Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Free: The Future of a Radical Price

For week 1 of my Book-a-week resolution I read Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson.  Below is a review of that book.

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Quick Review

If you have not read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail I would read that book instead of Free.  If you have read The Long Tail, then Free is a decent investment of your time.  While Free is not technically a sequel or a continuation of The Long Tail, it is a deeper dive into how shift from physical media (such as CDs, DVDs, etc.) to digital media and distribution is effecting our economy and society.

What I liked about the book

Before I started reading the book and even into the first 20 pages or so I was a little concerned that Free was going to be focused on the mantra of “give everything away” or “figure out the business model later”.  What I quickly found was that Chris Anderson’s study of the “radical price” was clearly about using Free as part of an overall strategy of having a solid business plan.  He actually starts with some historical (going back more than 100 years) examples of how people have used Free in order to gain traction in a market or used it to sell complimentary goods.  He ends the book with many ideas and examples for using Free.

One of the other things that I really enjoyed was the sidebars that Chris Anderson presents on real world examples of companies that use Free as part of their business strategy.  They sidebars, despite being generally a page or less in length, are rich in analysis and often have an interesting graph to illustrate the example.  The Long Tail and the sidebars both made great use of the graphics to add richness to the text.

What I did not like about the book

I alluded to the how much I liked the real world examples and graphics in the sidebars in the last section.  I found that the main text of the book lacked some of the hard data that I am used to in Chris Anderson’s writing style.  In Free he provides lots of examples to support his ideas, but they often seem anecdotal examples.  Contrast this with the rich data-backed examples that he presented in The Long Tail.  I think this is more of a criticism of the research and writing style of the book, rather than me thinking that the ideas he presents are flawed.  I think the ideas that Chris presents are sound and everyone running a business should consider the ideas presented if for no other reason than your competitors might be considering Free at this moment.

An example of Free

This blog is a good example of Free (Chris Anderson identities it as such in the book).  I post my thoughts here to share them with the world and in hopes to raise my reputation as a Software Architect.  I take it a step further a put a Creative Commons License on the work, so that other can take it and do interesting things with it and owe me nothing other than an attribution.

Book Review: Seeing yourself as others do

Seeing yourself as others do

I have mentioned the book Seeing Yourself as Others Do to a number of people over the last several weeks.  We have been talking a lot about soft skills over the past couple of months at our ArcReady program and I have mentioned it each time I have presented the session.  I also attended a professional development training session last week where skills like listening, negotiation, body language and strategic thinking came up quite a bit.  I have mentioned it enough that I thought that I would go ahead and write up a proper review of it.

Disclaimer

Before I jump into the review, I have to disclose that I know the two authors of this book personally.  Carol Keers was my coach a few years ago and I also got to know Tom Mungavan while I was going through the coaching experience with Carol; they both work for Change Masters.  I also got an advanced copy of the book to review, and as part of the review I gave them a quote to include in the book.  While I consider them my friends, I have tried to not let that affect this review.  The fantastic experience that I had with Carol as my coach probably did have an impact on the review.  :-)

Quick Review

There a probably 1000+ books that cover soft skills from a variety of perspectives and I am sure that many of them are quite good.  Seeing Yourself As Others Do has a few advantages that make it a great book to read if you are interested in exploring soft skills.  The book is very easy to read, written in conversational that that is easy to consume and uses “real world” stories as examples to communicate the techniques presented.  It is so easy to read that if you take it along on a business trip, you will probably have it finished by the time you get back.  One of the best things about the book is that within a couple of chapters, you will already be able to start applying the techniques that are presented to you.  Finally you will learn about yourself, not some program or theories that the author is presenting.

The Decade Shift

One of my favorite parts of the book and the coaching that I got from Carol years ago is the concept of the decade shift.  To summarize the concept:  As you move from decade to decade (from your 20s to your 30s to your 40s – not from the 1980s to the 1990s) the expectations of you and how people expect you to behave changes.  Your job or your role may not change as your age does, but how other people treat you will change and you will need to evolve your behavior in accordance with the change in your age.  At first glance it may seem “unfair” for the expectations to change, but that is human nature.  If you get nothing else out of this book, this section will give you wonderful insight.  One of the reasons this book has been on my mind is that I re-read it over the past couple of weeks just as I turned 40, I figure that would be a good time for a refresher course on the decade shift.

