Book review: The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

TL;DR War stories and pieces of advice from the high tech industry veteran.

I read this book following recomendations by Reem Sherman, the host of the excellent (!!!) podcast Geekonomy (in Hebrew).

Ben Horowitz is a veteran manager and entrepreneur who found the company Opsware, which Hewlett-Packard acquired in 2007. This book describes Horotwitz’s journey in Opsware from the foundation to the sale. Book’s second part is a collection of advice to working and aspiring CEOs. The last part is, actually, an advertisement for Horowitz’s new project — a VC company.

Things that I liked

The behind the scenes stories are interesting and inspiring.
Ben Horowitz devoted the second part of the book to share his experience as a CEO with other actual or aspiring CEOs. I don’t work as a CEO, nor do I see myself in that position in the future. However, this part is valuable for people like me because it provides insights into how CEOs think. Moreover, “The Hard Things” is a popular book, and many managers learn from it.

Things that I didn’t like.

Ben Horowitz was a manager during the early days of the high-tech industry. As such, parts of his attitude are outdated. The most prominent example for this problem is a story that Horowitz tells, in which he asked the entire company to work 12+ hours a day, seven days a week for several months. He was very proud about this, but IMO, employees will not accept such a request in today’s climate.

The bottom line: 4/5

Book review: Manager in shorts by Gal Zellermayer

TL;DR Nice’n’easy reading for novice managers

I read this book after hearing the author, Gal Zellermayer, in a podcast. Gal is an Israeli guy who has been working as a manager in several global companies’ Israeli offices. He brings a perspective that combines (what is perceived) the best practices of American managing style with the Israeli tendency to make things straight and simple. 

The greater part of the book is devoted to helping the people in your team develop. The book serves as a good motivator and helps to keep the importance of “peopleware.” I wish, however, it would bring more practical advice and cite more research and external analyses. 

Should you read this book?

If you are a beginning manager or want to be one – yes. 

If you never read a book on management – maybe (although Peopleware might be a better read).

The bottom line: 4/5

Book review: The Abyss: Bridging the Divide between Israel and the Arab World

TL;DR If you are an Israeli and don’t feel like learning the behind the scenes stories, skip it. Otherwise, I do recommend reading this book. I enjoyed it a lot 4.5/5

The Abyss: Bridging the Divide between Israel and the Arab World went to print slightly after the outbreak of the “Arab Spring.” The author, Eli Avidar, is a former Israeli intelligence officer and diplomat. Among other things, Eli Avidar served as the head of the Israeli diplomatic mission to Qatar in 1999. Today, Eli Avidar is a Knesset member for the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Even though so many things have changed since the book was published, I didn’t find any claim that Eli Avidar made, and that turned out to be wrong, nine years after the publication. 

I enjoyed reading this book a lot despite the fact that most of Eli Avidar’s claims are not new to me. Most of them are widely known to all the Israelis, and the real question is not whether you are aware of these claims, but whether you agree with them and what conclusions you make out of them.

On the other hand, The Abyss is an interesting storybook full of behind the scenes anecdotes and gossip. All who know me know how much I like gossips. It also provides a great introspection of how the (Jewish-)Israeli society sees the Arab-Israeli conflict, and what it feels towards it.

Should you read the book? If you are an Israeli and don’t feel like learning the behind the scenes stories, you may skip it. Otherwise, I do recommend reading this book. I don’t know how accurate is Avidar’s description of the Arab world, but his analysis of the Israeli behavior and attitude is very accurate. If you ever cough yourself wondering “What the fuck do the Israelis think?”, this book might shed some light for you. That is why I write this review in English, despite my tendency to review Hebrew books in my Hebrew blog.

Fun fact. I finished reading this book on August the 13th. I closed the book, opened Twitter, and saw my feed FULL with news about the upcoming normalization treaty between Israel and UAE. 

