Thursday, September 29, 2011

Understand Statistics

 Author:         Alan Graham 
 Published:     2010
 Publisher:     Hodder Education

I am always on the lookout for good ideas to enhance my training and consulting   approaches. Therefore I read from time to time, from a purely pedagogical perspective, introductory level books on the subjects which I am quite well versed with. The intention is to study the manner in which authors introduce the nuances of  a subject to the novices. Statistics is one such subject.
While facilitating the implementation of high CMMI maturity level practices in companies I previously worked for, I felt that the  project managers and senior level management need to have at least a basic knowledge of statistics to properly understand and use the metrics which such organizations churn out. I wish I had read this book then and recommended it to them. I must admit that even I learnt  a few new things in this book.

The book starts with a very warm and personal introduction by the author, where he sets the expectations from this book very clearly. He says " ...the focus is on understanding the key concepts and principles of the subject" and it "...does not provide a comprehensive guide to statistical techniques".

Chapter 1 introduces the subject of statistics. It describes the reasons why learning statistics is a worthwhile exercise; provides examples of everyday situations where knowledge of statistics will be helpful; what kind of statistical questions can be asked and how they are investigated.
Chapter 2 serves as an introduction or a refresher to some basic mathematical concepts which are necessary for understanding statistics.
Chapter 3 & 4, describes different types of graphs - bar chart, pie chart, histograms, scattergraphs etc. - and provides guidelines for choosing the most appropriate type of graph to represent the data.
Chapter 5 deals with the concept of central value ( i.e. mean, median, mode) and the spread (i.e. variance and standard deviation) around the central value.
Chapter 6 entitled Lies and Statistics is perhaps the most useful chapter in this book from a layperson's perspective. In real life we often come across deceptive representation of facts by means of misleading graphs, confusing percentages and inappropriate averages. This chapter tells us how to see through these deceptions and avoid making regrettable decisions based on them.
Chapter 7 introduces us to the sampling techniques viz; random and systematic and also deals with variations in samples and errors associated with sampling.
Chapter 8 tells us how to collect data samples and to check and ensure data accuracy.
Chapter 9 teaches the basics of using a spreadsheet to do data analysis.
Chapter 10 is about interpreting the data in the tables and reorganize the data to make convey the key information  more clearly.
Chapter 11 and 12 deal with concepts of Regression and Correlation respectively.
Chapter 13 and 14 is about Probability. After introducing the concept of probability, probability models like uniform, normal and binomial distributions are discussed.
Chapter 15, the last chapter tells us how to conduct test of significance in terms of z test and binomial test.
This book is one of the best introduction to the principles of statistics I have  ever read. Simple and easy to understand language; packed with practical examples and exercises and interesting stories revolving around statistics.

So if you want to learn statistics, start with this book !

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

User Stories Applied

Author:        Mike Cohn
Published:    2004
Publisher:    Addison-Wesley Professional
Paperback:  304 pages

The entire business of software development (for that matter any product development) starts with a user need (whether inherent or created by innovative marketing !) which gets expressed in form of documented requirements.  This holds true for both the traditional and the agile methods. But the difference lies in the manner in which these requirements get documented. The traditional methods like waterfall method recommend a Big Requirements Up-Front (BRUF) approach where the entire set of requirements are documented by  the analysts and passed on like a relay race baton to the development team. The agile methods zealously espouse the cause of short and "just enough" documentation of requirements which encourages conversation between the developers and the product stakeholders. User Stories , the subject matter of this book, are one such way of documenting requirements, highly recommended by most of the agilists.
Mike Cohn, the author of this book, is an oft cited authority whenever the topic of user stories arises in Agile related discussions. Here he provides a very practical approach towards effectively using User Stories in the software development projects.
The book is in three parts consisting of twenty odd chapters.

Part I: Getting Started - Introduces the concept of User Stories , describes how they can be used and provides guidelines for writing good user stories.

