Engineers are constantly on the lookout for content to sharpen their skills. And books abound on every possible technical niche from clean code to debugging to systems at scale.
They're incredible and useful and invaluable to growth as an engineer. But they can also hold you back — because sometimes you need to go deeper.
You see, the technical layer of abstraction is only one way to solve technical problems. You also need to dig into the human layer that underpins your technical skills.
That's where you find the big blockers. That's where you make leaps in both your technical prowess and career by making architectural changes to yourself.
Here are eight books that will make you a better software engineer in ways you might never expect.
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The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
There is no higher virtue in software engineering than solving problems. In fact, the very meaning of growth in our profession is getting better at solving whatever technical problems your particular corner of the industry demands.
And of course this can't be done without in-depth technical knowledge and tactics that you'll find plentifully in engineering-focused texts.
But it also can't be done without the right mentality that allows you to effectively apply those concepts.
And that's what this book is about: the foundational perspectives you need as a human to unlock your core problem-solving ability in any context at all.
As I explain here, stoicism is the name for this philosophy, which Ryan Holiday describes in the most straight-forward and accessible way as just about any book on the subject.
I'd go so far as to say you can't be a rockstar engineer without these concepts and that all rockstar engineers categorically apply them in some form.
Negotiating the Non-Negotiable by Daniel Shapiro
Are you desperate to squash some technical debt? Is your boss insisting on unreasonable timelines? Need better tools to get the job done?
You could go to your non-technical boss with a copy of a technical article that explains why your needs are non-negotiable, but that's likely going to get you exactly nowhere.
So to actually do your job, you need to negotiate. You need to fight for your perspective or risk becoming a victim of others who negotiate better.
Negotiation is just a way of getting two parties with different perspectives aligned on next steps.
And this book is particularly useful for engineers because it breaks the process of negotiation down into simple terms. It highlights both the rational and emotional aspects of successful negotiation in a way that engineers (who often have little patience for the latter) can practically apply.
But it also focuses on a third factor that is especially relevant to engineers: identity. That is, whether we have strong identities as engineers or we are pigeonholed by others, identity plays a huge role in the way we interact with parties outside of engineering which, in turn, directly affects our work. This book will help you reason through the impact of identity and other factors so you can get to yes in a way where everyone can feel like they've won.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Engineers frequently express a desire to bolster their communication skills. But is a book on writing in general actually useful for the particular needs of engineers?
Yes, a million times over.
I fell in love with this book when I found in its introduction something I always knew to be true: Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly.
And that's the crux of its entire message. Learn how to translate clear thinking into clear writing, and forget all the convoluted BS you learned in school.
And as an engineer, you can do that. A certain level of clear thinking is required for engineering. Your code won't compile without it. This book frames your journey as merely connecting the dots between the clear thinking you're already doing to getting it out on paper — or more pertinently in Slack, email, or code documentation.
But the most interesting thing to me about this book is this: its overlap with writing clean code.
Turns out, the principles of writing readable code are deeply entangled with the principles of clear words. The better you become at the latter, I suspect the more second nature will become the former.
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
Shame culture is a big deal in the software engineering community. There's shame about intelligence, technical prowess, and insufficient prestige. And then even when we've amassed all those things, there's shame about being older and out of touch!
This is not an attack on engineers. Wouldn't it be ironic if I were attempting to shame engineers out of shaming each other?!
Rather, this is just an attempt to recognize a reality that impacts a lot of engineers and to offer a solution to cope and reform.
Brene Brown is like a beacon in the dark when it comes to the study of shame. And Daring Greatly, along with many of her other texts, offers profoundly practical ways to manage your own experiences with shame while also giving you the tools to create more productive and creative environments for work.
I particularly love the framing of this book because it resonates so strongly with the work and mission of software engineers. In other words, in order to both conceive of and execute truly cutting-edge solutions, it requires not only requisite skills, but the gaul to propose and fight for one's vision.
By freeing oneself from the fetters of shame (or at least loosening its grip), you're going to find yourself advancing your career closer to greatness than you ever imagined was possible and bouncing back from setbacks faster to boot.
The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen
If you work at a startup, chances are everything you do subscribes to the lean product development philosophy wherein you launch an MVP and iterate until you've attained product-market fit.
But as engineers, our exposure to the nitty gritty of the philosophy that drives how all of our work is prioritized can be limited.
Understanding these details not only help us to make better micro-decisions about how we implement our solutions, but make more compelling arguments to our team when we're trying to negotiate prioritizing some technical necessity.
It also helps that Dan Olsen has two engineering degrees, so he understands both the product and engineer's perspectives.
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor
Want a performance edge at work? Want to just break through a rut? Need some insight to help you gain a little momentum?
This book offers seven science-backed principles that will be like lighting a stick of dynamite under your existing technical potential.
It does that by grappling with an issue that impacts everything from your energy for creativity to your ability to see solutions: happiness.
Happiness is a testy subject. On one hand, there's this idea that "if you're not suffering, you're doing it wrong," which can effectively render life as a depressing, inescapable grind. And on the flip side, there's this incredibly naive reaction that if you're suffering at all, or aren't experiencing an ongoing stream of passion, you need to stop immediately.
The truth is somewhere in between, and Achor offers perspectives and actionable guidance that allow you to unlock the flow of problem-solving energy that all the most effective engineers have.
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
This one may seem way out of left field, but trust me.
You have no idea the impact your physical work environment has on your creative energy until you change it fundamentally. And I didn't know either until I read and applied this book to my entire universe.
Marie Kondo is a genius of architecting one's environment. She offers a practical and systematic approach to removing energy-sucking clutter while also infusing your space with energy-fueling artifacts.
In other words, she's an engineer of space-driven productivity, and one you should be paying attention to ASAP.
And on top of that, she recently released a new title that's all about work!
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
If you find The Obstacle is the Way helpful, then The Power of Now is an even more potent journey into the power of aligning with reality and proceeding with full, problem-solving clarity.
Think of Holiday's book as your intellectual foundation based in Western philosophy, while Tolle's is a more direct, experiential guidebook into corresponding techniques that are everywhere in the Eastern traditions.
Even though Tolle bills this text as "a guide to spiritual enlightenment," a belief in or adoption of spirituality is in no way necessary to gain enormous, practical value from his advice.
It's fundamentally about accepting what is and existing fully in the present moment. And while a lot of Westerners (including a past version of myself) think this means giving up, it's actually the way to become so fully in alignment with reality that you can solve literally any problem that arises with a level of ease that is probably beyond your current level of comprehension.
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