Book Report: “The No Asshole Rule”, by Robert Sutton

My annual review at Creative Commons took place at the end of July, and like last year, the emphasis was on the growing area of focus for me: management. I consider myself an accidental manager, but the anecdotal evidence is that I’m not terrible at it. The conversation during my review, and a prior conversation with a consultant from Teleos, led me to believe that I could improve my performance by learning more about “best practices” or “first principles”. So I’m trying to read some of the “literature”. While it’s not all directly applicable (or interesting), I think of it sort of like x86 assembler: I don’t want to write software in assembler, but I’m convinced that having some understanding of it helps me do better a better job at the work I do want to do.

The first book I chose to read was “The No Asshole Rule”, by Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University. Mike recommended Sutton generally, and this seemed like a good starting point. The entire book is an easy, enjoyable read, but there were a few pages I dog eared because they seemed particularly relevant or useful.

Sutton begins by defining an “asshole” as someone who meets two criteria: interactions with the subject leave you feeling oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled, and the subject specifically targets those less powerful than themselves. I think Sutton’s definition is useful because it distinguishes between people who are sharp-edged or anti-social, and those who leave others feeling like they’re less-than. I can’t think of a single job I’ve had that’s been completely asshole free by this definition, although the degree (and whether they’re colleagues, clients, or board members) has varied widely over the years. As my dad says, “you have all kinds of people, in all kinds of places.” All of that is to say that after reading The No Asshole Rule, I have a better idea what sort of people I want to minimize interaction with, and what sort of behavior I want to eliminate in myself.

In his discussion on how to build an asshole-free workplace, Sutton describes the need to teach people how and when to fight: a team needs to be able to “disagree and then commit”. The second guessing, criticism of the decision, complaining, and arguing stops being productive as soon as a decision has been made. I have worked with people who, as soon as things are less than perfect, constantly remind others that they disagreed with a decision. In my experience, those reminders are demoralizing and saps energy from everyone around them (whether or not their co-workers or supervisors deign to respond).

Does this mean that you don’t evaluate whether a decision was correct so you can improve your decision making skills? Absolutely not. My interpretation is that to be successful (and avoid being an asshole), your decision needs to include what the definition of success is (metrics). That allows you to come back to the decision later and say, “You know, this decision was made assuming X, Y, and Z would happen; we see now X didn’t, so let’s remember that in mind next time.”

The No Asshole Rule doesn’t just talk about how to identify and protect against assholes; Sutton also discusses how to prevent your own inner asshole from getting out. One thing I found interesting was the discussion about how seeing your co-workers as competition is a sure fire way to ensure you’re an asshole. I know that I’m guilty of this. The joke, “It’s not enough to succeed, others must fail,” used to sound like a plausible approach to me. Sutton talks about why public shaming of under-performers is not useful, and how simple word choices (“mutual”, “share”, “fair”, vs. “enemy”, “battle”, “lawyer”) can help people cooperate better. When I worked at Canterbury, there were times I thought of meetings with the Technology Subcommittee of the Board as “battles” to be “survived”. While not without reason, this probably influenced the way I presented information and responded to questions. I’m sure it’s happened since then, too.

Sutton also includes suggestions on how to deal with assholes, if you’re not able to escape them. Two suggestions are looking for incremental wins, and not stooping to their level. The latter seems like a variation on my mother’s advice to “kill ‘em with kindness” and “turn the other cheek.” I still have a hard time with both, and my experience growing up was that neither is a guarantee that the asshole will stop asshole-ing.

Overall “The No Asshole Rule” helped me think about what kind of environment I want to be working in, what sort of people I like to work with, and how I can be a better co-worker and manager.

As Sutton points out, most of us are assholes every now and then. Reading this helped me identify things I have done in the past and think about how I might approach the situation differently today.

date:2010-09-06 14:50:46
tags:business, reading

Pre-read: Grok 1.0 Web Development

|image0|Late last month I received an email from Packt Publishing (en.wp), asking if I’d be interested in reviewing one of their new titles, `Grok 1.0 Web Development <>`_, by Carlos de la Guardia. I immediately said yes, with the caveat that I’m traveling a lot over the next 30 days, so the review will be a little delayed (hence this pre-review). I said “yes” because Grok is one of the Python web frameworks that’s most interesting to me these days. It’s interesting because one of its underlying goals is to take concepts from [STRIKEOUT:Zope 3]Zope Toolkit, and make them more accessible and less daunting. These concepts — the component model, pluggable utilities, and graph-based traversal — are some of the most powerful tools I’ve worked with during my career. And of course, they can also be daunting, even to people with lots of experience; making them more accessible is a good thing.

