Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

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This is the latest book from the 37 Signals duo, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (AKA DHH inventor of Ruby on Rails). I bought it because I enjoyed ‘Getting Real’, their previous book, so much. It’s in a similar mould and is essentially an extended version of Getting Real focussing less on the product and more on the business. Jason and David’s writing style is very engaging and easy, it only took two evenings to read through the book’s 271 pages. The book is divided into 1, 2 or 3 page snippets each filling out a pithy one-liner, such as ‘Underdo your competition’, ‘Meetings are toxic’, ‘Ignore the details early on’, which makes it very nice to just dip into. In fact, it would make an excellent book to leave by the loo.

I do a lot of work in medium to large scale organisations, which can be very frustrating. A lot of the things I dislike about the way such organisations work is down to gut feeling. If we could only stop talking and listening to every single little objection, if we could only dispose of over complicated processes, if we could just start building something without having to specify everything in minute detail, if we could just create, we would be far far more efficient.  And not only that, but work would be much more enjoyable. This book is a resounding vindication and justification for such gut feelings.

The problem is that it probably wouldn’t work in most of the places I consult at. All the advice in the book is predicated on the notion that you have a small organisation of motivated and talented individuals. Just look at the authors, one of whom is the creator of one of the world’s most influential software frameworks. You don’t need a manager to get DHH to do great work. No, this is a book for alpha people who want to start their own businesses. It’s basically saying, your gut feelings are right, you don’t need managers, meetings and detailed plans, you just need to do it.

The other problem with the book is that it’s mostly about negatives, what you don’t need to do. It doesn’t really have much to say about what you do need. Ruby on Rails is such a success because it brings together best practices for developing software in an easy to use package that almost forces you to do the right thing. As software engineers, we are usually scathing of management process, but obsessive about software development practice. Throughout the book you feel that there probably is a whole raft of good practice, rules and principles being executed at 37 signals, but all they are really telling you about is the stuff they don’t do. I expect that if you naively followed their instructions without a good background in your business’s speciality, things wouldn’t go very well.

Having said all that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a great motivator to start up your own business and has some really good things to say about designing products, earning your customer’s trust and especially how to do great marketing. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 02, 2010