2020 in Review: Watching, Reading, and Writing Highlights

2020, amiright? It was tragic for some, disruptive to most, and weird for all. But all things considered—and I honestly feel guilty saying this—it was a good year for me. Everyone close to me stayed relatively healthy, I sincerely enjoyed being home with my family and getting closer to them, I read and wrote more than I had in years, work was meaningful and enjoyable, and I more intentionally invested in myself and others. While I desperately missed seeing my family, friends, and co-workers in person, I have little to complain about.

Everyone coped in different ways this year. There’s no right or wrong way. For whatever reason, I was more productive. I wrote twice as many blog posts as usual, created three Pluralsight courses, expanded the InfoQ cloud editorial team, showed up on some podcasts, spoke at a few online events, started working and building a team at Google Cloud, and read double the number of books as I did last year. Below are the best things I watched, wrote, and read in 2020.

Things I Watched

This was the sort of year where it was easy to watch a LOT of shows—streaming or otherwise. I tried to keep from falling down the Netflix wormhole, and mainly watched TV during the lunch hour. Some of the best things I streamed were:

Schitt’s Creek – Season 6 [Netflix]. The show had a solid concluding season, and remains one of my favorite shows ever.

BoJack Horseman – Season 6 [Netflix]. Another final season here, and I enjoyed it. You wouldn’t think that a show with talking cats and horses would be poignant, but it’s got some meaningful moments.

Mandalorian – Season 1 {Disney+]. Impressive show. Watched with one of the kiddos. I’ll likely catch Season 2 this year.

The Office (UK) – Seasons 1 & 2 [Amazon Prime]. I started this a few times in the past, and never go very far. In 2020, I watched both seasons, and really loved it. Amazingly cringey and hilarious.

The IT Crowd – Seasons 1-5 [Amazon Prime]. Someone recommended this show to me years ago, and I figured 2020 was my year for British workplace comedies. Highly recommended if you like over-the-top, absurd shows.

Bosch – Seasons 5 & 6 [Amazon Prime]. Season five was excellent, seasons six was ok, but honestly, I’d watch this cast in any performance. This show really sucks me in.

Band of Brothers [Amazon Prime]. This is another series I started a few times, and never finished. I had the time in 2020 to go all the way through, and glad I did. So well done.

Jack Ryan – Season 2 [ Amazon Prime]. Well done, not as outstanding as the first season. 

Things I Wrote

One of my 2019 resolutions was to get back to writing more often. I ended up writing a couple dozen posts on my own blog, and some corporate blog posts too. I also experimented with some short form writing and tech demos in the form of Twitter threads (e.g. VM migrationAnthos configurationGCP cloud editor, and Cloud Foundry migration). Here are a few pieces that I enjoyed the most:

[Forbes] When It Comes To Cloud Migration, Stop Playing It Safe. This was the first thing of mine published by Google. I looked at how to adopt the cloud faster.

[Google blog] You do you: How to succeed in a distributed, multi-cloud world. I try to be fairly pragmatic with tech advice, and this Google blog post looked at ways companies can succeed when adopting more than one public cloud.

[InfoQ] New Report Shows “Overwhelming” Cloud UsageWhile I continued leading the “cloud” team at InfoQ, I decided to step back from regular writing given that I started working for a cloud provider. I can still do industry pieces like this one!

[blog] I’m joining Google Cloud for the same reasons you should be a customer. I used this post to announce my job change. Seven months into my time at Google, and I have no regrets.

[blog] Let’s compare the CLI experiences offered by AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with all the public clouds. Still, I can’t pretend that I’m entirely neutral. In this post, I did my best to fairly consider each cloud’s command line experience. Similarly, I wrote another post about each cloud’s database emulation tool.

[blog] Four reasons that Google Cloud Run is better than traditional FaaS offerings. I’m always on the lookout for the next great technology for developers. Google Cloud Run is one of those, and I dug into it here.

[blog] These three pieces of career advice made a huge impact on me. This was a short post, but a few people have told me that this helped them make their own career decision this year. That’s nice to hear.

