About the Blog

Its about anything and everything. I, Steven Hancock started this blog for a variety of reasons. I want to start documenting my life and sharing that with others, whether that's family, friends, strangers or my future self. I also want to start sharing my experiences with others in hopes that others can learn from me. Perhaps I can help someone set up an Ubuntu server, write a Django Web Application, or setup a Phonegap Mobile App.

That's it. I'm hear to share. Nothing more, nothing less. I will be covering a wide variety of topics so feel free to browse for the blog entries that interest you most.

Favorite Books From the First Half of 2013

June 20, 2013

At the beginning of the year I decided that I needed to read more. I was never a "reader". I've read maybe a handful of books outside of school. Well I'm proud to report that in the first six months of 2013 I've already read 14 books. I'm enjoying it and learning from it. If you are just like me, having never been a reader, try it. Read a book a month, whether its 100 pages or 400 pages. Start reading. I bet you will love it.

Most of the books I have read over the past six months have been business and relationship oriented. More recently I've started on books geared towards Comp Sci but I will talk about those in another six months...

A couple of books had a lot of influence on me like How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie or Stephen Covey's great book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. After reading these books and implementing some of their suggestions and best practices I feel like I've become a better person. Other books I found very interesting like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins or Outliers by Malcolm Galdwell. But my favorite books of the first half of 2013 made me think more deeply than any others.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

What makes us do what we do? How can a company better motivate their employees? In Drive, Daniel Pink examines what's the best way to motivate someone. Should rewards be used? What about punishments?

The old ways to motivate usually rely on external motivations. Whether that's a bonus, an award, or a punishment. Businesses often motivate using external pressures (i.e. bonuses). The problem with bonuses is they may work the first time but as time goes on they need to become larger and larger to get the same effect. This is unsustainable.

Pink argues that intrinsic motivation is much more affective than extrinsic. Pink gives examples of people who are asked to perform a task. Those who are told they will be paid if they provide the correct answer, on average, perform worse than those who are not paid. That's alarming. Most business base their employee reward system on this type of pay-per-performance strategy. The best strategy, however, is one of paying employees a fair wage (make sure they are being paid competitively) while unlocking their intrinsic motivation factors. Pink advocates for results only work environments, or ROWE. In a ROWE environment employees are allowed to work whatever hours makes sense for them to do their job. They can come and go as they please and they can work as little or as much as they want, they just have to make sure their job is completed.

There is a time and place for extrinsic motivation. If a task that is mundane but yet requires to be completed it can be advantageous to use a pay-per-performance program. Management should point out that the task is boring, but explain why it needs to be done. Employees should also be allowed the freedom to complete the task in whatever way they see fit, within reason.

Pink believes that businesses need to be run differently. If you run a business, or are in management, Drive is a must read. TED Talks has a great introduction to Daniel Pink and Drive.

Into the Wild

Why would a young man from Virginia travel to Alaska and spend a summer in the wild by himself? In Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer retraces the steps of Chris McCandless from graduation to death.

Krakauer mixes in passages of McCandless' own journal that help shed light on a young man who left everything to go out on his own. Krakauer relates to McCandless' search for oneself. Krakauer has done, what some may call reckless, adventures himself like a dangerous, solo climb up an Alaskan mountain.

I found both the author's and McCandless' stories riveting. I'm sure a lot of people would. But Like Krakauer, I too could relate to McCandless. When I graduated from University I longed for a challenge, something that could help me find myself. I hopped on a Bike and rode 2200 km solo. There's definitely a romance to being by yourself in nature, knowing that you are all alone. Spending so much time without communication really makes one philosophize and reflect on one's life.

Krakauer does a great job of never casting judgment on McCandless. He states the mistakes that McCandless made, his apparent arrogance, and his ignorance of the Alaskan wild. However, Krakauer, also points out that McCandless was doing quite well surviving in Alaska, at least according to his journal. Krakauer allows readers to reach their own conclusion of what kind of person McCandless was. Myself, I think its somewhere in the middle between reckless and confidence. McCandless was somewhat reckless. He could have been more prepared going into Alaska, he could have had better equipment, he could have told his family where he would be.That being said, McCandless was also the victim of circumstance. It seems as though there were happenstances that conspired against him that ultimately lead to his death.

The book is pretty short, I read it while on a plane, but really made me think. It has been four years (coming up in a week) since I started my own journey and until this book I had never really looked back to try and figure out why I so badly wanted to take such a long journey by myself. I don't know if I have come to terms with my full motivations for the trip but I at least know I can take some comfort that I shared the same desire with many others.

The Lean Startup

My favorite book of the first half of 2013 is the Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I had first heard of Ries on a StackExchange podcast. He was on to talk about about his book. Since Ries' visit the cast of the StackExchange podcast have made several references to lean startups.

So what is a Lean Startup? Well the term lean startup is based on the principles behind lean manufacturing. Basically, continuous development with short cycle time and small batches. This allows products that aren't working to fix quickly with little overhead. Ries adapted the technique for Tech companies, however, the principles can be applied to any startup.

Throughout the book, Ries brings up his own experiences with startups and several others (like Groupon) and identifies five key principles:

  • Entrepreneurs are everywhere - The stereo-typical startup is throught of to be some home business that strikes it big. That is often not the case. A startup doesn't have to be some guy working away in his garage. Entrepreneurs can be seen at work in Proctor & Gamble as a new product line is developed or in Google as an engineer develops new software.
  • Entrepreneurship is management - Entrepreneurship requires a different type of corporate culture. A company that is conducive to entrepreneurship has to be prepared for the extreme uncertainty that comes hand in hand with entrepreneurship. Entrepreneur could even be a job title.
  • Validate learning - A startup exists by bringing something new to a market and sustaining that business. To become sustainable, however, a business must develop hypotheses, experiment, then validate their vision. Ries advocates split testing or A/B testing in which two slightly different versions of a product are pitted against one another.
  • Build-measure-learn - Startups build a product and release it to the market place. They must measure the response by using multiple quantitative metrics. Then finally learn from what they measured. From what they have learnt they will either pivot or stay the course. It is important that the metrics that are used are actionable, meaning they reflect the key drivers of a business.
  • Innovation accounting - One common problem with entrepreneurs is how to measure progress. Many entrepreneurs don't measure progress and thus have no idea if they need to pivot or not. Ries describes ways to measure progress, how to set up milestones, and how to prioritize.

The Lean Startup is not just a book. It's a whole movement. There are a series of books, talks, and websites that are devoted to it. If you would like to learn more, and I strongly encourage you to do so, visit theleanstartup.com.