Review: The Hard Thing about Hard Things


A while back, Ben Horowitz came to give a talk at the company where I work, AppNexus. During that talk, I discovered that he is an investor. After Mr. Horowitz’s visit, the company generously bought every employee a copy of his book The Hard Thing about Hard Things.

It took a while to get around to it, but I’ve finally given it a read on my long bus rides. My impressions are as follows:

  • It’s bullshit free. There is no management-speak, jargon, or other obfuscatory nonsense anywhere in this book. It is very information-dense and doesn’t waste your time.
  • It’s honest. Mr. Horowitz describes how gut-wrenchingly hard it is to be the CEO, especially when things aren’t going well. His experience is particularly informative because he’s been a CEO during many times when things weren’t going well. He relates his wife’s observation regarding how his service as CEO was met by some: “They called you everything but a child of God”.
  • It tells good stories. The book illustrates its salient points with stories taken from real experience. Most management books are written by consultants (as Mr. Horowitz mentions), this one is written by someone who’s been there.
  • It uses metaphor. The two that stick in my mind are (1) the difference between “Wartime CEO” and “Peacetime CEO”, and (2) something called “The Torture” (read the book to find out more).
  • It’s concrete. The author has real opinions, and he expresses them. For example, he makes it clear that Andy Grove’s High Output Management is one of his favorite business books. He also describes in frank terms how Ernst & Young almost tanked the sale of his company (when he was a client of theirs!), and thus are not his fave, to say the least. It’s hard to trust people who don’t express concrete opinions; Mr. Horowitz is not in that group.

That’s all very nice, but what does any of this high-falutin’ CEO talk have to do with my life as a technical writer? After all, it’s not always clear how books aimed at executives are of use to an individual contributor.

Even though this book is for and about executives, it has given me some insight into how an executive might be thinking about different functions in the company and their value. It seems that technical writing’s value to the company from this perspective is as follows:

  • Generate a positive impression of the company: For example, I’ve had someone who works at AppNexus tell me that, when he was working at another company, he and his team really valued our wiki’s API docs (I’d link but they’re behind a login). Good API docs made us the easiest platform for his team to build against. Because we were the easiest to build against, we were the first company they would integrate with. Not only is it nice to hear things like this, it really makes the value to customers clear. I would imagine that this is helpful for sales as well.
  • Reduce support costs: This is the flip-side of the previous comment. If customers can get things done faster by using information in the docs than they can by sending a support request, you win.
  • Stave off imformational collapse: This sounds negative, but it must be accounted for. As a company grows, you can no longer scale by bringing new people up to speed with a “come sit next to me and I’ll show you” workflow. This also applies to existing employees who are working in an area of the product/platform that’s new to them. Someone has to do the nasty work of writing stuff down in order to scale your internal technical communication. Often engineers will do this work, but sometimes you need technical writers. This is why Google is hiring for Technical Writer, Internal Software Engineering positions right now (and has been for quite a while from what I’ve seen). At a certain size, word-of-mouth just doesn’t work that well anymore.

A final point worth noting is that the job of CEO is stressful as hell. After finishing this book, I can say that I’m much happier in my role than I would be as an executive. It doesn’t seem very glamorous at all based on Mr. Horowitz’s description. Although I’m sure the money is nice, it’s been shown over and over again that money is not much of a motivator past a certain point, nor does it buy happiness.

(The book image above is from pandodaily.)

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