Programming Management & Leadership Books

There are plenty of books on managing people; but there are few books targeting management of software development, and even fewer aimed at people who got promoted into leadership positions with no management skills.  I’ve read countless books looking for resources in that area…  I can find plenty of books about how to manipulate people or promote yourself (and I’ve had plenty of training to that affect) but those are not the books I’m looking for.

I want real authentic leadership and practical management.  Below you will find the best of what I’ve found over the last four years. And unlike some “Best Books for Programming Managers” and “Top 10 books on Leadership” lists you’ll find online… I actually read every book listed below. 

I should also note that even if you aren’t in a position of management these books should be beneficial.  Whether you have the position or not, everyone has the opportunity to lead.

Managing the Unmanageable

Managing The Unmanageable Book

“Most successful programming managers are former programmers: They can quickly grasp whether a developer is on track through the most informal of conversations, without having to ferret out the assessment through long strings of questions that can feel pestering.”



Managing the Unmanageable By Mickey W. Mantle and Ron Lichty (2012)

Managing the Unmanageable is the comprehensive handbook to gain a variety of insights and a tool set to manage software development teams.  I didn’t find it lacking coverage on any topic.

It rightly points out how managing programmers is like managing artists–programming is a creative job so you can’t manage that the same way you would manage most other jobs.

It goes over how to build relationships with and manage HR, your boss, other departments, etc.  How to define developer levels, how not to do incentives (which can often be more demotivating than motivating), job descriptions, how to conduct interviews, build culture, motivate developers, etc.  This is a wide book in what it covers.  The vastness of topics is unmatched by any other management book I’ve read.  It may only devote a few pages to some subjects but I haven’t found an area that it doesn’t cover at all. Even for areas it doesn’t go into great depth it references sources for further study.

I think this is the best resource for a new manager to get a comprehensive overview of every topic related to managing programmers.  What I really like about the book is from the experience of the authors it anticipates and provides guidance on a lot of challenges I had to deal with–reading this book helped me proactively plan how to deal with those situations.

For me, reading Managing the Unmanageable is like sitting down at a coffee shop with some seasoned managers and listening to their experience and wisdom.  Today I still use it as reference book.

Peopleware

Peopleware Book on Productive Projects and Teams

“The major problems of our work are not so much technological as sociological in nature.” 

“Most managers are willing to concede the idea that they’ve got more people worries than technical worries.  But they seldom manage that way.  They manage as though technology were their principal concern.  They spend their time puzzling over the most convoluted and most interesting puzzles that their people will have to solve, almost as though they themselves were going to do the work rather than manage it.”



Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (3rd Edition) by Tim DeMarco & Timothy Lister (originally published in 1987, I read the 3rd edition published in 2013)

Peopleware, as it’s title suggests is all about the people aspect of managing software developers.  It’s not a generic management book.  Most of it only applies to managing creative and intellectual workers.  It covers why programmers are distinct from and must be managed differently than other types of jobs, such as accountants or manufacturing workers.  The book covers topics like the importance of allowing time to think on the job, giving teams a sense of elitism to increase productivity, creating environments where teams can naturally form and jell, the importance of an interruption free office environment, why the surest way to improve productivity is by focusing on quality.

I learned environmental factors for a programmer cause a 10 to 1 performance difference.  A large section deals with the work environment.  Office design, layouts, how bad cubicles are, the importance of natural light, office size, privacy, etc.  This is a timeless classic.  It would benefit any manager, executive, head of HR, architect, or programmer (even if you aren’t in a management position, this book will help you manage yourself).

The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month

“Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward? First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things by his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.”

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition (2nd Edition) by Fred Brooks (originally published in 1975, I read the 20th Anniversary edition published in 1995)

This is a collection of essays about managing and organizing large software projects. Most important is Brooks’ observation that adding more man-power to a late software project will make it even later. My favorite observation of his was how the most productive teams are smaller because of the communication overhead, you only get fractional gains by increasing the size of large teams. Although pre-Agile, many of his ideas influenced Agile project management. He was well ahead of his time. This is a classic. 

“Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

The Conviction to Lead

The Conviction to Lead

“Whenever Christian leaders serve, in the church or in a secular world, their leadership should be driven by distinctively Christian conviction.”

“Leadership is all about putting the right beliefs into action, and knowing, on the basis of convictions, what those right beliefs and actions are.  This book is written with the concern that far too much of what passes for leadership today is mere management.  Without convictions you might be able to manage, but you cannot really lead.”

The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters By Albert Mohler, 2014

This was not an easy find. I read fluffy leadership book after fluffy leadership book… and finally read Mohler’s book at my dad’s recommendation.  It has far more substance on leadership than anything else I’ve read.  Where others give you mechanics, tools and methods, Mohler gives you conviction and motivation based on well grounded beliefs.  It is not written just to pastors, nor just to leaders of Christian institutions (although this appears to be the main focus), but also to Christians who happen to be leaders in secular organizations–and that’s quite rare for a book on leadership written by a devout Christian.

Mohler’s book is practical because it provides the foundation for why and how Christians should be leading and the basis for leading in a secular world.  I would say the book is primarily written to C-level, but almost all of it I was able to apply to a smaller realm for lower levels of management if I limited the scope to my area of influence.  This is a good book for any Christian in a position of leadership.

Kindle vs Paper Books

I’ve been using a Kindle for about 6 years.  And have been reading paper books for longer than that!  I have two Kindles, one is the discontinued Kindle Touch, and the other is the newer Kindle Paperwhite.  Here are my thoughts on the Kindle and how eBooks compare to Print Books.

The Kindle Reading Experience

For much of the reading experience I prefer the Kindle.  It’s compact, lightweight, and easy to carry around.  With a kindle I don’t have to awkwardly hold a book open while my other hand is trying to not spill my cup of coffee.  Also when it starts to dim outside and I don’t quite have enough light I can turn on the backlight instead of the house lights.

Kindle Paperwhite vs Book

Backlight

So, e-ink displays don’t have as good of a contrast as real paper.  The reason Amazon calls their latest Kindle the “Paperwhite” is it has a backlight that can sort of match the brightness of paper by supplementing the light from your environment–the idea is you turn the backlight on just enough so that it still looks like it’s reflecting light like a book, but there’s just enough extra light to make it as readable as paper.   This does work, however I think the LED color Amazon chose is a failure.  The pure white LED backlight is too much in the blue spectrum and that’s very obvious when I’m reading under incandescent lights.  It’s okay in natural light but under incandescent lighting it should be warmer to match the surrounding atmosphere  This could affect health if reading right before going to bed.  I hope Amazon fixes this in the next version…maybe it should have RGB bulbs and a sensor to match the ambient light.

In very bright light paper wins out, but if the ambient light is dim as it often is in the Fall in Idaho the Kindle let’s me read a little longer before turning on the house lights.  This probably saves me 1 or 2  cents a year.

Physical Library Size

Kindle Library Size

The Kindle does have the advantage of being able to store my entire Kindle library wherever I am… not only is it smaller than 99% of my books, it can store all of my books in that space.

Fonts

90% of paper book publishers choose great fonts–but some don’t.  For some reason some publishers think their book needs a sans-serif font, or they pick a huge font, or too small a font, or the kerning is not normal.  It bugs me!  If you get the Kindle version you can override the publishers horrible font decision.  As an added bonus the font-size is adjustable so I can read anything without glasses.

Quality

I always prefer a good hardbound paper book to an eBook, however I’ve noticed lately a lot of authors are using cheap (self-publishing?) services–it seems to me the books are printed on demand and the quality is sometimes bad–I’ve had books that–the best way I can describe it is the book feels like I’m holding some ad-hoc document put together at a business conference rather than a book.  I’ll often opt for an eBook if I see the author is using a self-publishing service (not all self-publishing books come this way–I think it’s just a quality control issue so it’s a hit and miss).

