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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Founders at Work

This book is a collection of 32 interviews with founders of IT startups. The interviewer is Jessica Livingston who herself is a founding partner of Y-Combinator. The interviewees are:

  1. Max Levchin (Paypal)
  2. Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail)
  3. Steve Wozniak (Apple Computer)
  4. Joe Kraus (Excite)
  5. Dan Bricklin (Software Arts)
  6. Mitchell Kapor (Lotus Development)
  7. Ray Ozzie (Iris Associates, Groove Networks)
  8. Evan Williams (Pyra Labs – Blogger.com)
  9. Tim Brady (Yahoo)
  10. Mike Lazaridis (Research in Motion)
  11. Arthur Van Hoff (Marimba)
  12. Paul Buchheit (Gmail)
  13. Steve Perlman (WebTV)
  14. Mike Ramsay (TiVo)
  15. Paul Graham (Viaweb)
  16. Joshua Schachter (del.icio.us)
  17. Mark Fletcher (ONEList, Bloglines)
  18. Craig Newmark (craigslist)
  19. Caterina Fake (Flickr)
  20. Brewster Kahle (WAIS, Internet Archive, Alexa Internet)
  21. Charles Geschke (Adobe Systems)
  22. Ann Winblad (Open Systems, Hummer Winblad)
  23. David Heinemeier Hansson (37signals)
  24. Philip Greenspun (ArsDigita)
  25. Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software)
  26. Stephen Kauffer (TripAdvisor)
  27. James Hong (Hot or Not)
  28. James Currier (Tickle)
  29. Blake Ross (Firefox)
  30. Mena Trott (Six Apart)
  31. Bob Davis (Lycos)
  32. Ron Gruner (Alliant Computer Systems, Shareholder.com)

Most of the interviews follow this line:

  • Getting started.
  • Interactions with VCs.
  • Some of the more intense moments.
  • Turning Points.
  • Things that were surprising.
  • Felt like quiting at any time ?
  • Advice for people looking to start a startup.

Most of the interviews were good, a few were boring and a few came out to be outstanding. I dont want to specify which ones bored because you will be prejudiced in case you are planning to read it. The interviews I found most interesting were the ones with Steve Wozniak, Dan Bricklin, Mitchell Kapor, Craig Newmakr, Charles Geschke, Philip Greenspun, Joel Spolsky and Blake Ross.

Most of these startups had more than one founder and they all swear it would have been impossible to do it alone. There were one man shows also, albeit few. Another interesting fact is that most of these people knew each other during their college period or previous jobs. It makes one wonder whether you need to be in an elite circle to rise above the ordinary.Many of these founders came from Stanford or MIT and several of them previously worked at HP. It seems that HP used to be the ultimate dream company for engineers.

Another fact which might not surprise you is that most founders were young when they cut all the safety ropes at went for it. This shouldnt be surprising because that is the time when you have boundless energy and you dont have a family to take care of so there is less risk. Ofcourse there are exceptions to the young founder phenomenon, but very few.

In the interview with Blake Ross he talks about his new company called Parakey which was developing a new application which was under cover at the time of the interview. It turns out that they were developing an application platform for web and desktop – providing applications the framework to work online and offline. Parakey was bought by Facebook recently.

This book follows the style of a 1986 book from Microsoft Press called Programmers at Work. Interestingly Dan Bricklin and Ray Ozzie are interviewed in that book also.

My rating 8/10.

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Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? Debugging Indian Computer Programmers

This book is N. Sivakumar’s attempt at caricaturing the stereotypical Indian software programmer. He talks about a lot of things where you go, “oh boy, this is so true”. Examples are Indians buying only Japanese cars (Toyota, Honda, Nissan), bringing lunch in grocery bags etc.

But to say that this is all what the book does is an injustice to the author. He gives compelling arguments supporting the H1B programme (and immigration in general) and  provides a well balanced presentation of facts. Sivakumar brings light to a lot of issues dealing with H1, outsourcing, racial discrimination etc. He does justice to the topics in his analysis of controversial issues related to immigration and post 9/11 hatred.

