The best books for self-taught programmers

Why am I passionate about this?

I taught myself to code back in 1994 while working the graveyard shift as a geologist in the environmental industry. My job consisted of sitting in a chair during the dark hours of the night in a shopping center in Stockton, CA, watching another geologist take samples from wells in the parking lot. A friend of mine suggested I learn to code because I liked computers. I don’t mean to make this out to be a “it’s so simple anyone can do it!” You need to have a relentless drive to learn, which is why I wrote my book, The Imposter’s Handbook - as an active step to learning what I didn’t know I didn’t know.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Imposter's Handbook: A CS Primer for Self-taught Developers

What is my book about?

I spent the first decade of my career doing everything I could to learn what I needed to know so I could get paid. That’s not completely true: I also didn’t want to be found out for the fraud that I felt I was. I have a degree in Geology, not Computer Science! Why am I sitting in the board room of Accel Venture Partners as my clients sign an offer sheet for $10M based on code I wrote?

In 2014 this all changed. I had just sold my business, Tekpub.com, and I decided to take a little time to dig into the Computer Science “stuff” I never learned. It took me a year to find the right resources and assemble it all and in 2016 the book was published.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

Rob Conery Why did I love this book?

This book makes me jealous as the author has an incredible ability to communicate the densest of topics (Cryptography) in an engaging, wonderful way.

It draws you in and you find yourself transported to battlefields and war rooms of the past. I’ve always taken cryptography for granted - I type https into my browser and navigate to a site and all’s well. I know things are reasonably secure - but why?

It turns out that RSA, the algorithm that underpins things like SSL and SSH, is a landmark of human achievement and did something that millennia of mathematicians and scientists could not: provide secure, end-to-end encryption. A wonderful story.

By Simon Singh,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Code Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his first book since the bestselling Fermat's Enigma, Simon Singh offers the first sweeping history of encryption, tracing its evolution and revealing the dramatic effects codes have had on wars, nations, and individual lives. From Mary, Queen of Scots, trapped by her own code, to the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the Allies win World War II, to the incredible (and incredibly simple) logisitical breakthrough that made Internet commerce secure, The Code Book tells the story of the most powerful intellectual weapon ever known: secrecy.

Throughout the text are clear technical and mathematical explanations, and portraits of the remarkable…


Book cover of The Tools: Transform Your Problems Into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity

Rob Conery Why did I love this book?

This isn’t a coding book - it’s more about getting your mind in the right place so you can focus and unleash one of your amazing superpowers: your creativity.

This book literally changed my life a year ago, as I was on year two of recovering from a heart-breaking divorce. Long story short: the tools is about action, not theory. Dr. Phil Stutz is turning the field of psychology upside down with his approach to offering actual tools to get through your problems rather than digging deeper into what makes you think the way you do.

He just doesn’t care about your childhood - instead he wants you to have the tools you need to let go of what holds you back, which is a key for self-taught programmers so they can avoid the dreaded Imposter Syndrome.

By Phil Stutz, Barry Michels,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tools as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER ''I love the life these tools have allowed me to have' - JONAH HILL, director of Stutz

Change can begin right now. Learn to bring about dynamic personal growth using five uniquely effective tools- from psychotherapist Barry Michels and psychiatrist Phil Stutz, subject of the Netflix documentary Stutz, directed by Jonah Hill.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you could tap into a new source of power - one that has been inside you all along - to solve your own problems and become the master of your life?

The Tools is…


Book cover of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Rob Conery Why did I love this book?

You’ve heard of Einstein, Turing, Newton, and Hawking - but do you know who Claude Shannon is? Would you be surprised if I told you that he’s probably done more for our current way of life than all of the others combined? It’s true, and it’s unbelievable.

Claude Shannon was a quiet, quirky man who had what you might call The Most Genius Move of the last forever years: he took an obscure discipline of mathematics (Boolean Algebra) and applied it to electrical circuits, creating the digital circuit in the process. If you’ve ever wondered how 1s and 0s are turned into if statements and for loops - well here you go. 

