Technology

TEC Members Interview the Authors of the Books That Have Influenced Them

John Lamb | Digital Vision | Getty Images
  • Members of the CNBC Technology Executive Council recently had the opportunity to interview the authors of some of their favorite books, including tech icons Reid Hoffman and Ben Horowitz, and historian Jared Diamond.
  • Here is a recap of the lesson learned from conversations with leading thinkers in technology, the military, the business world and from the social sciences.

Holidays are a time for book recommendations, whether as gifts for others or for vacation reading. The members of CNBC's Technology Executive Council are leading the efforts to transform their companies' products and services, enable an evolving hybrid workforce, and protect us from hackers, but we've also learned that they love a good book, especially books with advice on leadership and teambuilding.

As part of a feature in the CNBC Technology Executive Council weekly newsletter, we've been asking members to recommend a book they've read recently that has influenced their careers or helped them communicate their visions to their teams and bosses on the job.

At the TEC annual summit, held in New York City on November 17, a few members took the time to tell us more about their book recommendations, with the help of some special guests: the authors. From a series of videos originally aired at the summit, here are tech leaders' book recommendations and a recap of their conversations with the authors.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Author: Jared Diamond

Recommended by: Naveen Agarwal, Prudential Chief Market Development Officer   

Naveen Agarwal grew up in New Delhi, founded a start-up in London at the age of 22, and ultimately moved the start-up to Silicon Valley to gain easier access to capital. So it's not surprising to hear he identifies with the central premise of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book: geography matters.

"Guns, Germs and Steel" is a deep dive, the result of decades of research, that started with a revelation that Diamond says came as a surprise to him in his early days as a geography professor. That surprise was that the shape of the continents themselves has impacted where innovations can take place and how quickly they can spread. "The Eurasian continent is long from east to west," Diamond recounted to Agarwal. "That's important because … technology could shift east and west quickly without change in climate and daylength." On the contrary, he added, "the wheel was invented in Mexico and never got to Peru … because of the North/South axis."

In their discussion of the book, Agarwal asked Diamond whether he thought geographic advantages would smooth out now that technology has, in some ways, brought the world closer together. Diamond answered with two competing examples. "On the one hand, there are societies that were penalized geographically that in the last 50 years have risen to first-world status." On the other hand, landlocked countries, such as Afghanistan, remain far behind. "Geography still has a huge effect," Diamond said.

Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies

By: Chris Yeh and Reid Hoffman

Recommended by: Vinay Pai, Bill.com Senior Vice President of Engineering  

Vinay Pai told co-author, LinkedIn Founder and noted venture capitalist Reid Hoffman that he read "Blitzscaling" while he was stuck home recovering from a medical procedure in late 2019, and its lessons stuck with him. Pai told Hoffman that Bill.com followed the advice in the book, choosing to continue investing in the business throughout the pandemic.

Published in 2018, the book puts Uber and Airbnb front and center as examples of "Blitzscaling," which Hoffman defines as "prioritizing speed over efficiency in a time of uncertainty."

"It's not something you do forever," Hoffman told Pai. "At some point, prioritizing efficiency … becomes important. Airbnb and Uber today are probably not as quintessential examples of 'Blitzscaling' as they were five and ten years ago."

The pandemic's best example, Hoffman told Pai, might be Zoom Video Communications, which led them into a discussion about the state of digital transformation in the post-pandemic world. "All of the acceleration of digital transformation, I think, is basically permanent," Hoffman said.

Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World

By: William H. McRaven

Recommended by: Sanjay Srivastava, Genpact Chief Digital Officer

Adapted from a University of Texas commencement speech, "Make Your Bed" is a self-help guide that stresses the importance of doing the little things right.

"If you can't do the little things right," said retired Admiral Bill McRaven, "it won't scale. You won't be able to do the big things well."

Sanjay Srivastava, who oversees Genpact's AI, analytics, automation and digital technology services, said the book has influenced him on the job and at home. The night before he interviewed Admiral McRaven, he had his entire family read the book and discuss it over dinner. "I think every one of [the book's 10 principles] is completely applicable in the world of digital," he said.

