Thoughts on Data Science, ML and Startups

2020 in Books

2020 was not easy by any measure. COVID-19, adapting to parenthood, rollercoaster of working at an early stage startup - it was a memorable year (though I might not remember a lot because of sleep deprivation). However, I still managed to read a few books, and there were several that I would like to reflect upon. So here is an overview, and I will share more details on a few books in later posts.


I have read 27 books this year (a bit less than the past two years), but I will aim to read even less (maybe around 20 or so) going forward and spent a little bit more time on the ones that I do read. I can roughly categorize my books into five categories: Work-related reading (Software engineering, Machine Learning/Data Science, Product Management, and People Management), Fiction, Real-life events/people, Parenthood (Familly psychology), and Miscellaneous. One observation I can see right at the start - I do not read fiction enough. Just one this year. I will try to fix this next year. Another issue is that I haven't read enough Machine Learning / Data Science books. I have read a lot of blog posts or articles, but that is a separate matter. I will try to address this next year too.

Fiction (1)

1984 by George Orwell - This is one of the classics that I haven't read before, and I started it with no expectations. I have also read The Animal Farm previously and was not impressed (maybe because I did live a bit under the soviet regime and it still echos to this day in Lithuania). However, what I found was a very relevant novel in times of fake news and alternative facts. This novel didn't feel like a stretch of the imagination. It was a very chilling realization, especially considering that there are groups of people in the 21st century that live by very different facts than scientifically accepted ones. But the most appealing idea for me in this book was that of a human condition. No matter how severe the punishment, no matter how negligible the odds, humans are drawn to act out their inner beliefs and disregard the dangers. It is tragic and maybe even stupid for any one single individual, but very very beneficial for humanity - no matter how small the odds, some will succeed, and that will move the entire species forward.

Parenthood (3)

I have started reading parenthood books last year as I was expecting my son's birth. What I didn't expect, was to find that it was mostly learning about myself. It provided me with insight into my childhood behavior.

Hold On To Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate - I have sought this book out after watching the author's interview. I highly recommend watching it and the book. Although the book is a bit repetitive at times and is a bit dated (it was first published in 2004) the message it carries is timeless and couldn't be more relevant today - attachment with our children is crucial for them to develop and for us to be able to perform our parental duties, while peer orientation robs our children of the secure connections they need to develop and parents of "power" to guide our children towards maturation.

Another book about parenting that I have read this year was Brain Rules For Baby by John Medina. In this book, John Medina reviews research in child development and makes the connection between smart and happy kids - surprise surprise, the same behavior and methods that help children develop make them happy. Or to put it the other way around - kids need to be happy and safe for them to develop. Not an earth-shattering revelation, but just a reminder where to concentrate the effort.

On a related topic, I have also read a very good book on the relationship in a family where both sides want to excel not only in the relationship, but at work too - Couples that Work by Jennifer Petriglieri. Based on the authors' research, this book examines what transitions couples face in their life together, and give advice on how to go through these transitions as a couple. I've read this because having a child impacted my relationship with my wife in ways I didn't expect. And according to the author, having a child is the first of three transitions that couples go through life and to manage this successfully requires quite a big shift in mindset. It helped me understand the dynamics of our family a bit better and even shifted my perspective a little bit. It is a work in progress, but I am glad I've read this book and recommend it to anyone going through tough times together - especially if you are a new family.

Work-related (5)

This year I haven't read enough on ML/DS topics (book-wise) and will remedy that during the upcoming year. The one technical book I have read I enjoyed very much - Building Machine Learning Powered Applications by Emmanuel Ameisen. This is a very good overview of what it takes to deliver ML products. Data management and machine learning matters, but looking from the product perspective, how we define a problem matters a lot more. It also went into the iteration process of improving models and suggested very interesting ideas on how to improve ML models with the help of other ML models - train a model that predicts which inputs confuses our main model the most and gather/label more of these is genius.

