Monday, October 1, 2012

Prominently Introduced

This article appears in slightly different form in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of IEEE Micro © 2012 IEEE.

Each of the books in this column has a foreword written by someone substantially better known than its author.

Presenting Numbers

Painting With Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You by Randall Bolten (Wiley, Hoboken NJ, 2012, 342pp, ISBN 978-1-118-17257-5,, $39.95)

Randall Bolten spent many years as a financial executive in Silicon Valley, and he certainly knows how to get into the nuts and bolts of financial analysis. But what distinguishes him, and this book, is his passion for communication. If you go to the Wiley website, you find the book listed under Business Statistics and Math, surrounded by titles like Data Driven Business Decisions and SPSS Version 18.0 for Windows. Even his publisher fails to understand the first sentence of chapter 1: "This book is not about numbers." It's about communication.

Tom Campbell represented Silicon Valley in the US Congress for five terms. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. He is a law professor, dean of a law school, and former dean of a business school. When he ran for statewide office in California in 2009, he retained Bolten to prepare his economic and fiscal policy handouts. In his foreword, he says,
 "I feel strongly that clearly and honestly presented data is essential to an informed electorate, and Randall made it possible for me to put that belief into practice." 
As if that weren't enough to establish Bolten's credentials, the back of the book has blurbs from a former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Randall's brother Joshua) and the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange.

Bolten has mastered the main tool of his trade, Microsoft Excel, but the book is not about Excel. He includes a number of Excel tips and tricks, all of them excellent, but he focuses on communication. His tips on formatting and presentation are independent of subject, but he does talk about the content of some common financial reports. The furthest he goes into the weeds of financial minutiae is to critique generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) which, ironically, are based on concrete rules, not general principles. He also devotes a chapter to understanding and designing profit and loss statements, but anyone who has much to do with running or investing in businesses has run into more than one P&L. 

Key to Bolten's approach is to know and respect your audience. For example, your first step in putting together a numerical report is to lay out the final summary page, then get feedback from the audience to find out whether your idea of what they need matches theirs. Then work backward to design supporting reports, and finally figure out where and how to get the numbers. Starting this process from the other end can easily lead you to reports that miss the mark and are hard to repair.

Bolten lays out a three-stage path to mastery. First, you must understand the rules and best practices. Bolten gives you a tour of these, with special emphasis on 18 deadly sins. The second and third stages are complementary: understand your audience and become a subject matter expert. Bolten doesn't say how to accomplish the second and third stages, but his deadly sins often reflect failures in those areas.

Bolten's first 10 sins are about presentation. They deal with columns of numbers that don't line up, vast seas of white space caused by a long column label, reports that fit on a single page only because the font is illegibly small, and so forth. But they also deal with more substantive matters, like presenting numbers without context or using imprecise or inaccurate column labels. And some are general advice that everybody has heard before: don't use visual effects without a good reason, and never use pie charts.

The next 8 sins are about your behavior. Their underlying theme is your attitude toward your audience and your craft. The deadliest of these is the one he compares to the sin of pride: "I'm more focused on content than presentation." Every profession has its own version of this self-righteous utterance.

Economists talk about key indicators. Bolten points out that these are always ratios. He sees a deep principle here. A raw number means nothing out of context, and comparing it to another number provides that context. The fact that your favorite baseball player has 47 hits so far this season is interesting, but if you divide that by his 117 at-bats, you see that he is hitting .402, which you can compare with other players' batting averages. Whenever you present numbers, look for the key indicators that will resonate with your audience. Also (the negative of this is one of Bolten's deadly sins), include somewhere on the page the two numbers whose ratio yields the key indicator.

Bolten's primary audience is other financial professionals, but none of the material is arcane or esoteric. I am far from being a financial professional, but I find the book useful and fascinating.  The chapter on terminology is a treasure. It ought to be required reading in all high schools. I hear financial terms all the time, but until I read this chapter I had no idea of the many subtle distinctions between similar sounding terms.

I have heard Bolten speak about the material in this book. In person or on the page, he is a skilled communicator. Regardless of your background, you can sit down with this book and read it in a day or so. I learned a great deal from it, and I think you will too.

