Mike Ashley

2019 End of Year Booklist

2019 was a good year for reading. I largely abandoned reading online, and my linklog shows it. In a patterns similar to 2018, work was abundant, and I didn’t spend much time on hobbies. Reading filled the buffer of free time as it came and went.

I limited management reading this year, trying to consolidate what I had learned last year and get grounded with the Miami development center. I relocated to Miami in the fourth quarter and picked up books on appreciation and feedback, examining some gaps in my leadership style exposed by the site change. Neither book is strong, but I found the practical direction a useful starting point.

My goal for 2020 is to read harder books with meatier themes. I reread On Grand Strategy late this year and got more out of it, but it’s still tough. That led me to Adler’s How to Read a Book, and I wish I had read this when starting college. Now I have a reading list built from the great books.

Fiction this year was a mixed bag. I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time since high school. There is more depth and nuance to the book than I remembered and reading it helped purge the movies as my recollection of the story. The other books were fun pulp.

Nonfiction

Fiction

Posted December 27, 2019 • permalink

2018 End of Year Booklist

2018 was my biggest year reading in several years because I made time for it. Judging by linklog posts, I spent about the same about of time as 2017 in reading online. I spent less time on hobbies. I used reading as buffer that I could dial up or down depending on workload and family commitments, both of which I rightly figured would be unpredictable this year. As usual, I’m only including the books I read that I recommend. I dropped just a few; it was a fortunate year reading.

I was busy in fourth quarter with work-related reading. I began managing a second development center at work, and I need to scale up my management. The book High Output Management was easily the most relevant book I read this year. I came to it after reading Measure What Matters and then, on a whim, rereading the The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I first read Horowitz’s book in 2014. I was surprised to see I was down on it, but a couple of years experience in higher management has changed my perspective. Both books pointed me at High Output Management, and I highly recommend it to senior managers.

Also related to work, I recommend The Phoenix Project to any technical manager who is trying to sell cloud-based services in an organization whose business model is based on designing, building, and shipping physical things. The book is grounded in lean production principles (from which we all know Agile is derived), so it will give you vocabulary and metaphors which are meaningful to your colleagues.

The rest of my nonfiction list is all over the place. Click on a few links and see what you like. On Grand Strategy is academic and a difficult read but worth the energy at least for the first half of the book.

For fiction, Cloud Atlas was also a difficult read but worth the effort. The Remains of the Day is beautiful and poetic. I’m in awe of the mood that Ishiguro can evoke between the sentences and paragraphs of his writing. It is writing at the opposite extreme of Grove. Where Grove teaches KPIs and MBOs and management discipline, Ishiguro teaches humanity in a life of compounding mistakes and individual discipline. I do not think I could have appreciated this book at 30 years old or even 40 years old.

Nonfiction

Fiction

Posted December 25, 2018 • permalink

Management Bookshelf

I’ve read many management books over the years. Some were bad, and some were good. I read High Output Management by Andy Grove and discovered that this one book captures almost every important aspect of managing R&D organizations. What other authors cover in whole books, Grove covers in just pages.

If you read only one book, read High Output Management. From there you can explore topics in detail if you want.

Measure What Matters
Goes into more depth on Chapter 6, "Planning: Today's Actions for Tomorrow's Output."
Leadership and the One Minute Manager
Goes into more depth on Chapters 11: "The Sports Analogy" and 12: "Task-Relevant Maturity." This is also called </i>situational leadership</i>, and Danaher offers training on this.

Chapter 4: “Meetings – The Medium of Managerial Work” and Chapter 5: “Decisions, Decisions” are so core to managerial leverage that I have two books to recommend on how teams can communicate and make decisions effectively.

The book Crucial Conversations covers difficult discussions whether they occur in meetings (Chapters 4-5), performance reviews (Chapter 13), or the dreaded “I quit” (Chapter 14). Danaher offers training on crucial conversations.

The last book I recommend is The Innovator’s DNA. Grove doesn’t explicitly address innovation in High Output Management. However, the core tools you need are there: the one-on-one meeting and management-by-objective (MBO). I’ll be the first to say my organization could use better KPIs and standard work that make space for innovators.

Posted December 25, 2018 • permalink

2017 End of Year Booklist

2017 was light on reading compared to the last couple of years. This year I tried beekeeping. I also tried HAM radio and small electronics projects. I spent a lot of time reading about these topics online. You can see my linklog for references.

Outside of beekeeping references, nonfiction didn’t have a big impact on my day-to-day life this year. I read Hamilton’s biography, and the lesson I’m learning as I read more biographies of great people is that persistence, hard work, and “showing up” has as much to do with success as intelligence. Antifragile was a letdown: a lot of theory and what good looks like, but not much on how to build antifragile systems. Antifragile people organizations certainly interest me though.