[blog] After 15 years of blogging, here are 6 things I’ve learned. I’m trying to be better about sharing whatever I know, and I wrote a few blog posts this year on that topic. This one looked at what I learned about blogging, and I wrote another about building a personal brand.

Things I Read

I’ve never read this many books in one year. I resolved in 2020 to read every day, not just during business travel or weekend downtime. The result? I started and finished 67 books. I figured I’d call out most of them below, as it was too hard to pick just a few favorites.

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt (@ericschmidt), Jonathan Rosenberg (@jjrosenberg), and Alan Eagle (@aeaglejr). Without Bill, would Google have been Google Apple been Apple, or many Valley companies succeeded? Doesn’t seem like it. This book was part biography, part leadership lesson, and entirely valuable. The authors drove home the importance of coaching, and how Campbell created a lasting impact with his brand of leadership. Actionable stuff here!

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. As with anything Bryson writes, this book is super engaging, and makes the reader want to visit the places he talks about. Here, he drives around Australia while offering a detailed history of life on the continent. I’ve been there once, and now am eager to return.

Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty by Patrick M. Lencioni (@patricklencioni). This is leadership advice wrapped in a highly readable story. The focus here was on vulnerability, and creating meaningful relationships with clients through humility and transparency. It reminded me that I need to double-down on this myself when talking with customers.

The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities by Patrick M. Lencioni (@patricklencioni). I have a feeling that I’m going to read most of Lencioni’s books. This one asked an uncomfortable question: are you a leader because you want to be rewarded for years of hard work, or because you feel responsible and want to serve others? This is a good story that tells you it’s ok to step back from leadership positions it doesn’t don’t align with your motivations.

Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman (@lizzydgoodman). This was one of my favorites. I loved (and still love) this era of music, and this book was an absorbing behind-the-scenes look at how the most influential bands rose to prominence. Presented through a series of interviews, the book makes you feel the struggles and successes of these talented individuals. It’s also caused me to listen to a LOT of The Strokes during the past two months.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis. How do people make decisions? What powers our judgement? This book is partially a biography of renowned psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, while also exploring the evolution of our understanding of how we make judgement calls. Beautiful story.

The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds. I had watched the recent film about this WWII battle, and realized I knew way too little about it. This was a thrilling, sobering, and detailed look at an event that had huge historical impact.

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser Series Book 1) by Robert B. Parker. I’m not sure what triggered my interest in this series—maybe the Spencer movie that came out on Netflix?—but I was obsessed. I read fourteen of these books in 2020. This detective series started in the 70s and I kinda loved that setting. Spencer is a terrific character, and I’ll probably read the next fourteen books in 2021.

The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality by Thomas M. Shapiro (@tmshapiro). Why do we see racial inequality increase when rights and opportunities have expanded? The thesis of this book is that family assets are the reason. Seems like some good research here, and the author makes a compelling argument.

Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow by Matthew Skelton (@matthewpskelton) and Manuel Pais (@manupaisable). This book looks at four team types and offers lots of suggestions for how to use team design to get the service/software you’re looking for.

Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright (@profntwright). I love to see a historical figure in three-dimensional context that factors in their setting and contemporaries. This book gave me new appreciation for one of history’s most important individuals. 

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum (@ajblum). Where exactly is the Internet at? I thoroughly enjoyed this book by Blum where he sets out to find out physically, where the Internet is at. He travels the world and explains some of the fundamentals of how it all works. It’s completely fascinating, and makes me appreciate something I usually take for granted.

The Answer Is . . .: Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek. This autobiography features a series of stories about Trebek’s life. He’s a fascinating individual, and I was sorry that we lost him in 2020. But he seemed at peace with his fate, and lived a rich life. 

INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan (@cagan). This is a must-read book for product managers, but also for anyone involved in the product lifecycle. I’ll be reading Cagan’s next book in 2021.

