Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Adventures of a Bystander by Peter F Drucker

Peter F Drucker (PFD) was a top dog in management and has written many books to his credit. Somehow, I chose to take a stab at his autobiography rather than any of his specific works and I was delighted by my choice.

During Drucker’ s life time, he seems to have interacted with eminent people like Sigmund Freud and Henry Luce and so on. For the commentary purposes, I would restrict myself to just one chapter. It is about his school teachers and it impressed me the most. I also liked his views on grandmother and Indian summer of innocence chapters very much. This work would not qualify for an autobiography in a strict sense since he talks about a handful of people, but the way he has mixed his observations and the environment details makes for a compelling read. If society is made of individuals and their stories, this work would constitute one good chapter.

In this chapter “Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy”, he talks about two teachers whom he adored without any reservations. In terms of handling students as well as personalities, they could not be more different – yet, very effective in their own way. As per Drucker, despite the fact they were first rate teachers, if not outstanding, they failed to impart what Drucker needed to learn – that is, writing legibly and learning a bit of craft skills.

PFD enjoys watching the teachers a lot. Let us see them through the eyes of Drucker.

Miss Elsa was the principal of the school. After three weeks, she asks Drucker about his strengths, weakness and his own rating on reading, comprehension, arithmetic and handwriting. I think it was a great approach at such an early stage of school. They agreed that he is very good in the first two and she left with minimum directions to consolidate on the two strengths. Then, as to arithmetic, he rated himself as “Poor”, but teacher remarked he is fine – except that he is very sloppy and specific techniques need to be taught to check the answers – he was making no more mistakes than many. I think such nuanced an observation comes only if you are a terrific teacher. As to handwriting she went beyond his assessment that he is “Poor” and called him a total disgrace for her class. She drew clear and detailed plans how to go about improving it.

Miss Sophy, arts teacher after observing him for a month or so asked Drucker, ”How about making a milking stool for your mother?”. Drucker responded “We don’t have any cows at home” for which she would respond that is about the only thing he could possibly make. Sadly, by the end of year the one he came up with was barely stable.

What I liked the most is, after making serious attempts to improve his handwriting and failing, Elsa called his parents to say he won’t improve in future either (she was correct) and hence recommended him for higher education school (it is called Gymnasium in Europe at that time) ahead by an year since his other skills were more than up to the mark.

Drucker in his other works insists that one can build performance based on strengths not on weakness and also that it takes lot more energy and effort to move from incompetence to mediocre than from mediocre to excellence. Now, at least we know the context.

Drucker strongly believes that students always recognize a good teacher. But, teacher is an elusive term. Some are verbal and some are non-verbal. Some are effective in large crowds, some in small groups, and some in one-on-ones only. What works for one rarely works for another first rate teacher he opines.

There are two breeds. (1) Teacher – who has a gift in his keeping. They are born. (2) Pedagogue – who programs the student for learning. It can be learnt by almost everyone. This is the most important detail I had learnt – wish I had this grasp when I was in school.

Miss Sophy had charisma, gave enlightenment, conveyed vision and was a teacher! Miss Elsa had method, gave skills, guided the learning and was a pedagogue. In either case, they are passionate and they held themselves accountable for the results. He concludes rather strongly that, “there are no poor or stupid or lazy students for a real teacher and pedagogue. There are only good teachers and poor teachers”.

Finally, my image of a teacher is one of apocryphal story – a teacher who has unerring instincts and unsurpassed effectiveness. Once there was a teacher, who was reputed to know answers to all questions. A student was determined to prove him wrong. He does a thorough job of understanding the teacher’s daily routine. He figures out that the teacher has the habit of coming out of home briefly after waking up for morning ablution. After meticulous planning, with some of his friends as witness, he waits near the teacher’s home one day very early in the morning when visibility is a bit dubious. He is holding a sober bird in a cage (basically it won’t make any noise). He also has a sharp instrument that is poisoned that would kill the bird almost instantly. His plan was near perfect and all he has to do is ask the teacher is the bird is dead or alive. If the teacher says it is alive, he can kill the bird in an instant and show him he is wrong. If he says it is dead, he would be wrong already.

Now he asks the teacher in a loud voice from a distance to ensure low visibility, “Teacher, tell me the bird in the cage is alive or dead?”

Teacher, with all his sagacity summoned responds, “My dear, the choice is yours!”

Thanks for reading this far.