Finding a Job

Cracking the New Job Market: Seven Rules for Getting Hired in Any Economy by R. William Holland (AMACOM, New York NY, 2012, 256pp, ISBN 978-0-8144-1734-8,, $17.95)

I have reviewed many books about job hunting and résumés, and after a while they all look alike. The first thing that intrigued me about this one is that it has a foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is author of Bait and Switch (Metropolitan Books, 2005), a book about unemployed white-collar workers. Ehrenreich feels that these workers are underserved and exploited. Her concerns led her to found United Professionals (UP), and Bill Holland became its president. Holland is a career-management consultant and a former human resources manager. According to Ehrenreich, he 
"has a sophisticated understanding of what is happening in the job market and what to do about it on a personal level."

The old job-hunting rules were to assemble your career highlights into a résumé, study interviewing techniques, prepare for tricky questions, and do a lot of face-to-face networking. Holland sees a fundamental change in the market and puts together new rules. He gives the usual advice about demonstrating your value to potential employers, and he lays out practical techniques for doing so. But each job is different, and you must attack each one on its own terms.

Holland says to start by identifying the key items that the hiring manager is looking for and organize your job application and interviews around those items. The key items point to what the company is looking for, that is, the value they are willing to pay you to create. Holland lays out a procedure for highlighting aspects of your experience that show how you have created similar value in other jobs. You use that information to tailor your résumé and cover letter and to help prepare for an interview.

Holland assumes that you can mine job ads for the key items that signal what the employer is looking for. As we all know, the people who write ads for high-tech jobs often have little idea what hiring managers are really looking for, so finding the key items may require you to do some digging behind the scenes. Social media can help here.

Holland believes in using social media. He notes the standard advice about the "hidden job market" available only through face-to-face networking, but says that the statistics usually cited to support that advice are unverified. In any event, new rules apply to the world of social media, where weak ties are just as effective as strong ones. A LinkedIn chain leading to someone you hardly know can bring you essential information about potential jobs.

One of Holland's seven rules is that interviews are "about the value you demonstrate." In applying for a job you aligned your résumé with the value the employer wants you to create. Prepare for the interview by reviewing that alignment and learning everything you can about the company. You can't memorize an answer for every possible question, but if you relax, you can bring whatever comes your way back to the question of the value you can create.

Holland believes that in the job market, women are different. He devotes a chapter to women who take career breaks. In essence, he advises continuing professional activities, and staying up to date. Network on the Internet. Start a blog. When they ask about your career break, you can say, 
"Career break? What career break?"

Holland has good advice for young people choosing a career and for their parents. College administrators invented the term "helicopter parent" to make parents leave them alone, but colleges have not earned a free rein. They don't typically help students prepare effectively for careers. Any major can lead to a job, but not all majors lead to a marketable education. Good jobs need critical thinking, complex reasoning, and skill at written communication. Parents should not wait four years to see how college works out but should help their children assess their own progress at least annually.

Holland sprinkles many facts and statistics throughout the pages of this book. They give an overall picture of the current job market. Absorbing that picture can provide context for informed career decisions. Those decisions can make job hunting unnecessary or at least easier if the need arises.

If you're looking for a job -- your first or your umpteenth -- you need all the help you can get, and Holland's book is filled with excellent, up-to-date advice. If I were looking for a job, I'd spend the first day studying this book.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


This article appears in slightly different form in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of IEEE Micro © 2012 IEEE.

This time I look at a variety of books. I read several of them carefully with an eye toward writing full-blown reviews, but then decided that what I have to say about them doesn't warrant a complete column. 


Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace (Atlas/Norton, New York, 2010, 376pp, ISBN 978-0-393-33928-4,, 15.95)

David Foster Wallace was the author of Infinite Jest (Little, Brown, 1996) and other novels. Many regard him as one of the great thinkers of our time. Twenty years of depression, however, led him to take his own life at the age of 46. This edition of Everything and More, appearing several years after Wallace's death, benefits from a foreword by Neal Stephenson, who, like Wallace, grew up in a midwestern American college town. Stephenson sees Wallace's writing about an abstruse subject in which he was not academically trained as a perfectly normal reflection of that upbringing.