Part II: . Estimating and Planning - Deals with estimation of User Stories in terms of Story Points; creation and subsequent refinement of release plans for high priority stories at the start of each iteration; tracking the progress of project and replanning based on the learnings from each iteration.

Part III: Frequently Discussed Topics— How User Stories differ from other requirements specification methods and the advantage User Stories have over such methods; How to identify the bad implementation of User Stories; How to address non-functional requirements through User stories.
Part IV: An Example— An extended case study running through five chapters provides an excellent example of how user stories are created, estimated, allocated to release plan and acceptance tested. 

All the chapters in the first three parts of the book have a set of exercise questions to test the understanding of  User Stories. The answers for these questions are also provided in the appendix. 

Most of the chapters also have a section on what are the Customer Responsibilities and Developer Responsibilities towards successful implementation of User Stories.

This book was published in 2004 and does not seem to have an updated edition yet. Therefore a couple of  User Story techniques developed by Mike Cohn which became popular later do not find a mention in this book.
For e.g., 
The Planning Poker - though a short description of this method is provided, it has not been named as such.
The popular template of writing a User Story - As a , I would like to so that .

But these are very minor limitations. Overall if you want to know anything about the User Stories, this is the GO-TO book !

Links to Extracts from this book
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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Agile Retrospectives - Making Good Teams Great

Authors:  Esther Derby & Diane Larsen
Published: 2006
Publisher: The Pragmatic Bookshelf
Paperback: 182 pages

Agile Principle # 12  - At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts  its behavior accordingly.
The "reflection" part typically  happens in a  retrospective meeting after every iteration . Unless retrospective meetings are well planned, well facilitated and result in clear cut action items for the team to "tune and adjust", they will not be of much value.  But a successful retrospective will enable a team to improve their capability and productivity and increase their capacity to deliver a high quality product. Moreover it will result in better teamwork and job satisfaction.
And how to get these benefits out of retrospectives is what exactly the authors of this book have attempted to teach us through this book. 

A 5-step framework based on authors wide experience is proposed for conducting a retrospective  viz; 

  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide What To Do
  5. Close the Retrospective
Retrospectives if always conducted in a same manner can turn out to be pretty mundane exercise. However the variety of tools and activities (more than 30) suggested for each of the above steps will ensure that retrospectives are a fun as well as productive. Every activity is described in detail almost in a cookbook fashion. in five chapters dedicated to the five steps in the retrospective.
There is also a chapter on leading a retrospective which discusses issues like managing the activities, the time, the group dynamics and even self-management. 
While the book is focused on iteration retrospectives there is a chapter devoted to end of release and end of project retrospective also.
Stories from real life retrospectives are also shared in this book.
A useful and handy book which each team should have !


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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Does He Know a Mother's Heart ?

Author:      Arun Shourie
Published:  2011
Hardcover: 440 pages


The author Arun Shourie is a very well known figure in Indian journalism and politics. Yet very few would have known before the publication of this book about the anguish in his personal life. His son suffers from cerebral palsy and his wife from Parkinson's disease.It would have been a real heart wrenching experience for Shourie which lead to the writing of this book where he  raises a very disturbing yet thought provoking question -Why  there is extreme suffering in the world if according to the religious scriptures there is an omnipotent, omniscient , omnipresent , compassionate, all-forgiving and merciful God ?
This book is  in some parts autobiographical especially in the beginning, mainly dealing with the illness of his son and wife , but mostly a dissection of several religious scriptures to reveal what they have to say about suffering.
Extensively interpreting several  passages from these scriptures, Shourie argues that they actually give an impression that the God is , vindictive, demands unquestioning obedience, inflicts extreme suffering on innocent victims and also severely tests those who have faith in Him. He does not buy-in to a variety of arguments and explanations of suffering - for e.g. there is an unknown yet valid purpose behind suffering; it  is a test of your faith in God; suffering is due to your Karma; suffering is an illusion etc. etc; - advanced by the strong and faithful adherents of these scriptures. He puts forward counter- arguments to their claims.
However Shourie , while not fully agreeing with the views of  Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi,  is touched and impressed by their attitude towards their own sufferings when they were afflicted with fatal cancer.He says "The equanimity with which the painful and fatal illnesses were borne by these sages is, of course, a lesson and an example to us".