I’ve read the first four chapters of Grok 1.0 Web Development, and so far there’s a lot to like. It’s the sort of documentation I wish I’d had when I ported the Creative Commons license chooser to Grok1. I’m looking forward to reading the rest, and will post a proper review when I return from Nairobi. In the mean time, check out Grok, Zope 3 for cavemen.

You can download a preview from Grok 1.0 Web Development, `Chapter 5: Forms </media/2010/03/7481-grok-1-0-Web-development-sample-chapter-5-forms.pdf>`_.

1 The CC license chooser has evolved a lot over the years; shortly after Grok was launched we adopted many of its features as a way to streamline the code. Grok’s simplified support for custom traversal, in particular, was worth the effort.

date:2010-03-16 09:14:50
tags:cc, grok, pre-read, python, reading, zope

Meta: What’s up with all the Reading?

So far this year, I’ve published seven posts with the tag “reading“. Of 24 posts this year (already more than all of 2009!), that’s almost a third of my blogging. Put another way, in the first five years of blogging I wrote four book-related posts; I’ve almost doubled that in the first quarter of 2010.

I’ve always loved reading. In middle school, I’d sit with a novel in my lap, trying to read during class without getting caught. Going into this year, I wanted to try things that I hypothesized would make me a better writer. One of these things is reading, specifically reading and thinking about what makes a book or story work or not for me. Another of the things is blogging1, so it made sense to me that I would start to blog what I read. I also wanted to keep track of what I read a little better. Instead of using this as another excuse to build a tool that I’m not sure I’ll actually use, I’m just using tags on the posts: sfpl for books I check-out from the the San Francisco Public Library, fiction for works of fiction, etc. I’d like to use something more structured for this (probably RDFa), but right now I have enough half finished software projects, so tags it is.

And that’s why my blog seems like a book report lately.

1 I see blogging as a practice: something that I do with regularity, which has immediate and cumulative benefits.

date:2010-03-10 07:04:26
tags:meta, reading

Read: “Spooner”, by Pete Dexter

Spooner, Pete Dexter’s latest novel, is not as consistent as The Paperboy, but that does not make it inferior. Spooner tells the story of a boy, Spooner, and his step-father, Calmer. Spooner is not smart, is not handsome, and is primarily talented at causing trouble for others. Pissing in the shoes of others, rolling cars down the hill, and throwing eggs at cars: these are the things Spooner is good at. Calmer, a former Navy man, is good at just about everything, and is particularly good at being patient and trying to rescue those in need of redemption. Like Spooner’s mother, Lily, who sees the world first as a personal affront to her.

Dexter uses language in a way that lets you feel the words in your mouth and taste the idiom and “flavor”; in his hands, the language of the South (Spooner begins in Georgia; The Paperboy in Florida) does not feel impersonated or propped up, but real and present. Spooner contains exposition that made me almost giddy with pleasure, re-reading paragraphs out loud on the bus, looking like a crazy person, I’m sure. For example,

There was in every sport Spooner ever played, on every team he ever joined, an outcast. Some kid who had been plucked from the safety of home and homeroom and tossed, often at the insistence of his own father, out into the world. Unprotected. Often this kid was the fattest, dopiest kid in school, someone who had been it every day of his life on the playgrounds, shunned or insulted one day, beaten up the next, and was now introduced to the rest of his life, which was more of the same except better organized, with the degree of abuse he suffered depending mostly on the mercies of the adults in charge.

I don’t know if I was exactly that kid on the team, but I could certainly pick him out a mile away, and knew enough to keep my distance.

Spooner is told in the third person, but Dexter manages to convey the mental confusion and uncertainty the characters express in a way that reminded me of Paul Auster. Characters try to look at themselves and figure out what really happened: Did they really see what they think they saw? Where was the moment things went wrong? Could they have found another way through that situation? That ability to convey the introspection, uncertainty, and inner monologue of a character gives the story a depth: coming to the end of a paragraph is like coming up from under water, and you’re not really sure where you’ve wound up.

