End of Summer Book Review

One of the great things about no longer having a company or a farm to run is that I’ve been reading a new book every week or two. I’ll save the fiction reviews for Goodreads, but a few of them are worth writing about here.

  1. Lean UX: Designing Great Products With Agile Teams

I’ve worked at giant companies where everything was so hierarchical and top-down that if the employees wanted to get anything cross-functional done, they basically had to bribe co-workers from other departments with favors or after-work drinks. I have also worked at a tiny start-up where everyone worked on everything, all ideas were considered, and we moved extremely fast. I knew we used tools like Trello and Asana and Google Docs, but I found that I had trouble explaining why we did it that way. When people threw terms around like Waterfall or Agile, I Googled them, but until I read this book, I never really understood the history behind these vastly different methodologies. When I mentioned this gap in my understanding, a friend suggested I check out the Agile Manifesto, the Scrum Guide, and read Lean UX, and I’m really glad I did.

The book borrows heavily from existing Scrum concepts, but expands on it to ensure that research and design (and legal and whoever is needed to ensure the thing works) have a voice within that ritualized framework. There are a lot of great examples of how to incorporate diverse thought into the ideation process, and how to ensure that the desires of the end user (and not just developer bias) are honored in the final product. Best of all, there is no dogma. They recognize that some organizations are hierarchical, and maybe it’s ok to be inefficient in certain contexts. The point is not to adhere to some perfect process, it’s producing great products quickly, and realistically.

As an intuitive autodidact, I’m all for faking things until you find yourself making things, but there comes a time to backfill whatever you figured out on your own with some book learning. When I have cluttered, unorganized thoughts, and I know everything seems to work, but I don’t really know why, I absolutely love it when a book comes along with a framework that allows me to tidy all those thoughts up, declutter my brain, and store them away. Lean UX is like the Marie Kondo of software development. It’s a framework for working with a team, keeping just the bare bones of what’s needed, and chucking all the unnecessary documentation and bureaucracy. To borrow from Marie, it brings me joy to know that the next time someone tells me about the pain of their waterfall process, I can simply hand them my copy of Lean UX.  P.S. Go read this too.

2.   The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

One of the hardest things about stepping up from my back-office analyst roles to client-facing executive roles was learning to sell. My method of selling was to learn everything I could about a problem, then walk into a conference room and drop a knowledge bomb on my prospective client. I’d deliver a fully-fleshed out analysis of what they were doing well, what they were doing wrong, and a plan to fix it, then shake hands and walk away. I think this approach terrified my co-workers, who were afraid I’d offend the client. We were all a little surprised to discover that my approach worked about 75% of the time. But why?

In my mind, sales people are supposed to be annoyingly nice, calling all the time, bothering people, never taking no for an answer. I, on the other hand, encouraged clients to tell me no. I considered myself the anti-sales guy. This dissonance of disliking sales yet having to sell, and yet somehow having it work out… it was a problem for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening. So, I decided to face things head on and be the best darn sales guy I could be. I made an effort to be friendly and bought lunches and emailed interesting articles…and I sold nothing. What was I doing wrong?

I asked my friend Alex Boyd, CEO of RevenueZen.com, to suggest some books that would help me learn how to finally be one of those nice but annoying sales people. Instead, he told me to read The Challenger Sale. What I found was not a how-to guide to bug people, but hard data that helped me understand why my no-nonsense style had worked, while my overly-friendly style had failed.

The premise of The Challenger Sale, to paraphrase aggressively, is that the best sales people tend to do the hard work of becoming experts before they try to sell anything, then fundamentally challenge the way the client is doing business, reframing the way their clients think about their business. Before pitching anything related to what you have for sale, you need to make sure the client understands the solution – not your solution. It turns out I had meandered accidentally into doing the right thing, but I needed a book like this to give me a framework in which to think about it and help me understand why being direct worked, and why my attempts to “act like a sales person” generally failed. Right or wrong way, I have a lot more empathy for sales people these days, and no longer experience that dissonance when it’s time for me to sell.

3.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

OK, so I know the last two were business books, and this is a book about what Barbara Kingsolver ate for a year. I promise, there’s a reason for this.

This book follows the Kingsolver family as they grow or locally source all their food for a year on their small Appalachian farm, preaching about the absurdity of flying bananas 6000 miles, or the even more absurd practice of trucking lettuce 3000 miles when there’s perfectly good lettuce available at a farm down the road, or in your own backyard.

The good: I love the insistence on thinking about petroleum as an input when growing food, both when used on the field as a fertilizer or pesticide and as gas in transportation. I love the idea of eating food that’s been grown locally without pesticides. I love the idea of eating heirloom varietals of plants that were bred for taste rather than ease of transport. I agree that processed foods are a huge part of the obesity epidemic and think we should shift our diets towards high quality foods. I agree that we, as a society, need a much better understanding of where the ingredients in our food are coming from, even if it’s just to become better shoppers.

The bad: The book really downplays just how much work this family of four had to put in to extract roughly half of their yearly calories from the animals and plants they cared for. The work of farming was presented as a benefit: it’s like meditation, yoga, and you can cancel your gym membership for the price of a shovel! Nope. I had a farm. I grew my own food. It was really, really hard, and the reason I stopped going to the gym was because my joints hurt too much after all that repetitive physical labor.

The frustrating: There is a puritanical insistence on eating extremely seasonally throughout the book. Mason jars and freezers are offered as the only acceptable way to consume warm-weather plants during cold-weather months. While I get that seasonality is important to think about when picking up a tub of strawberries in January at a grocery store in Minneapolis, real farmers use all sorts of greenhouse-esque contraptions to grow plants out of season, and are rewarded for doing so. It’s very normal to extend the growing season in cold climates with hoop houses, shield the sun in hot climates with screens, use hydroponics in dry environments…etc. If the Kingsolvers had employed a little technology, they might have been able to grow their own indoor oranges and bananas, and they definitely could have been eating fresh greens in February, the lack of which was much lamented throughout the book.

Now, why am I writing about this at all? I can’t stop thinking about the idea of employing tech in urban agriculture. If 2 out of 3 Americans live in cities, and we all agree that eating locally sourced food makes sense, why aren’t we growing food for cities in or immediately around them? Is it really easier to fly food across the world than to figure out how to grow it on your roof? I am fascinated by startups in this space, and have been checking out a bunch of them. I think whoever figures out how to grow high-quality veggies on a large scale, year-round, in a place like Chicago, using winter sunlight (or other low-energy methods), inside dense, automated growing facilities, is going to revolutionize how we eat, and where a big chunk of our food comes from. I think it’s very telling that Jeff Bezos, the proud new owner of Whole Foods, has invested in Plenty.ag, and that IronOx.com came out of Y Combinator. This is very exciting stuff, and I think scaled urban agriculture is an industry that is just getting started.