Programming is the type of discipline that requires countless hours of dedication to reading and writing code, rather than purely theoretical learning from books. Yet programming books can be enlightening and provide guidance while one attempts to hone their craft in the pursuit of mastery.
In this post I’ll share a (necessarily incomplete) list of relatively new books that I believe will make most developers better programmers. By “new”, I mean books that have been released recently (within the past three years), that haven’t become classics yet or appeared in everyone else’s list of recommended programming books. Hence, you won’t find SICP, TAoCP, PFDS, etc.
Please note that each of them deserves (and probably will receive at some time) a lengthy review. Here I simply state in a brief manner why I think they are important.
OK, this is cheating a little. “Introduction to Algorithms” is both a classic and a book on everyone’s list. However, I opted to include it because not everyone knows that it was recently (September 2009) released in its third edition. The book received a major upgrade to the existing content and exercises, as well as including new, modern algorithms. Any programmer working through this book, or revisiting it, will learn valuable, foundational knowledge.
Alan Turing wrote a classic paper in 1936 with the title: “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem“. It was a paper on Turing machines and the limits of computability, which had a major impact on computer science and the development of the computer you are reading this post on. Every programmer/computer scientist should get ahold of this paper and read it. Unfortunately, it isn’t exactly easy to grasp if you are not used to reading research papers. In “The Annotated Turing”, Petzold does a marvelous job of dissecting the paper (and its errata), providing ample explanations and background information over 18 chapters (360 pages vs 36 of the original paper). It manages to be rigorous while still being accessible. If this book doesn’t arouse your interest in computer science, chances are nothing will.
This book takes two fundamental pillars of modern software development, Object-Oriented Design and Test-Driven Development, and clearly illustrates how to apply the best practices of each to build and maintain complex software. I don’t know of many developers who couldn’t learn something new about TDD in the context of OOP from this book. A must read.
While on the subject of Agile development, I can’t help but recommend “Clean Code” by Uncle Bob. It compliments “Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests” perfectly by focusing on how to improve and refractor code to get rid of code smells. You can think of it as a very succinct version of Code Complete 2, with a strong focus on Agile craftsmanship. The examples, as per the previous book, are in Java but that shouldn’t be much of an issue for the open-minded developer.
Lean principles deriving from the Lean manufacturing world have been effectively translated and adapted to the field of software development. This book explains how to lead a team to success through lean software development in detail to team leaders and mentors. Having obtained a Lean Six Sigma yellow belt many years ago, this book definitely gave me a few flashbacks. If you are not familiar with the concepts presented, you’ll definitely find it food for thought. Building software requires far more than just writing quality code, and the techniques presented here are valuable, even if you don’t fully buy into this methodology.
While on the subject of leadership, if you are in charge of software development at a small company or startup, you want to read this book. My interest in this title came from the fact that its author (Louis Testa) works as a Senior Engineering Manager at Galois, a company that uses Haskell as their technological advantage (and hired Don Stewart of Haskell fame). “Growing Software” delivered on my expectations and is full of hands-on advice on how to deal with the whole workflow surrounding the creation of software from the idea all the way to the sale and support of a product.
Debugging is an invaluable skill and one that is often left out from introductory programming books. Being able to effectively debug code is what separate professionals from beginners, and productive programmers from frustrated ones. This book is ruthlessly practical with many advanced techniques for debugging on Linux/Unix. It’s well worth its price in my opinion.
Assuming you already have a decent understanding of relational databases, and are not too scared of mathematics, this book will really bring your knowledge of how databases work to the next level, in turn improving the design, schema evolution, and SQL queries you’ll create afterwards.
If you are building web applications that do more than simply CRUD operations on your data, you’ll want to read this book (with examples in Python). The motivated, intermediate developer will learn how to efficiently solve complex problems related to machine learning and intelligent web algorithms from this book. It’s a very accessible introduction to tough subjects and one of the most interesting books I’ve read in some time.
To conclude this list, I wanted to include a book that’s aimed at showing programmers how some of the best programmers and computer scientists do their work. I previously enjoyed Founders at Work, and this version about programming is just as good. It’s inspiring, fun to read, and rich in insight and advice.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and AI Evangelist at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging ( The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.