Book review. Five Stars by Carmine Gallo

TL;DR Good motivation to improve communication. Inadequate source of information on how to achieve that 

The central premise of Five Stars Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great by Carmine Gallo is that professionals who don’t invest in communication skills are at high risk of being replaced by computers and robots. One of the book’s sections bares the title that summarises this premise very well “Storytelling isn’t a soft skill; it’s the equivalent of hard cash.” I firmly believe in these premises. That is why I invest so much time in learning and teaching data visualization, in public speaking, and blogging. 

When I started reading this book, I got excited. I kept marking one passage after another. Gallo packed the first part of the book with numerous citations and explanations on how a lack of communication skills is the most severe risk factor in the career of a modern professional, team, or company. One example leads to another one, and one smart conclusion followed another one. 

Then, I started noticing that the book tries to convince me more and more, but I didn’t need that convincing in the first place. More than half of the book is evangelism. The author tells you how essential communication skills are, then he gives you some examples of people who did it right, and then again talks on importance. Again, and again, and again. Where are all those “secrets to get from good to great”???

When, finally, we get to the practical parts, the reader is left mostly with shallow, almost trivial bits of advice. 

Some of the most important points I took from this book

Slight feeling of a hamster-wheel while reading this book

Adopt the three-act storytelling approach to presentations. The three-act storytelling approach worked for Homerus, Shakespear, Tarantino, and there is no reason it should fail you in your technical presentations. Fair enough. On the other hand, this 2012 article by Nancy Duarte, provides more depth and more actionable information on this approach (follow Duarte’s blog if presentation skills are something you are interested in). 

“In the first two to three minutes of a presentation, I want people to lean forward in their chairs.” I like this citation by Avinash Kaushik, Google’s digital marketing evangelist. I will undoubtedly try this approach in my next presentations.

Should you read this book?

If you read these lines, your job depends on your communication and presentation skills. If you believe this premise, you can skip the first 60% of the book. If you want to improve your communication skills, I suggest reading Jean-luc Doumont’s “Trees, Maps, and Theorems,” which is much shorter, but also much denser in methods and practical advice. 

The bottom line

3.5/5

Book review: The Year Without Pants. WordPress.com and the future of work by Scott Berkun

TL;DR Interesting “history of work” book (definitely not “future of work”) with insights on transition-state organizations. Read it if history of work is your thing, or if you work in a small company that grows rapidly. 4.5/5 (due to the personal connection)



I got The Year Without Pants in 2014 as an onboarding present when I joined Automattic. The author, Scott Berkun, used to work as a manager at Microsoft (and maybe more places) before he quit and became a career of an adviser and an author. In 2011, the Automattic founder brought Scott to work at the company. About seventy people were working in the company back then and the company was growing rapidly. Automattic has just introduced a concept of teams, and the idea was that Scott will work as a team leader, consulting the management on how to deal with the transition.

Being an ex-Microsoft manager, Scott was fascinated by the small distributed company, and wrote a book on it, proclaiming that the way Automattic worked was “the future of work”.

The book was published in 2012. Today, in post-COVID 2020, nobody is surprised by people who don’t need to go to the office every day. Automattic has now more than 1,000 employees and has adopted many of the rituals big companies have, such as endless meetings, tedious coordination, name tags, and corporate speak.

Why, then, did I enjoy the book? First, for me, it was a pleasant “time travel.” I enjoyed reading about people I knew, teams I worked with, and practices I used to love or hate. Secondly, this book provides insights on a transition from a small group of like-thinkers to a formalized organization.

Book review: Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

TL;DR: Dull on the surface but has a lot of good points

Never_Split_3D_Jacket_copy.png

I read Never Split the Difference following a friend’s recommendation. While reading the book, I kept feeling a constant sense of disappointment and mental eye-rolling. The author, Chris Voss, is a former FBI negotiator. The book is full of FBI war stories and pieces of advice that, on the top of it, sound either trivial or well known. HOWEVER, when the book was over, I sat summarizing my Kindle notes. Forty-five minutes later, I found myself staring at six pages of handwritten text of notes and takeaways. Which, surely, is a good sign.

What I didn’t like: too many “war stories” from the author’s past as an FBI negotiator; their connection to the business world sometimes seems too far-fetched.

What I liked: I liked the overall approach. Sometimes, the author cites academic research. Again, the fact that I took so many notes, is very impressive (to me).