Irrespective of the positive points, this books has a few shortcomings. It could do with a lot more editing. I even suspect there was no editor for this book. The layout of the text is ugly – the spacing between the lines is too much (a trick we used in college to make our project report appear larger than what it really was). What pissed me off most was the apologetic tone of writing. He always seems so unsure and lacking confidence, as if afraid of rubbing somebody the wrong way with his opinions. Some things are repeated over and over again which persuades the reader to close the book and reach for another. I so disappointed with this book that I quit reading it halfway through and returned the book to the library. After a couple of months, while browsing the library I saw the book again. This time I took it and read the other half.

What makes me so sad is that this could have been a brilliant book. The author is definitely a sharp guy and he has his facts and compelling arguments but the book did not deliver. Despite all the shortcomings this book is still worth a read.

3 stars.

P.S.
Sivakumar has written another book titled America Misunderstood: What A Second Bush Victory Meant To The Rest Of The World. This seems to be a far better effort.

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Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is a poem hidden away under beautiful prose. It is a short story, about 55 pages, yet it is profoundly heartwarming, with a subtle flow of true emotions and comes across as a refreshing, cool, light rain showering on your heart but comes back to haunt you and touches your soul in the deepest way.

I had seen the movie last year. It was kind of slow, but the beauty of the story was uniquely brilliant. So when I saw the book at the library I instantly grabbed it and read it within a couple of hours. It is all about 2 guys, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, coming to know each other while herding sheep on Brokeback mountain. It is the sad story of their difficult lives, separate yet entwined, and your heart reaches out to them. It is a remarkably enchanting story of forbidden love and longing.

The prose is astoundingly elegant and beautiful. Annie Proulx, critically acclaimed author and Pulitzer prize winner, writes as if painting a beautiful picture. The story flows like a serene river – quiet, beautiful, calm and exceedingly sure of itself. See a couple of excerpts to get a taste of her eloquent prose-

“They stood that way for a long time in front of the fire, its burning tossing ruddy chunks of light, the shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock. The minutes ticked by from the round watch in Ennis’s pocket, from the sticks in the fire settling into coals. Stars bit through the wavy heat layers above the fire. Ennis’s breath came slow and quiet, he hummed, rocked a little in the sparklight and Jack leaned against the steady heartbeat, the vibrations of the humming like faint electricity and, standing, he fell into sleep that was not sleep but something else drowsy and tranced until Ennis, dredging up a rusty but still usable phrase from the childhood time before his mother died, said, “Time to hit the hay, cowboy. I got a go”.”

“Without getting up he threw deadwood on the fire, the sparks flying up with their truths and lies, a few hot points of fire landing on their hands and faces, not for the first time, and they rolled down into the dirt. One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough.”

Sure enough, I never get enough of stories as beautifully told as this. Never enough.

5 stars, if not more.

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Dreaming In Code

Dreaming In Code

Dreaming In Code – Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software written by Scott Rosenberg is my latest read.

Considering that I finished this book almost 10 days ago this review is a bit late. After I read the last page and closed the book, I had mixed feeling about the it. Scott’s writing is very engaging and obviously he did a lot of research for writing this book. Most of the readers of this book would be IT workers, but I guess Scott wanted non-programmers to understand the concepts he was talking about as well. This resulted in some parts of the books being a bit boring for me. Although I would give credit to the author for the most lucid explanation of technical terms, I would have liked the book more if it was more streamlined. I think books of this type should be less than 300 pages, ideally around 250 – concise and to the point. Ironically, I think, cutting out the fluff would have made this book in that range. Sometimes Scott moves between topics almost randomly to the casual reader. In spite of the minor shortcomings, the book provides some valuable insights into the current state of software development.

The book mainly revolves around the development of an open source PIM (Personal Information Manager) application, conceived and funded by Mitchell Kapor, the chairman of the Open Source Application Foundation (OSAF), the founder of Lotus Development Corp and the designer of Lotus-1-2-3 spreadsheet application. Mitch is a well respected person in the open source community for his vision and philanthropic initiatives. He is the board chair of the Mozilla Foundation which makes Firefox. He is an investor and board chair in Linden Lab which created SecondLife. He is also a board member in the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI). In short, he has made his fortune and name in the software industry. Mitch was born in 1950 in Newyork and he came to Silicon Valley to work as a software consultant in 1978 roughly 7 years after taking in BA from Yale. In 1982 he co-founded the Lotus Development Corp. Here he created the Lotus-1-2-3 spreadsheet application which became a success. Later on he worked on the creation of a PIM application called Lotus Agenda. This application ignited a spark in Kapor’s mind which would later burn as a fire – the Chandler project. Chandler had ambitious targets. Kapor wanted it to be much more usable than an PIM applications available today. and he wanted it to run on Windows, Linux and Mac. It would have the spirit of Lotus Agenda in terms of flexibility and usability. It would be an open source initiative and he would invest $5 million in initial funding.

