My engineering and management reading list of 2020
We all have stacks of books we bought and never read - information overload pressures us to carefully choose what we devote our scarce attention to. With 2020 coming to a close I thought I’d share several books I’ve enjoyed or found valuable this year - perhaps you fill find a few useful too.
1. High Output Management by Andrew Grove
Andrew Grove (former Intel CEO and Chairman) provides some guidance on how to be effective in a management role by focusing on 4 key areas: business operations, the manager role, scaling beyond a single team, team members as individuals.
The book provided more food for thought for how I fit into my current organization, as well as some ideas I had not considered before, such as the “information gathering and sharing, nudging, decision making” activities managers perform, thinking about processes and bottlenecks as a manufacturer would. If like myself you’ve unintentionally stumbled into a leading or managerial role, “High Output Management” will provide you with a framework for success and deepen your perspective. I would strongly recommend this book.
2. Debugging Teams: Better Productivity through Collaboration by Brian Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman
While Robert Martin’s The Clean Coder focuses more on how to “play nice with others” from the individual engineer’s perspective, Fitzpatrick and Sussman extend the same idea to teams (engineering and non-engineering too) and users.
The book builds teamwork on top of 3 pillars: Humility, Respect and Trust, and suggests that most social conflicts arise from lack of one of the components - I’m sure you’ve heard of or (sadly) even experienced horror stories caused by poor company culture or problematic managers/team members. While it’s not a silver bullet, the book provides some guidance for how and why to build team culture, guidance for leaders (lose the ego, providing a safe place for failure), shares several tips for dealing with poisonous people and how to fit within a larger company (e.g. seeking friends, navigating politics).
3. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
The author explores why some people achieve more than others. One of the key points popularized by the book is that it takes about 10 000 hours of practice to master a skill. Of course, success is more than that (e.g. the the book notes opportunity is also a significant contributor to being successful), but as the saying goes “hard work does not guarantee success, but makes it more likely”.
The book altered my mindset for learning new skills. I now look for more (enjoyable) ways to put in the necessary hours of deliberate practice. If we can find enjoyment in practice - we’re more likely to stick with it. And as an added benefit if others view similar practice as work - in the long term we’ll have a competitive edge. E.g. I’m currently going through the FastAI Deep Learning book, and the authors too recommend practicing with domains you’re already an expert in. I find it difficult to internalize some of the datasets (e.g. Kaggle’s Credit Card Fraud), impeding my progress. However, I find it more enjoyable practicing deep learning in building game bots.
On a similar note, a chess streamer GothamChess (IM Levy Rozman) recently talked how in tournament play it’s common to prepare for specific opponents by reviewing their openings and targeting opponent’s less explored lines in an attempt to gain an edge. Being well-rounded is valuable in real world too, so deliberate practice needs to evolve as well.
I find similar ideas resonating in the Masters of Doom book, which described how John Carmack and John Romero built Id Software and its legendary games (such as Doom, Quake, Commander Keen). Both Johns had created tens/hundreds of games and attained mastery even before their paths crossed, and both found sufficiently significant satisfaction in their work to keep pushing their skillsets and the field’s boundary on arduous schedules for years.
4. The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
The book introduces us to the concepts of Lean Manufacturing and the “Three ways” (fast flow of work, enabling fast and constant feedback, continuous learning and experimentation) in the form of a novel, where the story follows Bill - an IT manager tasked with sorting out the mess in the IT department of Parts Unlimited.
I enjoyed this storytelling approach - you get to understand and cringe at the problems (and think “hey, are the authors writing about our organization?”), and then the mentor in the book gradually guides derivation and understanding of solutions, while the main hero stumbles through mistakes and realizations. It provides better context why the devops movement does what it does within a business, shows the problems it solves.
There is a second book - The Unicorn Project, however I found it more difficult to relate to to the point of being distracting, mostly because from what I gathered the characters are portrayed as all-knowing flawless folks at the tippy-top of the field, effortlessly accomplishing all of their tasks and have gotten into the mess only because incompetence of or being undermined by the company, their managers or other teams. Even the mentor from “The Phoenix Project” ended up being a “yes-man”, only praising characters’ ideas rather than actually mentoring.
5. The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
The book explores usability design in the real world. While the examples are mostly physical (e.g. how do (or don’t) we know how to open a door?), the underlying principles (discoverability, feedback, affordances) are apt in the software world as well. If you build something for other people to use - this is one of those must-read books.
6. Clean Architecture: A Craftsman’s Guide to Software Structure and Design by Robert Martin
Other Robert Martin’s “Clean” books (clean code, coder) are great, and “Clean architecture” is no different. The book does a deep dive into software architecture, covering basic software design rinciples like SRP, LSP, component design guidelines (e.g. cohesion, coupling) and more architectural topics (layers and boundaries, business rule handling, details).
7. Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems by Martin Klepmann
The scale of data modern systems utilize continues growing, requiring understanding of how to build scalable and maintainable systems. The book covers 3 major parts: data system fundamentals (reliability, scalability, maintainability, different data storage engines and data evolution over time), distributing data over multiple machines and challenges involved, building systems for deriving data out of existing datasets.
8. Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham
You likely already know Paul Graham from YCombinator (the investment company) or Hacker News (the news community for hackers they operate). PG is also an avid writer, you can find his essays here. The book is mostly a compilation of his essays in book form and covers a variety of topics, including fighting spam, how to think about and create wealth, how to think about programming languages and how they shape our work.
9. The Healthy Programmer by Joe Kutner
Software engineers tend to be stereotyped as mostly sedentary, pizza and coke fueled coding machines frequently working late into the night - not the healthiest. The book is especially relevant in today’s COVID world when most of us work from home and barely leave the house, as it provides recommendations on how to set oneself up for a lifelong marathon of staying fit, sharp and healthy, and covers topics like habit building, injury prevention and pain management, nutrition and exercise.
Other interesting mentions
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
- A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
- Building Secure and Reliable Systems: Best Practices for Designing, Implementing and Maintaining Systems
- Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow
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