The bottom line: 4/5 Read it, even if you already read a negotiation book.

Book review: Great mental models by Shane Parrish

TL;DR shallow and disappointing

The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish was highly praised by Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg. Since I appreciate Matt’s opinion a lot, I decided to buy the book. I read it and was disappointed.

Image result for great mental models

This book is very ambitious but yet shallow and non-engaging. If you consider reading a book on mental models, then chances are you already know some of them. I expected the book to shed light on aspects I didn’t know or didn’t think of. Nothing like that happened. I didn’t learn new facts, neither was I impressed by a new way of thinking. I also think that this book won’t do the job with teenagers who still don’t have the arsenal of mental models, for them this book is full of unclear shortcuts.

The book is based on the materials of a highly praised blog fs.blog and is a good example how some stuff can work well as a blog post but feel bad as a book.

The bottom line: 2/5 Skip it.

Book review. Replay by Ken Grimwood

TL;DR: excellent fiction reading, makes you think about your life choices. 5/5

book cover of "Replay" by Ken Grimwood

“Replay” by Ken Grimwood is the first fiction book that I read in ages. The book is about a forty-three years old man with a failing family and a boring career. The man suddenly dies and re-appears in his own eighteen-years old body. He then lives his life again, using the knowledge of his future self. Then he dies again, and again, and again.
I liked the concept (reminded me of the Groundhog Day movie). The book managed to “suck me in,” and I finished it in two days. It also made me think hard about my life choices. I think that my decision to quit and become a freelancer was partially affected by this book.

What did I not like? Some parts of the book are somewhat pornographic. It doesn’t bother me per se, but I think the plot would stay as good as it is without those parts. Also, I find it a little bit sad that every reincarnation in “Replay” starts with making easy money. Not that I don’t like money; it just makes me sad.

Photo of my kindle with text from "Replay" by Ken Grimwood

Bottom line: Read! 5/5

(Read in Nov 2019)

Book review. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

TL;DR: a nice popular science book that covers many aspects of the modern science

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a popular science book. I didn’t learn anything fundamental out of this book, but it was worth reading. I was particularly impressed by the intrigues, lies, and manipulations behind so many scientific discoveries and discoverers. 

The main “selling point” of this book is that it answers the question, “how do the scientists know what they know”? How, for example, do we know the age of Earth or the skin color of the dinosaurs? The author indeed provides some insight. However, because the book tries to talk about “nearly everything,” the answer isn’t focused enough. Simon Singh’s book “Big Bang” concentrates on the cosmology and provides a better insight into the question of “how do we know what we know.” 

Interesting takeaways and highlights

  • Of the problem that our Universe is unlikely to be created by chance: “Although the creation of Universe is very unlikely, nobody knows about failed attempts.”
  • The Universe is unlimited but finite (think of a circle)
  • Developments in chemistry were the driving force of the industrial revolution. Nevertheless, chemistry wasn’t recognized as a scientific field in its own for several decades

The bottom line: Read if you have time 3.5/5. 

A tangible productivity tool (and a book review)

One month ago, I stumbled upon a book called “Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life” by Jim Benson (all the book links use my affiliate code). Never before, I saw a more significant discrepancy between the value that the book gave me and its actual content. 

Even before finishing the first chapter of this book, I realized that I wanted to incorporate “personal kanban” into my productivity system. The problem was that the entire book could be summarized by a blog post or by a Youtube video (such as this one). The rest of the book contains endless repetitions and praises. I recommend not reading this book, even though it strongly affected the way I work

So, what is Personal Kanban anyhow? Kanban is a productivity approach that puts all the tasks in front of a person on a whiteboard. Usually, Kanban boards are physical boards with post-it notes, but software Kanban boards are also widely known (Trello is one of them). Following are the claims that Jim Benson makes in his book that resonated with me

  • Many productivity approaches view personal and professional life separately. The reality is that these two aspects of our lives are not separate at all. Therefore, a productivity method needs to combine them.
  • Having all the critical tasks in front of your eyes helps to get the global picture. It also helps to group the tasks according to their contexts. 
  • The act of moving notes from one place to another gives valuable tangible feedback. This feedback has many psychological benefits.
  • One should limit the number of work-in-progress tasks.
  • There are three different types of “productivity.” You are Productive when you work hard. You are Efficient when your work is actually getting done. Finally, you are Effective when you do the right job at the right time, and can repeat this process if needed. 

