Dave Concannon

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In Pure Water, No Fish

Book Review: “Rework” by 37Signals

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of “Rework” since I preordered it back in January. I’m a big fan of 37signal’s work, their blog, and loved David Heinemeier Hansson’s talk at FOWA Dublin in ‘09. I’m not a huge fan of “Rework”.

Testimonials

Before getting to the actual content of the book, the reader will be confronted by some of the most overly-enthusiastic praise from recognized industry figures that I can ever recall seeing in a publication. This almost stopped me from buying the book in the first place. Mark Cuban is someone I’d gladly sacrifice a major appendage to work for, but check out this effusive gibberish:

If given a choice between investing in someone who has read Rework or has an MBA, I’m investing in Rework every time… a must-read.

Or this mental breakdown from Tom Peters:

The clarity, even genius, of this book actually brought me to near tears on several occasions. Just bloody brilliant, that’s what.

Content

37signals typically write in a blunt, straight-shooting style, and they pull no punches in “Rework”. Don’t get me wrong – there are a few gems, but also several essays which really don’t make any logical sense. One or two of the essays remind me of “The Sphinx” from the movie “Mystery Men” – amusing upon first read, but logically empty. In particular, the introduction sets up some weak straw-man arguments about what ‘conventional critics’ say is not possible that comes across sounding like teenage rebellion.

Getting Real” was a breath of fresh air in an industry that seemed to have learned little from the Dot Com crash. It was absolutely original and controversial when released, and inspired people around the world. At least part of the reason for the success of “Getting Real” was it’s contrarian stance on what was then normal industry practice – their advice to do less, avoid feature bloat, have passion for what you do, and their simple functional design theories were revolutionary.

The problems with success

It may be that they’ve actually been too successful at promoting their philosophy because for the most part “rework” doesn’t feel like it’s saying anything very unconventional. Here’s an (admittedly out of context) quote from the book that I found ironic:

When you’re a success, the pressure to maintain predictability and consistency builds. You get more conservative. It’s harder to take risks. That’s when things start to fossilize and change becomes difficult.

If you’ve been following resources like Andrew Warner’s interviews with entrepreneurs, or the surge of interest in concepts like the Lean Startups philosophy, a lot of the advice in this book just feels like common sense. Maybe I’m just not in the target demographic? It is to 37signals’ credit that they have inspired so many with their work and there is a lot of good advice for those who are not familiar with what they’ve already done, but some of “Rework” just doesn’t hold up to the light. It’s Seth Godin’s easy conversational writing style but missing some essential nugget of truth.

To make sure I’m not just whinging in this post I’ll clarify that there are the occasional diamonds in the rough. I particularly enjoyed:

  • Meetings are toxic – Good advice on how to run a meeting if it’s really necessary
  • Let your customer outgrow you - Don’t pander to every change request
  • Scratch your own itch – Solve one of your own problems and you’ll find a market
  • The myth of the overnight sensation – The only path to success is hard work
  • Marketing is not a department - Everyone is responsible for the public face of your company

Buy it?

My critical process for reading any article, blog post, or book is to ignore who the author is and concentrate on the actual content. In this instance I wasn’t overly impressed.  Let’s be honest though – this book is going to be a resounding success whether I praise it or slate it. 37signals have a very large audience among whom they’ve reached a certain level of rockstar infamy. If I can riff on this tenuous rockstar analogy – “Getting Real” is to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” as “Rework” is to whatever that last album was called.

With all the points above in mind, there is still enough good advice in this book that I would recommend getting a copy if you haven’t already read “Getting Real”, and don’t subscribe to their blog.  There are four of the better essays from the book on Tim Ferriss’s blog if you want a sampler to make up your mind.

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