Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

5 Star, Best Practices in Management, Biography & Memoirs, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Change & Innovation, Complexity & Resilience, Decision-Making & Decision-Support, Economics, Information Operations, Leadership
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Ben Horowitz

5.0 out of 5 stars ABSORBING – Requires Open Mind, March 16, 2014

I generally read all the reviews before writing my own, in part to see if anyone has already covered the ground the way I like to, with a summary evaluative review. There are only two reviews before mine that I consider world-class, please do read them if you have the time. I refer to the reviews by Mercenary Trader and Scott S. Bell, I salute both of them for providing substance useful to all.

This is not a comprehensive book in that it is a very personal perspective, brings together many specific snapshots, but never addresses “root” in relation to how the team went from great idea to source code to buzz to market share. As I read the book I thought often about a book I read in the 1980′s, still a classic, Tracey Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine.

I would say this book is an absolutly priceless gem for the “hard knocks” at the CEO level perspective, and should be combined with any of several alternatives on start-ups such as Matt Blumberg's Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business, + Website, and, forthcoming, Peter Thiel of PayPal's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

I've built two companies, both failures in that I never made the leap from one man with an obession to a movement (OSS.Net, Inc. and Earth Intelligence Network, a 501c3) and what I did not see in this book, or any other book I have found, is the roadmap for getting from a big idea to big marketshare. That book remains to be written, and it could be that it should be written by Marc Andressen and a team. Jim Clark's Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Took on Microsoft is a fine but dated (1999) start but we need something now tailored to the Internet of Things (what everyone else is thinking about) and free individual access to and ability to leverage all information in all languages all the time (what I have been thinking about since 1986 — visit Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog to learn more). I am also reminded of Michael Lewis's The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story.

All this by way of saying that you have no business reading or buying this book if you are expecting a holistic 360 degree soup to nuts outline of how to zero to Mach 2. The greatest value of this book for me was in learning that it is possible to keep flying when you lose power and both wings fall off at the same time.

Top level values for me include the author's appreciation of the role of truth in nurturing success and dealing with failure. Being a CEO, and especially a CEO creating something rather than maintaining an existing capability, is not fun, is complicated, and is 24/7. The core point of the whole book: it demands a proactive fanatic. Big business “leaders” are generally reactive interventionists rather than pro-active constructionists, and that is a point that other reviewers seem to have missed.

Which reminds me: reading this book carefully gave me grounds to boycott Ernest & Young forevermore, and to revise my negastive opinion of Allen & Co, particularly Herb Allen. These two reality-based vignettes are alone worth the price of the book (and since there is no index, a flaw in my view, you have to buy and read the book, I am not going to give you the page numbers).

There are no rules. What comes across to me is that not only are there no rules for success, but all of the state and federal regulations are designed for the industrial era, are the wrong rules, and are the rocks and shoals that every innovator must finds a way to deal with. This is where I see the value in the new kind of venture capital firm that Andreesen and Horowitz have created — an incubator that can protect a start-up from the idiocy built in to the entire system that combines 1950′s mind-sets with 1970′s technology regulations, and is largely clueless of 21st Century financial crime and financial opportunity.

Among the quotes I want to keep on the record:

QUOTE (5): “I learned to look for alternative narratives and explanations coming from radically different perspectives to inform my outlook.”

QUOTE (11): “Netscape committed itself to make the Internet the network of the future” (against Microsoft and Oracle visions of Information Superhighway controlled by proprietary softwares).

QUOTE (49): “Figuring out the right product is the innovator's job, not the customer's job” (this in the context of client “requirements” that can run for shallow idiocy to rampant hysteria of bells and whistles)

QUOTE (52): MY FAVORITE. “No, markets weren't efficient at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion-often the wrong conclusion.” Of course this ties in with our new knowledge of Wall Street as a major criminal enterprise, see Mark Lewis in the 1980′s, Liar's Poker and Matt Taibbi's more recent Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History.

QUOTE (213): “Over the past ten years, technological advances have dramatically lowered the financial bar for starting a new company, but the courage for building a great company remains as high as it has ever been.”

This book partially answers Lee Iacocca's question, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?. I found the book completely absorbing, logically structured, and relevant at every turn. This is not a manual for being a CEO, more like a smorgasbord, and as with most books, what you get out of it is heavily contingent on what you bring to the reading and how open your mind is.

