Pratyush Mittal
Hobby coder and a stock investor.
Co-founder Screener.in

6th June 2021

Books I have been reading

Every month, everyone in our team shares an update about the book they are reading.

These are the updates I wrote over the last year.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

It is a wonderful book. It helps me write better emails and notes. More than that, it helps me in clear thinking.

The book has chapters on:
- how to choose words
- how to think about the audience
- how to decide how many topics to cover
- how to reduce clutter

I have read only half of it till now. It already makes me want to write more.

One of the biggest takeaways till now has been to write 10-page content in 7. And then try to cut it down to 5. This focus on revisions; and removing everything extra during revisions, is pretty powerful. 

Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug

This is a beautiful book about website designs. It has changed the way I think about buttons, links and overall navigation.

The book has 3 parts.

Part 1: 3 Rules of design

#1. We don't read. We scan through websites.
So make the content scannable. Buttons and links should be obvious. Maintain visual hierarchy.

#2. It doesn't matter how many clicks it takes as long as each click requires no thinking.
Don't present all the options at once. Details should be timely, concise and hard to miss.

#3. Cut down half the words, and then cut down further
Re-read and remove whatever can be removed.

 Part 2
Getting the homepage and navigation right
Yet to complete this part.

To Have or To Be? by Erich Fromm

It is a philosophical book about the two ways of living. One is "having" mode and the other is "being" mode. In having mode, we measure ourselves by what we have. We measure ourselves by our wealth and possessions. In being mode, we focus on "being" and doing. It is about living life to the fullest and enjoying the journey.

We think that a person with more possessions is happier. But a person in having mode is always afraid of losing what they have. "Being" and "doing" provides more happiness.

The two modes of thinking govern us in everything we do. These are a few examples.

Reading: A person in having mode wants to "have" more books. They feel pride in number of books they have read. A person in being mode reads to share the journey of the author. They question what they read. They practice what they learn.

Conversations (talking): A person in having mode think they must "have" something to share. They prepare their personas in that way. They think beforehand about what they will talk about. A person in being mode takes part in the conversation by intently listening to others. They speak spontaneously and from the heart.

This particular idea helped me. I used to hate social interactions because I always thought that I must "have" something to say. But it is not so. We just need to "be" there.

Knowledge: For a person in having mode, their knowledge is their identity. In fact, that is all they "have".
For eg sometimes we are proud of having a CA degree. We "have" that knowledge. The same is for professors and bureaucrats. While a person in being mode puts their knowledge into action. They are practitioners and enjoy doing what they know.

Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston

It had interviews of 2 of my favourite founders and coders:

1. DHH (Basecamp)
2. Joel Spolsky (Stackoverflow, Joel on Software)

DHH
One thing that hit me the most was how they started Basecamp. Their company was earlier into consultancy and they had a lot of client communication. They created Basecamp for themselves. But they didn't go "all-in".

DHH and Fried worked on it for only 10 hours a week. Rest was for client work. And due to this time constraint, they focused only on the most important things. What was the least they needed to push it to production?  They had just an hour or two a day and what was the minimum needed to complete the work in hand.

This constraint makes us focus only on the most important things. Those are the only things that matter. I loved this framework,


Joel Spolsky
Joel is one of my most favourite people. His essays have inspired me a lot.

He is asked what he would have done anything differently today if he had to start again. He says that they focused too much on marketing. They tried out high amount referrals; then the affiliate program; then coupons and discounts; then tracking drop-offs and mailing them with discount. These worked - but required a lot of efforts and complexity.

These were all marginally good marketing ideas. Unfortunately we spent a lot of time chasing them. The one thing we learned over 5 years is that nothing works better than just improving your product. Every minute, every developer hour we spent on any one of these crazy things—although they had some marginal return on the work that we put into them—was nothing compared to just making a better version of the product and releasing it. If we had taken all the effort we put into these crazy schemes and put it into moving our software development schedule ahead by the equivalent amount, it would have paid off much more.