Shourie eventually finds some solace in the teachings of the Buddha and makes the following observations in the last but one chapter of the book :
  • Suffering is real. To  dismiss it as 'unreal' is to mock the pain of another.
  • For dealing with life and what it sends us, in particular for persons like us who are unlikely to pursue the higher truths of the mystics, the Buddha's teachings are the most helpful.
  • While it is true that some people will find solace in notions like God and practices like prayers, pilgrimages and rituals, they won't mitigate the crisis. One must work out one's own salvation with diligence as per Buddha's last words.
  • All the sufferings are only because of Time and Chance.
  • No cosmic purpose is served by our suffering because there is no "cosmic purpose"
  • In many instances suffering is so intense and so final that one can do little about it. Yet it can be put to work. Sometimes by the person who is suffering by bearing the pain with dignity or by the people who serve the person who is suffering, thus setting an example of how to deal with such a situation.
  • Putting suffering to work requires  -  Deeply reflecting  not about "Why has this happened to me?" but about, "How I may put even this to work - for others as well as for myself?"; Starting immediately; And persevering with the effort of transforming the suffering into a teacher. 
  • We should neither pity nor sympathize with the person suffering. What is required is our Empathy. i.e. "getting into the skin of, and feeling like the person must feel".
  • Even if we cannot serve those who are in pain, we can be of service to those who are serving them.
  • Hence, each of us can serve. But we must do whatever is required by the person we serve, whenever it is required. And we must go on doing so for as long as we and those we serve live.And we must expect no sympathy, no recognition, no special priveleges.
  • We must not let our unhappiness dampen the spirit of the one who is battling the affliction. We must do the chores we have to in good cheer.
  • Unless we are watchful, suffering of those near us and our own suffering can make us less mindful of the pain of others.
  • Also we have to be watchful of acquiring a martyr complex and of despair while serving.
  • Nothing can be done that will undo the primary cause of suffering. But most of us build superstructures of rage, resentment and bitterness on that primary occrrence. The teachers like the Buddha guide us in dismantling these structures.
  • The near and dear ones who are caught in the vice of prolonged suffering serve us by teaching us acceptance to their condition and to let go our reactions to it. They transform us.
Shourie  concludes this chapter by stating "Everyone struck a blow will find his own ways to cope - if it works for the person concerned, each one of them is valid". He further makes it clear with all humility that the lessons in this chapter ring true to him based on his own limited experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he has learnt these lessons fully.

A few years ago I had started reading  Shourie's book "Worshipping False Gods" but gave up midway, since I found his writing style rather boring and never attempted to read any other book of his after that. However a couple of months back I happened to watch some parts of a TV interview  where he talked about his latest book  "Does He know a mother's heart?", which prompted me to borrow it from Just Books library at the earliest opportunity.

While the first chapter is quite a moving account of his experience in dealing with the illnesses of his wife and son, the next four chapters are quite dry and repetitive. In these chapters the quotes from the scriptures are rather too long and too many. This I felt was rather unnecessary. A couple of quotes could have made the point. The next chapter dealing with incidents from the lives of  Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi makes a better reading. As the next few chapters go by, the book becomes progressively interesting. The last two chapters are the best ones. 

I am an agnostic and so agree with most of the points which Shourie makes in this book. However I also think that faith in God, religion, prayers and rituals - as long as they don't gravitate towards bigotry and fanaticism or causes inconvenience to others - is of great help to a large number of people in coping with the crisis they face. I don't want the faith of these devoted adherents to be shaken by Shourie's writings. So for such people I recommend them to read only the first chapter and the last two chapters. These three chapters captures the essence of this book.

Nevertheless this book is  very inspirational and highly recommended read especially for the caregivers who are in similar situation as that of  Shourie. It will serve as a guidebook for dealing with suffering.