The importance of soft skills to an architect or developer

As I mentioned, we have been talking about soft skills in the latest ArcReady programs.  The “dirty secret” of the ArcReady content is that 95% of the content was not targeted at architects in particular.  Virtually all of the conversation would apply equally well to any technical audience and most of it would apply to any profession, even outside of technology altogether.  We gave the content an architecture slant simply by sighting examples from our own experience as software architects.  Since the content is really job agnostic, you might be asking yourself “Why did Microsoft devote an entire series of their architecture program to soft skills”.  The answer to this question is two-fold, first Soft Skills are just as important as technology skills to architects and developers.  Secondly most architects and developers could use some improvement in their soft skills and will make great leaps in their career by making a small investment in soft skills.

Book Review: DHTML Utopia

Last month I did a review of the Book HTML Utopia: Designing without Tables using CSS and how it taught you to use the advanced features of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) instead of the “old school” table based layouts.  CSS is one of the mandatory skills that anyone doing web development needs to have.  Another is a good understanding of JavaScript and the HTML DOM (Document Object Model).

Quick Review

DHTML Utopia: Modern Web Design Using JavaScript & DOM by Stuart Langridge is a great book for learning how to write client side browser code that takes advantage of the richness of browser DOM.  The book is well written and includes thorough, clear and precise examples.  In today’s environment of richer and richer client applications, this can be a great tool for learning the ins and outs of this style of client side development in a robust, supportable fashion.

Why not just use a framework?

Just this last week Scott Guthrie announced on his blog that Microsoft would be included jQuery inside of Visual Studio (starting within the next few weeks as a download).  jQuery is just one of many great JavaScript frameworks that have abstracted out much of the complexity of dealing with JavaScript and the HTML DOM.  jQuery (like the other frameworks) creates an abstraction layer that means you do not have to deal with the differences between browsers or the differences between versions of a browser.

With so many great frameworks out there, why would you need to learn the “raw” or “low level” coding that is discussed in the DHTML Utopia?  Technically you would not need to, but if you are like me you have a natural curiosity of what is going on below the covers, even if you use a framework like jQuery.  And that understand is what this book gives you.  Also no framework will ever cover every use case, so it is good to know the details, in case you need to drop down and “roll your own” solution.

A little dated

The book was published in 2005, which means that much of the material is probably 4 years old (due to the publishing lead times).  As a result, the specific browser versions are at least one major version out of date (example: all Internet Explorer discussion are version 6, not the current version).   If you disregard the specific discussions, the book does a good job of standing the test of time for 2 reasons: the specific issues that he discusses are still prevalent on the Internet today and more importantly he talks about some great techniques for not coding to specific browser versions anyway.

Book Review: Building Scalable Web Sites

In May-July of this year I did a talk on Building Scalable and Usable Web Applications in Indianapolis, Downers Grove, Milwaukee, Chicago and Appleton for our ArcReady series that we run in about 18 cities in the Central United States.  One of the items I mentioned as a good reference for learning about the ins and outs of web site scalability was the book Building Scalable Web Sites by Cal Henderson, the chief architect of Flickr.

Quick Review

This is a great book for someone who wants to understand the issues with creating a truly Internet Scale application.  The title of this book is a little misleading, because it is about much more than just scaling out your web site.  With chapters on Internationalization / localization and other important topics, it really should be called something like “Handbook for creating an Internet application”.  If you are a Flickr fan, it is also a very interesting peak into how some of the features of the site are implemented.  This is one of the few technology books that I have read more than once, it is that valuable of a resource.  It is also a great book to keep on the shelf and revisit specific topics as you work on creating your next great Internet web site.

