What is a book? Part 2: The Form

Day 110 of Self Quarantine                       Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  129,000

I was beyond ecstatic to be selected as Vice President of Software Engineering for Aldus Corporation in 1990.  I couldn’t wait to evolve the tools that produce our precious books.  I looked forward to innovating new tools as the print medium transitioned from paper formats to digital formats.

I loved the on-boarding education where we spent a couple of days learning about Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius (inventor of portable books) from a professional graphic designer.  I delighted in the physical act of manually type setting an old form block of hot metal text and getting my hands black with ink as we printed our “creation.”

Manual Type Setting

Over the years, I wrote about the different ways that the form of books are changing.

I mused about how our fascination with the pages of analog and digital books will morph into the “places” foundation of Virtual Reality – From Pages to Places: The Transformation of Presence.

I get excited for our future when I watch my 7 and 5 year old grand children spend hours creating their book of the day.  They delight in drawing out their stories and annotating them with a little text.  They love putting together the pages with staples and ribbons.  More importantly, they delight in reading their new story book creation to us.

I am still wrapping my head around the impact of Jupyter Notebooks as a leading indicator for how books might move forward by combining narrative and computing and data in an interactive digital form (Intertwingling of Narrative and Computing).

I am writing a non-fiction book for early stage entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs titled “Know Now.”

Along with never ending drafts of content outlines, I am exploring the form of the book I am writing.  I assumed I would be writing a traditional form of a book.

Before starting my writing, I engaged in a research process with my target audience.  I was quickly reminded of how much computing and data gathering happens throughout the product building and company building process.  I was blinded by the traditional form of the book (mostly text and illustrations) that I forgot all of the disjoint tools with their siloed content (100s of Excel spreadsheets, 1000s of emails and Slack posts, 1000s of Powerpoint slides, 1000s of Evernote Notes) that an entrepreneur spews across their mobile, laptop, and desktop devices and in the cloud.

In parallel, I started exploring different ways of monetizing my authoring labors and came across Jeanine Blackwell and Danny Iny who recommend that you write and give away your eBook in order to attract your audience to online courses.  Is the new form of a non-fiction book just a brochure for online learning?

During my research for the book, several insights are driving my vision for the form of the book I want to produce:

    • I love the form of Chris Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building where he organized it into a five minute read, a 20 minute read, and a full length four hour read.
    • I learned when alpha testing my previous attempt at a book Emails to a Young Entrepreneur that most business and product people don’t have a lot of time to read.  When asked how I should organize the book, one tester said pay attention to your title – Emails.  Send stuff to me in bite sized chunks.
    • One of my first user research interviews with Sean Buchanan pointed out the need for the right information at the right time in the right medium.
    • The discovery of Jupyter Notebooks which combines narrative and computing.  The minute I understood what a computable notebook was,  I realized how many computing tasks a product manager or entrepreneur has to deal with on a daily basis but there is no easy way to combine the two.  Jupyter Notebooks allow this intertwingling.

As I reflect on this confluence of insights, I remember the journey that Frank Gehry went through to get his innovative designs that escape the rectangular box form of traditional architecture.  At each step of his Design – Build – Operate journey he had to radically innovate to get his designs built at the same cost as traditional “box” building designs.

Frank Gehry had to transform himself from an architect to a builder and then operator of the buildings that he designed. From “Is Designing Software Different from Designing Other Things?“, we catch a glimpse of how Gehry had to change his theories of design:

Gehry Experience Music Project Seattle

In a more complex example, Frank Gehry in a video, at a Technology, Education and Design (TED) Conference put on by Richard Saul Wurman, described his challenges in creating the kind of public building designs such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. When he first started exploring complex curved shapes for the exterior of buildings he was startled to discover that when he put his designs out to construction bid, the contractors quoted him five times the normal fees. He realized that no one knew how to build his creations. So he had to form a company to first adapt Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools to design the complex metal shapes, and then develop the software that would connect his CAD tools with CNC equipment to cut and mill the complex metal shapes. The end result was that he was able to build his distinctive creations for the same cost as traditional construction methods. During his presentation, he reflected on whether he was now a building architect or a software designer.