I’m a long user of a productivity method that I adopted from Mark Forster. You may read about my process here. Having read Personal Kanban, I decided to combine it with my approach. According to the plan, I have more significant tasks on my Kanban board, which I use to make daily, weekly, and long-term plans. For the day-to-day (and hour-to-hour) taks, I still use my notebooks. 

Initially, I used my whiteboard for this purpose, but something wasn’t right about it.

Having my Kanban on my home office whiteboard had two significant drawbacks. First, the whiteboard isn’t with me all the time. And what is the point of putting your tasks on board if you can’t see it? Secondly, listing everything on a whiteboard has some privacy issues. After some thoughts, I decided to migrate the Kanban to my notebook.

In this notebook, I have two spreads. The first spread is used for the backlog, and “this week” taks. The second spread has the “today,” “doing,” “wait,” and “done” columns. The fact that the notebook is smaller than the whiteboard turned out to be a useful feature. This physical limitation limits the number of tasks I put on my “today” and “doing” lists. 

I organize the tasks at the beginning of my working day. The rest of the system remains unchanged. After more than a month, I’m happy with this new tangible productivity method.

Book review. The War of Art by S. Pressfield

TL;DR: This is a long motivational book that is “too spiritual” for the cynic materialist that I am.

The War of Art by [Pressfield, Steven]

The War of Art is a strange book. I read it because “everybody” recommended it. This is what Derek Sivers’ book recommendation page says about this book

Have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what “Resistance” is.

As a known procrastinator, I was intrigued and started reading. In the beginning, the book was pretty promising. The first (and, I think, the biggest) part of the book is about “Resistance” — the force behind the procrastination. I immediately noticed that almost every sentence in this chapter could serve a motivational poster. For example

  • It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
  • The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight.
  • The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.
  • The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Individually, each sentence makes sense, but their concentration was a bit too much for me. The way Pressfield talks about Resistance resembles the way Jewish preachers talk about Yetzer Hara: it sits everywhere, waiting for you to fail. I’ tdon’t like this approach.

The next chapters were even harder for me to digest. Pressfield started talking about Muses, gods, prayers, and other “spiritual” stuff; I almost gave up. But I fought the Resistance and finished the book.

My main takeaways:

  • Resistance is real
  • It’s a problem
  • The more critical the task is, the stronger is the Resistance. OK, I kind of agree with this. Pressfield continues to something do not agree with: thus (according to the author), we can measure the importance of a task by the Resistance it creates.
  • Justifying not pursuing a task by commitments to the family, job, etc. is a form of Resistance.
  • The Pro does stuff.
  • The Artist is a Pro (see above) who does stuff even if nobody cares.

Book review. Indistractable by Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal is known for his book “Hooked” in which he teaches how to create addictive products. In his new book “Indistractable“, Nir teaches how to live in the world full of addictive products. The book itself isn’t bad. It provides interesting information and, more importantly, practical tips and action items. Nir covers topics such as digital distraction, productivity and procrastination.

Indistractable Control Your Attention Choose Your Life Nir Eyal 3D cover

I liked the fact that the author “gives permission” to spend time on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube etc, as long as it is what you planned to do. Paraphrasing Nir, distraction isn’t distraction unless you know what it distracts you from. In other words, anything you do is a potential distraction unless you know what, why and when you are doing it.

My biggest problem with this book is that I already knew almost everything that Nir wrote. Maybe I already read too many similar books and articles, maybe I’m just that smart (not really) but for me, most of Indistractable wasn’t valuable.