Spooner is not perfect; one section, in particular, doesn’t feel like it “fits” with the rest. As a whole it’s a great story about two characters who care a great deal for each other, an original, expansive rendering of the father-son relationship.

date:2010-03-06 10:04:46
tags:2009, fiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “Fordlandia”, by Greg Grandin

Fordlandia chronicles the rise and fall of eponymous rubber plantation established by Henry Ford in Brazil in 1927. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that it would be more accurate to say, “attempted to establish”. The book is a chronicle of the money spent, initiatives undertaken, and schemes hatched, all in an effort to wring profit from the Amazon and, at least in some cases, bring better living conditions to its inhabitants.

Fordlandia is really three, interwoven stories. The surface story is about Ford’s efforts to push the limits of his autonomous, vertically integrated manufacturing by establishing a stable source of rubber in the Amazon, along the Tapajós River. Rubber was one of the few raw materials that Ford did not own or control production of, and was concerned that a British-initiated cabal could raise prices in the American market. Grandin gives the reader context in the form of Ford’s previous success with Fordism in the US, which is particularly interesting given the decline of the automobile industry of late.

Below the surface of the main story are two others: the story of the people of the Brazilian Amazon, and their exploitation during Brazil’s rubber boom and bust, and the story of Henry Ford’s personal evolution from industrialist to agriculturalist to paternalistic social engineer. As Fordlândia failed to produce rubber, it increasingly became a social experiment, attempting to export an idealized midwestern social structure to the Amazon. Ford and his managers attempted to impose what they believed to be the optimal structure — both social and corporate — on the workers. The results seem to have been directly, inversely proportional to the amount of control they tried to exert. Ford believed he was saving workers from the exploitative system of indentured servitude pervasive during Brazil’s rubber boom, but failed to understand the social dynamics that would dictate whether his new system was actually a success.

I found Ford’s evolution to be a particularly compelling part of the story. His massively integrated manufacturing system helped move people out of small towns and into urban centers. Despite this and his seeming contempt for the past, he idealized Puritan, small town America in the extreme. This story of trying to re-establish something he was responsible for weakening was one of the more compelling parts of the book.

Grandin concludes with an epilogue, “Still Waiting for Henry Ford.” In it he sounds a cautionary note about ongoing attempts to “modernize” the Amazon. The engaging, insightful chapters preceding this allow it to avoid any hints of panic or exaggeration. The Amazon is still waiting for the promises of Henry Ford to come true.

While Grandin wisely does not attempt sweeping moral interpretation, it does seem that Ford truly believed he was helping the residents of the Brazilian Amazon. Unfortunately a complete disinterest in understanding their social and economic structure led to sub-optimal results.

date:2010-03-05 15:15:41
tags:2009, nonfiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “The Paperboy”, by Pete Dexter

I picked up The Paperboy after reading about Pete Dexter’s most recent novel, Spooner, on The Paperboy tells the story of two brothers from the (apparently) fictional Moat County, Florida. About ten years apart in age, they’re also quite different people: Jack, the younger, has just been expelled from the University of Florida after being dropped from his swimming scholarship. Ward, the elder, has gone into the family business, and is a reporter with the Miami Times. As the book opens, Jack has moved home and taken a job working for his father at that Moat County paper. Ward, working in Miami, keeps to himself and is primarily concerned with getting the story “right”.

The Paperboy could be described as a newspaper procedural: on the surface it tells the story about getting a story; in this case a story exploring the trial of man convicted of murdering a local, racist sheriff, a trial which was, well, irregular. I suppose it makes sense: Dexter was a newspaper man before he was a novelist and screenwriter. But if The Paperboy were only about the news business, I doubt it would have kept my attention.

Throughout the book there are questions as theme: How well do you know the people you love? How well do you really want to? As the story progresses, Jack sees his brother working for what seems like the first time, he initially wonders what’s going on inside his head, and eventually decides that he really doesn’t need to know. That even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t understand. Ward’s approach to the story and to life stands in contrast: his need to get the story “right” goes beyond accuracy, to a compulsive desire for truth and completeness. These two characters drive the story forward in a way I found believable, engaging, and enjoyable.

