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[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]


Posted on April 9, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Zadie Smith. On Beauty.

Not great, but it kept me reading until the end, and that’s gotta count for something.

Timothy Ferriss. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.

The inside flap has an endorsement from the coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Soul, so how could I go wrong with this one? Ferriss ran a business the normal way until one day he broke down from the stress and couldn’t do it any more. So he reorganized everything, cut out crappy clients who weren’t worth the effort, delegated sensibly, outsourced a surprising number of tasks (some to a personal assistant in India), made himself much less available by email (training clients and underlings to learn to get along without him), and generally designed a business that would run on its own so that he could travel around the world and have fun, checking in on things occasionally from afar. The book is about how exactly he, and others whom he calls the “New Rich” (NR), manage this trick.

Since I don’t have Ferriss’s tastes or ambitions, I can’t say that everything in this book was relevant to me. But he says some sensible things, in the way that self-help – excuse me, lifestyle design – books do. For example, he points out that tasks often expand to fill the time allotted them. Very true. And that they do so because sometimes we need to feel busy, whether it does any real good. Also true. He also points out that money doesn’t do you any good if you’re too busy to spend it, and so you may well be better off cutting your salary if it gains you more of the things you actually want. Because of risk-aversion, people tend to fixate on the downside of a decision (e.g., lost money) rather than weighing the costs against the benefits. Totally true! It’s not exactly earth shattering stuff, then, but it can be very useful sometimes to read things you already know or half-know, which I suppose is why self-help books sell so well (though I got my copy out of the library). But why oh why must every subchapter in these things begin with a stupid epigram?

Ferriss ends the book by confronting the fact that people who do manage to follow his advice and free up a lot of time often end up confronted by a sort of existential dread after the first flush of excitement wears off. Ferriss responds to this by claiming that many philosophical problems are pseudo-problems that result from badly formulated questions. I tend to mostly disagree*, but philosophically sophisticated readers will recognize immediately that Ferriss, whether he knows it or not, has some very respectible company in holding this view. Ferriss also seems to think about philosophical reflection in a way that emphasizes existential angst, and so recommends just getting out and doing stuff. Again a view with too much in the way of respectable company to sneer at (unless you’d like to sneer at the respectable company too), but whereas there is perhaps a place for a bit of existential angst now and again I’ve always been attracted to an alternative tradition, which I associate most of all with Aristotle, that thinks of philosophical reflection as the highest form of activity, rather than a distraction from activity, and moreover one that is as pleasurable as it is worthwhile.

Joel Spolsky Smart & Gets Things Done: Joel Spolsky’s Concise Guide to Finding the Best Technical Talent

Spolsky’s blog is a great read, so it’s not surprising that he writes books well too. If you think that no one could discuss office chairs with charm, wit, and panache, that’s probably because you’ve never read Spolsky. Indeed, this book is so engagingly written that it’s almost possible to get to the end without noticing that he hasn’t said very much that you didn’t already know. But even if you know stuff, it can be useful to read it, which I suppose is why business books sell so well (though I got my copy out of the library). No stupid epigrams in this one, thank God.

Here’s a summary. Internships are the best way to recruit young talent. The very best programmers rarely apply for jobs at all. You’ve got to get them young. Recruit on summer internships, pay well, give lots of perks. Beware of referrals from within the company. These are often less promising than you’d think. Beware non-compete agreements that potential hires may have signed in the past. Often programmers have the haziest idea about what they’ve signed, but these are enforceable.

There is quite a bit of evidence that private offices make people more productive. People prefer to work in a place with private offices. Indeed, the office space makes a big difference to hiring (windows, private offices, location, etc.). So does having, e.g., comfortable chairs. Other ways to make your company attractive to developers: let them order all the programming books they want on amazon; give as much freedom as possible to learn new technologies; associate yourself with open source and other idealistic stuff.

A lot of recruiters recruit by technology: does X know C# or Python or whatnot. This is stupid. Unless you’re hiring the chief architect to get things off the ground, get the best programmers and trust them to pick up the specific technologies.

In the interview, ask large open-ended questions which basically just give you a chance to have a talk. Try to get a sense of the person’s intellectual style.

Spolsky finishes with discussion of the best way to manage teams. Trying to motivate teams with army discipline isn’t terribly effective. This often becomes micromanaging, and because managers often know the least about the technical issues and typically manage a lot of people doing different tasks at once, this becomes incompetent hit-and-run micromanaging. Trying to motivate people with money is also pretty ineffective. People have plenty of motivation to do a good job in the normal course of things (at least for certain tasks). Trying to motivate with money just misunderstands that, and tends to replace intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation. Not supplement. Replace. Of course you need to pay people well, since that’s a basic issue of fairness and people care very much about fairness. But it can’t be the main way of motivating a team. And these motivational schemes can have perverse effects. It’s far better, Spolsky argues, to try to motivate people by getting them to identify with the goals of the organization. And you also need to remember to give people the information they need to do a decent job. If you want to push forward a release, for example, it helps to explain why this matters from the company’s point of view.