Though his graduate degree was in fine arts, Wallace distinguished himself in his undergaduate studies at Amherst by writing a prize-winning thesis on the arcane subject of modal logic. Thus he was well prepared to examine the philosophical and mathematical precursors of Georg Cantor (1845 - 1918), who establised a consistent mathematical basis for studying the infinite. Cantor died as a result of mental illness, as did Kurt Gödel after him. Wallace considers this evidence of the dangers of abstract thinking. He defines sanity as the ability to cut off a line of abstract thinking that won't end. 

Wallace has stylistic quirks that make him difficult to read. He seems obsessed with saving space. He uses abbreviations frequently. For example, he may mention the Bolzano-Weierstrass Theorem in one paragraph, then without warning refer to it as the BWT a few paragraphs later. He also uses footnotes extensively for digressions. He provides codes designed to help you decide how important these digressions are, but it's safer to ignore the codes and read all of the digressions. He begins the book with a "Small but Necessary Foreword." Unfortunately, none of the chapters have titles, and the transition from the end of the foreword to the beginning of the first chapter is so slight that I read hundreds of pages thinking I was still in an ironically named foreword.

Cantor's work comes at the end of a long journey that begins with Zeno's paradoxes. Wallace follows the philosophical, logical, and mathematical paths that lead from antiquity to Cantor. If you enjoy reading about modern mathematics, you'll enjoy this fascinating story.

Friedman Again

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Created and How We Can Come Back by Thomas L Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2011, 396pp, ISBN 978-0-374-28890-7,, $28.00)

In earlier columns I reviewed two of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's books: The World Is Flat (May/June 2005) and Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Jan/Feb 2009). This time Friedman teams up with his friend Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy. The book returns to many of the themes of Friedman's earlier books. Unlike those earlier books, this one explicitly explores the implications of the authors' findings for American domestic policy.

Both men grew up in 1950s middle America and are alarmed at some of the changes they see. They identify four major challenges facing us, and they prescribe a return to the formula for success that they believe the country followed in the days of their youth. The challenges are as follows: 

  • Adapting to globalization.
  • Adjusting to rapid advances in information technology.
  • Dealing with deficits, debt, and future obligations.
  • Dealing with energy consumption and climate change.

The formula, based on the principle of using public funds to share burdens, is as follows:

  • Provide public education for all.
  • Provide and maintain infrastructure.
  • Assimilate substantial waves of immigration.
  • Support research and development.
  • Regulate private economic activity.

That Used to Be Us shows how to apply the formula to the challenges. The details are political as well as technical. It's an easy read and well worth your time.

Teaching by Manga

Manga are, in essence, comic books done in a specific style. Developed in Japan, they are now popular in America and elsewhere. The following books exploit manga conventions to convey serious messages. 

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko by Daniel H Pink, art by Rob Ten Pas (Riverhead Books/Penguin, New York, 2008, 160pp, ISBN 978-1-59448-291-5,, $15.00)

Trained as a lawyer, Daniel Pink served as a speech writer during the Clinton administration. Now he publishes books and articles on business and technology. In 2007 he won a fellowship to go to Japan to study the manga industry. When he came back, he worked with a manga artist to write a self-help business book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. I bought this book on the recommendation of my friend Andrea Ames, a senior technical staff member at IBM. 

Johnny Bunko is new to the workforce. He likes art, but on his dad's advice, he majored in accounting so he would always have a job. Now, as a clueless new accountant at the Boggs Corporation, he is floundering. Eating Japanese takeout at his desk late at night, he discovers that by snapping apart his wooden chopsticks, he can make a magic career consultant appear. To make a long story short, she leads him through a series of work situations, each of which teaches him a new lesson. The lessons are as follows:

  • There is no plan -- you can't predict what's going to happen, so you might as well do what you like.
  • Think strengths, not weaknesses, that is, you're better off developing your strengths than trying to shore up your weaknesses.
  • It's not about you -- focus on your customer.
  • Persistence trumps talent -- keep trying and eventually you'll get there.
  • Make excellent mistakes -- it's better to try something big and fail than to be too cautious.
  • Leave an imprint -- don't wait until your career is over to ask what you'll be remembered for.  

The manga tells a coherent, engaging story that drives these lessons home. It's well worth the hour or so it might take to read it.