  • Media Reviews - Review of this book in  newspapers and magazines.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Individuals and Interactions: An Agile Guide

Authors:      Ken Howard and Barry Rogers
Published:   2011
Publisher:    Addison-Wesley Professional
Paperback: 240 pages
Buy from Flipkart  

"Individual and Interactions over Processes and Tools", thus begins the Agile Manifesto. It is obvious that the authors of the Agile Manifesto considered "Individual and Interactions" of  foremost importance for  any Agile implementation. Ironically even after ten years, the Agile literature is flooded with books on "Processes and Tools" but hardly any  on individual behaviors and team interactions in context of  Agile projects. Therefore this book is a very welcome addition to the Agile literature.

This book is in two parts. 

Part I - This part  introduces  and discuss the concepts of  - Individual Behavior, Team Dynamics, Communication, Collaboration, Team Behavior, Change and Motivators. These concepts are well illustrated through numerous examples from Agile context.
The authors  recommend  assessment of  the behavioral profile of each individual through  the  DISC (Dominator, Influencer, Supporter, Critical Thinker) framework and sharing the findings with everyone in the team. This they say will lead to better understanding and appreciation of an individual's behavior  and thereby promote teamwork and collaboration. A  typical DISC test is provided in this book. I took this assessment and found the results pretty much in synch with my behavioral pattern !

The chapter on Communication addresses the Agile Principle - The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. All the key aspects to keep in mind during face-to-face conversation - Empathy, Cultural Awareness, Language (both verbal and body language) - are dealt with. Guidelines to communicate with different behavioral profiles are also provided in this book.

Yet another Agile Principle - Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done - is also addressed. The chapter on Motivators identifies and discusses  six key workplace motivators -  Theoretical, Utilitarian/ Economic, Aesthetic,  Social,  Individualistic/Political,  Traditional/ Regulatory.  
Motivation strategies appropriate to each of these motivators  are also suggested.

Part II  - This part gives detailed guidelines  and instructions on on how to conduct Team Dynamics workshop. It suggests various exercises for the participants which will  enable them to become aware and internalize all the concepts introduced in Part I . Some examples of exercises -  Communication Origami ( for Communication), Bridge Building ( for Team Dynamics), Moon Survival ( for Collaboration). 

People issues are the most challenging ones in any agile project. This book is an excellent guide for Team members, ScrumMasters, Product Owners, Management, Consultants, Trainers to understand these issues and  successfully address them. A Must-Read !


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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Agile Product Management with Scrum

Author:        Roman Pichler
Published:    2010
Publisher:    Addison-Wesley Professional
Paperback: 160 pages

A Product Owner (PO)  is one of the key roles in Scrum framework. POs  are responsible for maximizing the value of the product being developed and the work of the development team. Clearly the role of a PO is a very challenging one. This book is a much needed guide for the POs to excel in their roles and to ensure the launch of products that the customers will be delighted to have.
This book consists of six chapters.

Chapter 1 Understanding the Product Owner Role - explains the roles, responsibilities and the authority of a PO.
Chapter 2 Envisioning the Product - discusses how a PO can create  a shared vision of the product being developed.
Chapter 3 Working with the Product Backlog - discusses the techniques for effectively maintaining a Product Backlog. It also provides suggestions for handling nonfunctional requirements and scaling the Product Backlog for large projects.
Chapter 4 Planning the Release - discusses the essential concepts and techniques of release planning.
Chapter 5 Collaborating in the Sprint Meetings - provides tips for effectively collaborating with the rest of the Scrum team during Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum,  Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective meetings.
Chapter 6 Transitioning into a Product Owner Role - provides guidance for people moving into Product Owner roles from more conventional roles like that of a project manager or a product manager.

The book is very concise, highly readable and contains lots of real life examples to illustrate the points made by the author.
Each chapter has a section called "Common Mistakes" which highlights the pitfalls  that  Product Owners need to avoid.
Another important section in every chapter is "Reflection". This section poses a set of "moment of truth" questions to the Product Owners and other managers in an organization. These questions will enable them to objectively asses their current practices and situation and serve as prompts  to improve them.