This book could easily have been subtitled “Present at the Creation” in that it covers lessons learned — and gives grerat credit to Marc Andreeson (his venture capital partner) among others, for beating Microsoft and Oracle in shaping the Internet. They get a 33% from me on that one. They — and we — are losing the second battle, allowing Google to pervert the Internet while doing great harm — and they have not, as best I can tell, even begun to think about the substance side of the Internet. I was one of the originals in the cyber-security fight (search for 1994 Sounding the Alarm) and I have been and remain the leading original on creating the World Brain giving all individuals both sense-making tools and access to all information in all languages all the time — and geospatially rooted to boot. We are, right now, in the Valley Forge of cyber-development, and I dare hope that the author has one more big fight left in him, because a big fight there will be, between the “Do More Evil” combination of NSA and Google (see my Reality Sandwich article, “Battle for the Soul of the Republic“) and those of us pioneering the Autonomous Internet and the World Brain.

As a failure myself, I am just riveted to the point of tears in seeing and feeling how the author dealt with set-backs that would have driven lesser men to suicide. A good portion of the book deals with the differences between peacetime CEOs doing maintenance, and wartime CEOs fighting for the survival of their clan, and that is a major value in this offering. Although Page, Zuckerberg, Costolo, and Thiel all provide jacket blurbs, this book does not give the reader — or those worthies — the soul-shaping purpose of the future of the Internet, which is to liberate the human mind and elevate humanity. Jeremy Rifken gets much closer in his The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism but none of these guys have read E. O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge or understand that sense-making for humanity, not machine intelligence for the banks, is where the glory is to be found.

The author gains huge face with me in his documentation of how important it is to focus on the people. He recognized that how you treat people who leave (understand that their departure is a failure in your own process) impacts for a lifetime on both the people who stay, and on others whom you will engage over time.

HUGE POINT: I learn that engineers in Cary, North Carolina are cheaper than engineers in Bangalore, India. This is a nationally significant point. I ran for president under the Reform Party banner but consider myself a mix of Libertarian and sane Republican. I am not happy with the lies that have been told to Congress to justify importing foreign engineers and offshoring engineering, and I am VERY unhappy with how all our billionaires have failed to take on the Rockefeller-Morgan-Carnegie mafia who persist in running two slavery systems in the USA — rote education and misdemeanor for life prisons. What we have done to our human capital is treason, pure and simple. We need to burn down the schoolhouses and stop screwing around with MOOCS (which have a 4% completion rate) and get on with the World Brain and educating everyone in the USA — and the five billion poor with their four trillion a year aggregate income — “one cell call at a time.”

Pages 73-80 are a brillian analysis of what firing a person should teach you about the company and its processes, and coming together with the author's articulation of how he learned that collective intelligence is superior to top-down “because I say so” arrogance. Drawing on all minds is faster, better, cheaper than trying to fake it. In this vein I recommend the books by Tom Atlee, Juanita Brown, and Jim Rough, among others.

There are a number of original ideas in this book of lasting value to the business schools (which still do not teach decision-support or true cost economics, making them a continuing scam in my view–these are the zero-ethics organizations that enabled Griftopia). Among them are the concept of management debt — the long term costs of making poor short-term decisions for the wrong reasons; and a lengthy examination of organizational culture and why it matters, ending with the pithy observation that perks are not culture.

Having executives at odds with one another switch jobs for a week is unconventional and effective. Love it.

Managing a venture firm that tells start-up pioneers to “embrace your weirdness” is a hoot and a joy to read. We who are pioneers are survivors — hackers with the right stuff pushing the edge of the envelope — struggling to do good in a system in which all of the organizational systems — academic, civil socity, commerce, governance, law enforcement, media, military, and non-government/non-profit — have failed. They are all corrupt to the bone. Most of us to not work for money, which creates its benefits and of course also its crosses to bear.

This is a compelling read. I have noticed that billionaires are now funding science, making up for the failure of the government to be both honest and effective. I dare to hope there is a billionaire out there that wants to reverse the commoditization of the human being and create an Internet of Ideas and an Internet of Minds instead of the Internet of Things that allows banks to “zero out” your money, your home, and your life. FREEDOM can be coded. SECURITY can be coded. Neither is being coded today. I pass and praise the author for his first third success. Now I challenge him to get on with the second two thirds: an Autonomous Internet, and the World Brain.

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas

One additional link: Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal

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