Fiction choices wandered straight into science fiction and fantasy. They were entertaining stories and had their messages. The Forever War is commentary on America’s war in Viet Nam. The Broken Earth Trilogy deals with race, family, and community. Both are sending me in other directions. Hue 1968 and The Remains of the Day are at the top of the list. I’m still looking at other Hugo winners to see if I can find something really great.

Nonfiction

Fiction

Posted January 01, 2018 • permalink

Spring 2017

A lot has happened this spring. At work we launched in February and shipped in April the Biomek i-Series liquid handling robots. This program was a major update to our hardware platform. It’s a complex product with many parts, so I am busy working with my team to stabilize production and support early customer installs.

I’m keeping bees this year for the first time. This has expanded into remote sensor monitoring with custom-designed and -built electronics. I’ve also been investigating how to send data back home while staying off the grid. To that end, I picked up my general class amateur radio license (call sign KD9IQK) in May to investigate using digital modes (APRS perhaps). This is quite a lot to tackle and has turned into a program that will take me months to complete. My goal is a working system next spring with at least one of my two hives surviving the next winter.

Finally, while pedestrian, I’ve been spending time this spring on house maintenance. The i-Series program was arduous, and the last four quarters were especially tough. The house shows the lack of upkeep, and I’ve been attending to repairs and landscaping work.

Posted June 08, 2017 • permalink

2016 End of Year Booklist

2016 was a pretty good year for reading. I had long hours at work but found the time to read edited books by reducing the online reading. (You can see this reflected in my linklog this year.) As in 2014 and 2015, I’ll force-rank my lists, and I omitted the stinkers.

I ranked the nonfiction by impact on my day-to-day life. Books that helped me be a better R&D manager topped the list. Skunk Works surprised me by reinforcing some of the management practices I use already but in a different industry and context. I read Private Empire in response to Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State and afterwards found myself agreeing that Tillerson is a good choice. The Buzz About Bees is worth reading for the science and especially the photography. The pictures convey the behavior and the beauty of bees in a way I’ve never seen before. All of the books in this list are quite good.

I surprised myself ranking The Marriage Plot ahead of the The Sun Also Rises. I have college-aged daughters, and Eugenides captures that phase of life where school is ending and the next, unclear steps are ahead of you. I discovered that the movie Fight Club reflects the style of the book, but the book has a few more twists and details. You will like the book if you liked the movie.

Nonfiction

Fiction

Posted January 02, 2017 • permalink

GitHub

I’ve been contributing to the Sovereign project which is hosted on GitHub. I was an early user of GitHub but deleted my account in 2014 as part of rejecting Web 2.0 social networking. I had to rejoin to contribute fixes to Sovereign. I still don’t like GitHub, but I’m learning how to give up as little content as possible to it.

First of all, I love git. It’s one of the most profound collaboration tools ever invented. It’s made an enormous, positive impact on the way I work for myself and with others. Building is an evolutionary process with false starts and eventual victories. Git helps you communicate this process in logical steps that makes it easier for the audience to understand how you got from point A to point B. Finally, since it is distributed, there is no central control of content. Everybody has a full copy.

GitHub’s design discourages habits that make git powerful for development. Pull request and issue tracking workflows are the worst offenders.

Pull request workflow

GitHub’s pull request workflow invites users to document changes on GitHub instead of with commit logs and documentation in the repository. Later, if a developer not using GitHub looks at a series of changes, it can be difficult to understand why changes were made and what tradeoffs were considered.

This especially hurts open source software projects. Maintenance is neither a glamorous nor easy job, and poor documentation of why changes are made doesn’t help developers. Also, open source projects often suffer from design incoherency, and again, not documenting why features are designed the way they are, in the repository, doesn’t help future developers.

This is the easiest to get right. Developers need to document their changes with good commit messages and write basic design documents that are kept with the repository. GitHub hurts this by providing another means for documenting changes. Maintainers must expect and enforce discipline if they want their project history to be robust.

Issue tracking

Issues need discussion in order to disposition them,and these discussions are valuable. They uncover design misses, hidden design intent, subtle implementation errors, and more. It’s frustrating that issues are kept in separate databases. GitHub is not a unique offender. Bugzilla, Trac, Jira…they all have this problem.

I am not advocating for issues to be tracked in git although it’s interesting to think about possible designs. There are too many requirements for issue tracking systems where I don’t think keeping the issues with the git repository makes sense.

