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.