumbled upon the third book of a series that happened to be on clearance and, from the cover, looked like it might fit the bill - Bernard Cornwell’s The Lords of the North. But, I entered the store seeking advice, so I asked an associate if this series was what I was looking for. The associate, not only confirmed that it was (though the series is historical fiction, not fantasy), but also gave me a good indication of the humor and historical accuracy I could expect. She helped me find the first book in the series The Last Kingdom, and I’ve been hooked since that weekend. I’ve read the entire 11 book series, finding it hard to put it down.

Let’s talk about what I read in the 2nd half of 2019, and what I learned from these books.

The Last Kingdom

The author, Bernard Cornwell, does a great job bringing 9th century England, with its invading Danes to life. This book, along with the other books in the series, gave me a deeper appreciation for the rich tapestry that is English history. In particular, this book touched on briefly how charcoal was made by burying logs and burning them until they were charred and how the charcoal was subsequently used in metal working.

The Pale Horseman

This book imagines one of the darkest periods in English history - when Wessex, the Last Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon’s, is on the brink of destruction when King Alfred hides with his family and the few loyal troops he has remaining in the swamps of western Wessex. While an imaginative take on a period of history we know little about, it does show how close the English came to being completely conquered by vikings.

The Lords of the North

The third book in the series, takes the story back North to Northumbria. Along the way, we get a peak at the power and influence of the church in 9th century England.

Sword Song

By the fourth book, this author has his formula down for his stories. In this installment, the author gives a tour of ancient London, covering the waterway, the bridge, the new, Saxon city, and the old, haunted city. There are repeated points made throughout the book, but this one, with the description of London, really drives home the main charecters view that after the fall of the Roman empire, humanity has fallen and will continue to slide into chaos. With decaying examples of the skills and knowledge the Romans posessed, including roads, stone bridges, city walls, bath houses, villas, tiled roofs, and art work, its easy to see how people of the time may have looked up to the Romans with awe and sadness.

The Burning Land

The fifth book touches on many places, but gives us the first, real look of Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the middle of England. With the help and influence of Wessex, it holds out against the Danelaw - lands ruled by the Danish. But, the border between the Mercians and the Danes is unclear, as this book highlights.

Death of Kings

This book covers the death of King Alfred, as well as a mysterious year in which several Danish rulers were killed in a battle - which is about all that we know of the battle. This period of history is quite enigmatic, and a series like this brings it to life, even if it is only loosely based on history.

Dare to Lead

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. It is full of great, useful exercises, but the author’s writing style is somewhat confusing. She mixes her personal story with her ‘research’, that she references constantly. While she references values, she gives examples around one of her own values, courage, but it’s not clear when she stops talking about an example to when she is saying what everyone should do what she does. She talks about shame, but then it feels like she does all in her power to shame her reader. A book on leading with courage, it ironically takes a lot of courage to make it through this book. If you choose to read this book, do so as a group or with a trusted mentor or friend.

Cooking for Geeks

As a huge fan of Alton Brown and his show Good Eats, I’m fascinated with the science of cooking. When I heard of this book, which talks about a wide range of topics from seasoning, heat transfer, sous vide cooking, and denaturing proteins, I knew I had to read it.

This book bounces between 3 different styles - a detailed discussion of the topic, recipes that showcase the item being discussed and interviews with cooking experts, with the discussion centered or related to the topic at hand. With 3 styles, odds are that you’ll find one that is less appealing than the others. That was the case with the interviews. I felt they drifted from the flow of the book and I found they added little value. As such, this took me a LONG time to read. But it did give me the confidence to try new things, like making crepes (which were delicious).

5 Steps to Professional Presence

One of my growth areas that I identified was my executive presence. As a recovering software engineer, I tend to relate to others as an engineer, and not as a leader. I picked up this book hoping it would shine a light on this part of the working world. While this book had a useful tidbit here or there, it genuinely felt dated and simplistic. Some items were obvious, such as treading carefully with personal, intimate relationships in the work place. While basic information, this advice found itself squarely in the middle of the book - past the point I would expect such obvious advice.

Soonish

One of the web comics I read daily is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, or SMBC for short. The author covers many random topics, in a Farside-esque way. There are no recurring charecters, which means the comics is about the topic at hand, not the charecters. Many times, the topic is science, either present or future technology.

The cartoonist of SMBC, Zach Weinersmith, collaborated with his wife, Kelly Weinersmith, to reasearch and present many different technological breakthroughs that could transform our world, how it’s important, and discuss current research that is ongoing in the field. It is hard to say if space elevators are coming soon, but the book does give an impression behind the challenges of this and other technologies.

The Pagan Lord

Another book from the Saxon series and a book that inspired the show “The Last Kingdom’. In this, the 7th book in the series, the tale returns to the lands in Northern England, Northumbria, and the fortress that is the main charecter’s birth rite, Bebbanburg. Here, we get a picture of the lands around Bebbanburg at the time of the early 10th century, which has changed some in the last thousand years.

The Power of a Positive Team

After starting a book club at work, we choose the topic of positivity. We landed on this book by Jon Gordon, a prolific writer on positivity. I’ve previously read 2 other books by Jon Gordon, The Energy Bus and The Power of a Positive Team.

This book reads as a greatest hits from Jon Gordon’s other books, but aimed at how a team needs positivity as a base for their culture. This book contains a number of practice advice on establishing a positive culture, such as implementing the no complaining rule - any complaint must be accompany by a potential solution. However, this book lacks a scientific approach, settling to make statements on positivity and stating that the “research is clear”, with no reference to the research in question.

