Books I read in 2021

I discuss below some of the books I read in 2021. I found all of these books worth reading — they taught me many new things, and gave me many ideas worth thinking about.

A brief summary of each book is below. Omissions and mistakes are entirely mine — these summaries are not necessarily exhaustive, but my attempt to distill the essential points of each book into a few bullet points.

High Output Management

This is a management classic that I had heard a lot about. I found the book very practical and “nuts and bolts” oriented. Some sections feel a bit outdated (which is to be expected for a tech industry industry book originally written 40 years ago, though the edition I read was updated in the mid-1990s), but the vast majority of it is surprisingly relevant and fresh.

Summary:

The output of a manager is the output of all organizations within their direct and indirect control. Managers should try to work on the highest leverage activities they can, and have output indicators (approximately 6) for all functions/teams (something quantitative). Managers should review these output indicators regularly e.g. during staff meetings.

Dual reporting is an organizational approach in which people report to both a functional (horizontal) manager and a mission oriented (vertical) manager; all large organizations tend toward this hybrid model. The book gives examples of specialists working on specific products or projects (vertical reporting), and as horizontal subject matter experts helping build up skills across the company in their area of expertise.

Companies usually have three modes of control: free market forces (for areas with low ambiguity and high self interest); contractual obligations (low ambiguity, high group interest); cultural values (high ambiguity, high group interest).

Managers have two ways to increase the output of their team: training and motivation. The appropriate management style depends on the task relevant maturity of the person on your team.

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from inside Amazon

I liked the practical tone of this book. It has a lot of good detail on various aspects of how Amazon does things, primarily hiring and execution, focusing especially on the latter.

There are some indications of the somewhat ruthless style of management that Amazon is now known for — for example, weekly business reviews with detailed metrics that business leads are expected to create and distribute ahead of time! — but overall this book has a lot of good ideas, and provides an interesting glimpse into how things are done at one of the most successful companies in the world.

Summary:

Amazon has 14 “leadership principles”: customer obsession, ownership, invent and simplify, [leaders] are right a lot, learn and be curious, hire and develop the best, insist on the highest standards, think big, bias for action, frugality, earn trust, dive deep, disagree and commit, deliver results.

Hiring:

  • Hiring uses the bar raiser process; do not allow urgency to override the need to make a good hire. Interview feedback should be detailed, specific, and contain examples from the interview.
  • Bar raisers receive special training and are part of every interview loop.
  • Behavioral interviews are conducted using the STAR (Situation, Task (“what were you tasked with”), Action, Result) approach.

Single-threaded leadership:

  • Single-threaded leadership is used to make sure that teams are able to drive initiatives with minimal coordination overhead
  • Dependencies can be technical and organizational
  • Amazon built autonomous teams with well-defined charter boundaries and success metrics

Six-pagers and PR/FAQs

  • Most meetings start with 20 minutes of reviewing the six-pager
  • Six-pagers include “tenets” (principles on which the arguments are based) and try to anticipate questions. They include an FAQ section.
  • PR/FAQs are used when exploring ideas for brand new products. They include a detailed description of the product and user experience in the form of a press release.
  • The press release portion of a PR/FAQ includes summary paragraph, problem paragraph, solution paragraph, and quotes from hypothetical customers and company employees announcing the product.

Define controllable input metrics to focus on; build in appropriate measurements of those metrics; understand what drives the metrics; drive improvements to those metrics and monitor them carefully. Output metrics are those on which you do not have direct control (e.g. revenue or stock price).

Amazon uses weekly business reviews to monitor the input metrics for a business.

Products like Amazon Kindle, Amazon Prime, Prime Video and AWS used techniques like six-pagers, PR/FAQs, controllable input metrics, and weekly business reviews to become successful.

The authors’ suggestions for applying Amazonian principles in other companies:

  • Start using six-pagers and PR/FAQs instead of Powerpoint
  • Use Bar Raisers
  • Focus on controllable input metrics
  • Create autonomous teams with single-threaded leaders
  • Create compensation structures for leaders that encourage long-term commitment
  • Articulate the company culture and leadership principles
  • Articulate the key drivers for your business as a flywheel

Headspace Guide to Meditation

This book probably made the most significant personal difference to me. Over the last few years I’ve become more familiar with meditation and interested in incorporating it more into my life. I had tried listening to an audiobook version of this book a few years ago, but found it too hard to focus on it while driving. I found the book much more accessible; the anecdotes throughout the book make it an easy read, and I found many useful tips about how to be more effective at meditation.

I read this book twice: both because it meanders somewhat, so that I thought it would be worth refreshing my memory on the earlier material once I got to the end of it; and also because there were many concepts I had put into practice as I was reading the book that I wanted to read about again, in case I was misapplying them. The author is disarmingly honest about his own struggles with a peaceful mind, something that I related to, and a lot of the book resonated with me. I found its mix of anecdotes and instruction to be very readable, but something that needed focused attention to extract the key messages.

Since reading this book, I’ve tried to apply it to my attempts at both waking and sleep meditation, with some good results. The book is fairly concise, and is worth reading for anyone curious about meditation and mindfulness but unsure how to apply them in their day to day life.

Summary:

Different metaphors for meditation:

  • You are by the side of the road watching cars (your thoughts) go by; meditation is like taking off a blindfold and going from only hearing the traffic to looking at it; meditation is like shining a bright light on your thoughts; sometimes you may find yourself driving a car (engaging with your thoughts); when that happens, just go back to your seat
  • Your thoughts are like clouds obscuring a placid blue sky; you know that that calm place is there, underneath the clouds
  • Your thoughts are like a wild horse; to tame a wild horse, you can’t rein it in in one go; you have to put it on a loose leash, and then gradually reduce its length, so gently that it doesn’t notice that it is being reined in; similarly with your thoughts, don’t try to control them

Approach meditation with a “gentle curiosity” for your thoughts and feelings; try to understand what you are feeling; scan your body to see how you feel in different areas.

Take10 is a simple meditation technique:

  • Sit down and set a timer for 10 minutes
  • Scan your body, noticing how you feel in various areas; identify how you are feeling
  • Take several breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, focusing on your breath
  • When the timer goes off, bring yourself “back” into the present, then open your eyes whenever you’re ready

Mindfulness is a type of meditation. You can integrate mindfulness into other activities in your life: walking, standing, eating or even brushing your teeth. Mindfulness is being deeply aware of what you are doing; you can do it anytime during the day rather than just during a sit-down meditation session.

Sleep meditation can be done lying in bed on your back, and can help you fall asleep:

  • Step 1: become aware of your surroundings, the way your body is touching the bed; scan how your body feels
  • Step 2: recount the day from the moment you got up, without dwelling on any particular time or incident; just let the thoughts flow
  • Step 3: traverse your body from your toes up, “switching off” each part
  • If you are still awake, count backward from a thousand to zero

Tips on meditation: make sure you also get physical exercise; find a spot where you can be undisturbed; wear loose, comfortable clothing; sit on the floor; do it first thing in the morning if you can.

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Engineering leadership, growth, navigating ambiguity. Create, learn, repeat.

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Abhijeet Vijayakar

Engineering leadership, growth, navigating ambiguity. Create, learn, repeat.