Following the very ambitious and successful 2016 challenge, I have decided to keep the goal at the same level of 36 books for 2017 to prove to myself that it is sustainable and wasn’t a one-off success. Surprising myself, I have crushed the goal and finished 39 books this year. Below is summary of the best of those books.
Business, Management and Leadership
After changing my job at the beginning of 2017 and returning to Swiftype to focus on Technical Operations team leadership, I continued working on improving my skills in this area and read a number of truly awesome books:
- “The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done” by Peter F. Drucker — this classic has immediately become one of my favourite leadership books of all time. There are many useful lessons I learned from it (like the notion that all knowledge workers should consider themselves executives in some sense), but the most powerful was the part on executive time management.
- “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal” by Nick Bilton — A truly horrifying “Game of Thrones”-like story behind the early years of Twitter. I didn’t think shit like that actually happened in real life… I guess the book made me grow up a little and realize, that simply doing your best to push your company forward is not always enough. I’d highly recommend this book to anybody working in a fast growing company or thinking about starting a VC-backed business.
- “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE” by Phil Knight — a great story of a great company built by regular people striving for quality results. Heavily reinforces the notion that to be an entrepreneur you need to be a bit crazy and slightly masochistic. Overall, a very fascinating tale of a multi-decade development of a company — a strong contrast with all the modern stories about internet businesses. A must read for people thinking about starting a business.
Health, Medicine and Mortality
I have always been fascinated by the history of medicine, medical stories and the inner workings of the modern medical system. Unfortunately, this year I’ve had to interact with it a lot and that made me seriously consider the fact of our mortality. This has led me upon a quest to learn more about the topics of medicine, mortality and philosophy.
- “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi — Fantastic memoir! Terrifying, depressing, beautifully described story of a young neurosurgeon, his cancer diagnosis, his battle with the horrible disease and up to the very end of his life. I found the story of Paul very relatable and just like with Atul Gawande’s book I’ve read last year, it brought forth very important questions on how should we deal with our own mortality. Paul gave us a great example of one of the options for how we may choose to spend our last days — the same way we may want to spend our lives: “You can’t reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving”.
- “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee — probably the best book on cancer out there (based on my limited research). The author takes us on a long, very interesting and terrifying trip through the dark ages of human war against cancer and explains why after so much time we are still only starting to understand how to deal with it and there is still a long road ahead. Highly recommended to anybody interested in the history of medicine or wants to understand more about the reason behind a malady that kills more than 8 million people each year.
- “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science” by Atul Gawande — once again, one of my favourite authors manages to explain a hard problem of complications in healthcare and give us a sobering look at the limits and fallibilities of modern medicine.
- Bonus: “On The Shortness Of Life” by Seneca — It is amazing how something written 2000 years ago can have such profound relevance today. I found this short book really inspiring and it has led me to start my road to adapting some of Stoic techniques including mindfulness and meditation.
Few more books I found very interesting:
- “Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah — Listened to this book on Audible and absolutely loved it! Hearing Noah’s voice describing his crazy childhood in South Africa mixing fun and absolutely horrifying details of his life there and the struggles he had to endure being a coloured kid under and right after Apartheid.
Even though it was never as scary as what Noah is describing in his book, I have found in his stories a lot of things I could relate to based on my childhood in late USSR and then in 1990s Ukraine which was going through an economic meltdown with all of the usual attributes like crime and crazy unemployment.
- “I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons” by Kevin Hart — I have never been a particular fan of Kevin Hart. Not that I disliked him, just didn’t really follow his career. This book (I absolutely recommend the audiobook version!) ended up being one of the biggest literary surprises ever for me: it is the funniest inspirational read and the most inspiring comic memoir I’ve ever read (or, in this case, listened to). Kevin’s dedication to his craft, his work ethic and perseverance are truly inspiring and his success is absolutely well-earned.
- “Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground” by Kevin Poulsen — Terrifying read… I’ve never realized how close the early years of my career as a systems administrator and developer took me to the crazy world of underground computer crime that was unfolding around us.
I’ve spent a few weeks week wondering if doing what Max and other people in this story did is the result of an innate personality trait or just a set of coincidences, a bad hand the life deals a computer specialist, turning them into a criminal. For many people working in this industry, it is always about the craft, the challenge of building systems (just like the bind hack was for Max) and I am not sure there is a point in one’s career when you make a conscious decision to become a criminal. Unfortunately, even after finishing the book I don’t have an answer to this question.
The book is a fascinating primer on the effects of bad and the need for good security in today’s computerized society and I’d highly recommend it to everybody working with computers on a daily basis.