Scott Rosenberg, a writer, editor and co-founder of Salon, decided that he would be an embedded journalist for the Chandler project. Scott probably thought that it would take about an year for the 1.0 of Chandler to be released. He would write about how an ambitious Open Source exponent becomes the driving force in the creation of an application, opening new horizons in usability and flexibility while embracing the ideals of Free Software. Scott got much more than what he bargained for. He does a brilliant job of putting that down in Dreaming In Code.

To tell a long story short, Dreaming In Code started as Scott Rosenberg’s attempt to sketch a story of how to build a successful open source application but it evolved into a narrative of why and how things go wrong in a software development project. Scott followed the project for 3 years but in that period Chandler didn’t even reach the 1.0 milestone. Dreaming in Code is all about the hardships that Kapor and his developers faced during these 3 years designing and developing Chandler. Although Scott probably went out to write an Open Source success saga, the unexpected turn of events made the book far more valuable. It contains the true story of how an enthusiastic team, with few time and money constraints, faces and overcomes unforeseen issues – just like every other project that you and me has worked on. While reading the book, an empathetic reader would be able to identify the plight of the Chandler project. The disheartening lagging of release dates and inability to decide on one option among many haunted the project right from the early days. It is interesting and humbling to watch software gurus get tossed in the waters of an ambitious project. Sometimes things are far different from what we think they are. There is only one lesson that this book teaches you – developing software is hard.

I would rate it 4 stars.

P.S.

To follow the development of Chandler you can read the OSAF blog.

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As you can see from here, I am reading quite a few books lately. I am not a speed reader and so I dont get to read all the books that I want to. The reading list has changed after I wrote this page – i finished a couple, moved some to future reading list, stopped some in the middle and added quite a few to the list. I hope to update the list to reflect the changes soon.

I just completed reading a book called “The Best Software Writings I – Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky”. As the name implies, it is a collection of articles relating to software selected by celebrity blogger Joel Spolsky from submissions by his blog readers. He gives a brief introduction to the author and the topic of the article at the beginning of each chapter. Sometimes the introduction is better than the actual essay. A few of the articles are excellent, some are good and a few are mediocre. The quality forms the Bell curve of standard normal distribution. Nobody can get it all right. Not even Joel. All except one of the articles in the book are available online. So I intend to post the links here so that you can read them for free (sorry Joel).

  1. Style Is Substance by Ken Arnold
  2. Award For The Silliest User Interface: Windows Search by Leon Bambrick
  3. The Pitfalls Of Outsourcing Programmers – Why Some Software Companies Confuse The Box With The Chocolates by Michael Bean
  4. Excel As A Database by Rory Blyth
  5. ICSOC04 Talk by Adam Bosworth
  6. Autistic Social Software by danah boyd
  7. Why Not Just Block the Apps That Rely on Undocumented Behaviour ? by Raymond Chen
  8. Kicking the Llama by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi
  9. Save Canada’s Internet from WIPO by Cory Doctorow
  10. EA: The Human Story by ea_spouse
  11. Strong Typing vs. Strong Testing by Bruce Eckel
  12. Processing Processing by Paul Ford
  13. Great Hackers by Paul Graham
  14. The Location Field is the New Command Line by John Gruber
  15. Starbucks Does Not Use Two-Phase Commit by Gregor Hohpe
  16. Passion by Ron Jeffries
  17. C++ – The Forgotten Trojan Horse by Eric Johnson
  18. How Many Microsoft Employees Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb? by Eric Lippert
  19. What to Do When You’re Screwed by Michael “Rands” Lopp
  20. Larry’s Rules of Software Engineering #2 by Larry Osterman
  21. Team Compensation by Mary Poppendieck [Not Available Online]
  22. Mac Word 6.0 by Rick Schaut
  23. A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy by Clay Shirky
  24. Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software by Clay Shirky
  25. Closing the Gap, Part 1 by Eric Sink
  26. Closing the Gap, Part 2 by Eric Sink
  27. Hazards of Hiring by Eric Sink
  28. PowerPoint Remix by Aaron Swartz
  29. A Quick (and hopefully Painless) Ride Through Ruby (with Cartoon Foxes) by why the lucky stiff

