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Three Books And A New Programming Language April 12, 2008

Posted by Pankaj Chawla in Book Review, Design, Innovation, Python, Software Engineering, Starbucks.
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The week that is gone by started with a three day long weekend. Add to that my wife along with our son went off on a holiday to visit her parents just befire the long weekend started. So I had all the time in the world and what better way to use it then to read a few books and learn a few new tricks. So here I am seven days later, done with three books and started learning a new programming langauge. Lets start with the three books first.

The first to go down was “How STARBUCKS Saved My Life” by Michael Gill.  Its the true story of Michael Gill who one fine day after spending 25 years in his high flying job gets laid-off. At 63 he is too old to spin his magic that worked for him all 25 years and with nowhere to go he lands up as a barista at a Starbucks in New York. The story is about his time at Starbucks interweaved with the stories from the past. Its a good read and pretty inspiring even though it has gone overboard at a lot of places in projecting Starbucks as larger than life brand. I think the real inspiration is that he gets laid off, gets a job as a barista, use his talents of yesteryears to weave a heart warming story into a book and make a few million dollars. The story doesnt end here, Tom Hanks recently bought movie rights for the book and the movie will be released in 2008 with Tom Hanks playing the lead role. Now that is called smart thinking and worth taking inspiration from.

The second book of the week was “Ship It! A Practical Guide to Successful Software Projects” by Jared Richardson and William Gwaltney Jr. It a small 200 page book that is easy to read and full of practical advise. The only problem is that most of the things written in the book are already known and mostly not followed in most software organizations. The place where the book wins is the way it presents those well known processes and interlinks them together to make a strong case for adoption if not already being used. If I have to recommend this book I will surely recommend it to all the budding startups. There is valuable advise to follow that can let them focus on whats most important to a startup – to get a successful product out that can make a first impression. This book may not make a lot of sense to large organizations as they already have a lot of processes but if your existing processes are not working then this book can atleast tell you whats wrong with your processes.  Its a book about light weight processes that add value and the best thing is that its a light weight book that you can finish in a day and get going on fixing the problems.

After an inspirational memoir and a software processes book it was time to pick a book on whats my new found love these days – Design and Innovation and what better book to pick than “The Art of Innovation” by Tom Kelley. The interesting story about this book is that it has been on my bookshelf for about five years now. I had received this book as part of the welcome kit of a conference that I attended in 2003 (or was it 2002?) but I never got time to read it (for whatever reasons 🙂 ). Now 5 years later I finally picked this book and I am glad that I read it. Its a wonderful book on the art of innovation. Tom Kelley is the General Manager of IDEO which is one of the leading powerhouses of design and innovation and this book is a lot about how IDEO goes about doing its job. Even though the book talks a lot of IDEO and its way of doing things and it gets a bit over the board sometimes but as the book progresses there are some invaluable lessons to learn. I will recommend this book to anybody who cares about Design and Innovation and if you are running short on time then atleast surely read the following chapters (they are eye openers in many ways): Chapter 3-“Innovation Begins With An Eye”, Chapter 4-“The Perfect Brainstorm”, Chapter 6-“Prototyping Is The Shorthand Of Innovation” and Chapter 12-“Coloring Outside The Lines”.

So that was the story of the three books and my take on each of them. Now coming to the new programming language. Its been 14 years since I committed myself to C/C++ and I never felt a need to pick another language. Not that I felt a new found need but sometimes you get introduced to things and then take it from there. As I read “Ship It” I decided to try out some of the stuff recommended by it and started with an Opensource CI system which after the download I found was implemented in Python. So I went ahead and downloaded Python and there in started the urge to learn a new language. But wait did I say I am learning Python ? I only downloaded it so that I can try out the CI system but as I looked through the code the simplicity of a scripting language coupled with the added power that the scripting langauges of today come with, it was only natural to get attracted to it. So here I am learning Tcl/Tk for last 2 days ( Stumped you, didnt I? I downloaded Python and am learning Tcl/Tk instead 🙂 . Why I did it? Maybe I will tell the story some other day but Python lovers can rest assured that after Tcl, its next on my radar.) and I must say its fun learning it. More detailed analysis of the language once I am done with first pass of the learning.

Till then happy reading and happy learning!            


[Book Review] The Design of Everyday Things – Don Norman March 14, 2008

Posted by Pankaj Chawla in Book Review, Don Norman, Interaction Design.
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My Dad is 64 years old, worked all his life for the government doing accounts and audits of all major government offices and companies. He has a majors in Mathematics and is pretty good with taking apart and reassembling gadgets ranging from his scooter in his early days to TVs to radios and whatever gadget norman.jpghe can get his hands on.  To sum up he is also an engineer at heart. Now you must be wondering whats it got to do with the book review and that too of a book on design. What could a Maths major doing accounts all his life for living and tearing apart gadgets in his free time have to do with design. Till yesterday I couldnt also make the link till I saw the book “The Design of Everyday Things” in his hand. I must have a hundred books on my bookshelf and most of them are on C++, Software Design, Interaction design, Agile, OOAD and whatever a techie generally reads to keep himself upto date with ever changing technology and this one is the latest addition. The funny thing is that he never picked a book from my book shelf ever until three days back. Maybe its got a title which connects with a normal non-techie guy. So here was my dad reading this book for last three days and I happen to notice it yesterday and this is how our conversation unfolded:

Me: Are you reading this book?