The only reasonable way I can see to handle this is that the developer addressing an issue must take responsibility for consolidating the discussion around an issue and making sure the essence is captured in commit logs and design documentation when the issue is addressed. Again, GitHub hurts this by making it all too easy for a developer to reference an issue number in a commit message summary and move on. Maintainers again have to expect and enforce discipline if they want good history on their projects.

The iPhoto comparison

Fundamentally I am asking that metadata be kept with content. Eventually, metadata separate from the content will get lost, and companies use metadata as a way to lock in customers.

As an example from consumer space, iPhoto (at least older versions of it) would keep metadata separate from the pictures. If you tagged a picture or fixed a date, the data was not pushed into EXIF tags in the picture but instead stored in a separate database. Of course, if you wanted to leave iPhoto, you were faced with the problem of losing the metadata you worked hard to create. I don’t know why Apple’s engineers chose the design they did, but it made it hard to stop using iPhoto.

Project maintainers that host on GitHub and keep their metadata on GitHub instead of in the git repository are locking themselves in. Maintainers should set an expectation to avoid this, but everyone contributing to projects can take it on themselves to not reinforce it.

Posted January 02, 2016 • permalink

2015 End of Year Booklist

Here is a recap of the reading I did in 2015.

The big read this year was Infinite Jest. Most of the online reviews are correct: you have to get a few hundred pages into it before it starts to make sense. There are long passages of writing that just make no sense, and then there are long passages that are just some of the best prose I’ve ever read. I can say now I’m one of the few who have both started and finished the book.

Seveneves and The Martian are interesting to contrast with Red Mars. Red Mars is epic, mostly politics with some science thrown in. Seveneves and the Martian are almost entirely focused on the science but at different scales. Both were a pleasure to read and come at a time when I want to believe as a civilization we are starting to hunt for the next big problems to tackle. Similar books on dealing with energy consumption would be welcome.

I left several stinkers off the nonfiction list, but I guess I had to wade through them to find a couple of gems: Innovation and Entrepreneurship and The Open Organization. Drucker’s book is a good contrast to The Lean Startup. Innovation and Entrepreneurship puts these topics in the context of business overall much better than The Lean Startup and probably has just as many practical take-aways. I would read both together. The Open Organization was a good read on company culture and should have the biggest influence on how I try to affect engagement at work. I read it early in the year but need to read it again.

Here are my lists, force-ranked.

Nonfiction

Fiction

Posted December 27, 2015 • permalink

2014 End of Year Booklist

This summer I decided to read more and higher-quality writing. I reduced the time I spent reading on the Internet to maybe twenty minutes a day and set aside time to read books instead. Looking back, I am happy I did it.

I think the biggest disappointment were the business books (Horowitz, Catmull, and Brooks). They are fun stories, but the lessons that can be applied to my own work are few and far between. Contrast those books with Truman, for example, which inspired leadership and courage when making difficult decisions. I hope to read one or two more biographies in 2015.

The fiction I read was delightful. Almost all the authors on the list were new to me, and I managed to cover some diverse ground, everything from struggling marriages to fly fishing to post-apocalyptic communes. Far from being an escape, these books encouraged more creative thinking and gave me some badly-needed decompression from work.

Here are my lists force-ranked from really great to just ok. I omitted a few stinkers.

Nonfiction

Fiction

Posted December 30, 2014 • permalink

Linux Distributions

I switched my personal computer from Debian 7.7 to Ubuntu 14.04 this weekend. I ran Debian for ten months after leaving OS X, but I never got a desktop setup I was happy with.

There’s nothing wrong with Debian. I’m running it for my family cloud. Debian believes in maximizing choice and providing a distribution based on open source software. Unfortunately, it didn’t support my hardware very well (Lenovo W500), and the desktop environment was unstable. You could argue the latter was my fault. I could also argue that Debian didn’t provide enough configuration guidance, and that led to me making a mess of things. There’s only so much time I have to think about my configuration.

Isn’t making choices for you the point of a distribution? I chose Ubuntu and drunk the kool-aid: accepted defaults and recommendations and didn’t think too hard about it. The result is a nice desktop environment. I have a working desktop email client. I have music, video playback, and photo management. I have working bluetooth audio. This is along with the development and work tools I had when running under Debian. What desktop manager am I running? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

Choice in the free software world is a tough thing. As a base lien look at Apple and OS X. They’ve built a nice environments on Unix. They’ve limited choices in a few significant ways.

Apple and its developer community live in these constraints to give users a great experience. Users pay for this experience in the cost of Apple hardware and the cost of applications. Apple uses the revenue to fund more software development to keep improving.