The 5 Levels of Leadership

John C. Maxwell is a prolific writer. This was the 5th book I read from him, and certainly won’t be the last. But from my small sampling of his 17+ books, I would consider The 5 Levels of Leadership his magnum opus.

The 5 Levels of Leadership captures the author’s philosophy of leadership and provides a structure for moving up the levels of leadership as he defines it.

All leaders start out with Positional Leadership, the leadership our rank provides us. At this level, people follow because they have no other choice. The second level, people follow because they want to… because they have granted the leader Permission to lead. At the third level, people are attracted to the leader because of the results they have Produced and they want to follow someone who makes things happen. At the fourth level, the leader Develops People, encouraging them to follow the leader even further. Finally, at the Pinnacle, fifth level, the leader raises up other level 5 leaders and people follow because of what the leader represents.

Beyond giving practical adviceand tips for moving to the higher levels, John shared the story of his first leadership position that has stuck with me. In his tweenties, John became pastor at a small church in Hillham, Indiana. Here, he came in as the leader of the church, with positional authority, but came to learn that others had the leadership of the church because of the relationships and results they produced. Hillham was where John refined many of his thoughts on leadership where he learned a lot about it. In my darker moments, I think back to Hillham and strive to make the place where I am today my own Hillham, my own leadership learning and proving grounds.

The Empty Throne

The 8th book in the Saxon series, this formulates a fictional story around the historical fact that Mercia was ruled by Lady AEflaed, who was King Alfred’s daughter.

The Warriors of the Storm

The 9th book in the Saxon series, we finally branch out to Ireland. From this book, I learned about some of hte history and politics of Ireland in the 9th and 10th century.

The Flame Bearer

The 10th book in the Saxon series, I learned of the story of the Anglo-Saxons who originally conquered Bebbanburg around the 6th century. This book retells the myth of Ida the Flamebearer, who was feared by the natives and England and conquered the rock that Bebbanburg now stands on.

The Sayings of the Buddha: Reflections for Every Day

As part of my mindfulness practice, I’ve been making efforts to learn more about meditation. SOme of the masters of mindfulness come from the Buddhist traditions. This book was one of my daily devotionals for the year, and I would read 1 page each day before meditating. This book provided tremendous insight into the Buddhist view of the world, but also helped give me a focus for my daily meditation.

Clyde

A comic book my son and wife read, this is from the artist who brought the world “Happy Bunny” (he wasn’t really happy). This book asks the question, is it better to be a good bad guy or a bad good guy? Meaning, is it better to be a bad person who’s good at being bad, or a good person who’s bad at being good, but at least tries?

Man Up!

Another daily devotional, this book covers a lot of basic and advanced skills that each man should know, such as some simple cooking recipes, how to change a tire, and how to quit your job.

The Infinite Game

There are 2 types of games in the world, finite games with a clear ending and infinite games that continue so long as there are players engaged in the game. Most of what we consider games are finite games. In games like chess, there are clear winning conditions for declaring the winner of a game, most notably when a player’s king will be taken in the next move by the opponent regardless of what move the player attempts - or check-mate.

Infinite games occur all around us. They are prevelent in every day life. You may be engaged in an infinite game as you read these words are aren’t even aware of it. What’s truly mind-boggling is that we use game terminology to describe what we do, yet we don’t consider the nature of the game we are playing.

Whether we are runing a business, being a parent, or managing a career, we engage in games where the goal is to continue to play. Yet, we treat these as if we can ‘win’ business, parenting, or our career. How many businesses have you encountered in person, or observed their marketing where it is clear they are competing against other companies to dominate and win? How many mothers or fathers have you seen on social media who show off or brag how they are ‘winning’ at parenting? Or actors who claim they are ‘winning’ at life?

The crux of ‘The Infinite Game’ is that it’s detrimental to approach infinite games with a finite mindset. By doing so, we make short-sighted decisions to win ‘now, while sacrificiing future benefits that may keep us in the game longer. Businesses do this by laying off workers or cutting Research and Development budgets to meet annual targets to ‘win’ this year, but this makes it harder for the company to compete in the future with less people, a compromised culture, or fewer new products to enter the market.

The Curse of Oak Island

In 1795, as the legend goes, 3 boys found a patch of dirt sunken in on an Island off of Nova Scotia called Oak Island. Above the circular patch was a wooden pulley. The boys decided to dig, thinking that treasure was buried at the spot. At 10 feet down, they found a platform of wooden timbers. After removing the timbers, they dug further, finding another row of timbers 10 more feet down. The trend continued until they reached a depth of around 100 feet, when a flood tunnel was triggered, filling the hole with salt water and effectively halting their efforts. Since then, numerous people have been searching for the treasure in the “Money Pit”, thinking they are smarter and better equiped than those before them. This book retells the 200+ year history of the search, many of the leading theories of who buried the treasure, and discusses the current efforts, which are captured in the History Channel show of the same name.

Dungeons & Dragons: Monsters and Creatures

This is a Schoolastic book my wife picked up for me at a book fair. It discusses various creatures within the world of Dungeons and Dragons and how to defeat them.

Dungeons & Dragons: The Living Dead

This novel, set in a Dungeons and Dragons setting, follows a typical story that one might see in a Dungeons and Dragons setting - Zombies, treasures, and engagements. This was a little read with Elves, Halflings, Wizards and Bards that helped me understand how Bards work in Dungeons and Dragons better.

