The best timeless books to give engineers new perspectives

Why am I passionate about this?

I am fascinated by the big picture—never mind what street corner I’m on, where am I on the map of the world? In fact, where am I in the plane of the solar system? (Gazing at the setting moon, I’ve worked this out!) As an engineering manager, I helped engineers debug systems with diverse technology, and found (and wrote about) principles that apply as much today as they did in 1975, using examples drawn from 30 years of my life and career. I developed a love for other timeless, classic books that helped me see the forest beyond the trees.


I wrote...

Debugging: The 9 Indispensable Rules for Finding Even the Most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems

By David J. Agans,

Book cover of Debugging: The 9 Indispensable Rules for Finding Even the Most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems

What is my book about?

Debugging tells engineers how to find out what’s wrong with stuff, quick. It’s short and funny because engineers are too busy debugging to read anything long and dry. But more importantly, the Debugging rules are fundamental and universal: every one of them is important, and they apply to any malfunctioning thing. Examples and war stories, though focused on computer hardware and software, include everything from cars and plumbing to human bodies.

First published in 2002, Debugging has become the classic, timeless book on the subject, helping engineers fix their bugs and go home earlier for twenty years.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Design of Everyday Things

David J. Agans Why did I love this book?

I’m into timeless, universal truths, and this book opened my eyes to the fundamentals of user interfaces all around me. Finally, I understood why the faucets at my in-law's guest bathroom seemed to work backwards, and why no one could open the huge glass doors at that Santa Clara hotel on the first try. I love that easy-to-use interfaces are based on a few common principles that are easy to learn and remember. A warning, though, you will evaluate and judge every bad user interface you come across for the rest of your life. And, I expect, you will not design any of those.

By Don Norman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we fail to figure out which light switch or oven burner to turn on, or whether to push, pull, or slide a door. The fault, argues this ingenious,even liberating,book, lies not in ourselves, but in product design that ignores the needs of users and the principles of cognitive psychology. The problems range from ambiguous and hidden controls to arbitrary relationships between controls and functions, coupled with a lack of feedback or other assistance and unreasonable demands on memorization. The Design of Everyday Things shows that good, usable design is possible. The…


Book cover of The Elements of Style

David J. Agans Why did I love this book?

As a writer, I obviously need to hone my craft, and this book is the granddaddy of all writing guides. (The first edition came out in 1918!) But even engineers who don’t moonlight as authors need to communicate clearly. When we interviewed engineering candidates at one of my companies, the key question they had to answer was “go to the whiteboard and describe some technical project.” We didn’t care what the project was, just how well they could communicate. Written communication is a skill that will enhance the career of anyone in any field, and this book will help. I also like that there is subtle humor woven throughout.

By William Strunk, E.B. White,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Elements of Style as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

You know the authors' names. You recognize the title. You've probably used this book yourself. This is The Elements of Style, the classic style manual, now in a fourth edition. A new Foreword by Roger Angell reminds readers that the advice of Strunk & White is as valuable today as when it was first offered.This book's unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers. Use the fourth edition of "the little book" to make a big impact with writing.


Book cover of The Third Wave: The Classic Study of Tomorrow

David J. Agans Why did I love this book?

I like to look at the big picture. This book’s picture is huge: it explains three waves of human civilization, from agriculture and land ownership, to centralization and mass manufacturing, to distributed and custom everything—the wave we are in now. It was originally published in 1980 and predicted our current culture and technology with astonishing accuracy. I, and many entrepreneurs of the time, tried to use those predictions to guide our businesses, and many, like Amazon, succeeded as a result. Are there still more third wave things to invent? Yes—think of how streaming video channels are just now taking over from cable and broadcast, not to mention movie theatres. Will this help you invent the next big thing? Maybe. And what will the fourth wave be?

By Alvin Toffler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the author of Future Shock, a striking way out of today’s despair . . . a bracing, optimistic look at our new potentials.

The Third Wave makes startling sense of the violent changes now battering our world. Its sweeping synthesis casts fresh light on our new forms of marriage and family, on today's dramatic changes in business and economics. It explains the role of cults, the new definitions of work, play, love, and success. It points toward new forms of twenty-first-century democracy.

Praise for The Third Wave
 
“Magnificent . . . an astonishing array of information.”—The Washington Post
 
“Imperishably…


Book cover of The Immense Journey

David J. Agans Why did I love this book?

Okay, I said the previous book presented a huge picture, but this one is even bigger. Loren Eiseley presents the evolution of mankind in a series of lyrical essays that just carried me away in imagery and imagination. The book is old, written in 1959, but, really, not that much about human evolution has changed since then (talk about timeless!) I liked this book so much because it connected me to the natural world and my own humanity, in a beautifully-written way.

By Loren Eiseley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley blends scientific knowledge and imaginative vision in this story of man.


Book cover of Junkers

David J. Agans Why did I love this book?

I’m recommending this book (and the second one in the series) because it a.) is about malfunctioning technology, and b.) is laugh-out-loud funny. I write funny fiction myself and spend most of my reading time on favorite humorists like Douglas Adams, Carl Hiaasen, and Christopher Moore, but I’m always looking for new funny writers. Benjamin Wallace is my new favorite so far. Junkers is sort of sci-fi, but not so far-fetched as a galaxy far, far, away. And it’s about malfunctioning robots—I even wrote a musical comedy about that. It’s a funny topic.

By Benjamin Wallace,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Breaking things is their business.

As robot reclamation specialists, it’s their job to stop rampaging robots that are no longer covered by a manufacturer’s warranty. But while Jake and tight-knit his team are accustomed to dealing with a murderous nannybot, a killer scarecrow and the occasional vindictive dishwasher, they’ve never seen anything like this. All of the machines in the city are going rogue.

It’s up to these hardworking heroes to stop them and find out what’s behind the robot uprising that everyone promised could never happen.


You might also like...

Book cover of This Animal Body

Meredith Walters

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Neuroscience PhD student Frankie Conner has finally gotten her life together—she’s determined to discover the cause of her depression and find a cure for herself and everyone like her. But the first day of her program, she meets a group of talking animals who have an urgent message they refuse to share. And while the animals may not have Frankie’s exalted human brain, they know things she doesn’t, like what happened before she was adopted.

To prove she’s sane, Frankie investigates her forgotten past and conducts clandestine experiments. But just when she uncovers the truth, she has to make an impossible choice: betray the animals she’s fallen in love with—or give up her last chance at success and everything she thought she knew.

By Meredith Walters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Animal Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frankie Conner, first-year graduate student at UC Berkeley, is finally getting her life together. After multiple failures and several false starts, she's found her calling: become a neuroscientist, discover the cause of her depression and anxiety, and hopefully find a cure for herself and everyone like her.

But her first day of the program, Frankie meets a mysterious group of talking animals who claim to have an urgent message for her. The problem is, they're not willing to share it. Not yet. Not until she's ready.

While Frankie's new friends may not have her highly evolved, state-of-the-art, exalted human brain,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in modernity, the English language, and human evolution?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about modernity, the English language, and human evolution.

Modernity Explore 51 books about modernity
The English Language Explore 37 books about the English language
Human Evolution Explore 46 books about human evolution