I should say Joel saved the best for the last. All in all, this was an interesting read. I would surely buy Part 2 if and when it comes out.

Currently I am reading Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg which is about the development of Chandler.

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Running With Scissors

Running With ScissorsRunning with Scissors is an unbelievable story. Nevertheless, it is a true story and it is written by the person who could tell it best – the person who lived the story. Running with Scissors is the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs who has authored other books like Dry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects, Sellevision etc. Running with Scissors was #1 on the Newyork Times Bestseller list and stayed on the list for two and a half consecutive years. The book was made into a movie by the same name by director Ryan Murphy who also wrote the screenplay. The movie has been nominated for the 2007 Golden Globe award. The novel Sellevision is also being made into a movie by director Mark Bozek.

In Running with Scissors, the author tells his story as a teenager who used to be a neat freak but is forced to live in a house where they put turds on the picnic table and consider them as words from God. Augusten is gay, his parents are divorced, his mother is lesbian and she is mentally unstable and is treated by a weird psychiatrist, his boyfriend is a psycho and he lives in a madhouse where he lives an unbelievable life which is portayed in the book in the most humorous way, though dark by its very nature. The very fact that Augusten finds humor in these situations is what makes this book outstanding. I believe that for the same reason he was able to survive through his childhood without losing his sanity – seeing the humor in the dark episodes of one’s life. Augusten could have written his story in a different way – the sad story of a child facing abuse from his family and all those around him or a motivational story of a child who suffered hardships and fought his way through. But Augusten chose the best way and if we give it a second thought we can see that the story is really inspiring too. A lot of people, including me, would fare a lot better if we could see the humor in life. But we just see the melancholy, the drama, the losses, the tears – the unfair life.

I would rate this book 5 stars – it is original, humorous, thought provoking, brilliantly written and highly entertaining.

P.S. Augusten has a blog here.

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I am back into the reading groove. I am really completing the books that I start reading and that is something that hasn’t happened much in the recent past. I was always a voracious reader. A small mountain of Balarama and Poompatta was my best friend when I was a kid. I had read all the Tintin adventures and most of Asterix & Obelix comics by the time I was 10 years old. Hundreds of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Secret Seven books were devoured with a passion not shown for anything else. I had read the Illiad and Odyssey before my classmates even knew they existed. In college I shifted to Sidney Sheldon, Frederick Forsythe and Jeffrey Archer. While struggling with my engineering studies I got interested in computers and programming and slowly I moved towards technical books. This caused a slight change in my reading habit – I started to quit reading books in midway. Since tech books are usually dense and would require a good amount of concentration and effort to read the reading process would be slow. By the time I read a few chapters I would grow interested in an another book. So I would leave this one and move to another. I remember having read somewhere that the habit of browsing the internet a lot tend to shorten your attention span and ability to concentrate. This could be true since we are always moving from one webpage to another and from one window to another (ALT + TAB). The page has to be really interesting to us to make us stay there for more an a few seconds. Whatever the reason, I found my reading habit disappointing – I was never reading a book to completion. The Tipping Point was the first book which I read fully after a long period. Recently I have started reading fiction again which has brought back the tendency to finish the book. I am carefully limiting my fiction reading to a few carefully chosen titles (due to lack of time) and I am planning to write reviews of the book I read (both fiction and non-fiction). I have already written a couple of reviews (here and here) but I intend to do this more frequently. I just wrote the first review (Running From Scissors) but I thought I would write about writing reviews first before actually posting the review to give my dedicated blog readers (yes, all 3 of them) a little context.

You can see a list of books I am currently reading here. All the reviews would be under the “Book-Review” tag.

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