The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron

This Star Wars canon book dives into the bakstory of everyone’s least favorite charecter from the Last Jedi, Rose Tico. In this book, we learn of her close ties to her sister, that her home world was overrun by the First Order, and we learn more about the Star Fortress bombers. An ok book leads up to a ‘meh’ moie.

Shakespeare’s guide to Parenting

Using quotes from may of William Shakespeare’s plays, this book provides tongue-in-check parenting advice, such as asking children who talk back with the quote “What have I done that thou darest wag thy tongue in noise so rude against me? - Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4.

The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History

This book covers the period of history shortly before the fall of Rome and through the middle ages, showing how borders changed and populations moved through the time period. Of interesting note is to see how some of the Germanic tribes migrated after the fall of Rome. The Angles and Saxons invaded Britain and ruled England (Angland) as “Anglo-Saxons” untill 1066 Norman Invasion. The Lombards settled in Northern Italy and give name to the Lombardy province in Italy.

Calvin and Hobbes

This Christmas, I finally completed my Calvin and Hobbes book collection. As such, I deided to start through the series from the beginning. With beautiful art work, an imaginative child, and a witty best

Something Under the Bed is Drooling

The second in the Calvin and Hobbes series, the author Bill Waterson begins to hit his stride with Calvin. The artwork is still a little off from the later years, but the spirit, wit, and philosophical subjects start to shine. Of particular note is Calvin’s experience of finding an injured little racoon. His parents put it in a shoebox to keep it warm, but it dies overnight, leaving Calvin to contemplate life and death, with his mom stating that “we don’t really understand it, but there are many things we don’t understand, and we just have to do the best we can with the knowledge we have.”

Yukon Ho!

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. My parents had every book, and I would spend every summer reading through the entire series. As an adult, I’ve bee building up my own book collection, and added this one recently.

What I read in 2019 - Part 1

Warren Buffett, in a recent article, gave away his number one secret to success: go to bed smarter each day. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are each pivotal leaders, but they also spend a good amount of reading. If these 2 men can carve out time to read, surely I had no excuse to not read more.

Last year, I read 27 books. While this was the first year I kept track of every book I read, it was far more books than I had ever read in a year (excepting that one summer I fell in love with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series). This year, I set out to read 36 books in a year, or 3 books a month. A full 9 books more is a lofty goal, one that I had accomplished by September 2019. In all, I read 52 books - 1 book a week. This greatly surpassed my target and surprised even me.

As this list is nearly twice as many books as 2018, I decided to split this into 2 parts, starting with the books I read from January to about June.

While I read some of these books for fun, many I read to learn something, and most taught me something, whether I was looking for it or not.

Ghosts of Darke County II

My family hails from western Ohion, and many still call Darke County home. I read this book for fun, but learned that given a niche enough subject, you can publish a book regardless of your story telling abilities.

1177 BC

The ancient Mediterranean was far more cosmopolotian than we might expect. Merchants and artisans worked with the major empires and culture centers of the 1300s and 1200s BC. But around 1177 BC, this trade network collapsed. THe Minoan and Mycenean cultures in Greece declined, then disappeared. Asia minor, the Levant, and the Middle East also sufferred similar fates. Egypt was the only major power to survive, though it declined greatly.

While outside forces such as the elusive ‘Sea Peoples’ destroyed cities and caused havoc, this collapse is the first recorded systems collapse in history. We can document the trade before 1177 and see that the interdependence on trade grew, became brittle, and small changes such as invasions, delay in trade ships, and the removal of parts of the system caused a domino effect that brought the entire system down.

When we build software systems, are they robust enough to avoid an entire system collapse Or, are they brittle and so interdependent that a failure in one system cascades to others?

Magic of Impromptu Speaking

I picked up this e-book for free from Amazon Prime. It was brief, but offerred some good advice on speaking in impromptu situations. It demistified impromptu speaking by suggesting that speakers in these sitatuions are prepared with stories that they can use in multiple situations.

The Oz Principle

All of the leaders at my company were asked to read the Oz Principle. The book talks of taking persona accountability. If you see a problem, own it, solve it, and fix it. It gives many examples of this, including a story of a truck driver delivering technology company Teradata’s first data warehouse hardware to a client. When he had his truck weighed at a weigh station, it was overweight by 500 lbs. In order to meet the delivery deadline, he lost as much extra weight he could spare, stashing it in the woods near a rest station so he could meet the weight.

Having worked for Teradata, it was odd to hear a story such as this that was not used internally to bolster its own culture. As leaders, we need to look to our organization’s past to remind us of the culture we stand for.

Joy, Inc.

Joy, Inc. is written by the founder of Menlo Innovations, a software consulting firm that trives on joy in the workplace. By using eXtreme Programming (including pair programming) and a reconfigurable workspace, Menlo Innovations attracts hard workers, delivers amazing products, and has a work environment that people enjoy.

How to be a Productivity Ninja

My wife picked this book up for me for Christmas and I was intriqued by the title. This book rehashed a number of productivity ideas I’ve encountered in other books, while turning a few into their own idea. The most interesting idea that I came away from this book was that in knowledge work, we operate in 2 modes: boss mode and worker mode. In boss mode, we make decisions and organize the work. In worker mode, we focus on execution. It’s critical for us to delineate these 2 types of work and avoid switching between the modes more often then necessary.