Until I got to the chapter that deals with raising children (“Part 6, how to raise indistractable children”). I have to admit, when it comes to speaking about raising kids in the digital era, Nir is a refreshing voice. He doesn’t join the global hysteria of “the screens make zombies of our kids”. Moreover, Nir brings a nice collection of hysterical prophecies from the 15th, 18th and 20th centuries in which “experts” warned about the bad influence new inventions (such as printed books, affordable education, radio) had on the kids.

Another nice touch is the fact that each chapter has a short summary that consists of three-four bullet points. Even nicer is the fact that Nir copied all the “Remember this” lists at the end of the book, which is very kind of him.

The Bottom line. 4/5. Read.

Book review: The Formula by A. L Barabasi

The bottom line: read it but use your best judgement 4/5

I recently completed reading “The Formula. The Universal Laws of Success” by Albert-László Barabási. Barabási is a network science professor who co-authored the “preferential attachment” paper (a.k.a. the Barabási-Albert model). People who follow him closely are ether vivid fabs or haters accusing him of nonsense science.

For several years, A-L Barabási is talking and writing about the “science of success” (yeah, I can hear some of my colleagues laughing right now). Recently, he summarized the research in this area in an easy-to-read book with the promising title “The Formula. The Universal Laws of Success.” The main takeaways that I took from this book are:

  • Success is about us, not about you. In other words, it doesn’t matter how hard you work and how good your work is, if “we” (i.e., the public) don’t know about it, or don’t see it, or attribute it to someone else.
  • Be known for your expertise. Talk passionately about your job. The people who talk about an idea will get the credit for it. Consider the following example from the book. Let’s say, prof. Barabasi and the Pope write a joint scientific paper. If the article is about network science, it will be perceived as if the Pope helped Barabasi with writing an essay. If, on the other hand, if it is a theosophical book, we will immediately assume that the Pope was the leading force behind it.
  • It doesn’t matter how old you are; the success can come to you at any age. It is a well-known fact that most successful people broke into success at a young age. What Barabási claims is that the reason for that is not a form of ageism but the fact that the older people try less. According to this claim, as long as you are creative and work hard, your most significant success is ahead of you.
  • Persistence pays. This is another claim that Barabasi makes in his book. It is related to the previous one but is based on a different set of observations (did you know that Harry Potter was rejected twelve times before it was published?). I must say that I’m very skeptical about this one. Right now, I don’t have the time to explain my reasons, and I promise to write a dedicated post.

Keep in mind that the author uses academic success (the Nobel prize, citation index, etc.) as the metric for most of his conclusions. This limitation doesn’t bother him, after all, Barabási is a full-time University professor, but most of us should add another grain of salt to the conclusions. 

Overall, if you find yourself thinking about your professional future, or if you are looking for a good career advice, I recommend reading this book. 

Never read reviews before reading a book (except for this one). On “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

Several people suggested that I read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“. That is why, when I got my new Kindle, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” was the first book I bought.
Richard Feynman was a trained theoretical physics who co-won the Nobel Prize. From reading the book, I discovered that Feynman was also a drummer, a painter, an expert on Native American mathematics, safecracker, a samba player, and an educator. The more I read this book, the more astonished I was about Feynman’s personality and his story.

When I was half the way through the book, I decided to read the Amazone reviews. When reading reviews, I tend to look for the one- and two- stars, to seed my critical thinking. I wish I haven’t done that. The reviewers were talking about how arrogant and self-bragging man Feynman was, and how it must have been terrible to work with him. I almost stopped reading the book after being exposed to those reviews.

Admittedly, Richard Feynman never missed an opportunity to brag about himself and to emphasize how many achievements he made without meaning to do so, almost by accident. Every once in a while, he mentioned many people who were much better than him in that particular field that managed to conquer. I call this pattern a self-bragging modesty, and it is a pattern typical of many successful people. Nevertheless, given all his achievements, I think that Feynman deserves the right to be self-bragging. Being proud of your accomplishments isn’t arrogance, and is a natural thing to do. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is fun to read, is very informative and inspirational. I think that everyone who calls themselves a scientist or considers being a scientist should read this book.

P.S. After completing the book, I took some time to watch several Feynman’s lectures on YouTube. It turned out that besides being a good physicist, Feynman was also a great teacher.