Dexter [co-]wrote both Michael and Mulholland Falls; interesting combination.

date:2010-02-28 19:06:06
tags:1995, fiction, reading, sfpl

Ugly, Pretty, Special

Another example of the power of young adult fiction.

I visited my family in Indiana over Thanksgiving. On my flight back from Chicago, I was upgraded to first class, seated next to a girl who appeared to be about twelve or thirteen, traveling as an unattended minor. As I sat down she was scribbling furiously in a notebook. She looked up and I smiled. “Hi, there.”

“What’s pithy mean?” she responded, pencil poised to record my answer. My mind went nearly blank; this was not the question I was expecting to answer in the middle of a day of traveling.

“Uh, a short, compact phrase; witty?”

I must have telegraphed more confidence in my answer than I felt: “Thanks,” she said curtly, and went back to her notebook. I pulled out the `Specials <>`_, by David Westerfeld; Dan and Monya had given my `Uglies <>`_ and `Pretties <>`_ for my birthday just before I left, and after tearing through them, I’d picked up Specials for the trip back. My traveling companion looked up and saw the cover, suddenly becoming animated.

“Oh my god. You’re reading Specials. That’s so awesome.”

“Yeah, I know, it sort of is,” I replied, reverting to a tone more appropriate for gum snapping and borrowing the car than for grown men. “Yeah, like, I read Uglies, and Pretties, and now I’m on Specials; Uglies was great, and Pretties was OK — a bit of a slow down— but Specials is great so far.” Capsule review.

“Totally. I totally agree. Oh my god. So cool.” I seemed to have made a friend, making up for any issues with my vocabulary performance earlier. “Do you have any other authors you recommend?” she asked.

I suggested Octavia Butler, thinking to myself, “kid, this shit is going to blow your mind.” She dutifully wrote it down, checking the spelling as she went.

“I’m writing a story,” she offered. “Sort of science fiction; I mean, it’s set in the future. Well, time has passed from the present; I need the reader to understand that to get the plot.” I continued to nod in solemn agreement and she looked down at her notebook, fingering the pages a moment before snapping her attention back to me.

“Are you a good reader?” How does a thirty-three year old man answer such a question?

“Uh, yeah, I think I’m OK; I like to read,” I answered.

“You know how you can tell a good reader?” She didn’t wait for my reply. “They write down the recommendations from other good readers.” She proceeded to give me some recommendations, which I made sure to write down, not wanting to sully my good reader image.

I finished Specials on the flight home, and it was a fun read. But on my traveling companion’s recommendation, I’ll be checking out the final book in the series, `Extras <>`_, from the library — “it’s totally a let down.” So sayeth the good reader.

date:2010-01-26 10:04:22
category:my life, reading
tags:fiction, reading, ya

Read: “When You Reach Me” and “First Light”, by Rebecca Stead

I just finished reading First Light, by Rebecca Stead, after reading When You Reach Me earlier this month. I liked When You Reach Me so much that I gave it to James for his birthday, knowing we share a love of science fiction, with a special fondness for young adult science fiction. James has observed that young adult fiction is a joy to read, as it is driven almost entirely by character and story — no messy philosophy or moralistic exposition to get in the way of enjoying the story[1]. When You Reach Me and First Light are both great stories, imaginative and well executed. You can read either trying to divine the “Lesson” for the reader, but that’s optional: they’re just great stories that you can get lost in and enjoy.

When You Reach Me takes place in 1970’s New York City, and tells the story of Miranda and her changing friendships at school. When her best friend, Sal, stops hanging out and she starts receiving mysterious notes, she’s left to figure out what’s going on. When You Reach Me is written with great details that really make the setting and the place real to me. The characters — especially Miranda and her mother — have wonderful dialogue that makes them seem like real, individual people. Stead weaves A Wrinkle In Time through the story, adding to the mystery (it’s clear early on that there’s some relation between the two stories) as well as giving the reader a clue that Miranda is not just any girl, she’s a girl who likes Madeline L’Engle.