Monday, August 1, 2011

The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month : Essays on Software Engineering
By Frederick P Brooks , Jr

Schopenhauer warned that, “Any book that is important should be reread immediately”. While I did follow his advice eventually, the gap between first read on a dog eared library book and now on a good silver jubilee edition was more than a decade and the impact is vastly different.

Author was overseeing one of the biggest ever software development undertaking in the history. Hence, the nuggets of wisdom he delivers ought to be taken seriously. But all the technologies he talks about (e.g.: Microfiche) can be found only in museums and the processes for controls are also less applicable in the current scheme of things. It goes to prove writing an enduring classic in this area is close to impossible.

Code Base Size : Large and beyond



Code Base size : Small to Medium





Time Horizon

Lines-of-Code (LOC). Want to avoid quoting any specific language for LOC. Ball park division would be: Small = up to 500K LOC; Medium: Up to Million LOC; Large and Beyond: Greater than Million LOC (Disclaimer: Small, Medium and Large definitions are flimsy at best).

Author is essentially talking about a project that clearly qualifies for Quad-1. By the way, I could not think of any Quad-4 projects. Now days, most of the people are involved in Quad-2 and Quad-3 projects and hence the applicability of the book’s advices would have to be taken in that light. Most of the mammoth projects are already in shape (like huge new OS development etc) and hence what you would witness is using them for our end application goals.

Some books stand the test of time since it deals with basic problems. I would say only a portion this book would stand that test. Let me summarize the main points of this book with my comments (disclosure: not exhaustive).

1. Man-Month is not an interchangeable unit. That is, by putting more people you cannot reduce the time taken – if you try to add more people, it can only exacerbate the situation. (May be in the next edition, author would change the reference as person month in tune with the spirit of times).

2. Importance of documentation and communication are well stressed. While there is nothing to be gainsaid on them, proposed solutions may not suit. Yet, the concept needs to be taken to heart during execution.

3. He rightly stresses the need for conceptual integrity in product. However, in the world of rapid changes, it is difficult to come up with enduring ones. Yet one (or the core team?) would have to try. Previously, users adapted to the devices more, but now market drives the specifications and design. Hence, it is bound to be fragmented and maintaining it is going to be even more daunting. In any product, as changes start creeping into each version of the launch or upgrade, the systems start accumulating what is known as “design debt”. It starts innocuously at first and over a long period (if changes are not frequent and well done) becomes eventually overwhelming such that it would justify a total redevelopment.

4. Small time lapses eventually add up to large delays. He advises us to be very vigilant on them. I would surely agree since each one in isolation would be very negligible but collectively it can deliver a catastrophe. He quotes in the beginning of the chapter “How does a project get to be a year late?” and answers “One day at a time”. That Q&A alone would provide the snappiest summary of the message.

5. He talks in detail about the structure of the team. So long as we take them in the light of Quad-1 kind of projects, they are fine. If you are handing Quad-2 or 3 projects, most of the suggestions are too overwhelming to implement, but one can look into the spirit of it and make sure it can be accomplished in some manner. Take away would be, think thoroughly on team structures before the journey.

6. Finally, author quotes from a restaurant in New Orleans. “Good cooking takes time. If you are made to wait, it is to serve you better and to please you”. In effect, advising “courteous stubbornness” like that of chef while handling change notes or modification request or rework etc for the project. Well said, but I would be apprehensive of this point in a market driven world - should be attempted with caution.

Let us go back to Schopenhauer’s warning where we started. Now, I know at least one reason as to why he said what he said. If you don’t read the book again immediately, the contents may become outdated faster than we all wish.

Thanks for reading this far.



Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management

Author : Jerry B Harvey

One line description of the Abilene paradox can be summed up as “Agree in Public. Disagree in private”.

Let us have a look at the story based on which the paradox is named.

On a hot July Sunday afternoon (104 degrees) at Coleman, Texas, a family was happily playing cards. Things were going indeed fine until the eldest person proposed “let us go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria”. Jerry, the author of the book, seems to have thought “what? Abilene! 53 miles in dust and storm in a non-air-conditioned car” but his wife remarked, “Sounds like a good idea”. Then, one more chipped in “I haven’t been to Abilene for a long time”. With such a convergence of agreements, off they packed to Abilene. Jerry’s unarticulated fears became true. Heat was brutal and food was lousy. Nearly after 5 hours and 100+ miles all of them came back very frustrated. Finally, one person broke the silence saying “Well, I really did not enjoy the trip and actually I did not want to come but I came just to satisfy you all”. Next person joined in with a similar message and later it became obvious that none of them wanted to go but ended up going anyway. I may have summarized the story in a too un-dramatic form. But the point is clear – we have lots of trouble in managing agreements!

