Ten books to make you a better business technologist

imgres-1Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by James Kaplan for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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What books does McKinsey’s James Kaplan put on his must-read list for business technologists? You may be surprised.

After going through the slightly traumatic process last year of writing a book about the intersection of business and technology, I started to think about which books had an impact on me as a business technologist—especially beyond the obvious ones like The Soul of a New Machine and The Mythical Man-Month. None of the books that came to mind related to the latest technology trends (social! mobile! machine learning!)—those are important, but they change quickly. The books that really shaped my thinking provided perspectives, often historical, on the organizational, strategic, and human dimensions of business technology. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

[Here are the first four of ten.]

1. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, Charles Petzold, (Microsoft Press, 1999)

I don’t have a background in electrical engineering, and this book helped me get beneath the logical to the physical layers in the stack. Starting from first principles, and including a lot of history, Petzold explains how simple on-off switches can be combined into the mightiest of computational machines. Having read this book, you won’t be able to design circuits, but you’ll be able to understand how circuits get designed.

2. Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, Robert X. Cringely (Addison-Wesley, 1992)

Microsoft’s acquisition of Q-DOS. IBM’s decision to build the PC. Apple’s growing pains. Many of the seminal events of the early personal-computer industry have been told again and again. Yes, Cringely touches on some many-told tales, but he also delves into aspects of the technology industry that few talk about. Just one example: how Microsoft applied Charles Simonyi’s concept of the “metaprogrammer” to build a “software factory” that hired thousands of inexperienced computer-science majors to build the world-conquering applications of the 1980s and 1990s.

3. The Reckoning, David Halberstam (William Morrow, 1986)

Is any business story more fascinating or more terrifying than the decline of US auto manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s? By my lights, this is the best of Halberstam’s many books, far better than, say, The Best and the Brightest, which is mostly about people writing memos to each other. The Reckoning documents the rise of Nissan and the declining market share of US automakers. Why is this an important technology book? Because it provides a cautionary tale of many of the pitfalls business technologists must avoid: suspicion of new approaches, short-term decision making, managerial distance from frontline operations and distortive managerial accounting.

4. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte (Graphics Press, 1982)

Design know-nothings will tell you not to simplify your slides and not put too much information on any of them. Tufte points out that communicating information is the purpose of written communications, that far too many charts don’t have much information in them at all, and that well-designed graphics allow us to absorb tremendous amounts of information quickly. For example, what Tufte describes as “layering” allows you to drill into the information you need. Think of a newspaper front page. You can scan all the headlines, then look at the sub-headlines for interesting articles, and then decide whether to read the first few paragraphs. Fortunately, the same type of layered structure can be used to communicate the business case for new initiative or project.

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Business technology is a demanding profession. Getting value from technology investments at scale requires integrating insights across business strategy, engineering, information theory, communications, operations, group psychology, and other areas. Personally, I find insights from previous generations of technology and other disciplines such as military history to be invaluable. Whether you’re on the beach in the northern hemisphere or sitting by a log fire in the southern, I hope this list provides interesting reading.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

James Kaplan is a principal in McKinsey’s New York office. His latest book is Beyond Cybersecurity: Protecting Your Digital Business, published by John Wiley & Sons (2015).

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