Dreaming in Code

Scott Rosenberg

Mentioned 4

A noted journalist chronicles three years in the lives of a team of maverick software developers, led by Lotus 1-2-3 creator Mitch Kapor, intent on creating a revolutionary personal information manager to challenge Microsoft Outlook. Reprint. 30,000 first printing.

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Mentioned in questions and answers.

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?

I expect this list to be varied and to cover a wide range of things.

To search: Use the search box in the upper-right corner. To search the answers of the current question, use inquestion:this. For example:

inquestion:this "Code Complete"

Applying UML and Patterns by Craig Larman.

The title of the book is slightly misleading; it does deal with UML and patterns, but it covers so much more. The subtitle of the book tells you a bit more: An Introduction to Object-Oriented Analysis and Design and Iterative Development.

Masters of doom. As far as motivation and love for your profession go: it won't get any better than what's been described in this book, truthfully inspiring story!

Beginning C# 3.0: An Introduction to Object Oriented Programming

This is the book for those who want to understand the whys and hows of OOP using C# 3.0. You don't want to miss it.

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Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, by George Leonard

It's about about what mindsets are required to reach mastery in any skill, and why. It's just awesome, and an easy read too.

Pro Spring is a superb introduction to the world of Inversion of Control and Dependency Injection. If you're not aware of these practices and their implications - the balance of topics and technical detail in Pro Spring is excellent. It builds a great case and consequent personal foundation.

Another book I'd suggest would be Robert Martin's Agile Software Development (ASD). Code smells, agile techniques, test driven dev, principles ... a well-written balance of many different programming facets.

More traditional classics would include the infamous GoF Design Patterns, Bertrand Meyer's Object Oriented Software Construction, Booch's Object Oriented Analysis and Design, Scott Meyer's "Effective C++'" series and a lesser known book I enjoyed by Gunderloy, Coder to Developer.

And while books are nice ... don't forget radio!

... let me add one more thing. If you haven't already discovered safari - take a look. It is more addictive than stack overflow :-) I've found that with my google type habits - I need the more expensive subscription so I can look at any book at any time - but I'd recommend the trial to anyone even remotely interested.

(ah yes, a little obj-C today, cocoa tomorrow, patterns? soa? what was that example in that cookbook? What did Steve say in the second edition? Should I buy this book? ... a subscription like this is great if you'd like some continuity and context to what you're googling ...)

Database System Concepts is one of the best books you can read on understanding good database design principles.

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Algorithms in C++ was invaluable to me in learning Big O notation and the ins and outs of the various sort algorithms. This was published before Sedgewick decided he could make more money by dividing it into 5 different books.

C++ FAQs is an amazing book that really shows you what you should and shouldn't be doing in C++. The backward compatibility of C++ leaves a lot of landmines about and this book helps one carefully avoid them while at the same time being a good introduction into OO design and intent.

Perfect Software: And Other Illusions about Testing


Perfect Software: And Other Illusions about Testing by Gerald M. Weinberg

ISBN-10: 0932633692

ISBN-13: 978-0932633699

Here are two I haven't seen mentioned:
I wish I had read "Ruminations on C++" by Koenig and Moo much sooner. That was the book that made OO concepts really click for me.
And I recommend Michael Abrash's "Zen of Code Optimization" for anyone else planning on starting a programming career in the mid 90s.

Rapid Development by McConnell

The most influential programming book for me was Enough Rope to Shoot Yourself in the Foot by Allen Holub.

Cover of the book

O, well, how long ago it was.

I have a few good books that strongly influenced me that I've not seen on this list so far:

The Psychology of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. The general principles of design for other people. This may seem to be mostly good for UI but if you think about it, it has applications almost anywhere there is an interface that someone besides the original developer has to work with; e. g. an API and designing the interface in such a way that other developers form the correct mental model and get appropriate feedback from the API itself.

The Art of Software Testing by Glen Myers. A good, general introduction to testing software; good for programmers to read to help them think like a tester i. e. think of what may go wrong and prepare for it.

By the way, I realize the question was the "Single Most Influential Book" but the discussion seems to have changed to listing good books for developers to read so I hope I can be forgiven for listing two good books rather than just one.

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C++ How to Program It is good for beginner.This is excellent book that full complete with 1500 pages.

Effective C++ and More Effective C++ by Scott Myers.