The 5 Love Languages

A co-worker recomended this book years ago. I finally decided to give it a read, as I suspected that my wife and I were speaking 2 separate languages. This book helped me build my vocabulary in the different love languages so I could better communicate with my wife.

Good to Great

I read (ok listened to) this book to fill a gap in my education. This is a classic business book, referenced in numberous other titles, yet I had never actually read it. The audio book was read by the author himself, which turned out fantastic in this case. It felt very conversational, and he broke from the book time-to-time to add additional information, anecdotes, or explannation.

There were numerous key take-aways from this book, which is to be expected from a book that is referenced often. One that sticks out to me is the groundhog principle - the idea that you should do one thing very well. The advice is directed at businesses, but I can see it applying to individuals as well.

Developing the Leader Within You

One of the many books by John C. Maxwell, Developing the leader within you discusses the author’s view on leadership (it is influence and inspiring/motivating others to action to accomplish a vision) and how it differs from management (which is about ensuring work gets done by more direct means). If you are a fan of John C. Maxwell, you will enjoy this book. But, if you only want to read one book from John C. Maxwell, you are better off looking to some of his other titles.

10% Happier

In the world of meditation, this book kept popping up. The author, a national journalist and TV anchor, talked of his journey to adobt a mindfulness practice of daily meditation. With recounted tales of many discussions with gurus, the author talks of the real struggles of trying to match up mindfulness with the American drive to achieve. But through mindfulness, the author stated he feels 10% happier than without it. After reading other books on mindfulness, it was refreshing to read someone’s first hand account and realize I’m encoutering many of the same struggles.

The Fearless Organization

I’ve found myself studying the concept of Psychological Safety quite a bit in the last year. Psychological Safety exists when you are free to speak your mind without fear of reprucussions. Nurses feel psychologically safe when they can ask a doctor if they intend to leave out a commonly prescribed medication. If they fear ridicule or retribution for broaching the subject, then many things will go unsaid. By asking, the doctor can explain the reasoning or make a life-saving correction. Either the nurse gets better of the patient is better taken care of because the nurse felt psychologically safe to speak up.

We must be careful that by addressing a problem head-on, we still do so in a healthy way Psychological Safety does not give anyone free reign to be a jerk or disregard other people’s feelings.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

This is a classic written by Dale Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Institute, in the first half of the 20th century. This is the original self-help book, which discusses how to influence people. Be careful not to criticize is one piece of advice. Despite it’s popularity over the years, it’s a struggle to read for a modern reader. The advice is sound, and it holds up well, but the writing style and examples feel dated.

Good Leaders ask Great Questions

This book, written and narrated by John C. Maxwell, talks through the idea that a leader should ask questions more than he or she answers them. But this book also talks about questions a leader should ask him/herself on a regular basis. From this, I crafted my own lists of questions, including:

  • When will I recharge my energy today?
  • How will I manage my attention?
  • Whar are the spotlight moments of my day - those moments where my presence will be on display?

By considering these question often, I can consider my behavior and adjust where needed.

Lord of the Rings

I last emersed myself into Tolkein’s world in college. So this year I wanted to return, seeing if I could better follow the obscure references to the larger world Tolkein created. He built such a deep world that one could spend days, weeks, months, or even years diving into the various elements of Tolkein’s world, its history, and the legends and mythos of good vs. evil he evokes in his books.

How to Break 90

In an effort to branch out, I picked up a few books at my local library to break the pattern of business books. I included in this list a couple books on golf, including this one.This book introduced a number of golf tips, but the best was to consider your personal bar to be a bogey, or one stroke over par, on every hole. If you plan for that, you set your expectations lower, but it also allows you to approach each hole with a more conservative approach. By playing it safe, you grant yourself the space necessary to better manage the course.

The Coaching Habit

This book I listened to for free from Hoopla with a public library card. Aimed at manager’s who want to approach their one-on-one’s with their direct reports from a coaching mindset. The author provides 7 questions to guide the conversation and to help coach their team member, starting with the simple “What’s on your mind?” If the conversation lulls, or there seems to be more to the situation. follow with “And what else?” The book covers good advice for someone who striggles in these situations.

The Art of the Short Game

This book on golf focussed on those shots around the green, from 100 yards out or closer. This book gave a number of great tips, but the best advie I took from this was a better unsterstanding of the charecteristics of wedges. The author also suggested picking one wedge and learning how to hit the ball various distances with that club instead of carryig lots of wedges. He still recommends 3 different wedges, the number he uses himself. As I carry 4 wedges and try to use them for different distances, it made me re-examine the clubs I keep in my own bag.

Finite and Infinite Games

Most games we play are finite games. They have agreed upon rules, clear players, and distinct winning conditions. Baseball, Basketball, Chess, and Golf are all finite games. It’s clear when these games are finished; they last a finite amount of time and end with a clear winner.

But there are games where the rules change, players join or drop out at will, with no distinct start or end. These games are called infinite games. Politics, Business, and life are all infinite games. Calvinball, played in the 90s newspaper comic “Calvin and Hobbes” by the two title charecters pitted against eachother, is another example of an infinite game. Just as one player was about to score or win, the other would change the rules, keeping the game alive. In an infinite game, the outcome is not to win, but to keep playing. Much of life we encounter is an infinite game, and we should approach it as such.

Eat that Frog

This book on productivity is named after one of many suggestions in the book, namely that one should start each day by tackling the biggest problem (aka, eating the biggest frog). That way, the day can already be seen as successful as the biggest, scariest task (aka frong) has been take care of. Everything else should be easy after tackling that task.