Jerry then gives us examples of organization dynamics where, in many meetings such things happen time and again. But then, paradoxes are paradoxes because they are based on logic and rationale that is different from what we understand or expect. I wish I could disagree with him, but, I have personally witnessed and sometimes participated in such paradoxes. “Tell the truth and shame the devil” is a lofty goal, but in real life, such an act seems to involve near exemplary courage. At least for me, I could not muster this every time and hence my edgy resonance finds its way in.

Jerry’s view of Watergate scandal and his version plus views of hire-n-fire in the organizations is bound to make you think deeply. He also takes up the concept of grace with captain Asoh’s story. At SFO, on 22nd November 1968, with 11 crew members and 96 passengers, he landed a DC-8 flight 2.5 miles before the runway and hence ended up landing at sea coast’s backwaters. He managed to land reasonably well and so no one was injured and the plane was nearly intact (some damage is inevitable since it landed on salty water). Shortly, he was summoned by National board of safety for investigation. He being Japanese, it is an inter country affair too. Lots of people camped there to witness the case of what otherwise was supposed to be a long drawn trail. Some lawyers even rented suites nearby. So when he was asked formally how it happened, his reply was “As you Americans say, Asoh messed up”. In a singular sentence whatever can be said was said - only details were left. The trail was over very soon. I must say Asoh-san left a deep impression on me.

Jerry’s view on academics is also worth pondering – right from kindergarten to college, cheating is defined as “giving or receiving aid to others”. It is odd that if you help or being helped, it is tantamount to cheating and thereby implicitly encourages selfishness. We seem to know a lot about “collaboration”, “cooperation” etc, but by training we are trained to be standalone persons.

This book is relatively a short one (156 Pages) and hence I don’t want to quote many episodes or examples from it that would rob the reader who may want to read it. Hence, I would like to recall an incident that happened in Gandhi’s family.

We live in a sugarcane plantation about 18 miles away from the city of Durban, South Africa. Our home is so far away in remote outlying villages that we had almost no neighbors. Therefore, I and both of my sisters were always excited to have the opportunity to be able to go downtown, just to visit friends or sometimes watch movies. One day by chance my father asked me to accompany him to town to attend a daylong conference -stupendous joy for me at that moment.

After reaching the conference hall, dad asked me to pick me back at 5pm which I gladly agreed. After completing the day’s tasks, I left the car for service and instead of waiting for the car to be repaired, I thought it will not hurt to go and see a movie and come back. But, I was late and ended up reaching the conference hall only by 6pm. Meanwhile, my dad has already checked with the service shop and learnt that I did not go there on time to pickup. Unaware of this, when dad asked me why I was late, I replied that, “Repair took more time” which was a lie. Dad unmoved by my response said, “there must something wrong in the way I have raised and educated you. You did not have the courage to speak to me honestly. Let me walk back all the way and contemplate”. He did walk all the way and I drove the car very slowly behind him crying most of the time. From then onwards, I never lied.

In the end, it boils down to creating an environment where people would have the courage to tell the truth. Creating such an environment is very hard and to sustain it - well no one has yet tried!

Now, let us briefly touch upon “vital lies”. It is a term coined by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He means by that term, “a comforting story we tell ourselves in order to conceal or forget a more painful truth”.

So the goal would be avoiding vital lies to our own (internally) and tell the truth to others (externally).

Thanks a lot for reading this far.....








Thursday, May 5, 2011

Looking Back and Moving Forward..........

Dear Readers:

After 19 posts and 21 months, I thought, I would take a pause and look at the journey so far.

Here are my notes:

1. I must confess my reading habit stands influenced by blog writing. If a book is likely to take a long time to complete, I would not pick it in the first place or I have one backup plan. Also, if the book is not good enough, I drop it half way which I never used to do before.

2. In the beginning (mostly 2009 posts), it was very easy since, I have read a few books and put the notes or commentary in bits somewhere. So, effort to assemble and put them in blog was not much. When such inventory ran out, it proved a little more interesting.

3. I am thankful to the people who have commented in public for some of their comments they have made were evocative enough for other readers to get in to action. In some cases, people did buy the books commented in JuJubax which is a good thing.

