The best books on the human dimension of writing computer code

G. Pascal Zachary Author Of Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft
By G. Pascal Zachary

The Books I Picked & Why

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering

By Frederick P. Brooks Jr

Book cover of The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering

Why this book?

In the 1970s, Brooks was the leading thinker on managing large software projects in the world, and unexpected delays in completing complex coding tasks were emerging as a costly headache for large organizations. Brooks was considered a software luminary within IBM, which dominated the digital world in the era before the advent of the personal computer.

“In many ways, managing a large computer programming project is like managing any other large undertaking, but in many other ways it is different – in more ways than most professional managers expect,” Brooks dryly declared in the opening lines of a book destined to become a classic. He went on to explore specific challenges in the book’s 15 terse chapters, the second chapter, which gave the title to the entire volume, he presented paradoxical insight that ultimately elevated the book to the status of a classic.

Brooks argued, persuasively and insistently, that adding more coders, or “man months,” to a project might actually cause the project to slow down, even to go into reverse. In short, with many coding projects, more people can mean less progress towards the end goal of a bug-free program. Brooks, who became a computer science professor at the University of North Carolina after leaving IBM, remains a luminary with much to teach programmers. 

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Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

By Janet Abbate

Book cover of Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

Why this book?

The first software programmers, or coders for computers, were women. Abbate, a professor at Virginia Tech and author of Inventing the Internet, recaptures the vital role of women programmers at the dawn of digital computing, when in the 1940s and 1950s women often handled what was then viewed as an anonymous task of creating the coding for computers to carry out operations.

“Employed as technical experts from the very beginnings of digital computing,” Abbate writes in her penetrating study, “women were inventing careers and professional identities at the same time that the field took shape.” By the 1960s, when computing spread, men began supplanting women as frontline programmers, a trend that resulted in the software becoming male-dominated by the end of the 20th century. Because women now flock to code writing, and are becoming once more central players in the creation of software, Abbate’s history illuminates a neglected chapter of the history of coding.

Along with David Grier’s book, When Computers Were Human, about the role of women in programming pre-digital calculating machines, Recoding Gender is a must-read to grasp the importance of diversity in the past, present, and future of software. 

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Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure

By Jerry Kaplan

Book cover of Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure

Why this book?

A singular account by the project leader of an ambitious effort to create a pathbreaking software program, Startup is Kaplan’s splendid chronicle of his company’s visionary pursuit of merging the pen with the computer. With a doctorate in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania and a slew of connections in Silicon Valley, Kaplan seemed well-placed for success. But while saddening to him and his team, the failure of Go, his software company, made for a valuable story about the perils and possibilities of dreaming big in computer code.

The book is filled with valuable anecdotes and lessons from code-writers and includes a memorable line that embodies the highs and lows of Kaplan’s experience. Flush with confidence, he had named his company Go, and on the day the assets of his code-child were sold at auction, he wrote: “I had to accept that impossible, final truth: Go was gone. Six years, hundreds of jobs, $75 million – all gone.” What remained are lessons of placing too much emphasis on coding innovation and too little awareness of “what can happen to a young company,” Kaplan concludes, “when its timing is wrong, its technology too speculative, and its market not yet ready.”

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Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age

By Michael A. Hiltzik

Book cover of Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age

Why this book?

The software interface for Apple’s innovative Macintosh was largely (and legally) modeled on system software designed at the Palo Alto < California research center of Xerox, an East Coast photocopy company whose stodgy executives failed to realize the value of the coding breakthroughs they had funded and nurtured in the heart of northern California’s computer cauldron. Before anyone at the top of Xerox realized the enormity of their errors, the company had licensed to Steve Jobs and Apple key software technologies that animated the Macintosh revolution in the 1980s. Hiltzik’s richly detailed and readable history, based on scores of interviews, is the best account of the epic failure of an American corporate icon. Apple and Jobs went on to achieve glory while Xerox ultimately became a zombie company, having missed the greatest industrial wave of the past 75 years. 

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Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal

By Nick Bilton

Book cover of Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal

Why this book?

Software runs the digital world. While Facebook, Amazon, and Google may look like services, they are run by code. The same for Twitter is essentially a networked program that enables mass communication in multiple directions. Bilton deftly follows four coders – Ev Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass – who stun the software world with the dramatic impact of their software creation. While Bilton’s narrative emphasizes the quirky men who made Twitter, and falls short of explaining the coding achievements of this benighted quartet, Hatching Twitter provides a vivid reminder that success in software often doesn’t go with the sharpest understanding of how software works, and what programs deliver.

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