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Smoke and Shadow

I spent a few weeknds over the summer re-watching the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series with my son. After finishing the series, I picked up this graphic novel to see where the story continued.

Dilbert: Don’t Stand Where the Meteor is assumed to Strike Oil

Needing a break from a lot of non-fiction books, this was just a fun comic book of the world’s favorite cubicle dweller.

The Intellectual Devotional

A key of my moring routine was spending a couple minutes reading from books that I could use as daily devotionals. This one was perfectly crafted for me, teaching a different topic each day in one of seven different subjects, one subject for each day of the week for 52 weeks. There is a full series now, but this was the original, covering the widest range of topics.

A Discourse on the Impostures of Witches

Doing genealogical research one day, I came across this book by John Brinley, first published in 1680. This is a masterful reprint of the original and is a time capsule into the language, writing style, spelling, patterns, and book printing styles of the late 17th Century.

The book itself is a view into how some depict and think of witches around the time of witch trials. The author aims some of his arguments at atheists, by relying on arguments in the bible to sway the - revealing a logical loophole that might be attributable to a rhistian centric view of the world.

One Year of Daily Meditation

Today, September 29th, 2019, is a monumental day for me - it marks one full year of daily meditation. I have struggled to improve my Emotional Intelligence (EQ) for several years now, but have really made it a focus since March of 2018. Meditation has become one of the cornerstornes of my EQ improvement by giving me dedicated time to practice mindfulness each and every day.

365 Days of Meditation

What is meditation?

What is meditation? Ten years ago, meditation was seen as a mystical practice of eastern religions, chiefly Buddhism, where practioners would journey off to retreats to meditate in silence for days at a time. In the last decade, meditation has become more mainstream, with CEOs, actors, actresses, news anchors, and even sports stars declaring that meditation has become a part of their daily midfulness practice.

And meditation IS practice. At its heart, meditation is about sitting peacefully, listening to your body and environment, noting your reaction, observing your thoughts, and letting the thoughts float off as you aim to quiet your mind. A TV show becomes “meta” when it references itself. Meditation is very meta in that one uses their mind to monitor their thoughts and keep the mind silent to remain in the present moment (and not drifting off into the past or future). With the mind silenced, interesting thoughts do emerge, but meditation practice is about noting the thought and returning to peaceful silence.

Challenges

I’ve encountered many challenges in establishing my meditation practice. I’m not a ‘disciplined’ person - I struggle with setting new habits and following them - preferring to make things up as I go along. My adult life is scattered with attempts to establish new habits or routines, only to find myself back in old patterns a week or two later.

My family has also presented me with challenging opportunities to improve my mindfulness. When I first started, they would interrupt, stare, and comment how unhappy I looked while meditating. On days we were running behind schedule, I would encounter resistence when I insisted that I can’t leave until my meditation practice is complete. All of this has turned something peaceful into a source of contention. After a year, much of the contention is gone, with my family reluctantly giving me a few minutes space before rushing off to start our day.

Habit Building

With all those challenges, I needed support in establishing this new habit. Thankfully, I had an accountability partner, a software app to remind me to meditate, and another new habit to build my meditation habit off of, essentially building this habit together with another.

In February 2018, I went to a course on Emotional Intelligence administered by BlueEQ. I went with a co-worker and through that course, we were paired up to coach eachother and hold eachother accountable for the next 90 days. While our initial EQ improvements were over by summer, we still touch base on a weekly basis. Once my meditation practice was on a roll, I felt that I had to continue it, or else I would let my co-worker down.

Many years ago a website launched named calm.com. It contained a simple prompt for meditation and I enjoyed it, when I remembered to use it. They later launched a phone app, Calm, that I quickly installed on my phone. I used it for one whole week in September 2017 (thankfully it remembers for me), then about once a month until March 2018 when I started to use the app more consistenly, 4 or 5 times a week. The app reminds me to meditate daily, but it wasn’t until I had another habit to pair my meditation with that my meditation became a daily habit.

In September, I started a new habit - reading a daily devotional. This devotional uniquely appealed to me as it was titled Intellectual Devotional. This book contained a different lesson each day, so I could learn more about science, history, arts, music, philosphy, and world religions. Appealing to my intellectual curiosity, and quick and easy to read, it was easy for me to set a new habit of reading a page in this book before I started my day. By piggy-backing this with my meditation practice, I ensured both new habits were successful.

Benefits

So what has this gotten me? I’m certainly no Budha and I haven’t reached Nirvana, but my meditation practice has helped me remain calm in moments of high stress, where I otherwise would’ve reacted poorly. I still have moments where I react too quickly and express myself in a poor way emotionally, but even then, I’m better equipped to analyze the results after. I have a better idea of how my mind operates, and while I’m still working on ways to focus it on the task of meditating, I am able to pause throughout the day and find little moments to be mindful. Finally, I would say that meditation has made me about 10% happier).

Resources

There are a few resources that I would recommend to anyone wanting to start a meditation practice or who just wants to know more about mindfulness in general. As mentioned before, the app Calm is a great resource. It has several free guided meditations and there are numerous guided meditations available if you purchase a membership. (If you try it, let me know - I’ve heard good things but haven’t tried it myself).