There are a couple of more good interviews of the founders of Craiglist and Gmail. I will read them soon.

A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine

It is about Stoicism. It teaches "tranquillity" - ways to live a peaceful life. These practices are 2000 years old.

Unlike today's schools, the schools of that time taught philosophy and the "way of living". The two main pillars of stoic school are Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Both had an extraordinary life.

Seneca was a senate member and imminent legislator. He wrote most of the essays around the stoic way of living.

Marcus Aurelius was one of the most renowned Roman emperor ever. He wrote about the stoic way in his book "meditations". Thus the methods are widely practised.

The methods mentioned in the book are actually quite powerful. They are more around how to think about different things in life. While we often hear about being grateful for things we have, the book gives small exercises that can actually help us appreciate the things we have. The small exercises make us more aware of the present.

Have read only a third of it. More exercises are in the next few chapters.

Understanding Exposure and Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson

I recently bought a fixed-lens camera, Fujifilm X100F. I had been tracking it for years and finally bought it. I started reading these two books to make to most of this new camera.
 
I am loving these two books. Sharing few broader takeaways till now.

Getting out of auto mode (P  mode)
Understanding Exposure is about developing a sense of correct aperture size, shutter speed and ISO. It is filled with examples of why a particular photo was taken in a particular setting. The first chapter starts by setting the aperture and shutter to manual mode.

It is actually pretty easy to use manual mode once we understand the concept of "light meter". All the cameras have an indicator that tells how much light is entering the camera. It tells whether the frame is over or underexposed. We just need to select the aperture size and then adjust the shutter speed till the light meter shows the correct exposure.

The rest of the book then gives examples of how to use aperture size for playing with sharpness. And how to play with the shutter to capture motion. But at the heart of all this is the light meter which provides the feedback for current exposure.

Considering the different point of views
Most of the photos I took were at eye level. However, the best photographs are rarely taken at eye level. We need to get on the knees to see the flowers like a bee. And lie down completely to capture fields like grass. The book actually has exercises that make us practice different point of views. And now when I see the best photographs, I understand why I never "saw" those things because I never tried POVs other than eye level.

Basics of design
There are 6 essays on the most basic elements of design: line, shape, form, texture, pattern and colour. These are brilliant. There is a paragraph in the book which says that most newbies or amateurs try to capture too many elements in a single shot. While the best photographs are really simple. They are of things which are right in front of us - we just don't "see" them. The six essays make us "see" those things.

Have read-only 40% of the books. Trying daily to practice the basics but have a loooong way to go. Photography is hard! But it is a lot of fun.

Demand Side Sales - 101 by Bob Moesta

This is a pretty good book on marketing. Unlike 100s of other marketing books, it actually provides a framework. The framework is called Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) framework.

Traditional marketing is based on the sales side:
- we showcase our features
- push how the product is useful
- we segregate our users/customers by demographics such as age and location and then target them

Demand-side sales are about creating a natural pull. The core of this approach is JTBD.

JTBD is the theory that people don't buy products. They hire them to make progress in their life.

Demand-side sales are based on understanding this struggle of our customers. Understand where they are struggling and how we can help them make progress in their life.

I have read only 25% of the book: it introduced to this framework. The rest of the book expands on this framework with lots of conceptual and practical examples.

The book is endorsed by Jason Fried (founder of Basecamp and Hey). Their marketing is highly influenced by this framework.

Invent and Wander by Jeff Bezos

This is a collection of his letters to shareholders and other few essays.

What amazes me is the initial growth and speed in the company. Jeff read that internet was growing at 2500% per year in 1994. That is when he decided he needed to create something around it. He chose books because they were non-perishable. In the first month, he shipped books to 30 countries. Next year he brought an IPO.

Throughout his letters, he talks about thinking long-term. He often repeats that long term thinking is about maintaining leadership over a long term. To maintain leadership, the company will continuously reinvest the profits in innovation.