Having read little on technical aspects of ML/DS I have read a bit more on the managerial aspects of my work - I am taking care of a few data scientists at work. I wanted to be a bit more prepared, so I invested time in this area. I cannot distinguish one book, since I have gained something from them all. Radical Candor by Kim Scott highlights the benefits and even the necessity of being candid with your peers. Giving feedback the right way can transform you, your colleagues, and the company. Kim Scott also plots the trajectory that could be followed to introduce radical candor in their own company or department. I struggled following her advice - I was not persistent enough to extract candid feedback from my peers and by the same token was not able to give candid feedback back (as I did not want to offend them). I am aware of my failure and will try to improve upon this next year. Another book that I have read with similar ideas was No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings & Erin Meyer. The ideas behind high performance and innovation culture @ Netflix is very counter-intuitive, but with the right people, it works as is continuously demonstrated by the company. Authors walk readers through the origins of the philosophy and what it takes to maintain it. I have to admit - I am a bit intimidated by this approach. Especially now, when I have to devote a significant part of my time to family, I probably would be constantly stressed about my performance. But I would also gladly take on the challenge if presented with the opportunity. I actually even went to their hiring site to see if they have any remote positions. Another great book, and sort of a classic, on management, is High Output Management by Andrew S. Grove. The main concept I took from it is task-relevant maturity. This is crucial to consider, especially in the early-stage startup environment. If you hire people that are not yet capable to perform without much supervision velocity will suffer. I do not have a good answer to this question, but it seems that the two-to-one ratio of senior to junior employees is a good start. While ML/DS is not software engineering, there is still a lot to be learned from the discipline. Therefore, The Nature of Software Development by Ron Jeffries was an easy overview of how software is delivered in an agile environment.

Real-life events/people (10)

This category can be further broken down to biographies about prominent people and descriptions of events. I have started reading more about prominent people and events last year and found it to be a great inspiration - a lot of the time events happen at random and we, humans, tend to overfit a lot to the patterns we perceive. It is very refreshing to see how much luck plays a role and how much perseverance helps to achieve great things.

Biographies

I have read or listened to a few books on prominent people and the theme that emerged was perseverance. In the The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder the author goes through the history of Warren Buffett in fine detail - detailing his entrepreneurial mindset from childhood to the present day. From paperboy to the prominent businessman he became. From collecting and selling lost golf balls from the golf club ponds to the board rooms of the most prominent companies in the world. What emerges from this book is that there are no shortcuts - if you work hard enough for long enough (with a bit of good luck) you will achieve great things. It may not be Warren Buffett's level of fame, you need to be gifted for such hights, I believe, but it will be great things. After watching The First Man movie a couple of times, I've read the book First Man by James R. Hansen too. Apollo missions are the greatest achievement in my book, so I wanted to read about the man that became the name for it. NASA couldn't have picked a better man to be the first on another world. I also thoroughly enjoyed Skunk Works by Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos. Reading about amazing engineering that made Lockheed A-12 possible (among other Skunk Works innovations) highlights what is possible when people put their minds to it. Facts and Fears by James R. Clapper is from a very different field, that I have little interest in and therefore knowledge of - Intelligence. And because of that, it was very illuminating. It was very interesting to listen to Clappers' perspectives and insights on the processes and abilities and shortcomings of intelligence. What it can and cannot deliver and how much uncertainty there is always present in intelligence assessment.

The one book that maybe should not entirely be in this category is A Carlin Home Companion by Kelly Carlin. I wanted to read this book to get an insight into George and what kind of family man he was. I did get that, but I also got a lot of Kelly's teenage experiences, which wasn't my point - but it is her's book.

Events/History

Similar to biographies, I like reading about significant events and experiences or achievements. All these books are amazing and I would recommend reading them all as they highlight what we, humans, can achieve or endure to achieve our goals.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is probably a bit different from others, as in this book Rhodes goes all the events that enable and later made the atomic bomb. Chemistry and physics discoveries are discussed and notable scientists are described. What I did get from this book that something truly significant can only be achieved via cooperation between people. It highlighted the importance of diversity (of opinion, point of view, you name it) in achieved making something so unbelievable at the time. It also showed that not all great men saw this the same way - there were quite a few that doubted the possibility of making it. However, the description of the impact of the bomb on two Japanese cities left the strongest impact on me. After reading around the Internet and watching The Pacific I was of the impression that bombs were the only way to end that war. But there had to be a better way. The horrors of the atomic bomb impact described in the book was something I can scarcely imagine.

Another very different development, which also had and still has a huge effect on us all is the Internet, and How the Internet Happened by Brian McCullough describes beautifully how this phenomenon happened. From the birth of the World Wide Web in the CERN, through the dot come bonanza, to the present day. It was very interesting to hear about the early days, the first companies (e.g. Netscape) and how things rapidly evolved.