There is also the book 10% Happer: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by news anchor Dan Harris. Dan takes us along his journey into meditation, the challenges he faced and ultimately how it makes him about 10% happier in his daily life. It’s refreshing to hear someone else’s journey, to see where it aligns with your own, and realize that we all encounter the same problems, challenges, and questions on our path.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide by Tessa Watt examines several mindfulness and meditation techniques from a clinical stand point. If you want meditation strictly from a scientific perspective, this book provides just that. It provides a number of exercises to relax, slow down, and be more aware of your surroundings.

Finally, I just picked up A Year of Living Mindfully by Anna Black recently. This book contains a different lesson and exercise for each week of the year, aimed at building up one’s ability to pause, take stock of one’s surroundings, feelings, and thoughts, and better understand the relationship between them.

Conclusion

Establishing a new habit is not easy. With meditation, I’ve tried and failed on several occassions before. But, for a habit that make me feel better, react better, be more emotionally intelligent, to help me wrestle with my emotions, and to slow down to enjoy a few moments of peace before a crazy day, the struggle was worth it. I may have completed an entire year of daily meditation, but I have an entire lifetime of meditation still ahead of me.

Joys, Problems, and Jokes Retrospective

Sometimes, we let problems go on for so long that we stop seeing them as problems we can solve. Instead of hoping we cn fix the problem, we joke about it. The problem becomes an inside joke, repeated or heckled frequently until the joke itself becomes ingrained in the culture.

A few years ago, my wife and I moved from a condo to a larger house. Some house chores take much longer in a larger house, like vacuuming. Whenever my wife would get ready to vacuum, she whould joke “Get a bigger house he said. It’ll be fun he said.” Vacuuming had transitioned from a problem into a joke.

Jokes get old though. And finally tiring of the joke, I resolved to fix it by buying a Roomba. Now I have other problems, like getting someone other than me to run Roomba, but my wife and I don’t repeat the old joke.

Taking this lesson, I crafted a retrospective exercise. This is designed to surface those large, systemic problems by asking the team to consider what they joke about. I ran this retro recently and the team seemed to enjoy it. Try it out and let me know how it goes.

Joys, Problems, and Jokes

Supplies Needed

  • Post-Its
  • Markers
  • Dry Earase board or Poster sized Post-It
  • Dry Erase Markers

Setup

Distribute Post-Its and Markers and write on the Dry Erase Board or Giant Poster the 3 words Joys, Problems, and Jokes as a header to 3 different columns. Reserve some space on the board for Action Items

Introduce the 3 sections to the team by describing the joys as the positive things that happened in the last timebox (sprint, iteration, PI, etc.), the problems as those struggles that arose in the same timebox, and the jokes as the problems that are so long running that we now joke about them. Feel free to use my example or use one from your life or work to make it personal.

Running the Retro

Give the team members about 5 minutes to jot down 1 idea per Post-It. When done, ask them to post their items on the board in the appropriate section.

You can use dot-voting if you have more Post-Its than time allows you to discuss.

Then invite the team to discuss each of the items and bring the conversation back to look for actionable improvements when the conversation strays.

Don’t forget to capture the action items as the team discusses them. Ensure the team agrees to the action items and ensure each item has an owner before concluding the retro.

While tackling the Jokes, solutions may be harder to come by. There’s a reason the team and the organization jokes about these problems - they are likely hard to solve and others may have tried in the past. Ask what we’ve done before so we can consider lessons learned. If the team gets stuck on solutions, ask how they can make things just a little bit better, so things aren’t nearly as painful.

Sprint Goal or Sprinkle?

I have a confession to make. For many years, I worked with teams where we never set a sprint goal. This was just not part of my initial Scrum training (from my Scrum Master/QA Engineer who had been a part-time Scrum Master for 4 months). While my teams didn’t define a sprint goal, they still delivered value. But still, something was missing. We were missing a connection to a larger purpose. We were missing a singular focus. We were missing the raison d’etre for the sprint.

With a well-crafted sprint goal, the team has a singular focus. While crafting the goal, the team takes a moment away from the tactical, day-to-day development and delivery of software and have an opportunity to connect the tactical items defined in the user stories back to the overall vision and direction for the product being built.

A sprint goal is one, singular statement that defines what the team will work towards during the sprint. It is one logical thing, and one thing only. The sprint goal becomes the most important thing to accomplish. It is outcome driven - stating the outcome we hope to achieve in the sprint, not the tasks that we hope to complete. If the team is faced with prioritization questions during the execution of the sprint, they should first ask which item is necessary for the sprint goal.

As with most things in life, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination. Crafting a sprint goal to set a team’s singular focus might be hard. Good! It should be hard, because by choosing our focus, we must discuss trade-offs. By focusing on one thing, that means we may not achieve this other thing over on the side. As the team discusses what the focus is and isn’t, they practice the hard decisions they may need to make later in the sprint when the sprint goal begins to slip out of their reach.

I’ve seen some teams treat sprint goals as a list of outcomes the team hopes to achieve. They treat the sprint goal as ‘sprinkles’, an after thought garnish to the team’s planning process that scatters the team’s focus. Take a moment and say the phrase ‘sprint goal’ as fast as you can 10 times. What did you hear? I hear the word ‘sprinkle’, and that’s exactly what you get when you rush through the creation of a sprint goal.

Example

Let’s dive into an example of what a decent sprint goal looks like, a good sprint goal, and a ‘sprinkle’.