Srivastava also admired McRaven's ability to tell a good story.

"Leadership is telling the story of your company in a way that the rank and file can understand," McRaven said. "They understand the beginning, they understand the middle, they probably understand the challenges that are going to come with it. But they also see the end. They see what it's going to look like when the story unfolds the way a leader hopes it will."

Think Outside the Building

By: Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Recommended by: Rajat Taneja, Visa President of Technology

Published weeks before Covid hit the U.S., the title "Think Outside the Building" foreshadows the unpredictable, pandemic-forced work from home experiment and ensuing debate over the future of the office itself. But the title is meant to symbolize much more than just physical structures.

"Buildings are a powerful metaphor for all the established structures … all the things that confine us to thinking a certain way or only talking to people exactly like us," said author and Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. The book is really a book about leadership, and is based on dozens of case studies from Harvard's Advanced Leadership Institute, which Kanter co-founded in 2005.  

Visa's Rajat Taneja told Kanter he was inspired by the many stories, and particularly taken with her eponymous "Kanter's Law."  

"Kanter's Law is that everything can look like a failure in the middle, especially if it's new and different," Kanter explained. "It's easy to predict what will happen if you're doing exactly the same thing you've always done."

Of the law, Taneja told Kanter "I'm going to use it now, when I talk about leadership with my team, because it really showcases that in the middle, it will be messy sometimes. And it's also true that if you can anticipate some of the things that could go wrong, that's a great team building mechanism."

What You Do is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture

By: Ben Horowitz

Recommended by: Erica Brescia, GitHub COO

In this quintessential business book, Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the legendary Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz, offers lessons in corporate culture-building told through a diverse group of historical examples, from a slave revolt in Haiti to Genghis Khan. He also starts off each chapter with a hip-hop quote (Horowitz is a noted hip-hop connoisseur).

"One thing you say in the book is that for your culture to be vibrant and sustainable, it must come from the blood, from the soul, which is a quote that I love," Brescia told Horowitz in their interview.

"That's from Nas," Horowitz said, quick to credit the rapper.

"It's an interesting thought in the concept of diversity and inclusion," Brescia said. "How should leaders think about striking the right balance between building a culture that reflects them and one that really supports that diverse team?"

Horowitz's said a written culture or set of principles can help with inclusion, while still allowing for a culture based on the founders' vision. In other words, culture "from the blood" doesn't mean everyone has to be the same. "The analogy I used when I talked to our team at Andreessen Horowitz is I said, like, if we were an American football team, and I had been like a very fast wide receiver who was small, and I drafted all small people who could run fast, we'd have the worst team in the world. But people do that in tech all the time."

Brescia said she owns the book "in all three versions" – paper, ebook and audiobook – and she recommends it to every start-up founder she meets. "It's just been so valuable to me, I wish I would have had it when I was a start-up founder."

More tech book favorites

Here's a few more recommendations from members this year. The authors were either unreachable or declined our requests to be interviewed, but the recommendations are still worth a mention.

11 Rings: The Soul of Success

By: Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty

Recommended by: Bobby Ghoshal, Resmed President, Saas Business Unit

The Hall of Fame coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers imparts wisdom from a career of winning. "I learned a lot about how to be a team and how to be a coach," said Ghoshal. "It's a wonderful book." 

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

By: Matthew Walker

Recommended by: Nicola Morini Bianzino, EY Global Chief Technology Officer.

Walker, a professor at UC Berkeley and the director of its Sleep and Neuroimaging lab, argues for more and better sleep and offers ideas for how we can all sleep better. "It's really eye-opening," said Bianzino, "and there are some fantastic health boosts if you follow some of the suggestions in the book."

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

By: William Goldman

Recommended by: Andrew Toy, Clover Health President and Chief Technology Officer

"It's an amazing book with a really positive message," said Toy. "Even if you've seen the movie, the book is worth reading on its own."

As you wish.

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