Some Things Every Developer Should Read

Every developer needs to be learning new things all the time. We need to have a good grounding in the ideas that have come before us and those that are emerging around us within our field, and we need to understand the larger social impact of our work. To be fair this isn’t just true of developers, but we are a field that has a bad habit of arguing our work is totally new and original – which is rarely true in any meaningful way.

Part of that push for constant learning is to read books about software development, about life, about business, about writing, and really anything that pushes how and what you think. There isn’t really a settled cannon of things every developer must have read but there are definitely some works you need to be familiar with the ideas in (even if you haven’t read them) to keep in conversations over lunch at a conference like the Mythical Man Month and the Agile Manifesto (both of which came up over a lunch at my last conference). There is also a much larger set of works that many developers benefit from reading even if they aren’t really about software.

So here is my list of works that I think every developer should read at least once in their life. I’m breaking the list into two pieces: specific books I think every developer should actually read, and a category of types of things that every developer should be on the lookout to read on a regular basis. I’d love to hear suggestions about should be added and what I should have read myself.

Specific Books

These are some specific books that I’ve found helpful for making me a better developer. None of the ones here are directly about programming – that’s not an accident. Many of the books I’ve read about development and the creation of software were helpful and I am glad to have spent time with them but these are works that helped me think more broadly about the craft and the when, why, and how I write code.

  • Design of everyday things: While many of the specific recommendations for how to fix some devices are out-of-date and flawed (I will never forget reading that all office phones needed to be easy to use was a two-line digital display while working at a desk with a proof the display had not solved the problem), the general philosophy holds up. Also, it will make you justifiably angry at every poorly installed door you struggle to open.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: This is a long, slow, dense read. And if I hadn’t need assigned it in college I probably never would have gotten through it. But I find myself coming back to its discussion of quality all the time.
  • Technically Wrong: This is the newest book on this list, and it makes the cut cause the ideas are so important. I had the opportunity to see Sara Wachter-Boettcher speak at DrupalCon before she published the book and it was one of those talks that changed how lots of people in the room think about software and the role of our work in people’s lives.
  • Elements of Style (aka “Strunk and White”): I was assigned to read this in a history course in college and then again when I was promoted to Web Director at AFSC – cause the Director of Communications wanted to be sure I remembered the importance of writing well in that job (I did, but I re-skimmed the book anyway). If everyone wrote English like Strunk and White suggest writing would be much better on the whole – although fairly boring. Read it not because their rules are perfect, read it because you should think about the rules of writing when you break them.
  • Blah Blah Blah: This is something you should read after you’ve read a lot about writing clearly since it rather pitches the reverse concept: sometimes a rough picture is clearer and more useful than a carefully written description.

Things that push and inspire

These are examples of works that are helpful to push boundaries. The specific examples I cite may or may not be valuable to you, but they are examples of things within the category I’m describing.

Books that show you code you’d never write:

These are books that talk about code and concepts that either have no application to your work, or are ways of showing off what a language can do – even when you shouldn’t follow the example. I have two examples here from opposite ends of the spectrum:

  • If Hemingway wrote javascript: This book is brilliant. It’s a series of examples of how various writers might have completed common CS class programming assignments using JavaScript: DO NOT WRITE CODE LIKE THIS. It shows off how wonderfully flexible JavaScript is as a language, and presents some of the worst possible solutions to those problems along the way. It is a great read that will teach almost anyone a few things about JavaScript, and push you to think about different ways to approach a problem. It is a light, fast, and entertaining read.
  • Beautiful code: This is a fairly dry read. It is made up of series of examples of truly well written code: WRITE CODE LIKE THIS. It looks at code in a variety of languages, not all of which are in common use, solving problems that are sometimes familiar and sometimes rare (in part because of the code you’re reading). It is a slow dense, and at times boring read, but it’ll give you insight into what other people will find graceful in your work.

A college textbook

I mean actually read and actual textbook. Sure if you went to college someone assigned bits of pieces of these things to read, maybe they even assigned all the chapters in order. But how many people actually did all the reading in order? That doesn’t mean the professors weren’t right that those things are useful – they do not get assigned for the professors health (and if you think professors get rich off assigning their own books you need to spend time learning about the economics of academic publishing). 

I have a couple around that I kept as reference after college, and one or two I’ve now actually read end to end. I will grant you these are not exciting works. I don’t do this as a regular reading habit, but it’s worth having done. If you don’t have one around, most libraries still have books and often a few reasonable high level textbooks.

Articles by someone whose ideas you don’t like

If you aren’t used to doing this I should be clear that this is about getting outside your comfort zone on topics you think you know a lot about, and reading things that push you to justify – or better yet modify – your understanding of the field. This doesn’t have to mean going and reading material you find deeply troubling or revisit ideas you know are morally reprehensible. Bothering with ideas from ideologies of hate is unlikely beneficial for most of us, think closer to home here. In this category I’m talking about project management practices you think are overblown: love Agile, read people who point out where it routinely fails; hate Agile, read some material about why it always works when done right. For me it is sometimes reading people who still argue technology is morally neutral. But best is often to find a topic you are still trying to resolve your own thinking on and absorb some uncomfortable ideas and wrestle with them. 

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