Street Credibility

I suppose that anyone could write a book on building scalable web applications, but there are a select few sites on the Internet that have achieved true Internet Scale.  Internet Scale is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but to cut through the clutter I would just say that if you are in the top 100 traffic sites, you are pretty much there.  And the fact that Flickr is a photo sharing site adds a lot to his discussions on scaling web applications.  The fact that literally hundreds of people are uploading multi-megabyte photos to the site every minute, 24 hours a day is a real testament to the scalability of the site. 

Standing the test of time

One of the hallmarks of a good technology book is that it stands the test of time (for at least a few years).  You can go to any used books store and find lots of copies of Visual Basic .NET 1.1 books that are less than 5 years old that are collecting dust, because they were too wired into the specific features of the technology from that slice in time.  They may have been great books at the time, but their shelf life (pun intended) was as long as the technology was new and hot, once Visual Basic .NET 2.0 came out, the 1.1 books were yesterday’s news.  The Henderson book does a good job of focusing on the architecture and fundamental development issues around large scale web sites, as opposed to focusing on specific features in any platform, language, tool or technology.  A good example of this is the fact that Flickr is not written on Microsoft technologies (most of it is PHP), but I got a lot out of it, even though I primarily work with the Microsoft web stack.

A word of caution

If you are currently experiencing a scalability problem with your web application, this book will not necessarily solve the problem for you.  You will not turn to page 10 and see the list of common scalability issues, see that you are experiencing number 8 on the list and then turn to page 101 for the answer to that problem.  This book does make you think about the root causes of the scalability issues in your application, and more importantly it is a great guide to follow as you start to add new features to your application.

Book Review: HTML Utopia

Every once in a while you read a technical book that has a profound impact on what you do from a day to day basis.  In 2004 I had a web designer friend of mine look at my personal web site to give me advice on something I was trying to do.  He right clicked and did a “view source” and the first thing that he said was “Oh, you are still using tables” and he promptly handed me a copy of the first edition of HTML Utopia: Designing without Tables using CSS and told me to read it and come back when I “Caught up to the 2000s”.  I have not done a table based layout since reading the book.  A few years ago I noticed that there was a second edition of the book and I felt I needed a refresher course, so I bought the updated copy of the book.  The book was not just an update, the co-author added quite a bit of new content.  The updates made a good book even better.

Quick Review

If you are looking for a book to help you make the leap from using table based web pages to using well formed HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) this is the book for you.  It is very easy to read and it is a technology book that you can actually read.  The book presumes very little experience with CSS (although it does assume that you know web development).  If you already are familiar with CSS and just looking for a reference book, there are more complete references available.

About Table-less design and CSS

Tables were commonly used in the 1990s for layout.  There were a lot of advantages to using tables in the early days of the web, but times have changed.  CSS has been around for a while, but it was mostly used for styling (applying fonts and colors).  CSS2 (the second rev of the specification) added features for using CSS to do true page layout.  Once browsers were updated to properly use the specification (NO IE6 jokes, please) it became possible to limit the use of tables to tabular data, which was probably the intention of the original specifications.

About the book

As I mentioned in the quick review, one of the best things about this book is that it reads very easy in a style that makes it easy to learn the ins and outs of CSS Positioning.  One of the neat things is you also can start to apply what you are learning within a couple of chapters, you don’t have to finish the whole book.  The topics gets more advanced as you go through the book, but each chapter builds nicely on the previous chapters (that is one downside to the book; it is hard to go right to a topic that is in the middle of the book).

In addition to the learning part of the book, it also contains a good sized appendix that is a reference of the most common CSS elements and how to use them.  It is not an exhaustive list of elements, nor are they defined in great detail.  It is a serviceable reference if you know the element and are just looking for a quick refresher.

Online and Offline

One of the neat things about the book is that all of the samples are built around a case study, the fictional site Footbag Freaks that is dedicated to the sport of hacky sack.  The use of a consistent sample throughout the book is good, but it is augmented with the actual working site on the Internet, which allows you to interact with it in your browser(s) and get the latest sample code.  The site seems to have been updated a couple of times to keep it abreast of updates to the major browsers.  It is great that a book can have an ever green component to it like the working case study.

Note: In case you “view source” on this web site, there are a couple of tables used to layout the comments pages, but those are from generated code, not anything I did.