4. Next set of active people are the ones who send me e-mails. For whatever reasons, they would not want to express in public, but in terms of the quality of feedback it is truly awesome. So much so, I think more than twice about such readers before posting. My thanks to this private and active group. Some of the ideas for next-book-to-be-posted came from this group.

5. There are a set people who read the blog but would neither comment nor send emails for all posts. Thanks to them for the time being spent on the postings.

6. I also see a reasonable number of visitors (thanks to Feedjit) from various geographies like Brazil, Peru, Australia and Africa etc where I have no reach otherwise. I surmise, some of it would be accidental one time visitor category because of some search results and some of it would be a crawler. My thanks to such “unique visitors” and “algorithms inside the crawlers”.

By and large, it has been an enriching journey for me and I would keep you all posted by posting ;-)

Cheers and regards,


PS: Next post in June 2011.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman.

After a very long time, I picked up a history book. I don’t subscribe to “History repeats itself” school of thought. I am more of “History does not repeat, but rhymes” view of Mark Twain. Picking this one was easy since many of the high profile authors quote her (Eg: Peter Senge). Sure enough, it was one of the best reads.

Any first rate book, usually declares the framework and key definitions before delivering the main message. The clarity with which she defines folly and why events were picked is bound to appeal to the reader.

Misgovernment, she declares, comes in 4 kinds. (1) Tyranny and oppression. (2) Excessive ambition. (3) Incompetence and decadence. (4) Folly or perversity. The focus is on the last one. To qualify for folly she asserts that, it must have been perceived counterproductive in its own time – not by hindsight. Add to that, there must be feasible alternative action that exists.

With such robust framework in place, she takes up four case studies. (1) The Trojans take the wooden horse within their walls (2) The Renaissance Popes provoke the protestant secession (3) The British lose America (4) America betrays herself in Vietnam. All the four chapters start with a strong message and ends up with even stronger note – occasionally, one may tend to think the views are subtly biased. None of the four would be discussed here for I would not like to add further angles to them!

What would worry the reader is that folly is after all not a monopoly of any geography, religion or time. Neither any form of government (From Democracy to all the way to Autocracy) can possibly offer hope. Eventually, that inevitable folly happens. She is fond of quoting John Adams “Government is little better practiced now than 3000 or 4000 years ago”. If that is the case, there may not be immediate resolution; we would have to endure a very long path before hopefully we find a solution.

Author’s main point is this: “Any path or process or policy which conflicts with self interest eventually results in folly or perversity”. She gives many examples to support this point. I have heard a lot of stories about Solon, may be because he is really far off in the rear view mirror historically speaking, which lends itself for more fertile imagination. The story here is even more interesting.

Circa: 6th Century B.C, Chief Magistrate Solon was asked to save the state. It was in a state of economic ruin with harsh debt laws and poor trade. He enjoyed an unusual distinction of being trusted by poor as well as rich – because, he neither participated in the oppression of poor nor supported the cause of poor. He was also a man of wealth and substance. He gave a body of laws which focused on ensuring fair dealings between weak and strong and also on government. Taking no chances, he extracted an oath from Athenian council to maintain his reforms for TEN years – It cannot be repealed without his approval. Finally, he made a master move. In the pretext of travelling to see the world, he sailed into a self imposed exile for ten years. He could have easily retained such huge powers of the state and perhaps become a tyrant. But if he were around, then there would have been lot of requests pouring in to change or add/delete some law or other thereby earning ill will. What is evident is in the absence of overriding personal ambition, a person with a strong common sense would see many things through.

Only one example she gives for the reversal of folly - President Anwar Sadat’s abandonment of enmity with Israel. It ranks lonely in history she says, and stands undiminished by the subsequent assassination.

To me, it appears the output of folly is more like “termite effect” - they keep working constantly on the beams and their work is invisible, but alas not the end result.

When desire disagrees with the judgment of reason, then there is a disease of the soul – but it looks like, that disease would appear now and then without a hint. She identifies three stages. In the first stage, there is mental standstill that fixes the boundaries and principles of the problem. In the second stage, the dissonance and failing functions are witnessed, while the initial principles only rigidify. If wisdom persists, re-examination coupled with re-thinking would occur resulting in a possible course correction. But then, she is convinced that they are “as rare as rubies in the backyard”. In the third stage error multiples and eventually consumes destroys the system.

