22.2.08

Book reviews for people who hate business books

Really, what could possibly be more boring than a book about statistics?

Oh, wait, I know... a book about baseball!

So how is it that a book about both statistics and baseball -- Moneyball, by Michael Lewis -- is so damn good?

Part of it is that Michael Lewis is a great writer. Part of it is that he isn't writing about either statistics or baseball in any way that you'd expect. What he is writing about is the intersection between the game of baseball and the science of statistical analysis.

I've written a bunch of stuff through the years about statistical analysis in the software industry. I've invented models that I thought got at relevant, predictive correlations you could derive from data about software projects. And I've cautioned against metric programs that might create unintended behavior in your software teams.

But most of what I've written was as boring as you could possibly imagine. And because it was boring, no one read it, and it didn't make any impact on the problem I was trying to fix.

From now on, when I want to get a point across about statistical analysis and the power it can bring to any human endeavor, I'm going to point people at Moneyball.

Without ruining the book for anyone, I'll summarize: Baseball is a game of numbers, but historically, people have looked at the wrong numbers. They look at and track errors and batting average, but there are other stats that are much more highly correlated with actually scoring a run. The book analyzes how this science of sabermetrics became a powerful tool in the management style of one particular baseball team. It then goes on to discuss how that team was able to equalize a five to one deficit in the amount of money they were able to spend on player salary, and compete against the richest teams in pro baseball.

It's a great book, and it's highly relevant to business and engineering, without being about business or engineering. I like that. Pick it up and read a copy!

One interesting tie-in to global teams -- Obviously, people in India (and most of the rest of the world) didn't grow up with the omnipresent backdrop of baseball. They may not get baseball references in speech, so when you tell them they "hit a home run", they may or may not know what you mean.

This might be a good book to share with people on the "global" part of your team, both to catalyze thought about statistics, and to help your people grok baseball a little more, if they care to.

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