Oh, but that’s just the beginning. Dr. Shannon took things much further when he described how these 1s and 0s could be transmitted from point A to point B without loss of data. This was a big problem back in his time (the 1930s and 40s), as telegraph and radio relied on electrical signals that could attenuate - even when sent over copper lines.

Shannon showed that you could use these same media, sprinkle in some math, and you would have a near-perfect message on the other end.

While describing this process he also invented the idea of data compression, encoding, entropy, and the foundation of modern computer networking. And no one has ever heard of him. Oh yeah - he also invented the one-time pad (OTP) which is used to this day and is the only known unbreakable form of encryption.

By Jimmy Soni, Rob Goodman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Mind at Play as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Neumann Prize for the History of Mathematics

**Named a best book of the year by Bloomberg and Nature**

**'Best of 2017' by The Morning Sun**

"We owe Claude Shannon a lot, and Soni & Goodman’s book takes a big first step in paying that debt." —San Francisco Review of Books

"Soni and Goodman are at their best when they invoke the wonder an idea can instill. They summon the right level of awe while stopping short of hyperbole." —Financial Times

"Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman make a convincing case for their subtitle while reminding us that Shannon…


Book cover of Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential

Rob Conery Why did I love this book?

There’s a section right at the start of this book where the author tries to quantify the value of things he’s learned over the years, and the result is startling.

Think about this for yourself, just in terms of the code you’ve written - how much do you think that’s worth? Your ability to learn things is your key to thriving in this industry, but how well can you recall those things when you need to?

That’s the point of this whole book: learning to take notes and assemble them into your own personal database. This book led me to Obsidian, which I use relentlessly, and also to Notion, which I also use relentlessly. Writing things down gives me peace of mind and helps me focus and I highly recommend you do the same.

By Tiago Forte,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Building a Second Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“One of my favorite books of the year. It completely reshaped how I think about information and how and why I take notes.” —Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive

A revolutionary approach to enhancing productivity, creating flow, and vastly increasing your ability to capture, remember, and benefit from the unprecedented amount of information all around us.

For the first time in history, we have instantaneous access to the world’s knowledge. There has never been a better time to learn, to contribute, and to improve ourselves. Yet, rather than feeling empowered, we are often left feeling overwhelmed by this constant influx…


Book cover of The 48 Laws of Power

Rob Conery Why did I love this book?

This book is extremely cringy, but that’s the entire point.

The author has studied powerful figures from the past and examined the things they did to wield enormous power and “play the game”. Reading through this book takes a particular focus, and for me it was trying to understand what other people were up to - specifically my coworkers.

Humans are a competitive bunch - it’s the simple truth - and the key to getting ahead at work is to see how you’re being manipulated to another’s advantage. If you plan on moving up in your career you’re going to need to be armed with a basic understanding of the Human Chess Game because it’s everywhere. 

The Bad Bosses and Crappy Coworkers of the world are reading this book and using it as a guide to get ahead - but that becomes meaningless if you can spot their tricks and can defend yourself. To me, reading this book is like studying martial arts: you don’t do it to go kick someone’s ass, you do it to defend against someone else’s aggression.

By Robert Greene,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The 48 Laws of Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this multi-million-copy New York Times bestseller is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control – from the author of The Laws of Human Nature.

In the book that People magazine proclaimed “beguiling” and “fascinating,” Robert Greene and Joost Elffers have distilled three thousand years of the history of power into 48 essential laws by drawing from the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz and also from the lives of figures ranging from Henry Kissinger to P.T. Barnum.
 
Some laws teach the need for prudence (“Law…


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Book cover of The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower

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What is my book about?

Noam Chomsky has been praised by the likes of Bono and Hugo Chávez and attacked by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Alan Dershowitz. Groundbreaking linguist and outspoken political dissenter—voted “most important public intellectual in the world today” in a 2005 magazine poll—Chomsky inspires fanatical devotion and fierce vituperation.

In The Chomsky Effect, Chomsky biographer Robert Barsky examines Chomsky's positions on a number of highly charged issues—including Vietnam, Israel, East Timor, and his work in linguistics—that illustrate not only “the Chomsky effect” but also “the Chomsky approach.”

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