Comments


Author: DC
Date: 2008-04-10

“try to motivate people by getting them to identify with the goals of the organization.”

On one level this is obviously sensible stuff. On another - specifically, from the perspective of the alienation of labour within the work-process - it sounds rather sinister. I mean, why should the employee “identify” with the organisation’s goals beyond the extent that they aren’t already his goals? Doesn’t this entail some kind of psychological manipulation?

“it helps to explain why this matters from the company’s point of view.”

This again is very sensible and also rather obvious - which isn’t to say that employers/managers actually do it of course! Really it’s just a matter of basic respect (or at least concealing one’s contempt) isn’t it?



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-04-10

DC, I have the same worry about manipulation/alienation of labour. As I move from an academic to a business world, I’m already hearing (second hand) about the rhetoric of the “team,” where that rhetoric is intended to replace monetary compensation with warm fuzzy feelings. Indeed, one of the many reasons I’m starting my own business is that this is obviously less of a problem (for me) in a business that I co-own. I’m still working out for myself exactly whether and how there is room for this kind of appeal to workers.

On the other hand, it’s not as if this kind of thing was absent in academia. Graduate students at my school tried unsuccessfully to unionize a while ago and a lot of rhetoric in that debate marched along similar lines. The academic versions tend to be slicker, I think, but there was still a ton of exploitation and a ton of cheesy rhetoric, the function of which was to replace compensation with fuzzy feelings.

Spolsky’s company has an astounding 100% retention rate after several years in business, so either he handcuffs employees to their desks and reminds them regularly about the dirty pictures he has of them cheating on their wives, or he has done something (relative to comparable companies) to make it the kind of decent organization that it is possible to have some attachment to. Of course I do understand that it’s much more complicated than pointing to his retention rate. But still.



Author: DC
Date: 2008-04-10

Well, obviously, pending the no doubt imminent abolition of wage-labour, of course it’s better that employers treat their workers in the way you describe with regard to Spolsky. It’s also nice (and very often true) to think that this is in fact a viable way of solving the principal-agent problem inherent in the employer-worker relationship i.e. that employers can (or even have to) get the best performance from workers with the carrot and not the stick.

Still, while I readily acknowledge that there are more than enough hyper-exploitative, soul-destroying employment situations (before one even considers the “developing” world) to make the relatively very good employers a less than pressing issue, coming from a socialist point of view I think it’s still worth bearing in mind that all measures designed to make workers feel as though they have a stake in the company are functional substitues for actually giving them a stake in the company i.e. making them co-equal owners.

Re: the grad students’ attempts to unionize I presume you mean that this was met by warm and fuzzy b.s. from the school matched by firm and successful resistance from the school? I wonder do you know of any successful efforts in that direction, it’s an interesting idea.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-04-10

DC, yes, I have the same worries you express in the second paragraph. I’m still sorting through them.

And, yes, that’s exactly what happened. The unionization drive failed at our school. It did succeed in a few places, but it’s been really tough going for grad students. NYU was especially awful to them - or at least that was my impression.



Author: Paul
Date: 2008-04-10

DC, You probably know that I’m by and large in your camp morally/politically, but I do think there are legitimate reservations, even from our leftward direction, about the ideal of equal co-ownership. For an eminently sensible and sensitive, if too short, treatment of this issue, maybe take a look at Daniel Hausman’s essay here:

http://philosophy.wisc.edu/hausman/papers/bowles.htm

Hausman is a really great philosopher. I’ve been meaning to get to his (co-written) book Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy, which I have consulted from time to time on particular issues.

In fact, I wonder if any one is interested in participating in our own little on-line reading group, with one person taking on the task of sumarising one chapter, and discussion following in the comments. I know Steve Laniel would love this book, but I’m not sure he can be trusted to take on just one of its chapters. ;-)

Anyway, if no one around here is up for it (probably this summer), maybe Steve and I could do some sort of tag-team thing, since he’s well-versed in economics, and I’m apparently a professional political philosopher.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-04-10

Paul,

That reading group idea does sound like fun. I know right now that I won’t have time to write summaries, but I would be willing to follow along. I would even be willing to participate in the comments, but only on condition that I get to begin every comment with “Paul/Steve, you ignorant slut . . .”



Author: DC
Date: 2008-04-10

Enjoyed that Hausman piece, thanks for that Paul. I have a feeling I’ll be borrowing the phrase “soft-hearted efficiency worshippers” at some stage.



Author: Chris
Date: 2008-04-10

DC, you should join the reading group and make it a transatlantic affair.



Author: DC
Date: 2008-04-11

Yeah it sounds good. I should be able to give it some time from July but not before I’m afraid.



Author: Paul
Date: 2008-04-11

Alright, good. We could also choose some other book, of course. Maybe we should have some more nominations?



Author: anne
Date: 2008-04-11

I have to say that On Beauty was pretty much terrible*.