Other books in this category described one particular event and super-human efforts that were required to come out the other side of them. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson describes one trip to the Andes by the author, where he survived after he fell (was cut-of from the rope, to be precise) into the crevasse. I have seen the movie by the same name several times before, but wanted to read the book too. The journey Joe had to make is unbelievable and it only highlights the strength of the human spirit - we are not the ones who would wait still for our demise. Into the Thin Air by Jon Krakauer described a bit different journey but also already widely known because of several adaptations to the big screen. The book describes events during a guided expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996 (also known as 1996 Mount Everest disaster). It is a chilling reminder of what wait us when we venture a bit too far out of our comfort zone and do not pay attention. The fact that two of the most experienced mountaineers (Rob Hall and Scott Fisher) perished during this disaster highlights the fact of how fallible we all are. Mountaineers that should have known better fell to hubris, that they were hired to curb. I have entertained the thought of going to the South Pole. So to understand better what it takes and what hardships prominent explorers faced, I wanted to read something on the topic. Endurance by Alfred Lansing came up in my search and even if this is not the kind of journey I would ultimately embark upon, I wanted to see how the early explorers faired and what challenges they faced. Ernest Shackleton's journey is fascinating. They embarked on this journey (departed South Georgia) on December 1914 and were locked in the ice quite quickly. However, the real journey for them started once Endurance, their ship, sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea - most of the crew managed to save themselves through cold and wet and hunger. Once again, while reading these books you cannot escape the feeling that everything is possible.

Miscelanious (8)

The last category is a "catch-all" for all the books that I do not know better categories yet. Topics are varied too. From Kabinetas 339 by Dovydas Pancerovas & Birute Dovydaite, a Lithuanian book on the 17th government dealings and relationships with journalists. Maybe I am spoiled by the quality of the Western books, but it is poorly written. However, I am glad I bought it. We need to support journalists and authors to produce more, that's the only way they will improve. In the The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter, Spiegelhalter goes through data stories explaining how the correct statistical analysis can uncover hidden patterns. This is a book on statistics but aimed at the general audience and I enjoyed reading it. Other books described entrepreneurial efforts, examined their impact on subjects and the world at large. Chaos Monkeys by Antonio G. Martinez is the author's take on entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley culture. It vividly describes a journey from Goldman Sachs trading desk, where Martinez worked as a quant after flunking from Physics PhD program) to Silicon Valley startup scene to founding and selling his own company to working at Facebook and leaving this all to sailing and writing for a living. I didn't like the tone of the book. It was too "Goldman Sachs'ish" and the author tried to show how well-read he is by inserting needless metaphors everywhere he could fit them in, but I appreciated his take on the industry and the overall evaluation of the culture. The Everything Store by Brad Stone details the rise of Amazon. You have to appreciate the foresight of Jeff Bezos on this. I liked the description of his childhood and college years, as I didn't know much about him beforehand. It also detailed failed experiments along the way. It only further solidified my belief that making the right call is not the goal. Making the call and then working hard to implement it is. Being flexible to let it go, once it does not work out is part of success. The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah investigated the cultural bias against migrants that is prevalent currently. Shah contrasts these views with conservationists, who believe that certain animals should be banned from areas where they have not been found recently because they are not "native". The emerging consensus among scientists is that there is no such thing as "native" animal species. Animals (humans included) and plants migrate all the time. However, the issue of refugees is not that simple. Animals who migrate to other areas need to fight with the ones that are already inhabiting them for space, as humans, we think we are better than that, but we have to have rules on migration then. It's not black and white - migration is always a force for good. However, what I think is clear (and there is a lot of evidence to support this), that diversity enriches our lives. Diversity of opinions, experiences, and of cultural backgrounds. Human Errors by Nathan H. Lents was interesting to listen, because it showcases through a series of "flaws", that evolution truly is random. And it does not get everything right. It's just random mutations that some help our cause of survival and reproduction and some don't. And that timescale at which this force works is too big for us humans to comprehend. The Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan failed to impress me. I don't know exactly why - maybe it is because this is a really old book, maybe because I am already a firm supporter of the scientific approach and exploration of the unknown. It was interesting to hear the information on the old experiments (all the drones sent to other planets of the Sun), but other than that, this book left nothing for me. However, I do have the picture to remind me daily about the scale of our life. One last book that I managed to squeeze in during the festive period was Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. A psychiatrist's account of the horrors he had to endure in the Nazie concentration camps (Auschwitz and others). It's a short read and it's more of a collection of observations than a detailed account of the time author spent in these camps. It is written with the purpose to illustrate a authors' ideas and a school of psychotherapy he founded - Logotherapy. A few quotes from the book would illustrate it best:

Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.

Nietzsche

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

Viktor E. Frankl

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor E. Frankl