Book Review: Think Like Amazon by John Rossman

Think Like Amazon: 50 1/2 Ideas to Become a Digital LeaderThink Like Amazon: 50 1/2 Ideas to Become a Digital Leader by John Rossman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I believe this book was intended to be written in the style of Amazon narratives. Some of them were well written others were uninteresting or felt like the author was pandering. I read this book over the span of a few weeks, I would say it was generally unmemorable. I really don’t remember many of the ideas listed in the book.

The reason I don’t remember them? Well, the chapter heading at three items on it. The title of the idea, a subtitle, and a pithy quote. The idea was written out in a little box which may or may not have been on the first page of each idea. Further clouding this, is that for each idea, and there were 50 1/2 ideas, there was one or two pages of introduction before getting to the meat of the idea itself. Often the ideas which acted as chapters, were only two to four pages long.

Some of the ramblings were speculation of what amazon could do if they got into health care, some was complaining about some business the author had to use, but did a bad job with their processes. In many cases, it showed a sad lack of empathy for the people the author was interacting with in these businesses.

Finally, the author hasn’t worked at Amazon in 15 years. He was in one major role, while it played a large part in Amazon’s overall growth, he doesn’t have any deeper understanding of AWS than anyone else looking from the outside in. Maybe a bit more because he might have some high up friends working there.

Ultimately, this book has a piece or two of interesting ideas, but is very short on execution. Don’t recommend anyone read this book.

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Book Review: Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce RacismAlgorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found out about this book through a series of events. A woman I follow on Twitter tweeted about a talk one of her peers gave and in that talk she referenced this book. I plan to share this book any time that I see someone saying that coding is “color blind” and that it past experience and history doesn’t matter.

One of the things that I’ve learned from doing Agile software development, is that outcomes are more important than the specifics of the coding. This book focuses on the outcomes of search engine algorithms and explains how search engine algorithms drive racist results.

The author Safiya Umoja Noble, does a fantastic job explaining the basis of her research, querying Google for “black girls” and getting a huge list of porn. She verifies monthly for almost 6 years. She meticulously explains that these results are racist, sexist and the responsibility of Google.

Noble explains why Google believes that these results are not biased, because they are objectively using an algorithm to determine what links appear where on their search results. These results, they argue, are based on what is popular and therefore that makes the content “true.” The basis for Google search is Library Sciences, which uses citations to determine relatedness between content and how important (regardless of context or if the import is a negative or positive attribution) specific pieces of work are. This is called Bibliometrics (I did some of this work while I was earning my Masters).

To my surprise, Noble explained to me that the Dewey Decimal System was racist, sexist, and Eurocentric. I was taught, this was just the way libraries were organized. That this was the best way to organize books. Noble explains, briefly, that this system still used Racist categories like “Black Question” and similar type of classification. Similarly, the US Library of Congress uses similar classification headings. This is problematic, because other major library systems follow a similar system and take their lead from the US.

Google claims that they cannot control their outcomes, however, Noble points out, repeatedly, that they will modify their searches based on criticism or serious problems. Furthermore, Noble explains that after she wrote an article in Bitch Magazine, within 5 months the search results significantly shifted when she queried “black girls.”

I believe that outcomes are the responsibility of engineers, testers, and product owners. Algorithms are not neutral technologies. Hell, even Bridges can be non-neutral technologies, as they can be shaped to prevent buses from using them (which happened in NYC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_…). So, engineers and leaders that believe that software projects are always neutral is flawed.

The best solution is to hire Black Women, Black people, Latinas, and other minorities. Furthermore, it’s important to allow those developers to significantly impact the outcomes of the product. Otherwise, having them as employees will not be effective.

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Book Review: White Rage by Carol Anderson

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial DivideWhite Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you, like me, recently read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, you’ll have found that book to be incredibly moving. I felt it really helped explain the environment that many Black men now in their 30’s and 40’s grew up in and that young Black men are growing up in now. However, the book only glimpses at touches of context. Obviously there are references, plenty of them, to great Black thinkers and political activists. That book is primarily an emotional book. To help a reader, targeted towards Black men but very much helps white people, empathize with a young Black man. It humanizes.

This book, this book, though, is a clinical look at our history. It starts out with context around the history of the Civil War, that it WAS a war fought over slavery and not state rights. Anderson highlights the failings of President Lincoln and eviscerates President Johnson (which if you read An Indigenous History of the United States you’ll be unsurprised he’s as horrific towards former enslaved people as Indigenous people).

This book outline the systematic tools white leaders have used to continually keep Black Americans down. How tactics shifted from outright racism to much more subtle approaches of racism. How immediately after freeing enslaved people, they were basically forced into labor and where their labor could be sold if they were caught being “vagrant”, the so-called Black-Code. I’d never heard of these.

The Black-Code morphed into Jim Crow, which stuck around for an absurdly long time. In fact, the book essentially argues we only had a few years without Jim Crow dominating and we’re back into a quasi-Jim Crow state with all the current “Voter Fraud” initiatives – which are really just carefully worded Racists preventing non-whites from voting.

The book is a history book, so it’s dry. That doesn’t mean it’s not an emotional book. There are points where your blood will boil. Where you will be infuriated that we, Americans, have treated through law a group of Americans this way.

