10 must-read books for developers

10 must-read books for developers

Blog site Stackoverflow posed an interesting question: “If you could go back in time and tell yourself to read a specific book at the beginning of your career as a developer, which book would it be?”

The accumulated wisdom of Stackoverflow readers posted over the past three years reads like a who’s-who of the programming book industry, but several missing titles caught my eye.

Here’s the Stackoverflow list:

  1. “Code Complete” by Steve McConnell (2004). Tackles every facet of programming, with tons of examples.
  2. “The Pragmatic Programmer” by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas (1999). Concentrates on nitty-gritty real-world approaches to solving problems through code.
  3. “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” (2nd Edition, 1996) by Harold Abelson, Gerald Sussman, and Julie Sussman. Concentrates on breaking big problems down into little ones, and ensuring the pieces come back to build the whole. The book is available under the Creative Commons Noncommercial License, for free on the Web.
  4. “The C Programming Language” (2nd Edition, 1988) by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Richie. Not only offers the definitive guide to C, but shows you how to program in general. My personal choice for the most important first book.
  5. “Introduction to Algorithms” by Thomas Cormen, Charles Leiserson, Ronald Rivest, and Clifford Stein (2009). Gives fast ways to solve complex problems, using the right data structures. Comprehensive and quintessentially useful.
  6. “Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code” by Martin Fowler, Kent Beck, John Brant, and William Opdyke (1999). Shows you how to rebend a programming pretzel, taking poorly designed code and turning it into something even humans can understand.
  7. “Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software” by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides (1994). Serves as a reference of object oriented techniques. I’m surprised to see this on a list of “beginning of your career” books because it’s much more suitable for people with a lot of OOP under their belts.
  8. “The Mythical Man-Month” by Frederick Brooks (1995). A management classic in the finest tradition. While not a programming book, a must-read for every developer.
  9. “The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms” (3rd Edition, 1997) by Donald Knuth. For anyone with a mathematical predilection, Volumes 1 and 3 (“Sorting and Searching”) stand out as true bibles of the industry. With Volumes 2 (“Seminumerical Algorithms”) and 4A (“Combinatorial Algorithms, Enumeration and Backtracking”) published, plans are still in place for Volume 4B (“Graph and Network Algorithms”), Volume 4C (maybe Volumes 4D and 4E, “Optimization and Recursion”), Volume 5 (“Syntactic Algorithms”), Volume 6 (“Context-Free Languages”), and Volume 7 (“Compiler Techniques”).
  10. “Compilers: Principles, Techniques and Tools” (2nd Edition, 2006) by Alfred Aho, Monica Lam, Ravi Sethi, and Jeffrey Ullman. The 1,000-page “dragon book” focuses on compilers, but in so doing covers topics every developer should understand.

If you veer off the developer-centric track for a moment, many classics would broaden the horizons of any aspiring analyst. “Godel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter (1979) and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig (1974) always come up as manifestos of the developer class.

Sticking to developing, though, I’m surprised that these didn’t make the top 10:

“Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship” by Robert Martin (2008), emphasizes the importance of building code that can be digested, working through lots of real-world examples. It covers some of the same ground as Martin’s earlier book, “Agile Software Development,” and sets the stage for Martin’s new book, “The Clean Coder.”

“Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software” by Charles Petzold (2000) should be on the short list of everyone who’s involved in the computer industry, developer or not. Petzold covers the basics — number systems, high-level languages, comm protocols, hardware, GUIs — and doesn’t overwhelm with jargon.

For anyone destined to a corporate IT job, these three should be required reading:

“Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture” by Martin Fowler (2002) helps corporate developers recognize common patterns in real-world problems, and digs into solution details for each pattern.

“Coders at Work” by Peter Seibel (2009) takes case histories — which is to say, influential developers’ real-life stories — and weaves them into a powerful view of how 15 of the industry’s best and brightest kicked some serious technical butt.

“Peopleware” (2nd edition. 1999) by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister emphasizes the human element in software development and how to put together a project that actually gets work done.

I won’t say that list is definitive, but if there’s a nascent developer, developer wannabe, or burned-out developer seeking inspiration in your circle of friends, do them a favor and get them one of these books.


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