There is no denying the fact this is an extremely useful book for Product Owners. However the title of the book "Agile Product Management with Scrum" sets a much higher expectation among the prospective readers. The book is written only from a Product Owner's perspective. Other aspects of product management are not dealt with. A more apt title of this book could have been something like "How to be an Effective Product Owner in a Scrum Project" or "A Guidebook for Product Owners".

There may not be much new in this book for a highly experienced and effective Product Owner who may be already aware of and even following many of the useful techniques discussed in this book. 
But for a novice Product Owner, other members of  the Scrum Team, and the management of an organization taking baby steps towards implementation of Scrum, this book should be a mandatory read.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Inbound Marketing

Authors:     Brian Halligan, Dharmesh Shah
Published:  2010
Publisher:  John Wiley and Sons
Hardcover: 250 Pages
Buy from Flipkart

The traditional way of marketing is Outbound Marketing where the businesses bombard the prospects with promotional brochures, TV advertisements,  spam mails, telemarketing calls and so on. The authors are of the opinion that  the prospects have become smart enough to avoid such interruptions and get the information they need through online searches. In this book they propose Inbound Marketing as a solution to this problem. Inbound Marketing is all about the businesses creating an effective online presence which results in their "getting found"  by the prospects (vs searching for prospects) through online searches and social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn etc.
The book consists of  four parts.
Part I - Inbound Marketing
This part stresses the need for matching the way one markets the product with the way the prospects learn about and shop for that product. This can be done through inbound marketing. First and foremost the website of the business must change its marketing mode from a one-way sales message to a collaborative hub for its  marketplace. 
They should  focus on creating communities outside of their web site for people to connect with them and others within the community. 
This “outside” focus will drive people back to the website of the business. 
This involves adding some collaborative tools like a blog and creating lots of compelling content (not  overt sales pitches) which people want to consume. 
This should be followed by creating a presence in  Google,industry blogs, and social media sites. 
Through internet one can  reach many more prospects and much more quickly as compared to traditional mode of communication. 
To take advantage of such a reach and speed, one should think beyond the competitors and create alternatives to conventional marketing. 
Also one should strive to offer the best product/service within the market.

Part II - Get Found by the Prospects
This part offers umpteen number of  useful ideas, tips, tools and techniques for creating a remarkable content and getting discovered in blogosphere, in Google through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and in social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon and YouTube.

Part III - Converting Customers
Visitors drawn to the business website need to be converted into leads by encouraging them through some compelling call-to-action to further engage with the business.
Good calls-to-action  involves giving them helpful and useful information to enable them to do their job better or improve their job prospects. 
This can be asking them to register or subscribe for free Webinars, White papers or reports, short consultation sessions, demos, or trial offer etc.
This part also talks about  various ways of nurturing the leads to convert them into customers.

Part IV - Make Better Decisions
Better marketing investment decisions can be made using the Marketing Funnel technique introduced in this part  to define various levels - prospect, lead, opportunity, and customers - and measuring the conversion rates to  calculate the Return on Investment (ROI) of various marketing channels. 
This part also advises the reader on how to hire  marketing staff  and PR agencies for inbound marketing.
Tools to keep tabs on the competition are also dealt in this part.

Finally the book concludes by reinforcing that age of inbound marketing has dawned and the days of outbound marketing are over. 
However inbound marketing requires commitment, patience and continuous learning. The benefits will be slow in coming initially but the floodgates will be opened once the tipping point is reached.

The book consists of 16 short chapters written in a very simple and easy to understand language, illustrated with several real life examples. In every chapter there are recommended measurements to track the progress in inbound marketing journey.
The chapters also have short case studies in inbound marketing. 
These case studies covered  include - the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the music group The Grateful Dead, Wikipedia, and Google.

As a bonus there is a fairly comprehensive list of 26 Inbound Marketing tips for the Startups.
Overall a very good introduction to Inbound Marketing..

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