Last week, I’ve done a question and answers event with students when the question came up what the most influential books were that I have read as a software developer. I couldn’t answer the question right away but promised to compile the list with short descriptions of the book’s influence. And here it is – my list of books that left a big mark in my day-to-day work. Others have done the list of books thing before me, and most lists contain the same books over and over again. I take it as an indicator that my list isn’t too far off.
Before I start the list, I want to say a few things. The list isn’t ordered or ranked. I describe the effects of each book from my current standpoint, sometimes 20 years after the fact. I read a lot more good, interesting and inspiring books in the last 20 years and they all added to my work personality. But with all the books on my list, I felt enlightened and vibrant with new ideas. They didn’t just inspire me, they elevated my thinking. And because of this criteria of immediate improvement, one book is missing from the list. It’s the first “serious” software development book I’ve ever read in 1998: “Design Patterns“. The book was just too much for me (and my study group peers) to handle such early in our careers. We were in our first year of study and had a lot of other battles to fight. I crossed it from my reading list and moved on. Years later, I re-read it and saw so much insight I plainly missed the first time, but gathered elsewhere since. If you want to read this classic, don’t hesitate! If you “only” want to know about design patterns, there’s a better book for that: “Head First Design Patterns“.
The Pragmatic Programmer
More by chance, my co-founder stumbled upon “The Pragmatic Programmer” in 1999 and devoured it. Then he gave the book to me and it shattered me to my core. I thought I was a decent software developer and here are Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt and talk about things I didn’t even knew existed. A healthy dose of Dunning-Kruger effect is crucial in everybody’s upbringing, but this book ended my overestimation once and for all and gave my studies a focus and direction I wouldn’t have thought to be possible before. I own my whole career to this book, at least in terms of work ethics. I cannot fathom how my professional life would have played out otherwise.
Working Effectively With Legacy Code
In 2004, Michael Feathers wrote a book that contains his 20+ years of experience with software development and named it “Working Effectively With Legacy Code“. Well, joke’s on you – I don’t write legacy code, my code is perfect. That wasn’t my attitude since 1999 (see list entry #1) and I took this book everywhere. It’s a heavy one, but I read it in the tram, right before the movie starts in cinema, during breakfast, lunch and dinner and virtually any other circumstance. I realized that reading this book will gain me experience a lot faster than actually writing code, so I just stopped for a few weeks. This book answered a lot of mysteries in the form of “is there really no better way to do this?” for me. And it introduced the concept of code seams for me that permeates my work ever since. I can clearly remember the day when I looked at my existing code again and saw the seams for the first time. It was truly eye-opening for me.
Martin Fowler was a very productive author in the late nineties. I’ve read most of his books from this period, if maybe with a few years delay. “Analysis Patterns” from 1996 arrived in my bookshelf in the early 2000’s and was my wake-up call to seeing models instead of actualities. I’ve given this book to many peers, but haven’t received the reactions that I had with this book: Being taught a language (with a graphical notation) that can express actual problems in terms of an overarching solution. Since then, I’ve seen the same solutions applied in many different forms, with many different names and a lot of different special requirements. But they all derive from the same model. This effect was promised by the “Design Patterns” book, but for me, delivered by “Analysis Patterns”. Even Martin Fowler admits that the book is showing its age, but for me, its timeless.
Since the late 80’s, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister wrote one book after the other. Each book describes a common business-oriented problem and at least one working solution for it. And yet, the very same problems still persist in the business world. It’s as if nobody reads books. “Peopleware” was written in 1987, 30 years ago, and discovered by me and my peers in the late 1990’s. We talked about this book a lot, as it described a (business) world where we didn’t want to work in. We wanted to do better. In a way, this book was a spark to found our own company and don’t repeat the mistakes that seemed to be prevalent in our industry. If you’ve ever shaken your head about “the management”, do yourself a favor and read this book. It will pinpoint the precise problem you’ve felt and give you the words to describe it. And if you’ve read “Peopleware”, liked it and want more, there is good news: There is a whole series waiting for you (not just Vienna).
Epilogue to Part I
These are the first five books from my list, with the last entry being more of a catch-all for a whole series. Remember that this isn’t a generic “go and read these books if you want to call yourself a professional software developer” list. I’m not gatekeeping and it would be useless to even try to do so. These books helped me further my career in the last 20 years, they won’t necessarily help you for the next 20 years. Good books are published every year, you just have to read them.
I’m looking forward to share the second part of my list in the next blog post of this series. Stay tuned!