Recently I’ve been digesting Start With Why, by Simon Sinek (Another nice find, Trev!) For an overview, watch his TED talk.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A person’s “why” can derive from any of these levels, but I think I’ll be happiest if I can map mine to the top of the pyramid.

I don’t buy everything in the book, and I think many of the author’s assertions would be stronger if he offered detailed evidence. For example, he asserts that Apple is special because it has a driving “why” that shapes company decisions in fundamental and pervasive ways, and glosses over how Apple lost its vision during the non-Steve-Jobs years.

Why “why”?

Nonetheless, his central premise is insightful and important: starting with “why” we do things will create greater satisfaction, wisdom, and success. Once we have a why that’s correct in our hearts, many of the whats and hows of life flow naturally. Sacrifice, patience, and creativity blossom. This is true of our software architectures, product requirements, general business activities, personal relationships, and other endeavors. People who hate their jobs often feel that way because they find their days filled with activities that they deem empty or soulless. Human beings can’t be passionate about stuff that doesn’t resonate with their deep values to some degree.

I find interesting resonance between Sinek’s thesis and other important ideas such as Jim Collins’ hedgehog concept, the idea of laddering in marketing theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Covey’s “begin with the end in mind.” I also find it interesting how congruent this is with a central tenet of Bridging the Communication Gap, by Godjko Adzic; he argues that the “why” of a product requirement, rather than the “what”, is the most important thing for product management to articulate. (Thanks, Shawn, for the great book recommendation.)

My Why

Which leads me to this: I need to articulate and then be true to my own “why.” Why, exactly, am I in the software industry? What do I hope to accomplish? Why do I work on enterprise software, as opposed to mobile apps or cool web mashups? Why did I start a blog? Why do I pick certain topics for my posts, and then spend significant time articulating my thoughts?

Here’s my current answer:

I believe in making complex computing simple so the world can innovate and improve.

Testing My Answer

What I like about this answer is that it ties back to my core values. I believe we have opportunities to do lots of good in the world–eradicating poverty and disease, advancing science, learning to understand and value one another better. And I believe an impediment to that is all the complexity we create and discover. Big data is hiding a lot of the insight that would let companies serve customers better. Number crunching supercomputers are needed to predict the weather better, to help predict crop yields in Bangladesh. And so on.

Thus, if I can do my part to make really tough computing problems more tractable, I’m helping make the world a better place.

I also like that this answer tells me when I’m wandering. If I’m building systems that don’t hide/manage/solve complexity, I’m probably off track. If I am building software that’s frivolous (“Angry Birds” comes to mind), I probably won’t be very happy. If I work for a company that aspires to nothing more grandiose than making money, I should either change the company or change my job. If my blog posts don’t help me understand or communicate on topics that reinforce that goal, I’m wasting my time.


What is your “why”? Struggle with it until you come up with a satisfying answer. Then use it to test your current work assignments. Does this exercise give you any insight or point to ways to rebalance your priorities?

Book Review: Universal Principles of Design

A few months back, my friend Trev recommended this book to me. I’ve been digesting it one topic at a time, on my lunch breaks.

It is profound and fascinating reading.

This is not another software pattern book. In fact, it is not really software-centric at all. It describes truths about the way human beings perceive, reason, generalize, and communicate. Many of them have obvious application to UX, UI design, and to software in general. On the scale of profundity, it gets a 9 out of 10; I suspect that I’ll be blogging about insights from the book for months to come.

I think it’s important to look at familiar problems from new angles; many profound breakthroughs in science are attributable to cross-disciplinary insight. Though time spent in this book won’t directly hone your coding skills, it will help you see recurring problems and solutions with new eyes, and it will suggest tried-and-true criteria for evaluating design alternatives.

As a teaser, some of my favorite design principles in the book include: Interference Effects, Contour Bias, Horror Vacui, Uncanny Valley, Recognition Over Recall, Wabi Sabi, Satisficing, and Propositional Density.

For now, I’ll omit any definition of what these intriguing terms mean, and leave discovery as an exercise for the reader. :-)

Book Review: Poke the Box

I just finished reading Seth Godin’s Poke the Box, and I recommend that you add it to your reading list. It’s short, punchy, and thought-provoking.


The main idea he advocates is that we should not wait around for the world to give us permission, and we should not be afraid to fail. We should just jump in with two feet and make things happen.

My favorite phrase from the whole book–and a great three-word summary–is “Now beats soon.” Kind of reminds me of the favorite motto of a wise leader that I admire: “We must lengthen our stride. And we must do it now.” (Spencer W. Kimball; he had “Do it now!” on a plaque on his desk.)

Yes, there are a few caveats. Some people are forever starting, but never finishing. That can be a problem. And you have to do your homework before you start; you don’t want to jump in until you know whether you’ve picked a smart place to swim across the river.

The only critique I have is that Godin could have said the same thing in about half the space. He has lots of short anecdotes, which are fun, but he had me convinced long before I got to the end.

Action Item

Go out and do something great! Now.