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Book review: The Puritan Gift

10.25.2013
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The Puritan Gift is not a book primarily oriented to programmers, but to knowledge workers and managers in general. Its goal is to show, through history, the evolution of American and Japanese management over the last two centuries, its strongest moments and its decline through the Cult of the "so-called" Expert and of corporate consultancy companies.

The target of this book is the small or mid manager, or the Agile Coach. The programmer alone can also benefit from becoming capable of evaluating the values of its own company, whether it's long-term oriented, to continue to be a part of it, or to try to change the enviroment he's working in.

History

The Puritan outlook on the world is presented in the book as shaping early America colonization (1600s) and the Second industrial revolution, only to move later to Japan during the post-WW2 American occupation and to China later.

Presenting management ideas through real history of companies and countries gives the book its strength, even if some passages can be boring for the non-inclined reader. The Puritan Gift is also the story of several people, such as Peter Drucker and William Deming among the most famous, who have been voices good management in the last century.

Values

Several radical ideas are presented in this book, such as the absurd, heretical notion that profit is not the primary motivation of a company. I'll show them here with several quotes:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer

Balancing the shareholders’ expectations of maximum return against other priorities is one of the fundamental problems confronting corporate management.
the term ‘professional’ (also always in quotation marks) designates a manager – often, but not necessarily, a business school graduate or accountant – who is neither ‘rounded’ nor ‘generalist’, lacks ‘domain knowledge’ and sees the world of business, or indeed any world, essentially in statistical and financial terms.

‘any idiot can cut costs’. As a general rule, you can tell that a proposal to cut costs is arbitrary, and therefore foolish, if it is expressed as a multiple of 5 per cent, including 5 per cent.
The MBA teaches managers how to take over companies, but not how to run them.

Quite remarkably, when the senior levels of government in China were reorganized in 2002, all the men appointed to the cabinet were engineers

[The] paradox is that by not pursuing profitability to the exclusion of all else, the Great Engine companies in their Golden Age would achieve enormous increases in the value of their net assets, whereas, by single-mindedly pursuing profit on behalf of their new masters after 1970, these same companies and their successors actually created less genuine, lasting wealth; indeed, they would often destroy it.

Does that last quote remind you of clean code and internal quality? Not pursuing speed to the exclusion of all else is sometimes what gives you the highest speed in the long run, where the long run is a week.

Why you should read this book

If you find yourself asking these questions, you may benefit from reading this book before looking at the world again.

  • Why programmers need a non-technical manager? (Answer: they don't, they benefit from one with domain knowledge, which may comprehend technology.)
  • How were consultancy companies born and how they extract wealth from society instead of creating it? (I know, an easy target)
  • How MBAs and financial engineering can put a company and an economy in danger?
  • Why some modern companies find it difficult to take a view oriented to more than the next quarter or year?
  • Why STEM graduates are going down in numbers and quality, and how this trend can doom our society?
Published at DZone with permission of Giorgio Sironi, author and DZone MVB.

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