Books of 2019 | Marshall Shen

Books of 2019

Books of 2019

My reading list of 2019 centered around a few key themes: become a better leader, emotional growth, and understand the world. These books provoked my thinking, aspired me to cultivate more compassion and love towards others, and triggered my curiosity to see the world in different angles.


Above all else, I want you to think for yourself, to decide 1) what you want, 2) what is true and 3) what to do about it.

“Principles” is a book I will read over and over in life. No matter how complicated a life situation is, it boils down to basic elements and “another one of those”. The book encourages to live life based on a certain set of principles, and treat each situation as a challenge in a game - after conquering each challenge we get a life “gem”, which is a principle we learn.

Principle-based approach applies to both work and life, and it starts with fundamental components for a fulfiling life - meaningful work and meaningful relationships. Our life is about living life proactively, learning principles along the way, and reapplying principles to future situations, while enjoying the whole process of doing so.

Think like Amazon

Think about your organization’s priorities and social norms. If getting along is more valued than being right, the business will become more about getting along than about doing the right thing over time. This value seeps in slowly, but definitively.

It’s fascinating to learn about the culture of Amazon, and how a big company forces a culture of think long term and clear communication. The “Day One” mentality is a framework that always encourages a sense of urgency across the organization. The “two pizza team” rule is a framework that keeps the team small and nimble. “Long-form writing memo” habit is a forcing function for the management team to think deeply and communicate clearly.

Trillion dollar coach

People are the foundation of any company’s success. The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job and to grow and develop… Respect means understanding people’s unique career goals and being sensitive to their career choices.

Life of Bill Campbell is all about empowering other people and bringing the best out of the people. The book shows that one true virtual of leadership is that leaders are in the position to help others grow. When facing difficult times, it’s especially important to uplift others, and bring the best out of each other by having candid conversations, understanding each other’s viewpoints, and supporting others in a meaningful way.

An elegant puzzle

As an organizational leader, you’ll always have a portfolio of risk, and you’ll always be doing very badly at some things that are important to you. That’s not only okay, it’s unavoidable.

The book starts with a clear premise that leading an engineering organization is hard. Given that premise, the book dissects this hard problem in various aspects (e.g. structure technical teams as the company grows, shift engineering culture, manage hiring pipeline). For each aspect, the book approaches it in a systematic way and document the problem as well as potential solutions methodically.

The solutions are extremely relevant to managing software companies, I recommend any software engineering leaders to use it as a reference or manual.

Hit refresh

I knew that to lead effectively I needed to get some things square in my own mind – and ultimately, in the minds of everyone who works at Microsoft. Why does Microsoft exist? And why do I exist in this new role? These are questions everyone in every organization should ask themselves. I worried that failing to ask these questions, and truly answer them, risked perpetuating earlier mistakes and worse, not being honest.

It all goes back to the fundamental truth and question - the truth and question of “why”, and it gets even deeper to ask “why exists”. To hit restart on Microsoft culture, Satya Nadella had to do just that, and the exploration of the “why exists” is a test for true character. Leaders of an organization determines the success of that organization, and the values and pracitces of those values shape those leaders. To “hit refresh” on a culture, leaders must look deep within themselves and have the courage to change.

Big debt crises

The book lays out a few fundamental principles around macroeconomics, which has helped me gain a different perspective on the world financial health as of 2019. Any economic crisis centers around credit/debt growth, specifically:

the question of whether rapid credit/debt growth is a good or bad thing hinges on what that credit produces and how the debt is repaid (i.e. how the debt is serviced).. too little credit/debt growth can create as bad or worse economic problems as having too much, with the costs coming in the form of foregone opportunities.


positive liberty is self-mastery – the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained , is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from additions, supersitions and all other forms of self-coercion.

The memoir of Tara Westover leaves a powerful impression on the possibility of human mind. In an isolated environment, ideas even whimsical ones, can dominate lifes of a family. However, education can open up minds and expose people to different ways of thinking. The value of education is personal liberty - to see situations in different angles, hence seeing them more clearly.

My spiritual journey

I believe that at all levels of society – family, national, and international – the key to a better, happier world is greater compassion.

The teaching of Dalai Lama is around love and compassion. Love for ourselves and others, and compassion towards others because no matter who we are, what we are going through, we are all human beings sharing the same desire to be accepted and loved by others. The cultivation of love is a pracitice we can adopt daily, through the form of meditation or mindeful interactions with others or ourselves.