- “Modern Romance” by Aziz Ansari — very interesting insight into the crazy modern world of dating and romance. Made me really appreciate the fact that I have already found the love of my life and hope will never need to participate in the technology-driven culture today’s singles have to deal with. Really recommend listening to the audiobook, Aziz is very funny even when he’s talking about a serious topic like this.
- “The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country” by Helen Russell — Really liked this book. It offers a glimpse into a society surprisingly different from what many modern North Americans would consider normal. Reading about all kinds of Danish customs, I would think back to the times I grew up in USSR and realize, that modern Danish life is very close to what was promised by the party back then. The only difference — they’ve managed to make it work long term.
Even though not many of us could or want to relocate to Denmark or to affect our government policies, there is a lot in this book that many of us could apply in our lives: trusting people more, striving for a better work-life balance, exercising more, surrounding ourselves with beautiful things, etc.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of the best books I’ve read in 2017. Let me know you liked it!
I’ve planned to read 36 books in 2016 and managed to hit that number a few hours before the NY! The best of those 36 books are listed below.
Business, Management and Leadership
Considering the new role I’ve started in January 2016 (first-time CTO of a growing startup company), my reading last year was heavily geared towards business, management and leadership topics. Here are my favourite books in this category:
- “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” — in my opinion, a must-read book for anybody interested in starting a company or already building one. A treasure trove of great advice for startup founders on building and managing their teams.
- “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers” — the author explains why so many companies, that find an initial product-market fit, subsequently fail to grow into leaders of their respective markets and often die a slow and painful death. The concept of a chasm and, especially, the idea of the whole product were very powerful for my understanding of what I felt in many companies I worked for — mainstream customers could not use your product unless they are provided with a minimum set of components and services to solve their problem. Very important read for leaders of modern SaaS companies, especially for API/platform enterprises.
- “Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders” — an inspiring story of a navy captain transforming one of the worst-performing crews in the fleet into a perfectly functioning team by pushing control down to individual team members.
- “The Score Takes Care of Itself” — inspiring story of one of the best sport team transformations and the man behind it, legendary coach Bill Walsh.
Few more books I found very interesting:
- “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups” — maybe it is just a confirmation bias, but I absolutely loved this book. The author focuses on a few serious problems in today’s parenting and the resulting decline in the achievement and psychological health of American children. He finally managed put into words something that was bothering me for 10 years since moving to Canada. Now that I became a parent and would have to raise a child in this environment, I was glad to hear that I wasn’t crazy not to agree with the approach that is being pushed on modern parents by American society.
- “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” — one of my favourite authors, Atul Gawande, explores the current state of end of life care in the USA, Canada, and Western Europe. Terrifying at first, the book makes you consider your own mortality and think about the choices you are bound to make eventually for yourself and, potentially, for your close family members.
- “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” — a captivating overview of our history as human species: from 70,000 years ago until the 20th century: how we evolved, how we affected other species on the planet and how did we end up where we are today. A long, but very interesting read!
- “The Road To Sparta: Retracing the Ancient Battle and Epic Run that Inspired the World’s Greatest Foot Race” — fascinating story of Dean Karnazes (one of the most famous ultra-distance runners in the world) and his exploration of the legend of the Marathon. Highly recommended to anybody interested in running.
- “Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father — and How We Can Fix It” — very detailed overview of what is broken in US healthcare today. Even if you don’t have anything to do with US healthcare market, the book is a great collection of stories about side-effects of what initially looked like great ideas, but ended up screwing the system even further.
I was always a huge fan of sci-fi fiction and this past year I have discovered a few real gems that ended up on my all time favourite list:
- “Remembrance of Earth’s Past (aka The Three Body Problem)” series by a Chinese author Liu Cixin — huge universe, highly-detailed and powerful characters, timeline spanning centuries — you can find all of it here. But on top of the standard components of a good space opera, there is this previously unknown to me layer of Chinese culture, language, philosophy.
This trilogy has become an instant classic for me and is in the top-10 of my all time favourites next to Asimov’s “Foundation” and Peter F. Hamilton’s “Void”.
- Everything from Niel Gainman! Up until this year when I got exposed to his writing, I’ve never realized how much pleasure one could get from reading prose. I’m not sure how he does it, but if he were to publish a book of obituaries or classifieds, I’d be willing to read that too — I enjoyed his English so much! Favourite books so far: “The Graveyard Book” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of the best books I’ve read in 2016. Let me know you liked it!
