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CEO & Co-Founder of BlastPoint, Alison Alvarez, Talks About the Ideal Balance Between Literature and Non-Fiction

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We had the opportunity to talk about books and reading habits with Alison Alvarez, the CEO and co-founder of BlastPoint.

BlastPoint‘s mission is to make big data affordable and accessible to everyone through interaction with maps. Their software enables people to explore locations, discover new customers, evaluate expansion territories, and share those findings in seconds, without the need to be an expert.

After spending years building big data tools for large companies, Alison became convinced that more affordable and accessible solutions should exist. She has emerged as an expert consultant regarding large geospatial data systems, giving lectures around the country to teach people how to use data tools for themselves, and developing a library of free interactive coding lessons.

She holds two Master’s degrees from Carnegie Mellon University: one in Language Technologies Institute from the School of Computer Science, and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business.

She’s an advisory board member of Y-Combinator backed Valor Water, where she guides tech infrastructure and software team-building.

Keep on reading and you’ll find out more about Alison’s favorite books, including the one that influenced her to major in computer science, reasons why you should read books across all genres, especially outside the topic that you’re passionate about, and how literature leads to empathy and, eventually, building a better product.

Estimated reading time for this interview is 11 minutes. If you'd rather listen to it, you can do it on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

For business, I would choose Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. This book changed how I think about negotiation. Instead of seeing it as an adversarial “me vs. them” process that was all about winning, it made me think about getting what I really wanted in a way that would preserve and grow relationships.

One of the most important pieces of advice was the need to understand your counterpart and what their needs are. When you have that in mind there are often alternate paths to consider that would cost you little and would make everyone happy.

There are so many non-business books that I love, so it is hard to choose. I guess I would have to pick The Hiding Place, an autobiography by Corrie Ten Boom about her experience helping Jews escape the Holocaust in the Netherlands and her subsequent imprisonment.

She has always been my role model for kindness, doing the right thing, and mental toughness. What I really took with me from the book were the descriptions of how she dealt with the stress of solitary confinement and eventually the Ravensbruck concentration camp. I adapted some of her techniques for keeping her mind occupied to deal with my own problems with anxiety and worry. Also, it’s a book with a surprising amount of joy in it for a subject matter that is so dark.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

I was not expecting to get as much as I did out of Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It follows several landlords and families in the Milwaukee area. The families depicted were struggling financially and living within a cycle of finding housing, getting evicted and scrambling to a new place to live, often moving into homeless shelters when there were no alternatives. The book is stark and an emotional gut-punch in a lot of ways, but it revealed a perspective on housing that I’d been blind to.

It also changed my thinking about how data can benefit communities. Evictions live in the public record, but are largely invisible in aggregate. Would people be more likely to recognize the problem if they could see it?

I found the real value of the book to be in the endnotes. The book itself is largely dispassionate, but if you look in the endnotes for each chapter they reveal where the author was for all of the incidents in the book and shows how much he witnessed first-hand. I learned a lot about good ethnography, but also about how he established trust with the people he followed and got them to speak honestly about their situation. It was a good lesson for me because we spend a lot of time with customers and getting them to share feedback honestly is a skill that leads directly to us being better. And sometimes that means investing time in people so that they trust you with the truth.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

I read the book Microserfs by Douglas Coupland when I was a teenager in the mid 90s. It’s about the early days of small software company made of former Microsoft employees. It covers the development of the team, their quest to build a product and their experiences living and working together. The book is over 20 years old at this point, but the story itself is strikingly relevant.

Prior to reading the book I had never considered that a career in software development would be an option for me. My parents both grew up poor and chose career paths that would get them to a middle-class salary with the least amount of training. I lived on the outer edge of the suburbs in Georgia and I don’t think I’d met a single computer programmer prior to college. We had an old Packard Bell computer capable of running the original Sim City that eventually caught on fire around the time I read this book.

Because of Microserfs I asked for a laptop for my 16th in birthday and was extremely shocked to get one. I fell in love with it immediately, took it everywhere with me even though it was as heavy as a brick. I didn’t even have a way to connect it to the internet, but I used it for whatever I could, including programming.

I don’t think I would have picked computer science as my major without the familiarity that I’d had with my own laptop and from the familiarity of the lifestyle outlined in Microserfs.

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

I don’t think I can answer this question with specific books. Instead I will recommend this:

  • Develop a love for books and read lots of different kinds of things: history, literature, science. Flip through encyclopedias and dictionaries if you can. You never know what you will find.
  • Find your passion, but make sure that you read about the world outside of that topic.

The reason I say this is that true innovation comes from connecting ideas from disparate places. I’m a tech CEO, so I’ve read lots of books on business and software, but I think our best ideas came from a spark of recognition connecting our products to something that was not immediately obvious. For example, connecting the dawn of epidemiology to mapping.

I read The Ghost Map, a book about the 1854 London Cholera outbreak. The outbreak was stopped because of a map created by Dr. John Snow. You can see hints of this map in some of our customer discovery tools because it was such an effective way of pinpointing a solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Literature is also something I would highly recommend, especially for getting out of your own head. Good literature helps build empathy by letting you live through the eyes of others. Being able to identify with other people will help you build products that people actually want instead of just what you want.

How do you make time for reading?

I am in love with the Carnegie Library’s Overdrive e-book app. It provides access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks instantly. I have 5 e-books and 5 audiobooks checked out currently.

If I’m really into a book I manage to fit it into the corners of my day, reading to wake up and fall asleep. I’m currently reading a paperback version of SPQR by Mary Beard.

Otherwise, I have learned to love audiobooks and use them while driving or while doing chores.

E-books are my current favorite format. I have a fused spine, so I have to be careful about how much weight I carry. I used to always have a book in my bag, but now I have an iPad mini with a few hundred books loaded onto it. Much lighter!

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I keep a research notebook and occasionally I’ll write something down if it’s extremely relevant. I also send quotes to my co-founder if they address a problem that we are struggling with.

This is our most recent one: One always has time enough, if one will apply it well. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

How do you choose what books to read next?

I have a favorites list on Overdrive. I’m likely to choose something there. Occasionally a book from my holds list finds me once it is available

Do you prioritize the books recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

I have one friend who unfailingly recommends books that I love. She is a high school English teacher. She recommended Kindred by Octavia Butler, which is just an amazing work of science fiction. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but just trust me that it’s a good read.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

Other than SPQR, I’m reading The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau. I will admit that I’m not having a great time with this book and it’s turning out to be a frustrating read. Sometimes there is something to be gained in things that are less than perfect, especially in thinking about what could have been done to make them better. Maybe this book will get better in the second half and I’ll learn something about turning around a story?

Links where you can follow Alison Alvarez and find out more about her projects:

All books mentioned by Alison in our interview:

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