Linux-based distributions work in a different model. Software is almost always free, and distributions rely on the open source software development community for new software and improvements to existing software. They need a very large base of developers for this to succeed.

That’s the rub. If a distribution limits choices to provide a better experience for the customer, they will also limit the development community to engineers working on software in their distribution. This leads to fragmentation and loss of critical mass to get work done. Distributions are afraid of this and don’t want to alienate their development community. Thus, I think distributions are afraid to take a stand on what a distribution is trying to accomplished and say what’s in and out of the distribution as a result.

While not user-facing, the threatened fork of Debian is a good example of what happens when a distribution wants to make a decision. I get the debate around init. It is pretty important. Choosing UI frameworks and desktop environments also have big implications. As a user, though, I don’t really care. I want someone to make a decision and then show me what my choices are in the sandbox they’ve put me. If I don’t like the sandbox, I’ll find another one.

When I use a distribution, I am signing up to be part of a community of users and developers. Apple is becoming a lifestyle company. Its user base is becoming more and more mainstream. It wants its developers to target applications for those users. I am not interested in being either a user or a developer in that community.

Is using a Linux distribution any better? There are hard questions.

I can’t answer these questions today.

Posted November 09, 2014 • permalink

Self-Hosting with Sovereign

I’ve moved the family’s Internet domain away from Google and over to Linode. I used Sovereign, a set of Ansible playbooks for maintaining a personal cloud. I’m using this post to document my initial experience with Sovereign and the server I built with it.

Sovereign provides a lot of services. I’ve chosen to implement just a few of them:

It’s a pretty basic set of services, although Sovereign does a lot more behind the scenes for backups, intrusion prevention, spam fighting, etc. It’s an enormous help for getting a practical, secure server running.

Configuring the server was traightforward, although there were a few hiccups along the way. I hope these notes are helpful for others using Sovereign.

Server reboots

The server uses an encrypted filesystem for personal data such as email and OwnCloud files. If the server is restarted, the file system must be remounted. It’s easy to do this by rerunning the encfs playbook; you just need to know that it’s necessary.

Handling multiple users

Sovereign’s setup seems to be designed for a single user, but I am also supporting my family. Out of the box, Sovereign’s configuration has to be updated and playbooks rerun to change email passwords, add accounts, or change mail forwarding. This was ok for my family of four but obviously won’t scale.

Contacts

I lost the pictures associated with my contacts when I migrated from Google to OwnCloud. I am not sure if the problem was export from Google or import into OwnCloud. I lost all pictures, but this only affected about ten contacts. It was a nuisance for me but may be a bigger problem for others.

Migrating email away from Google

The Sovereign documentation recommends larch for migrating email. Indeed, it works great. Unfortunately, it can lead to email duplication at the destination if an email message has more than one tag. As far as I know there is no way arond this. You just have to deal with it as a cost of leaving Google.

Webmail

I installed on a Debian Wheezy box. Debian is stable, but it lags on package updates. Specifically, Roundcube 0.7.x gets installed, but the themes for the client side these days are all implemented for the 0.9 and 1.0 series.

I haven’t investigated what it will take to upgrade to a more recent version of Roundcube. It might be easy; I am just noting what I got out of the box.

Apple Mail

Apple Mail for OS X and Apple’s Mail app for iOS are both a pain. There are two reasons: mailbox subscription and server configuration.

The mailbox subscription problem is just a nuisance. Sovereign configures dovecot to use sieve for server-side handling of incoming mail. As configured, Roundcube does not subscribe to the sieve mailbox. Apple’s mail clients both do, and it does not appear to be possible to unsubscribe. Therefore there’s some noise in the folder list on those clients.

Configuration is a bigger problem. Sovereign sets up an autoconfigure XML file at the right place, and Thunderbird/Icedove use it correctly. Apple’s mail clients do not look for it, though. They must be manually configured. That’s not a problem for me, but it’s an ordeal for the kids. I had to resort to amateur IT support and write instructions with screenshots so that my older daughter who is away at college can get her email again. Kind of embarassing, to be honest, although I won’t through Apple under the bus without knowing why they don’t look for the autoconfigure XML.

Miscellaneous configuration problems

I made two other corrections for my setup.

Final thoughts

I’ve been running the server for over a week now, and I got the family set up this weekend. So far, so good.

Tarsnap is a great backup service. I would never host my family’s email and other data without backups. I’ve been using Tarsnap for over a year on another machine, and it’s been a rock.

Posted October 26, 2014 • permalink

Site Overhaul

I had been using Octopress to generate my website but have now switched to a simpler build using Jekyll only. Along the way I

Posted September 01, 2014 • permalink