For our example, let’s say we are building an online bookstore. The site is functional, but we are overhauling some elements of the site, including the search functionality so that we serve up more accurate results. The team chooses the following stories for their sprint, in priority order:

  • Search on Book Title
  • Search on Author
  • Search on Description
  • Bug Fix: Correct Book Review display issue when reviewe leaves 0 stars
  • Allow user to report offensive Book Review
  • Allow user to view list of all of their reviews
  • Allow user to edit a review

A Decent Sprint Goal

Complete Book Search Feature

This is ok, but it is output focus (complete the task), and not outcome focused (what value we are delivering). This Sprint Goal is better than a ‘sprinkle’, and does tell the team where their focus is, but it doesn’t connect back to the vision of the product.

A Good Sprint Goal

Enable shoppers to search for a book so that they find a book to click on on the first page of results 80% of the time

This goal does not call out specific stories, but it is specific about our aim - we want accurate results delivered and have included our measure for success.

A ‘Sprinkle’

Complete the following items in the sprint

  • Search functionality delivered
  • Fix Book review display issue
  • Begin Book review enhancements

What is wrong with this sprint goal? First, it avoids any hard decisions. In fact, were there any decisions made when the team crafted this sprint goal?

Second, there are 3 focuses here, not 1. This team will find itself split on 3 different areas throughout the sprint. They will likely start all 3 sprint goals on day 1 of the sprint and keep a scattered focus throughout.

Finally, this sprint goal is essentially a copy of the sprint backlog, only summarizing a few stories into a couple of bullet points. If most ofthe information is already captured in the sprint backlog, what value does the sprint goal have?

Conclusion

Sprint Goals, when used well, are a powerful tool to bring a team together. It forces tough conversations. It reminds us of our overall purpose and direction. It gives us a target beyond ‘complete this story, move on to the next’. Sprint goals should not be sprinkled onto a team’s process as an afterthought or written such that a team’s focus is sprinkled around the backlog. It should be a singular, well crated goal that drives the team forward.

Capital Expenses vs Operational Expenses

In Agile Software Development, there’s a general fear of talking of costs. Costs are something that leads to budgets, which leads to planning, which leads to big, up-front planning, which leads us to waterfalls. But costs don’t have to follow this pattern, if we truly talk of recording costs after they have incurred and take a lean/agile approach to projects.

Tracking costs lets us know how much we spent on an effort. By pairing this with the lift in revenue or cost savings the effort lead to, we have an idea on what our return on investment (ROI) is. Teams may also fear calculating an ROI, thinking that if an effort did not have a positive ROI, then they did a poor job. This is a symptom of a lack of psychological safety, which is a much bigger problem. But that’s a topic for another time.

Tracking cost is can be tracked 1 of 2 ways: by calculating a team’s cost per story point and extrapolating costs from there, or by tracking the team’s time and account for the team’s individual costs. The first approach is unobtrusive, but requires careful calculations and makes many assumptions. One assumption is that team members are 100% dedicated to their team and 100% of their effort goes to the work the team is doing. This approach will give you a number that is ‘roughly right’, but will not be very precise. The second approach is obtrusive, as it requires team members to record the time spent on various tasks (depending on how granular you go), but will give you a more prescise cost.

Besides calculating a Return on Investment, the biggest reason to track cost is to determine a team’s capitalizable expenses. In accounting, a capitalized expense is the expense invested to build or acquire an asset. If I start a business and build a storefront, that store is an asset. The materials that went into building the store would be capitalizable, as well as the labor costs to construct it. However, once built, the electricity and other utility costs would be operational expenses and would be realized as expenses on the budget as they occur. A capitalized expense, on the other hand, is recognized over a period of time - a time span equal to the usefullness of the asset. For a storefront, that may be 10 years or more, where as fixtures or software will have a shorter span of usefullness, somewhere between 2 and 5 years. As the asset ‘depreciates’ or loses value, an expense is realized.

My father, who’s a banker and an accountant, described capitalizable expenses this way: in accounting, you want to recognize expenses such that they align with the revenue those expenses generate. Having a store front allows me to operate a business and earn revenue, but I must spend money in order to earn revenue from a store front. This includes the operational expenses that are on-going and the up-front costs of building the store.

Capitalizing assets and depreciating their value allows me to recognize large, asset-building expenses as I occur revenue. This provides a picture of how much it truly cost you to earn that reveue. Some expenses, like utilities, are operational expenses. But when you have an asset like a building or software you built, its usefullness decreases over time. The building needs repairs. The software becomes dated. That’s another reason these assets are depreciated over their useful life span: at some point, additional expense will need to be made to update the asset. The software will need to be upgraded, or the store front remodeled to fix wear-and-tear and to stay up-to-date with modern trends.

To know if I am TRULY running a profitable business, I need to consider if I am making more money than both my operational expenses AND my capitalizable expenses. If I spend $1 million to build a store front, have monthly operational expenses of $1,000, and make $2,000 a month, it might appear that I am making a profit. But in reality, it will take me 83 years at that pace to make back the initial investment into the store front - and I will need to repair it frequently over those 83 years! By capturing the capitalizable expenses, I can get a better picture of the businesses profitablity.

It’s for this reason that so much effort goes into tracking capitalized software costs. If I spend $3 million this year on 2 different software projects each, and one is an operational expense and the other capitalized, I will incur a $3 million expense this year for the operational expense. For the capitalized project, I may not occur ANY expense this year if the software hasn’t been released yet. But, once it has been released, I will incur a $1 million expense each year, capturing the depreciation of the value of the software (assuming a usefulness of 3 years for the software).