Inside the C++ object model by Stanley Lippman

I bough this when I was a complete newbie and took me from only knowing that Java existed to a reliable team member in a short time

Not a programming book, but still a very important book every programmer should read:

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

The Pragmatic programmer was pretty good. However one that really made an impact when I was starting out was :

Windows 95 System Programming Secrets"

I know - it sounds and looks a bit cheesy on the outside and has probably dated a bit - but this was an awesome explanation of the internals of Win95 based on the Authors (Matt Pietrek) investigations using his own own tools - the code for which came with the book. Bear in mind this was before the whole open source thing and Microsoft was still pretty cagey about releasing documentation of internals - let alone source. There was some quote in there like "If you are working through some problem and hit some sticking point then you need to stop and really look deeply into that piece and really understand how it works". I've found this to be pretty good advice - particularly these days when you often have the source for a library and can go take a look. Its also inspired me to enjoy diving into the internals of how systems work, something that has proven invaluable over the course of my career.

Oh and I'd also throw in effective .net - great internals explanation of .Net from Don Box.

I recently read Dreaming in Code and found it to be an interesting read. Perhaps more so since the day I started reading it Chandler 1.0 was released. Reading about the growing pains and mistakes of a project team of talented people trying to "change the world" gives you a lot to learn from. Also Scott brings up a lot of programmer lore and wisdom in between that's just an entertaining read.

Beautiful Code had one or two things that made me think differently, particularly the chapter on top down operator precedence.


@Juan: I know Juan, I know - but there are some things that can only be learned by actually getting down to the task at hand. Speaking in abstract ideals all day simply makes you into an academic. It's in the application of the abstract that we truly grok the reason for their existence. :P

@Keith: Great mention of "The Inmates are Running the Asylum" by Alan Cooper - an eye opener for certain, any developer that has worked with me since I read that book has heard me mention the ideas it espouses. +1

I found the The Algorithm Design Manual to be a very beneficial read. I also highly recommend Programming Pearls.

This one isnt really a book for the beginning programmer, but if you're looking for SOA design books, then SOA in Practice: The Art of Distributed System Design is for you.

For me it was Design Patterns Explained it provided an 'Oh that's how it works' moment for me in regards to design patterns and has been very useful when teaching design patterns to others.

Code Craft by Pete Goodliffe is a good read!

Code Craft

The first book that made a real impact on me was Mastering Turbo Assembler by Tom Swan.

Other books that have had an impact was Just For Fun by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond and of course The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas.

In addition to other people's suggestions, I'd recommend either acquiring a copy of SICP, or reading it online. It's one of the few books that I've read that I feel greatly increased my skill in designing software, particularly in creating good abstraction layers.

A book that is not directly related to programming, but is also a good read for programmers (IMO) is Concrete Mathematics. Most, if not all of the topics in it are useful for programmers to know about, and it does a better job of explaining things than any other math book I've read to date.

For me "Memory as a programming concept in C and C++" really opened my eyes to how memory management really works. If you're a C or C++ developer I consider it a must read. You will defiantly learn something or remember things you might have forgotten along the way.


Agile Software Development with Scrum by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle.

I used this book as the starting point to understanding Agile development.

Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail. Get it used cheap. But you might not get the humor until you've worked on a few failed projects.

The beauty of the book is the copyright year.

Probably the most profound takeaway "law" presented in the book:

The Fundamental Failure-Mode Theorem (F.F.T.): Complex systems usually operate in failure mode.

The idea being that there are failing parts in any given piece of software that are masked by failures in other parts or by validations in other parts. See a real-world example at the Therac-25 radiation machine, whose software flaws were masked by hardware failsafes. When the hardware failsafes were removed, the software race condition that had gone undetected all those years resulted in the machine killing 3 people.

It seems most people have already touched on the some very good books. One which really helped me out was Effective C#: 50 Ways to Improve your C#. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention The Tao of Pooh. Philosophy books can be good for the soul, and the code.

Solid Code Optimizing the Software Development Life Cycle

Although the book is only 300 pages and favors Microsoft technologies it still offers some good language agnostic tidbits.

Discrete Mathematics For Computer Scientists

Discrete Mathematics For Computer Scientists by J.K. Truss.

While this doesn't teach you programming, it teaches you fundamental mathematics that every programmer should know. You may remember this stuff from university, but really, doing predicate logic will improve you programming skills, you need to learn Set Theory if you want to program using collections.

There really is a lot of interesting information in here that can get you thinking about problems in different ways. It's handy to have, just to pick up once in a while to learn something new.

I saw a review of Software Factories: Assembling Applications with Patterns, Models, Frameworks, and Tools on a blog talking also about XI-Factory, I read it and I must say this book is a must read. Altough not specifically targetted to programmers, it explains very clearly what is happening in the programming world right now with Model-Driven Architecture and so on..

My vote is "How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning With Python" It's available both as a book and as a free e-book.

It really helped me to understand the basics of not just Python but programming in general. Although it uses Python to demonstrate concepts, they apply to most, if not all, programming languages. Also: IT'S FREE!