These changes are causing the field of architecture to look more like the field of software design. Bruce Lindsey details the extent to which computer systems and particularly the Dassault CATIA CAD system have entered Gehry’s practice of architecture. The computer is used for simulations of the digital and physical models, direct detailing, computer aided manufacturing, coordination of the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, and as a framework for the operation of the building after construction. Gehry describes how his evolving process is changing the craft of building design and construction:

“This technology provides a way for me to get closer to the craft. In the past, there were many layers between my rough sketch and the final building, and the feeling of the design could get lost before it reached the craftsman. It feels like I’ve been speaking a foreign language, and now, all of a sudden, the craftsman understands me. In this case, the computer is not dehumanizing; it’s an interpreter.”

The significance of the changes that Gehry has made in his fluent design process shows up in the organizational interventions that the software is bringing to the building industry as described in Digital Gehry:

“Ultimately, allowing for all communications to involve only digital information, the model could signal a significant reduction in drawing sets, shop drawings, and specifications. This is already reflected in the office’s current practices where the CATIA model generally takes precedence (legal as well as in practice) over the construction document set. This is a significant change in standard practice where specifications take precedence over drawings and specified dimensions are subject to site verification. . . . . Glymph states that `both time and money can be eliminated from the construction process by shifting the design responsibility forward’. Along with this responsibility comes increased liability. When the architect supplies a model that is shared, and becomes the single source of information, the distributed liability of current architectural practice is changed.”

Building on the experience of Gehry, we see that this combined hard and soft design can shift forward into the area of operating a building as well. One software system can act as a shared repository and information refinery for the design, build, distribute, intervene and, now, the operate phase knowledge base.

I have a similar vision for this interactive resource that starts out as a Jupyter like “book” – Need Read Simulate Apply.

Need Read Simulate Apply

A new entrepreneur hears about the Know Now book and downloads it from the Kindle eBook store.  She goes through the five-minute read at the beginning of the book like in Timeless Way of Building.  She is interested and continues.

She reads a story about an entrepreneur’s hero’s journey that gives an overview of the experience of building a product and a company.

She reads that one of the first things a new entrepreneur needs to do is a Lean Canvas.  The book asks if she would like to try a Lean Canvas.  With a “Yes,” the book now turns into an application and creates two online accounts – one for the entrepreneur as an individual and one for the company.

Lean Canvas for a Book as a Startup

The entrepreneur sees that the components of the Lean Canvas are a mixture of text and computations.  Sub-forms pop up for the computations for Cost Structure and Revenue Streams.  Depending on how far along the entrepreneur is, the pop up form may have just a few fields, or be a more complex spread sheet or be an accounting application.

After spending a half hour on the lean canvas, the entrepreneur returns to the Know Now story.

The challenge of figuring out how much stock to offer to her first employee intrigues the entrepreneur, so she dives into the simulations of stock option grants.

A formulaic way of figuring out how many stock options to give to one of the first 10 hires in a startup based on Paul Graham’s “Equity Equation” now appears on her screen:

Context (narrative) and Computing in Jupyter Notebook

As she simulates her stock option granting and contemplates the value generated probability of the first set of hires, the entrepreneur realizes that she needs to look at more than just the first hire.  So the Know Now book asks if she wants to create a spreadsheet or a database.  This spread sheet becomes the basis for her first Cap Table automatically.

The entrepreneur is just reading a story about what is involved in starting a company while behind the scenes the Know Now “book” is creating the computational system and data bases to operate the new company.  Behind each of the components of the Lean Canvas a similar set of databases and applications are created to capture the entrepreneur’s draft ideas.

The core of the interactive Know Now book is providing the context and design principles and a simulation tool for the entrepreneur.  Then the narrative, computing and data move into action steps which become database entries and then become fully functional applications like an HR Management system or a financial management system or a product management system.

Just as Frank Gehry’s CAD system evolved into a building operating system, the Know Now book evolves into the startup’s business and product operating system.  At each step of Need Read Simulate Apply, Know Now has the resources for what you need to know right now.

Is this Know Now narrative a new book form or a new medium (in the McLuhan sense) or just some more interactive content?

The “What is a book?” series of posts:

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Curation, Design, ebook, Innovation, organizing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s