The Manga Guide to Statistics by Shin Takahashi (No Starch, San Francisco, 2008, 224pp, ISBN 978-1-59327-189-3,, $19.95)

This is one of a series of Manga Guides to technical subjects -- not the newest, but the one judged by my in-house manga expert (my daughter) to be the most successful of the lot because it is both a good manga and a good textbook. Bright, boy-crazy high school girl Rui decides that she wants to learn statistics because her father's handsome young employee, Mr Igarashi, is a statistics whiz. Her father agrees to have her tutored in the subject but to her disappointment substitutes another young employee, Mr Yamamoto, whose most prominent feature is his nerdy eyeglasses.

Yamamoto teaches her all about statistics using believable examples from high-school life. She learns about numerical and categorical data, distributions, probabilities, correlations, and hypothesis testing. If she reads the appendix, she also learns how to use Excel to store and manipulate data. In the end, Mr Igarashi turns out to be married. Yamamoto's eyeglasses break, and Rui sees his face for the first time and falls for him instead.

If you know any manga fans who want to learn basic statistics, get them a copy of this book.

Publishing Effective Books

The next two books deal with the art and craft of turning thoughts into professionally published works. 

Developmental Editing by Scott Norton (Chicago, 2009, 252pp, ISBN 978-0-226-59514-6,, $35.00)

Many factors go into making a good manuscript -- the writer's knowledge, perceptiveness, and imagination to name some important ones. But the step from a manuscript to a successful book requires a different talent, one that many writers do not have. That is where developmental editors come in.

Scott Norton is developmental editor and project manager for science at the University of California Press. As Norton points out, the process of developmental editing is not only complex but also difficult to illustrate by simple examples. He creates several extended narrative examples and uses them to illustrate different aspects of the process he follows when working with manuscripts. The narrative examples are sufficiently detailed to illustrate his processes yet much easier to work with than actual manuscripts. 

The intricate way Norton put this book together enables him to convey a lot of material in ten short chapters. Creating the examples was a deceptively difficult task, which he accomplished highly successfully. The book is worth reading simply to admire the craft with which Norton constructed it.

The craft of developmental editing, as Norton presents it in this book, can be learned. If you are doing other kinds of editing and wish to branch out, this book will help. If you are an author who reads this book in order to work more effectively with developmental editors, you may find that Norton's perspective helps you improve your writing. In fact, if you have anything at all to do with writing and publishing, I think you'll enjoy this book. I have done developmental editing, but I still learned a lot from reading it.

The IBM Style Guide: Conventions for Writers and Editors by Francis DeRespinis et al (IBM Press/Pearson, Upper Saddle River NJ, 2012, 416pp, ISBN 978-0-13-210130-1,, $39.99)

Style guides have an important role in any publishing process. Even a single work by a single author can benefit from a brief list of names, product terminology, or style choices, so that they remain consistent throughout the work. Several writers collaborating on an online help system for a large software package need more substantial lists, and corporate style guides arise from such needs. These guides are often amalgams of style rules, publishing procedures,  and guidelines for using software packages or markup languages. Creating a corporate style guide can be a long and acrimonious process that duplicates a lot of work that others have done better.

The style guides of large organizations like the University of Chicago Press or Microsoft often receive wide distribution outside those organizations and establish standards for whole industries. The most successful corporate style guides delegate most style decisions to such standard guides and focus on styles and terminology that are important in their product documentation. The IBM Style Guide follows this model to some extent, delegating many decisions to the Chicago Manual of Style. But it also covers a wide range of material of interest to others in the computer industry. Because it is clear, consistent, and thorough, it seems likely to become an industry standard.

Style guides can turn arbitrary choices into annoyingly rigid rules. The IBM Style Guide presents the reasons behind its choices, and I haven't found any choices that would bother me if I had to follow them. The explanations also make it easier to make good decisions about issues that the guide does not address. The guide is exceptionally well written -- not always the case with style guides -- though I did notice one dangling modifier in a table in an appendix.

I have seen many computer industry style guides. I believe that the Microsoft guide is the most widely used, but The IBM Style Guide has a good chance to supplant it. I do not like the early versions of the Microsoft Manual of Style. I have seen previews of the upcoming fourth edition, and it looks much better. If you are writing about Microsoft products, that is an added reason to use the Microsoft guide, so I'm sure it will remain popular. Nonetheless, The IBM Style Guide is superior to any version of the Microsoft guide that I have seen so far. If you are part of a writing group looking for an industry standard style guide, consider this one.