When You Reach Me won the Newberry Medal this year, but I actually enjoyed Stead’s first novel, First Light, even more. First Light has one of my favorite structures: multiple, seemingly independent plot lines. You’re sure they’re related some how, and seeing how the author brings them together — as well as how seamlessly — is part of the fun. In the case of First Light, we have the story of Thea, a girl living under the ice, and Peter, a boy from New York City whose father is studying glacial movement and whose mother is prone to “headaches” which take her away from reality for hours or days on end. Just as with When You Reach Me, Stead manages to create a cast of three dimensional, compelling characters, human and canine alike.

[1]For more on the joys of “young adult” literature, see Nick Hornby’s interview in The Atlantic.
date:2010-01-24 21:31:19
tags:fiction, reading, young adult

Read: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

I picked up Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, `A Single Man <>`_, after Richard and I went and saw the film of the same name, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. The film is beautiful, as you might expect with Tom Ford directing. While the film is largely faithful to the book, the original has its own beauty and nuance that I didn’t see on the screen — not because it’s a poor adaptation, but probably because the book’s nuance, the part I enjoyed the most, is the third person narrator, observing George in the present tense. Isherwood uses the the third person narration to subtly reinforce this feeling of otherness and separation from the world. Telling the story in the present tense, he allows the reader to experience the story as it’s told, unfolding at the pace dictated by the narrator. While I had some idea about the conclusion based on the film, this use of tense and pacing kept me from mentally racing ahead of the narrator.

A Single Man covers one day in the life of George, a gay British man living in southern California in 1962. Not exactly closeted like we understand it today, he’s living a life where he hides in plain site. He goes about his day wearing a mask, measuring his words, paying careful attention to expectations. Jim, his long time partner (although that word is never used, of course), has just died, and people around him either don’t know, or don’t really understand the loss that’s occurred. The book opens with a description of waking up, of the slow return to consciousness, and then the conscious application of the mask to become the George “they” expect. This idea that we have different people, different actors, inside us all is one of the central themes the book explores. It’s a theme I really enjoyed seeing Isherwood play with and explore.

Anyone looking to step into a queer man’s shoes for a day before Stonewall could do far worse than pick up A Single Man.

date:2010-01-06 21:38:40
tags:gay, reading

Read: The Cactus Eaters, by Dan White

I recently completed a writing class focused on creative non-fiction, specifically autobiography, or memoir (the course title used the former label, but “memoir” seems to be the label most often used for the genre). As part of the course we also read about half a dozen different memoirs with different focuses and styles. So it was a both familiar and a little disorienting to receive The Cactus Eaters, by Dan White, for my birthday. Yes, it’s a memoir. And apparently I placed it on my Amazon wishlist at some point. But I do not remember doing so.

|image0|image1*The Cactus Eaters* tells the story of Dan’s efforts to hike The Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend, Allison. The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, covering 2,650, and Dan and Allison are not exactly seasoned hikers when they set out.

Reading The Cactus Eaters, I remembered my own experiences in the Boy Scouts, when we would hike 12 to 15 miles in a day. Remembering the pain and exhaustion I felt about two thirds of the way through a day’s hike, and the sheer euphoria at seeing our campsite at the end of the day — nevermind that I was going to shit in a hole that night — gave me a shallow reference point. The obvious difference is that we were only doing this for a single day, not day after day, covering hundreds of miles.

The Cactus Eaters is an engaging and entertaining description of life on the trail — the travails, the excitement, the strange (interesting?) fellow hikers, and of course, how to eat (or not) a cactus. But it seems to me that at its core, it’s about more than hiking. As Dan describes some of his irrational behavior on the trail, he effectively uses the narrative and reflection to start peeling away the onion layers of custom and convention we take for granted in our everyday lives. Dan and Allison’s time on the trail becomes an experience in deconstructing their (his) “real” life, his identity, and the things that make him “Dan”. The story may start as a description of two people in love, sharing an experience of a lifetime, but in the end it’s about Dan, trying to discover who he is and what he wants. I think it’s interesting that this process of discovery is not one Dan seems to have entered consciously or with consent.

*The Cactus Eaters* is not a perfect memoir. There are times I would have liked to read more reflection on the past, and it wasn’t clear to me until the nearly the end when the story took place. It is, however, an enjoyable read that gave me some insight into the experience of long distance hiking, as well as the evolution of one man’s personal identity.

date:2010-01-03 20:42:59
tags:books, pacific crest trail, reading