I learned how much effort the NAACP put into getting education into southern states. They were the catalyst for Brown. I have to admit, I didn’t know a lot about what they did. I vaguely had a negative impression of them when I was younger, because my parents would both get angry any time they were brought up. Like they were a bad group that were only trying to help bad people. Other than that I was pretty ignorant of what they did. Now, I can only look at how my parents reacted to the NAACP as two white people experiencing White Rage at what the NAACP was doing. That my parents and many other people in my home town, practice the subtler form of racism that is dangerous. It can turn into a darker type of racism, like Dylan Roof (which Anderson specifically mentions in her book).

This book is incredibly well researched. The paperback version, with an afterward reflecting on Trump’s election, is only 180 pages long with 83 pages of end notes. For some chapters there are well over a hundred end notes. I learned a lot from this book and honestly, it was an overwhelming amount of facts that spanned from the 1850s-2016. Overall, the book is one of amazing perseverance by the Black community. I’m in awe of what they’ve been able to do despite intentional roadblocks along the way. These roadblocks, it’s important to note, didn’t just hurt Black Americans, they hurt all Americans and are STILL hurting America today.

We could have many more Black scientists than we do, but because of policies enacted in the 50’s to STOP Brown v. Education, we destroyed educational opportunities for multiple generations of Black Americans and poor white people. White Americans should be embarrassed, but instead, many are pushing laws to continue disenfranchising and holding back Black America.

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Algorithms are Intentionally Designed

During an NPR segment on my morning flash briefing, I heard an alarming, unchallenged, comment, “No one intended this to happen.” This is utter bull. The context doesn’t even matter, but in this case it’s about, what amounts to, interest rates based on what university you attended. Specifically, how alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (along with Hispanic leaning institutions) receive higher interest rates than people that went to other universities.

Let’s start at the most basic point, what is an algorithm? A quick Google search returns this:

It calls out specifically that an algorithm can be as basic as for division. So, I think it’s fair that many people use the word algorithm over “computer program” because it sounds magical and difficult to understand. Now, there are plenty of algorithms that are very complicated, like the original algorithm for page rank.

However, the most common algorithm used is the basic regression model. This looks something like ax + c = y. You should recognize this as the most basic equation for a line. Each ‘x’ is a conscious decision of what to include. For example, let’s say you want to calculate fuel economy for the vehicle. In this case, x could be your speed at steady state, such as driving down the highway. If you want to make it more accurate, you need to include other factors, like temperature, your acceleration habits, the time between accelerations, how much weight you have in the vehicle, time between oil changes, you get the idea. This would look like a*speed + b*temp + c*acc+d*freqAcc + e*weight + f*oil + g = y.

Each factor that you include is a choice of the person making the algorithm. In fact, there are tools, like sum of least squares which helps you identify factors that are actually significant (important) to properly estimating y. Furthermore, how you gather the data in your underlying set is also a choice. This is called sampling. There are statistical tools to allow a person to get closer to matching the actual population, but given how large the population is, it’s unreasonable to collect data on the entire population. So you’ll necessarily be estimating for a large portion of the people in your data set.

So, if your goal is to calculate interest on a loan using a regression model (algorithm) you have to pick which factors to include in your regression model. You have to pick how you sample the population. You have to pick the values you’re trying to get. You have to pick if you think something could be a proxy for race. You have to decide if you are going to do something about that.

Any bank will know all the factors that represent race. Zip code, high school, university, names, etc… In this case, they made the choice to ignore how these factors could be skewing the credit score and therefore the interest rate.

Anyone telling you that they had no way of knowing an algorithm is racist, is lying to you, thinks you’re stupid, or shouldn’t be trusted with your money. Probably all three. Reporters need to be more critical about accepting “iT wAs ThE AlGoRiThM” from any company.

Book Review: What You Do Is Who You Are

What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business CultureWhat You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture by Ben Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As someone hired at a small company to implement change, determine how and where to change the culture has been a big challenge. “What you do Is Who You Are” really helps with clarifying limitations I am operating under as someone that cannot change our CEO’s vision of our culture. I’ve felt for a long time that culture is something a CEO owns and that any bad behavior should be pinned to the CEO and that CEO should be fired if they cause something like a financial crash. It is their culture that allowed and pushed someone to make a multi-billion dollar bet.

This book demands that the CEO takes ownership of the culture. It also elevates culture to one of the most important thing a CEO must consider. It is something that, Horowitz argues, must be continually reinforced in little action. He argues that to earn the trust of your employees, you have to do things that show you trust them. That you need to make sure they understand the ultimate goal for the company and to see WHY you’re saying this thing is part of your culture.

Horowitz uses some rather extreme examples to show how you can change the culture of an organization as a leader. He uses the slave revolt in Haiti and a prison gang leader. Both show that if you explain why to the people that report to you, that you can get them to radically change their behavior. For example, you’d expect former slaves to butcher and pillage the lands of their former slave masters. Louvatore refused to allow his troops to do this, because he wanted to create a healthy free state. If the land was razed there’d be no economy for all the freedmen in the country.

Similarly, Shaka Seghnor believed that for any gang to be successful, they must live by the code of ethics they claimed. It would lead to hard decisions and often forced contradictory behavior. Such as forcing one of his gang members to apologize rather than attacking someone that the gang member had robbed.

There were some real gems in this book and I strongly recommend every CEO or aspiring CEO read this book. it provides great ideas of what your culture could be and how to get there. It also includes great recommendations for how to have a healthy inclusive culture.

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