This is an over-simplified example - with software, there are some activities, like planning, that won’t be capitalized. But by understanding how the accounting works for software, we can see why capturing our costs is important.

Don't Forget your GMO's

Scrum introduced the concept of Spring Goals - an outcome the team aims to accomplish by the end of the sprint. Rally, aka CA Agile utilizies ‘Milestones’ as the key deliverables or decision points in a project and is a term familiar to Project planners. Scaled Agile introduced the idea of Objectives for a team’s Program Increment, or a series of sprints.

Whether you prefer or use goals, milestones, or objectives, these GMOs play a critical role in a team’s success. A goal, milestone, or objective (GMO) gives a team focus, a rallying cry, an item to circle around as the team develops a solution and writes code. When crafted by the team, a GMO provides an additional connection to the work. It also helps leadership gauge if the team understands the work and the value it provides.

A GMO benefits stakeholders too. When crafted in language both stakeholders and teams understand, it brings both groups together. Using language that only 1 group understands builds walls, not bridges. It also gives stakeholders an idea of when work will be delivered, so that they can make plans based on when a deliverable is met. This might include training, marketing material, or the launch of a business initiative. Whatever the activity, having an idea of when the GMO will be delivered aids in business planning.

In crafting a GMO, there are 3 important things to keep in mind. First, the GMO should be SMART. That is, the GMO should be Specific - providing enough details as necessary. It should be Measurable - we could measure the GMO to guage success (and a yes/no answer is measurable). A is Achievable - it’s something that the team has the skills and everything necessary to accomplish it. R is Relevant - that is it is something desirable that the business and stakeholders want. Finally, T is Time-bound (or time-based). That is, the goal is achievable within a certain timebox and it has a rough date for accomplishment in mind.

Second, a GMO should be written so that all parties can understand what it is. It should be written so that business stakeholders understand the value the GMO will provide. It should avoid all jargon, including business jargon. Everyone who interacts with the GMO should understand it - including the development team. This will require the technical team to understand the domain their software operates in. That is, they must understand the business well so they know the terminology in use, the concepts behind it, how they connect, and the processes behind the concepts.

Finally, and most importantly, a GMO should not be so constrictive that there is only 1 way to achieve it. If there is only 1 way to accomplish the GMO, how agile can the team be when it receives feedback that the direction they are going won’t work or won’t be suitable for for the customer in its current configuration? A GMO so specific that the team is boxed in ceases to be an agile goal, objective, or milestone.

Regardless of what framework you use to develop software, a Goal, Objective, or Milestone plays an important role in developing software. It benefits the development team, leaders, stakeholders, and customers. It provides a focal point for efforts. It ensures groups are aligned on deliverables and purpose. It brings people together through a common language to a common purpose. And when crafted well, it aids in a team’s maturity; crafted poorly, and it will detract from their ability to respond to change.

So unlike GMOs found in food, we should all make certain we include these GMOs in our agile practice.

Three attributes of a great team

Great teams don’t form by accident. They take work to form, pulling individuals together so that the team truly is greater than the sum of its parts. The best teams I worked with had 3 things in common: a unifying vision of who the team is, trust, and a big, hairy, audacious goal.

Unifying Vision

Before a team can form, there must be some reason for the team to exist in the first place. For a sports team, such as a baseball team, the game itself can bring the team together; 18 individuals can’t play baseball by themselves. A good coach will provide a more detailed vision: we’re going to be a team focussed on great fielding, or all-start pitching, or powerhouse offense. This focus gives charecter to the team and gives it an identity that it can rally around.

Trust

Trust is essential among team members. Patrick Lencioni labels lack of trust as the first dysfunction of a team. Trust is essential for a team to accomplish amazing results. How can a team accomplish greatness if team members don’t trust that another teammate will do what they say they will do? If there is a lack of trust, team members will question eachother’s motives and time is wasted on infighting instead of getting results.

Trust is not an easy thing to develop. “Trust falls” and other team building activities may build a small amount of trust, but there is no cure for lack of trust other than time. “Time heals all wounds”, but if used intentionally, it also builds trust as small committments are accomplished each day to build trust up slowly.

Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG)

In “Built to Last”, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined the term “Big Hairy, Audacious Goal”, or BHAG for short, as a goal that is a mid to long-term goal that is worthwhile, yet lies just out of reach. For a team, a BHAG is only achievable when everyone is working together. It’s such a large goal that no one person could accomplish it on their own. Only through team work and hard efforts can the goal be achieved.

In sports, this may look like a coach rallying his team of underdogs to a championship, taking on impossible odds, and still ending up on top. I’m reminded of my Cincinnati Reds and the 1990 season where they went wire to wire, advanced to the National League pennant, then were faced with the Oakland A’s and their ‘Dynasty’ in the World Series. The Reds werethe underdogs in the series, but the crappy team with ‘Da Nasty’ boys in the bullpen swept the Oakland A’s 4 games to 0.

A BHAG may sound ridiculous, like the underdogs sweeping the opposing team. It may seem impossible. But in my career, the best teams I’ve coached were forged in the fire of battling a BHAG. By overcoming adversity and accomplishing the seemingly impossible, anything else thrown at the team felt like a walk in the park. In such a battle, trust will be required, but if the team consists of the right people, they will deliver and build trust at a phenomonal rate. And it’s teams like these that we look back on and marvel at all that we were able to accomplish together.