Dad: Yes, I was getting bored and picked it up. I must say its pretty interesting.

Me: (Smiles)

Dad: I mean its so obvious whats written in the book. How come nobody is noticing and we still have so many badly designed products everyday.

Me: Ya it is obvious but maybe we get used to things.

Dad: Yes, but I can’t understand how come. I mean if it is written here it must be known. People should be knowing it.

Me: (Smiles again) Dad, this book was written in 1988!

Dad: What ??? Its been 20 years and……………………………………..


(I wondered if it will make a difference if reading this book is mandated for everybody who is involved in creation of the products of the new age)

So go ahead, grab a copy of this book and read it through. As somebody put it, this book is like a virus, it will infect you and you will never look at the world the same way again. Switching on a light will no more be an unimportant unnoticed act of daily life but something that will spark a brain wave everytime you look at a power switch and interact with it. As Don said “Everyone is a designer”, maybe this book does bring out that designer self out in the open; one may not start designing new products but one sure will start questioning the behaviour of a product and keep wondering if it could be made better.    

[Book Review] Sketching User Experiences – Bill Buxton February 13, 2008

Posted by Pankaj Chawla in Bill Buxton, Book Review, Interaction Design.
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Update [28th Feb 2008]: Today this book review got published in the Feburary 2008 edition of the monthly newsletter published by “Design For All Institute of India, New Delhi”.


I would like to start this review by posing a question? Why do people read biographies and history? To my mind the single most important reason is because people want to connect to those people/events in the pages so as to derive inspiration and parallels in their own life-a feeling of knowing oneself better by reading through the lives of others. “Sketching User Experiences” by Bill Buxton is one such book.


As you read through the pages it takes you through a biographical journey through time of the topic at hand called Design from the eyes of a person who knows design so well. It is not a hands-on book and you will not get step-by-step instructions of going about doing design but it exposes you to the craft of design – its history, its richness, its best practices and its ambiguity. Yes design is a pretty ambigious entity and people have spent years trying to give it a two line definition but just like any other art form it is difficult to capture a craft of creativity in two lines. Bill also started with not giving any definition of design and instead started with answering the question “what designers do” and the to and fro journey between present and past of design loaded with examples, quotes and personal accounts made it a thought provoking reading. Suddenly on page 145 he springs a surprise by giving his 2 lines of definition and which to my mind was as exact as it could get for a craft of creativity:
Design is choice, and there are two places where there is room for creativity:

  1. the creativity that you bring to enumerating meaningfully distinct options from which to choose
  2. the creativity that you bring to defining the criteria, or heuristics, according to which you makes your choices.

Four pages later he added to the definition:
Design is a compromise. 

To me this defines the whole craft of design as a free flowing creative process that ultimately leads into that one singular choice constrainted within the confines of business needs, technological limitations and user expectations. That sigular choice is what we call the product. 

The second part of the book is dedicated to design practices and methodologies but again going by the flow of the book it is not about hands-on methodologies that one can use off the shelf but again a biographical account of some of the ingenious practices that people used to get their designs right and the right design. They are thought provoking and a pleasure to read and go on to showcase that the process of design also needs to be designed well :-). 

The best thing I liked about the book was that Bill used a lot of personal context to the whole book and used phrases like “to my mind”, “atleast to me this is what it means”, “my personal view” which goes on to create the right context and as a reader I can make a judgement that this is what the author believes in and I am free to agree or disagree. I have come across a lot of books where the author tries to drill in his thought process into the readers mind and many a times readers come out blindly believing that whatever the book said is some kind of a rule or a law that you have to live with all your life. 

It’s a must read in case you are a person that derives a lot of inspiration from the other people experiences and thinks that history always gives the context to make a better future. If you are looking for how-to-do design instruction book then I won’t be surprised if you come out disappointed by the book even though this book has a lot of valuable advice. Don’t forget the central theme of the book is sketching and so it’s full of practical advice on what is sketching, how it is different from prototyping, why and how to go about doing it and why it is an integral part of the design process.
Oh yes, before I forget, this book is also a visual treat with tons of illustrations and pictures from the past and present that make this book into a true biography of design.

After Notes:
Some interesting quotes from the book (reproduced as is):
“The only way to engineer the future tommorrow is to have lived in it yesterday.”
“Everyone is essential, but no person or group is sufficent on his or her own.”
“If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes.”
“It is better to have your preliminary work critiqued by your collegues while there is still time to do something about it-no matter how difficult the criticism might be-than to have finished project torn aprt by strangers in public.”
“If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old.”
“Innovation in process may trump innovation in product. But innovation in both trumps either.”
“If you are going to break something, including a tradition, the more you understand it, the better job you can do.”
“How can you do experience design without a rich body of personal experience as an individual and as a group?”

May you dream in the day – Bill Buxton.