Über philosopher P.D.Ouspensky wrote only one novel called “The strange life of Ivan Osokin”, there Ivan gets a chance to go back in time again to his early school days and manhood and early love. Alas, it is the same thing happens all over again. It was written to illustrate we don’t live life – but life lives us. Certainly, a scary thought and proposition. Come to think of it, folly seems to be happening like that of what happened Osokin. At a systemic level, it may be difficult to eliminate but at the individual level, hopefully we can keep a guard with a dose of humility and rationality

Thanks for reading this far….



Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why Not ? By Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres

Why Not?

- How to use everyday ingenuity to solve problems big and small

By Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres

I am recounting an interesting story by Robert Fritz of The Path of least resistance fame on Thomas Edison. Circa 1878, when Edison decided to create the electric light, it was already well known that electricity could produce light. The task before Edison was to find the material that would not burn out and instantly consume itself. He began reading everything that had been written on the subject, and it is reported that he filled two hundred note books with jottings and diagrams. All scientists before him had followed a certain process. They looked for substances that would reduce resistance to the electric current, but they had found none that would produce an electric light. Instead of following the same process and limiting himself to producing the results he already knew, he tried the opposite. He tried for substances that would increase the resistance to electric current. After testing countless materials, he settled for carbonized element and placed it in vacuum bulb, thereby creating the familiar incandescent lamp.

He followed the famous maxim of Jacobi “invert”. This book is all about looking at various situations in a different light. It is worth a serious read – some of the episodes do offer some actionable insights. For the purpose of commentary, I would take only two stories and their general tools approach.

1: Penguin story: Adelie Penguins congregate on an ice floe and they all want to dive in to the water to feed on the fish. But, no one wants to dive first just in case a leopard seal or an orca is looking for lunch. Each Penguin stands on the edge and acts as if it is going to jump first. The problem is that, there is no great advantage of being first. Once it is clear the first one is not eaten, rest of the group jumps in no time as fast followers. By the way, even if the first one is eaten, it is still safe for others to jump in as the seal is already fed.

Like Pharma, first mover should have some advantage by law; else more penguin postures would happen rather than real acts. For example, the first one who does the price cutting does the customer a great help. The firm must be protected in order to prevent others from imitating for a while so that, some advantage in volume or market share happens for the first mover. At this point, no country gives such protection since patents have to be “non-obvious”. The authors even go to the extent of citing some of the new laws that have to be patented for a while – what they mean is that, when a state or province enacts a new law which breeds a better business environment, other states quickly copy it which renders the first mover’s efforts relatively ineffective.

2: Paying the polluter story: This is my most favorite one. Imagine a classic nuisance dispute between a polluting factory and nearby complaining resident. When it goes to court, it makes two basic decisions. First, if the resident has basic entitlement to stop the pollution. Second, if yes, how can it be protected by injunction or compensation if pollution occurs. Now, you get a 2by2 matrix.

Who owns the initial entitlement to control whether pollution occurs


Pollution allowed without compensation

Pollution prohibited without compensation


Pollution allowed with compensation to resident



Now, you can see the missing category – “pay the polluter!” While it sounds alarming, there are some cases where it makes sense. Visualize a polluting factory that is located in no man’s land. But let us say, after 3 or 4 decades, habitation develops around that area. At that time, it is not fair to sue the polluter – worse yet, ask them to pay. Here, it is equitable to pay the factory folks to move out. They cite a case on these lines.

As to the four problem solving tools, authors cite them as four provoking questions. We will discuss one here.

1. What would Croesus do (WWCD)?

2. Why don’t you feel the pain?

3. Where else would it work?

4. Would flipping work?

WWCD is an interesting concept. King Croesus was incredibly wealthy and hence even today the expression “as rich as Croesus” exists. When trying to solve the problem, authors first advise you to imagine a solution not having any constraints – and then start working towards the solution. Howard Hughes, for example, wanted to watch specific films on T.V. whenever he felt like. Nearly 50 years back, there is no V.C.R, hence he bought the T.V. Station and asked the station General Manager to play the movie he wanted. While it may sound preposterous as a solution, the solution trajectory is on track. Come to think of it V.C.R. or today’s PVR is nothing but low cost personalized T.V. Station. In short, first make it possible, and then make it easy and affordable.

I enjoyed this book fully as it gave me subtle flips to various scenarios. Authors’ focus on symmetry is engaging - unless, one comes for the Antoni Gaudi‘s school of thought which does not subscribe to symmetry.

Thanks for reading thus far.