About 6 years ago (feels like an eternity in Rails world) working at Scribd I’ve started working on porting our codebase from some old version or Rails to a slightly newer one. That’s when I realized, that there wasn’t a ruby gem to help us manage MySQL connections for our vertically sharded databases (different models on different servers). I’ve started hacking on some code to replace whatever we were using back then, finished the first version of the migration branch and then decided to open the code for other people to use. That’s how the DbCharmer ruby gem was born.
For the next few years a lot of new functionality we needed has been added to the gem, making it more complex and immensely more powerful. I’ve enjoyed working on it, developing those features, contributing to the community. But then I left Scribd, stopped being a user of DbCharmer and the situation drastically changed. For quite some time (years) I would keep fighting to make the code work with newer and newer versions of Rails, struggling to wrap my head around more and more (sometimes useless) abstractions Rails Core team decided to throw into ActiveRecord.
Finally, in the last 2 years (while trying to make DbCharmer compatible with Rails 4.0) it has become more and more apparent, that I simply do not want to do this anymore. I do not need DbCharmer to support Rails 4.0+, while it is very clear that many users need it and constant nagging in the issues and the mailing list, asking for updates generated a lot of anxiety for me, anxiety I couldn’t do much about (the worst kind). As the result, since I simply do not see any good reasons to keep fighting this uphill battle (and developing stuff like this for ActiveRecord IS a constant battle!) I officially give up.
After some long and painful consideration I’ve decided to officially suspend the project. Here is what the suspension means in this case:
- I will stop making any changes in DbCharmer code
- Pull Requests and Issues functionality on the project repository will be disabled (I will dump the issues somewhere for future reference, but no new messages could be added)
- There will be a huge message in the project README explaining that no Rails versions beyond the latest 3.2.x are supported and there are no plans to do any development to make the code work with Rails 4.0+
- Project mailing list will be disabled
- Project website will be moved to a github domain (with the same message explaining the project status)
I’m really sorry if any of the users of the project still had some hopes regarding the Rails4 branch and potential upgrade to the newer Rails versions, but 3.2.x will be the last version officially supported by the project.
Now, here are my answers to the questions that people have asked me about this decision (I’ve talked to a few of the largest users of the project already):
Are you going to kill the repo? – No, the repository (and even the rails4 branch) are going to stay intact. I’m just going to clearly mark it as inactive to make sure people do not try to use it with new Rails versions or expect the project to support those in the future.
What about Rubygems? – All rubygems versions released up until this point will stay active and accessible as long as rubygems is alive. Though no updates will be provided for any Rails versions beyond 3.2.x.
Why not crowdfund the development? – This is a really tough issue I struggled with for a long time. The problem here is that for many years now I had been very fortunate to be in a position when I’m not motivated by the money anymore. So crowdfunding the development would only increase my anxiety 10x, while not really changing the situation on the motivation side. That’s the opposite of what I need at this point.
What if you need DbCharmer functionality on your current or some next job? – This is why I’m not deleting the repo, gems, etc and calling it a suspension and not a closure 🙂 There is a chance, that one day I will end up in a situation, where I will really need all those wonderful features I’ve enjoyed with DbCharmer for years. And I’m pretty sure, that unless there will be another project available on the market, I will try to revive the project (or build something new upon the most important pieces of DbCharmer codebase). But nobody knows what will happen, so for now the project is suspended.
Can I help with the development? Maybe send in a patch? – Another very tough issue. Accepting patches still requires a lot of time and dedication to review, understand and test them. And that is not something I want to do at this point. The only real way to resume the development of the project at this point would be to transfer the ownership to somebody else. But unless someone creates a fork, shows a true dedication to the project (making sure all the incoming changes are 100% test-covered and battle-tested, etc), I’m not ready to do that. If you have some ideas on this matter, you could ping me any time.
As a leader of a technical operations team I often have to work on technical operations engineer hiring. This process involves a lot of interviews with candidates and during those interviews along with many challenging practical questions I really love to ask questions like “What are the most important resources you think an Operations Engineer should follow?”, “What books in your opinion are must-read for a techops engineer?” or “Who are your personal heroes in IT community?”. Those questions often give me a lot of information about candidates, their experience, who they are looking up to in the community, what they are interested in, and if they are actively working on improving their professional level.
Recently, one of the candidates asked me to share my lists with him and I thought this information could be valuable to other people so I have decided to share it here on my blog.
Must-Read Books List
First of all, I would like to share a list of books I believe every professional in our field should read at some point in their life. You may notice that many of these books are not too technical or are not really related to the pure systems administration part of a techops job. I still think those are very important because technical operations work on senior levels involves much more than just making sure things work as expected. A lot of it involves time management, crisis management and many other topics that are equally important for a professional in this field.