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by Michael Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD). The author says that instead of alarmist, exaggerated language about climate change, we need a more rational discussion about what’s really happening. Shellenberger has impressive credentials, and delivers a well-researched, engaging book that opened my eyes. 

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley (@amandaripley). What happens when we face disaster? It included some useful advice for individuals facing disaster, and those building structures that need to be evacuated in such situations. Ripley wrote a fascinating book that had me reflecting about how *I* would act in the various situations she called out!

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell. What underpins our political and social differences? Sowell contends that there are “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions that drive our worldview. The unconstrained vision sees humanity as perfectible where bad choices explain social evils. The constrained vision sees defects as inevitable and looks at trade-offs that factor in human nature. Neither of these align with a particular political party, and much of Sowell’s argument made sense to me.

The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean (@bethanymac12) and Peter Elkind (@peterelkind). This was such a page-turner! With the benefit of hindsight, it’s shocking to see the decision-making that went on within Enron, and in the investment banks. Maybe it was shocking at the time, too. Either way, it offers a timeless lesson about transparency and defining incentives.

Crossing the Chasm, 3rd Edition: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers by Geoffrey A. Moore (@geoffreyamoore). My Google colleague Kyle talks about this book a lot, and I knew the framework. But it was great to actually dig into this great book and learn about market development and what adopters care about at each stage.

The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by Jake Tapper (@jaketapper). Wow, what a tense, emotional, and powerful story. This book explored the true story of soldiers manning a vulnerable outpost in Afghanistan. It was frustrating to see the lack of support these brave folks received, but it was also inspiring to observe their courage and desire to do the right thing.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight (@davidwblight1). This my most “highlighted” Kindle book this year. I saved a ton of sections of this terrific book about one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. He relentlessly delivered a message of freedom, and accepted the heavy burden of his mission.  

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife by Brad Balukjian (@BradBalukjian). I really enjoyed this one. Balukjian opened an old pack of baseball cards and set out to physically meet up with each player in there. He shared part of his own story along the way, and made this well-rounded look at our journey through life.

Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience by Laura Morgan Roberts (@alignmentquest), Tony Mayo, and David A. Thomas (@ProfThomas). The editors assembled a series of data-driven essays that highlight both challenges and opportunities for black professionals and their allies. Great read.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger (@RobertIger). This was an entertaining biography, with many useful leadership lessons sprinkled in. It was also a good reminder of the high stakes and stress that accompanies executive roles.

Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melaine Mitchell (@MelMitchell1). The field of complexity looks at how simple things organize into a hard-to-predict, leader-less whole, while evolving and learning. We see this in nature, economies, and even technology systems. This book itself was complex, but I liked it and learned many things.

The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? by Paul Davies. Lots of math and physics here, but it’s an entirely readable, thought-provoking book that makes you appreciate our very existence.

Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice by Guy Walters (@guywalters). I mean, the title clearly identifies what this book is about. Walters does a great job telling some exciting stories, dispelling some myths, and laying out a number of frustrating details about spotty efforts of the Allies to do this important work. 

The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael Watkins (@MichaelDWatkins). In anticipation of starting a new job, I picked up this book to help me get in the right frame of mind. This Google role is actually my first where I *started* in a leadership position, so I figured I needed help. Watkins provides useful advice here, even if you’re switching roles within the same company.

Raoul Wallenberg: The Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust by Ingrid Carlberg (@ingridmcarlberg). I guess I read a lot of biographies this year. This one really stuck with me. Wallenberg displayed an uncommon purpose, bravery, and creativity in his effort to protect as many people as possible. His postwar captivity—and the passive approach of his government to intervene—was heartbreaking.

The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks by Ben Cohen (@bzcohen). Are hot streaks real? Is anyone really “in the zone” or are we seeing patterns that don’t exist? This was a good book that felt meandering (in a good way) at times, came to some conclusions, and even offered some advice for investors and professionals.

Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright (@profntwright). Another excellent book that puts someone of epic relevance into their geographical, societal, and historical context.

Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy by Joan Magretta. This book has a huge influence on me in 2020, and likely for years ahead. I finally felt like I “got” strategy after reading it. Magretta does a masterful job explaining the essence of strategy, where competitive differentiation comes from, and why Porter has a timeless way of thinking about it.

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski). I love Joe’s writing which I’ve always associated with sports. His book about Houdini was wonderful. We all know the name, but why are we drawn to the illusionist? Here we investigate the man, and those who still carry a torch for him. 

Jobs to be Done: Theory to Practice by Anthony W. Ulwick (@Ulwick). Seems I read more books about product development this year than I thought. This one’s a gem. Whether you’re selling enterprise software or homemade jewelry, you have to ask yourself what job the customer is hiring you to do. Ulwick walks us through this framework and how to apply it.

Isaac Newton by James Gleick (@JamesGleick). This was a big, informative biography of a pioneering scientist whose impact is felt hundreds of years later.

Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven H. Strogatz (@stevenstrogatz). Can math be fun and exciting? Sure it can. This was the 2nd most highlighted book on my Kindle in 2020. Strogatz tries, and succeeds, in making calculus more approachable and applicable. He uses stories, relatable examples, and a palpable enthusiasm to pull the reader through even the most complex problems.

The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney (@JohnTierneyNYC) and Roy F. Baumeister. It wasn’t difficult in 2020 to have a negative attitude. This book goes into depth on how good we actually have it right now, how to “override the disproportionate impact of bad”, and how to handle sincerely terrible circumstances.

The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get: An Entrepreneur’s Memoir by Joe Ricketts. I don’t remember who recommended this biography, but I’m glad I read it. Ricketts founded Ameritrade, and walks through his journey disrupting the brokerage market. Good story of perseverance and grit.

Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz by Isabella Leitner. This is a relatively short, moving memoir of a young woman who was deported to Auschwitz along with her family, and somehow survived the ordeal. This is another book that stayed with me long after I finished it. 

Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen by Rita Gunther McGrath (@rgmcgrath). Here’s another book that touches on product development and strategy. The author serves up lots of stories and advice to help us find the right vantage point and look broadly for what’s next.

Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History by Patrick Hunt. We have such short memories, don’t we? I like books that reset my context and help me appreciate the bigger picture. This book looked at great discoveries—things like the Rosetta Stone, Dead Sea Scrolls, Pompeii, Troy, and more—how it happened, and what it means. Educational and interesting.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. Like me, you might have an idealistic, old timey view of the stock market. But alas, there was quite a long period where high frequency traders took advantage of milisecond information advantages to skim money from investors. Lewis tells a terrific story about those who figured it out, and fought back.

Do You Talk Funny?: 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker by David Nihill (@davidnihill). Do you have to be naturally hilarious to inject humor into your presentations? Nah. Nihill became a stand up comic for a year to learn the field, and translate those lessons into something that everyone else can apply. Most presentations are kinda terrible, so by injecting some strategic humor into your presentation, you’ll probably see your career prospects take off.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. This is a classic book that I just got around to reading. Shame on me. It’s the thrilling story of fighter pilots who were addicted to speed and altitude, and eventually—minus Chuck Yeager who may have been the best of them all—staffed the first space flights. These are heroes, straight up.

Whew. That was a lot. Congrats for getting this far. And congrats for surviving 2020 intact. I know that for many of you, it was a sincerely difficult year where loneliness and loss assaulted you. Know that you matter, things will get better, and people are here to root you on. Let’s have a great 2021, together.

Author: Richard Seroter

Richard Seroter is Director of Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud, with a master’s degree in Engineering from the University of Colorado. He’s also an instructor at Pluralsight, a frequent public speaker, the author of multiple books on software design and development, plus former InfoQ.com editor and former 12-time Microsoft MVP for cloud. As Director of Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud, Richard leads a team focused on products that help teams build and run modern software. Richard maintains a regularly updated blog on topics of architecture and solution design and can be found on Twitter as @rseroter.

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