Managing Gigabytes is an instant classic for thinking about the heavy lifting of information.

Object-Oriented Programming in Turbo C++. Not super popular, but it was the one that got me started, and was the first book that really helped me grok what an object was. Read this one waaaay back in high school. It sort of brings a tear to my eye...

My high school math teacher lent me a copy of Are Your Lights Figure Problem that I have re-read many times. It has been invaluable, as a developer, and in life generally.

I'm reading now Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns and Practices. For those interested in XP and Object-Oriented Design, this is a classic reading.

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Kernighan & Plauger's Elements of Programming Style. It illustrates the difference between gimmicky-clever and elegant-clever.

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The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam.

The Back of the Napkin

A great book about visual thinking techniques. There is also an expanded edition now. I can't speak to that version, as I do not own it; yet.

to get advanced in prolog i like these two books:

The Art of Prolog

The Craft of Prolog

really opens the mind for logic programming and recursion schemes.

Here's an excellent book that is not as widely applauded, but is full of deep insight: Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game, by Alistair Cockburn.

What's so special about it? Well, clearly everyone has heard the term "Agile", and it seems most are believers these days. Whether you believe or not, though, there are some deep principles behind why the Agile movement exists. This book uncovers and articulates these principles in a precise, scientific way. Some of the principles are (btw, these are my words, not Alistair's):

  1. The hardest thing about team software development is getting everyone's brains to have the same understanding. We are building huge, elaborate, complex systems which are invisible in the tangible world. The better you are at getting more peoples' brains to share deeper understanding, the more effective your team will be at software development. This is the underlying reason that pair programming makes sense. Most people dismiss it (and I did too initially), but with this principle in mind I highly recommend that you give it another shot. You wind up with TWO people who deeply understand the subsystem you just built ... there aren't many other ways to get such a deep information transfer so quickly. It is like a Vulcan mind meld.
  2. You don't always need words to communicate deep understanding quickly. And a corollary: too many words, and you exceed the listener/reader's capacity, meaning the understanding transfer you're attempting does not happen. Consider that children learn how to speak language by being "immersed" and "absorbing". Not just language either ... he gives the example of some kids playing with trains on the floor. Along comes another kid who has never even SEEN a train before ... but by watching the other kids, he picks up the gist of the game and plays right along. This happens all the time between humans. This along with the corollary about too many words helps you see how misguided it was in the old "waterfall" days to try to write 700 page detailed requirements specifications.

There is so much more in there too. I'll shut up now, but I HIGHLY recommend this book!

Agile Software Development by Alistair Cockburn

Do users ever touch your code? If you're not doing solely back-end work, I recommend About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design — now in its third edition (linked). I used to think my users were stupid because they didn't "get" my interfaces. I was, of course, wrong. About Face turned me around.

"Writing Solid Code: Microsoft's Techniques for Developing Bug-Free C Programs (Microsoft Programming Series)" by Steve MacGuire.

Interesting what a large proportion the books mentioned here are C/C++ books.

While not strictly a software development book, I would highly recommend that Don't Make me Think! be considered in this list.

As so many people have listed Head First Design Patterns, which I agree is a very good book, I would like to see if so many people aware of a title called Design Patterns Explained: A New Perspective on Object-Oriented Design.

This title deals with design patterns excellently. The first half of the book is very accessible and the remaining chapters require only a firm grasp of the content already covered The reason I feel the second half of the book is less accessible is that it covers patterns that I, as a young developer admittedly lacking in experience, have not used much.

This title also introduces the concept behind design patterns, covering Christopher Alexander's initial work in architecture to the GoF first implementing documenting patterns in SmallTalk.

I think that anyone who enjoyed Head First Design Patterns but still finds the GoF very dry, should look into Design Patterns Explained as a much more readable (although not quite as comprehensive) alternative.

How influential a book is often depends on the reader and where they were in their career when they read the book. I have to give a shout-out to Head First Design Patterns. Great book and the very creative way it's written should be used as an example for other tech book writers. I.e. it's written in order to facilitate learning and internalizing the concepts.

Head First Design Patterns

Even though i've never programmed a game this book helped me understand a lot of things in a fun way.

97 Things Every Programmer Should Know

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This book pools together the collective experiences of some of the world's best programmers. It is a must read.

Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change by Kent Beck. While I don't advocate a hardcore XP-or-the-highway take on software development, I wish I had been introduced to the principles in this book much earlier in my career. Unit testing, refactoring, simplicity, continuous integration, cost/time/quality/scope - these changed the way I looked at development. Before Agile, it was all about the debugger and fear of change requests. After Agile, those demons did not loom as large.

One of my personal favorites is Hacker's Delight, because it was as much fun to read as it was educational.

