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Books I read this week

by Sebastien Mirolo on Sat, 23 Jul 2011

I picked up "Only the paranoid survive", "Cowboys and Dragons" and "The Shockwave Rider" from the library this week.

Only the paranoid survive

The blog post Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO prompted me to read "Only the paranoid survive" from Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel Corporation. The book was published in 1996. It shows a little bit of age, especially in the last chapter about the speculative impact of the Internet on industries, but is none-the-less full of very useful timeless insights.

Most of the book deals with recognizing hints and clues that the playing field is fundamentally changing. Those inflection points are difficult and uncertain times that can bring down businesses as well as offer new opportunities.

Feel of change

"There are people in your organization who are quick to recognize impending change and cry out an early warning. Bad news has a much more immediate impact on them personally. Lost sales affect a salesperson's commission, technology that never makes it to the marketplace disrupts an engineer's career."

During meetings and presentations of strategic plans, the senior management starts to answer lots of questions such as "But what about...? Does it mean...? But how can you say 'X' when we do 'Y'?". A strategic dissonance between plans and a diverging reality might be cooking up.

It is a very human traits to refuse to acknowledge changes, especially for people that have successfully rise to the top of an empire, especially when changes bring uncertainty and a perspective to be unfit for new order. "Just give us a bit more time.". The truth is that "simply put, in times of change, managers almost always know which directions they should go in, but usually act too late and do too little."

Deciding

"People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner." Often people at the top need to be replaced when they cannot let go of the accumulated emotional baggage and analyze the situation rationally.

There are later two advise that resonate strongly with my own experience. "strategic changes start with your calendar", "Strategic plans sound like a political speech. Strategic actions on the other hand matter because they immediately affect people's life.".

On the computer industry

Tracking computer economics through the measure of "cost per MIPS (Million of Instruction Per Second)" is very interesting. Well worth remembering as well, the three rules for an horizontal market:

  • 1. "Don't differentiate without a difference."
  • 2. "When fundamental changes come your way, the first mover and the first mover only has a true opportunity."
  • 3. "Price for what the market will bear, price for volume and work like the devil on your cost so you can make money at that price."
  • Cowboys and Dragons

    "Cowboys and Dragons" by Charles Lee, PH.D. is a book about preconceptions and misconceptions when Americans and Chinese try to make business together. It intends to explain historical background, philosophy and other bits and pieces of both cultures than hopefully can help forge mutually beneficial deals. The whole book is very interesting and I have only cut and pasted a few interesting quotes here.

    The book is full of useful generic principles but that are critical in in the context of multi cultural negotiations such as:

  • "Who is the other party from a cultural perspective, and who are we?"
  • "Why does the other party behave as it does, and why do we?"
  • "What does the other party want from us, and vice versa?"
  • or

  • "How do I see myself?"
  • "How do I see the other party?"
  • "How does the other party see me?"
  • There are also interesting and concrete examples of differences in approach to the world, people and business. A few striking quotes:

  • A cowboy will say: "I'll give you 30% off the normal purchase price" A dragon will say: "I will only charge you 70% of the whole price"
  • "Dragons typically show up at a meeting with lots of engineers; Cowboys come with sales/marketing guys and hired guns - their lawyers."
  • "Why does the sun rise in the east and set in the west? The cowboy will answer with an explanation of the Copernican solar system - cause and effect. The dragon will answer: The sun has always done so in the past, does so now, and will do so in the future - empirical observation. Don't ask why in China because you won't get an answer."
  • Finally you can also pick up some direct behavioral tips such as:

  • Give business cards with two hands
  • Sitting at a round table, the head of the party sits facing the door.
  • Having grown-up in Europe, having spent most of my professional career so far in the United States, and currently learning Mandarin at the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco, I really enjoyed "Cowboys and Dragons". To finish on the book, there is a final cross-cultural quote I truly enjoyed:

    "I firmly believe that you should measure your success
    as an executive by how many millionaires you help create."
    - Charles Lee
    
    

    The Shockewave Rider

    Whereas the two first books are business oriented, "The Shockewave Rider" by John Brunner is a pure science-fiction novel. It is the palpitant story of a hacker turned hacktivist, complete with cloud computing, botnets, genetic experiments, an omnipresent government and, of course, the smart woman he falls in love with. I loved to read that book but, for me, the shockwave is that it got published in 1975, a year before I was born and long before the world wide web even existed. This book was science-fiction then but could surely pass into just fiction very soon as it feels so incredibly real today.

    I wrote on the subject of the knowledge economy earlier but I could never write it as concisely as John Brunner did:

    "After the legs race, the arms race.
    After the arms race, the brain race."
    - John Brunner