Recommended Books

This is a list of what I consider the best books relevant to programming, and perhaps, even to life.

Two of the older books, which shaped me during my C++ days, are Large Scale Software Design (by John Lakos) and Object-Oriented Design Heuristics (by Arthur Riel). The former is very relevant to Java projects, perhaps even more so now, since by its nature, Java makes it unclear as to the package hierarchy. That is, and java.util are intertwined, with mutual dependencies. Having a clear package/module hierarchy can make it easier to understand the levels within a project, and how their behavior aggregates up through those levels.

Object-Oriented Design Heuristics is simply a must-read for anyone doing OO programming, which means essentially every programmer. Maybe even the functional programmers. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but one salient point that I remember is that managers are discouraged. That is, nonsense such as ResourcePoolManager, which often (usually? always?) act as god classes, and break the OO design by centralizing behavior instead of having it tightly integrated with the client classes. The book goes extensively into inheritance, and how is it abused and distorted, where classes within a hierarchy often break down in terms of being properly decoupled.

If you program, you must, absolutely must, understand regular expressions. I cannot fathom how anyone doing text-based programming (which also means essentially everyone) could not use regular expressions. Every day. Every hour. Much of the magic of dealing with huge code bases is simply mastering regular expressions. So the must-read book on this topic, by another Jeff, is Mastering Regular Expressions, by Jeffrey Friedl. It’s another book that if you read through chapter 3, you’ll understanding 80% of regular expressions, an application of the 80/20 rule, AKA the Pareto principle.

For Scrum, the best book is Agile Software Development with Scrum, by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle. Unlike those released by the book-by-the-pound publishers, this one is concise and direct, clocking in at around 150 pages. As with the book above, reading just three chapters will give you 80% of the full understanding of Scrum.

Hackers and Painters, by Paul Graham, is another must-read, probably the best book I’ve read about the mindset of great programmers, and creators/artists in general. It makes clear that programming is more art than science, and more painting than engineering, contrary to the roots, and biases, of this field. It’s so good that I recommend it not only to programmers, but to those fortunate people who have a programmer in their lives, and want to understand their mental processes.

Delving into non-programming books, I suggest The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. It’s more about businesses than about software, but one point that programmers should appreciate is that there are systemic behaviors, or accidental behaviors, as Fred Brooks might say, resulting from the organization of a system, such as a business, but also programming teams, and even the design of their code. Trying to work around an inappropriately designed system can be extremely frustrating, even to the point of futility.

This might be an odd choice, but I’m going to shoehorn it in here anyway, because I like it so much: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Elgin. It discusses patterns in communication, such as loaded questions, those with invalid premises (“If you really cared about getting this feature done, you wouldn’t be wasting time refining the build process”). Especially in this era where multi-cultural teams are the norm, it is imperative that people understand the deeper significance of the words they choose. It is somewhat like The Fifth Discipline, such that communication itself results in systemic behaviors and dynamics within a team.

I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that programmers are gifted, and by that I don’t mean that they are superior to others – just different. Very different. As Paul Graham elucidates in Hackers and Painters, there is simply a different internal mechanism among programmers, which results in their (illogical, to some) obsession with “minor details”, that is, the core of their work. (Programming is mostly just minor details, aggregated into huge systems.) Programmers also tend to be highly sensitive, as could be expected of people who have to closely watch for even slight variations in behavior or performance. So I suggest The Gifted Adult, by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, which shows insights into how those people think and behave, and why their levels of concentration can be easy disrupted. I especially think that software managers should read it, to understand why the cats that they are trying to herd behave so much unlike “normal people”.

Wrapping up my recommendations is another really odd choice: The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough. It’s about the building of the Panama Canal, about how after years of failed attempts, the canal succeeding in being built by two things: building railroads (to move workers and to remove dirt) and eliminating disease (yellow fever). John Stevens, the head engineer, devoted a significant amount of time (over a year, as I recall) building railroads instead of digging. So once the digging phase began, resources could be moved much more quickly, and with dirt removed, it reduced the exposure to mudslides from the frequent heavy rains. Dr. William Gorgas also solved a resource problem by eliminating disease, thus keeping workers productive. How this fits with software is that much of our work isn’t the digging per se; we have a one-off, with the system around the project itself, such as resources, both material and human.


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