I hope the second edition will be released soon!

You.Next(): Move Your Software Development Career to the Leadership Track ~ Michael C. Finley (Author), Honza Fedák (Author) link text

I've been arounda while, so most books that I have found influential don't necessarily apply today. I do believe it is universally important to understand the platform that you are developing for (both hardware and OS). I also think it's important to learn from other peoples mistakes. So two books I would recommend are:

Computing Calamities and In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters

Working Effectively with Legacy Code is a really amazing book that goes into great detail about how to properly unit test your code and what the true benefit of it is. It really opened my eyes.

Even when viewing the subject in the most objective way possible, it is clear that software, as a product, generally suffers from low quality.

Take for example a house built from scratch. Usually, the house will function as it is supposed to. It will stand for many years to come, the roof will support heavy weather conditions, the doors and the windows will do their job, the foundations will not collapse even when the house is fully populated. Sure, minor problems do occur, like a leaking faucet or a bad paint job, but these are not critical.

Software, on the other hand is much more susceptible to suffer from bad quality: unexpected crashes, erroneous behavior, miscellaneous bugs, etc. Sure, there are many software projects and products which show high quality and are very reliable. But lots of software products do not fall in this category. Take into consideration paradigms like TDD which its popularity is on the rise in the past few years.

Why is this? Why do people have to fear that their software will not work or crash? (Do you walk into a house fearing its foundations will collapse?) Why is software - subjectively - so full of bugs?

Possible reasons:

  • Modern software engineering has existed for only a few decades, a small time period compared to other forms of engineering/production.
  • Software is very complicated with layers upon layers of complexity, integrating them all is not trivial.
  • Software development is relatively easy to start with, anyone can write a simple program on his PC, which leads to amateur software leaking into the market.
  • Tight budgets and timeframes do not allow complete and high quality development and extensive testing.

How do you explain this issue, and do you see software quality advancing in the near future?

Check out this related question.

A lot of responders here are blaming these defects on unskilled software developers.

I think the problem is far deeper and more interesting than that.

A great deal of software comes out of engineering institutions who hire solid people and put enormous energy into getting things right. There are QA departments, methodologies, policies like peer code review, etc.

And still a shocking percentage of projects have serious problems or fail utterly, never delivering anything of use.

How is that possible? We should have this down by now, right?

If you ask the people in charge, they might blame the budget. And of course that's often the final straw, the thing that ostensibly forces the doors to close or the project to ship too early.

But that is often an extremely superficial answer designed to protect careers. After all, there wouldn't be budget problems if the project was planned and executed properly.

But that's easier said than done.

I think devs, even brilliant devs who do this a lot, sometimes fail to fully respect how time consuming and expensive it is to develop complex systems. (Here's a great book that shows you how this happens, among other things).

And running software projects, especially large ones, requires a specialized skillset that goes way beyond MS Project and even formal methodologies like Agile.

Here's an example: you have to be able to explain to stakeholders (who maybe have no point of reference and think software is easy) that what they want is going to take way longer than they expect. And sell that, even if there is enormous pressure - and there will be.

You have to educate delicately (after all, these are smart exec-types who are very sure of themselves), maybe telling a story about the old Waterfall methodology and why software projects fail, and why a counter-intuitive approach like Agile might be necessary, and sorry, not only does that mean your budget is not going to work, it could mean no fixed costs at all.

That can be tough because there is competition out there who will tell them what they want to hear and move forward with a plan that will most likely lead to chaos and defeat. Because people don't understand this stuff.

And that's just one little piece.

I often work with sales and marketing types that cannot figure out how to use Excel, let alone understand the scope of their requests from a technical perspective. Of course, it would not be fair to expect them to, but that still leaves me with a problem.

What is the best way to show marketing and sales types that they have asked for something that requires a lot of complex programming and some patience?

Could you please share examples of problems and solutions?

Could you please recommend books on this subject?


Break the problem up into as many sub-divided tasks as possible. Provide a per-item estimate in hours beside each one.

When they think of a project as a whole, it seems simple. However, when they see each individual thing that must be done and the number of hours each item will require, it is putting it into terms business people can understand. Suddenly the software solution they want isn't a "black box" to them anymore and they now have some insight into the process.

If you are looking for books I would suggest Software Estimation - Demystifying the Black Art.

This one may be a good book for non-programmers to understand some of these issues and pitfalls of runaway requirements:

Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software

I'm trying to find some publicly available "lessons learned" after a failed software development project. The bigger the project, the better. I'm interested mostly in opinions expressed by its participants: managers, programmers, designers, etc.

Information from analysts like F. Brooks, S. McConnell, and others is not as important, but thanks for your comments.