Enjoying Books with Others

Eli and Jon reading maps

The social aspect of eBooks is poor.  Often when I’m on an airplane or a friend is at my house they’ll show interest in a book I’m reading or I have on the shelf and it makes a great conversation starter.  You just don’t get that with Kindle books because nobody can see what you’re reading.  Kids love physical books and will spend hours poring over maps, illustrations, and pictures which would be boring on a tablet.  I can easily give a paper book to a friend.  While Amazon has some provision for lending it’s very limited and it’s not as simple as handing your friend a book.

Highlighting and Taking Notes

For highlighting it’s a wash–the Kindle is sometimes a bit finicky when I try to highlight a passage and sometimes gets the wrong portion highlighted but for the most part I can get it.  I always read a book with a pen or pencil but I find underlining a passage without the line going through the words to take a little more effort.  For taking notes in the margin nothing can beat pencil or pen on paper.

Diagrams and Illustrations

Diagrams are pictures are generally bad on eBooks.  For simple graphics it does fine.  But if the book has illustrations they don’t look as great because the screen is smaller and you lose color.

Kindle Lack of Color

Also, the Kindle completely fails at tables… this table below has data that is illegible on the Kindle… it’s too small to read and there’s no way to rotate it into landscape mode.

Kindle Table Fail

Flipping Through Pages

The Kindle is useless here.   Even in the flip through the pages mode the e-ink display takes too long to refresh.  A real book is much easier–plus I remember the layout of a page and generally know what I was looking for was in the 1st quarter of the book so can find it in seconds.

Searching

Here the Kindle shines.  If you are looking for a keyword or phrase you can find it very quickly.

Visual Indicators of Progress

Kindle Progress indicatorThis is a big deal.  I am very spacial and use the physical feel of how many pages I have read and how far to go as part of my memory.  This is all lost on eBooks.  With paper books it’s easy to see your overall progress at a glance, and if you want to thumb a few pages ahead to see when the chapter ends it takes half a second.  With an eBook I get something like location 675 or 24%.  That’s meaningless to me.   A progress bar might be nice!  Something visual and not just numbers.  Even web-browsers have scrollbars!

Reading Books as a Group

When reading books for study with others eBooks fail–I tried this once but everyone else was referring to page numbers and I couldn’t get page numbers out of my kindle.

Free eBooks

Amazon has a lot of free Kindle books for Prime members.  I’ve found the free books aren’t really that good so not much of a gain.

Free Classic Books

There are a number of great classic books you can download from the Guttenberg project, this may save you from purchasing a few paper books.

Updates to Books

Some of my more technical books have received free Kindle updates when the author chooses to update the text.  This is a benefit in my mind.  I think it would be better if the Kindle would highlight the differences.

X-Ray

Kindle X-Ray People

One nice feature on the Kindle Paperwhite is the X-Ray.  You can enable it for the page you’re on and it will tell you about the characters and give you some context (if you’ve forgotten the previous chapters or missed it).

Kindle X-Ray Terms

Newspapers

You can read newspapers on the Kindle.  But it’s worthless.  The Wall Street Journal digital subscription is completely separate from the Wall Street Journal Kindle Digital Subscription.  I’m not going to buy a Digital subscription for both my computer and my Kindle.

Synchronization

One great thing about eBooks is I can read them on my Kindle, then bring up the book on my computer to review my highlights while typing up notes–but it’s a hit and miss.  This works for Amazon books I bought from the Amazon store.  But if you buy Kindle formatted books from not Amazon there’s no way to get them to open up in the Kindle for PC program (even though they are available in Kindle for Android).  Very annoying.

So, What’s Better?  Kindle eBooks or Old Fashioned Physical Books?

It really depends.  I like both for different reasons.  I do have a preference for Print Books and mostly because I can visually track progress and visually see the layout of pages and flip through them.  Generally if it’s a book I’ll probably read once I’ll just get what is cheaper… but obviously some I’m going to insist on getting the physical version.  One feature that Amazon does for /some/ books is if you buy a physical, you can get the Kindle version for free, or heavily discounted.  I do hope that this becomes standard practice going forward–that’s the best of both worlds.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.   The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

– Solomon, Ecclesiastes 12:12b-14