So, here is the list (with not particular ordering, grouped by topics):
Systems and Networks Administration
Technical Operations, Architecture, Scalability
Project, Release and Time Management
For more information on interesting books for technical operations engineers, you can check out the following book lists on GoodReads:
Conferences, in my opinion, are an essential part in professional development of any engineer. Here is a list of conferences that could be useful for techops engineers:
- Surge Conference – in my opinion, this is definitely one of the best conferences dedicated to building and maintaining large web architectures. If I were to choose one conference a year to go to, it would definitely be Surge. Videos from previous years are freely available online: 2010, 2011, 2012. 2013 videos should be available soon as well.
- Oreilly’s Velocity Conference – biggest and, probably, the oldest web operations and web performance event. In my opinion, recently it became too focused on web frontend performance, though it is still a really interesting event. Complete video compilations from the conference are available for sale: 2011, 2012, 2013.
- Monitorama Conference – pretty new, but already very popular conference with interesting content for everyone interested in monitoring (which most ops engineers are). Sides and videos from the first ever Monitorama conference in 2013 are available online.
- Percona Live Conference – really awesome event for anybody who has MySQL in their stack. Huge multi-track event with talks from the best and brightest people in MySQL community. Slides and keynote videos from 2013 event are available online.
- DevOps Days – small events happening all around the world and becoming more and more popular. The major topic of these conferences is the DevOps movement, related team/project management practices, etc. Videos and slides from some of the events are available online.
Even if you do not have time to watch any of those conference videos, I think every operations engineer out there would really enjoy 2011 Surge Conference closing plenary session video where Theo Schlossnagle (one of my personal heroes in IT community) described a typical debugging session many of us go through every once in a while:
Interesting Web Resources
And last, but certainly not least, I would like to share a list of web resources I like to follow to stay up to date on the most recent news and fresh ideas within the web operations community and related areas:
Leading Industry Sites and Blogs
- MySQL Performance Blog from Percona – one of the best resources on MySQL performance
- High Scalability – awesome resource with a lot of great articles on scalability, performance and design of large scale systems
- Kitchen Soap – Blog by John Alspaw (another of my personal heroes in IT field)
- DevOps Community Planet – feed/news aggregator for the DevOps community
- DevOps Community on Reddit – not too active, but still a useful resource for getting interesting news
- Agile Sysadmin – Blog of Stephen Nelson-Smith
- obfuscurity – Blog by Jason Dixon, maintainer of Graphite, author of Descartes, Tasseo and other useful tools for metrics collection and displaying
- The Agile Admin – Many interesting thoughts on agile web operations and devops
- Operation Bootstrap – Blog of Aaron Nichols talking about many different aspects of working in operations
Engineering Blogs of Large Web Companies
- Changelog – member-supported podcast on 5by5 network talking about interesting open source projects
- Food Fight – bi-weekly podcast for Chef community
- DevOps Cafe – interviews with interesting members of DevOps community
- The Ship Show – twice-monthly podcast, featuring discussion on everything from build engineering to DevOps to release management, plus interviews, new tools and techniques, and reviews
And this is it! I hope these lists would be useful for young engineers going into the technical operations and for people who already work in this space. I am going to try to regularly update this post in the future to make sure it stays relevant for a long time.
As you may have heard, last January I have joined Swiftype – an early stage startup focused on changing local site search for the better. It has been a blast for the past 8 months, we have done a lot of interesting things to make our infrastructure more stable and performant, immensely increased visibility into our performance metrics, developed a strong foundation for the future growth of the company. Now we are looking to expand our team with great developers and technical operations people to push our infrastructure and the product even further.
Since I have joined Swiftype, I have been mainly focused on improving the infrastructure through better automation and monitoring, and worked on our backend code. Now I am looking for a few good operations engineers to join my team to work on a few key projects like building a new multi-datacenter infrastructure, creating a new data storage for our documents data, improving high-availability of our core services and much more.
To help us improve our infrastructure we are looking both for senior operations engineers and for more junior techops people that we could help grow and develop within the company. Both positions could be either remote or we could assist you with relocation to San Francisco if you want to work in our office.
If you are interested, you can take a look at an old, but still pretty relevant post I wrote many years ago on what I believe an ops candidate should know. And, of course, if you have any questions regarding these positions in Swiftype, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use any other means for contacting me and I will try to get back to you as soon as possible. If you know someone who may be a great fit for these positions, please let them know!