His letters focused on ROCE. He notes that they are building "the best, most profitable, highest return on capital, a long-term franchise." The profits just didn't flow to the bottom line because they were reinvested in innovation and expansion.

Long term thinking is about sacrificing profits and maintaining leadership.

He also repeatedly emphasises that many of the innovations will fail. Many did. Around 2000, they had an auction system similar to eBay. Many acquisitions failed, like Junglee. New products failed such as Fire Phone. This is part and parcel of innovation.

Still reading through the book. Especially digging into things like how the organisation is structured. How do they train everyone - how management works.

Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt

It is the most practical physics book I have ever read. It explains concepts in such a way that we "see" those principles everywhere. In school, I only "read" the 3 laws of motion. This is the first time I think I understood a bit of them.

Sharing a few of my favourite takeaways till now.

Scientific Hypothesis
A hypothesis is valid only if it is capable of being proven wrong. When scientists make a hypothesis, they also need to provide substance about what will prove them wrong. This is important. This is how science progresses. Scientists are great at accepting disconfirming evidence.

Wrong theories can stagnate progress for 2000+ years
Before Newton, the laws of motion were defined by Aristotle in around 500BC. For 2000 years people believed that everything rotated around Earth. As per Aristotle's laws of motion, we needed to apply force to move objects. Thus a huge force was required to move something like Earth.

Aristotle also believed that the motion of everything was dependent on its "nature". That everything was a combination of four elements: Air, Water, Fire and earth. That these governed the motion of the things.

The book then explains how many scientists were burned for demonstrating flaws in these laws. And though Newton was not the first one to discover inertia, he was the one who was able to provide the reasons for it.

The book actually makes us see the importance of these 3 laws. How they explained everything that was misbelieved for 2000 years.

Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

Though I had heard a lot about the book, I was surprised to see it being recommended by Porinju. I picked it up immediately.

The book is worth the praise it gets.

It has 20 ideas around handling money. Each idea is backed by true stories. Stories that make the idea stick.

The ideas are around:
- Compounding
- Tail events
- Luck and Risk
- How to stay rich
- (rest to be read) 

I have read books on similar topics before: "Rich Dad Poor Dad" and "Richest Man in Babylon", yet it is still very refreshing and powerful.

The E-Myth by Michael Gerber

The book talks about "technician" created businesses. That most businesses are started by technical people who are good at what they do. At some point, they think that they can convert it to a business and run it themselves.

It is that drive of freedom that converts them to be an entrepreneur. The book talks about these problems that technical founders face and why most of them are never able to scale.

Once we start a business, we need to handle many more things than just the technical part. We need to maintain the place, handle customers, spread the word around, purchase the best raw material, do books, handle cash, ship things in time...and yet do the core technical work.

We are able to juggle these things well initially. However, with time, these additional overheads start increasing. We are soon handling too many balls, and we start to drop some of them. We are already working over 12 hours a day and don't have much life. At this point, we hire some other person.

That another person starts to handle some things. We start becoming free again. And we start delegating more. We allow them to do their hiring and take their own decisions. We have finally got a manager.

And then, one day, we start getting customer complaints. We walk around and see everything is below expectation. The raw materials are of low quality. The shipments are broken. The customers are angry. We start fixing things. We start showing the new hires by the manager how to purchase raw material. We start showing them how to package the shipments. We start taking customer calls to show them how to deal with customers. We start doing all the technical stuff again. 

Sometimes we fire the manager. Sometimes the manager leaves before all of this happen. But sooner or later, we start juggling everything ourselves again. This is when we realise that we never really got the freedom. This is when we start constraining the growth or sometimes start to shut things down.

This is sadly the journey of most small businesses. They are never able to scale because a technician is unable to delegate their work well.

The book narrates this journey in the first part and provides solutions in the second part. I felt immediately connected with the journey the author is trying to narrate. I have read only the first part till now. Will be moving on to the second part now :).