The best timeless books to give engineers new perspectives

David J. Agans Author Of Debugging: The 9 Indispensable Rules for Finding Even the Most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems
By David J. Agans

Who am I?

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.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Design of Everyday Things

By Don Norman,

Book cover of The Design of Everyday Things

Why 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.

The Elements of Style

By William Strunk, E.B. White,

Book cover of The Elements of Style

Why 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.

The Third Wave: The Classic Study of Tomorrow

By Alvin Toffler,

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

Why 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?

The Immense Journey

By Loren Eiseley,

Book cover of The Immense Journey

Why 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 Benjamin Wallace,

Book cover of Junkers

Why 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.

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