Favourite books – better programming

I didn’t do software engineering at college, so for a long time I worried about what I didn’t know, which translated into a continuing quest for knowledge. This and a few followup posts will list a few of my favourite books and other sources, with some brief explanations of why I think they are important. Your opinions may vary. 🙂

So here goes…


These are books about the technicalities of programming; about being better programmers. We can get away with minimal designs and documentation, and many products have shipped with little of either, but there is always code, which has to be maintained and extended. In fact the more successful a product is, the more its likely to change.
All of the following cover (to greater or lesser extents) style, structure, debugging, documentation and low level design. The principles apply across many languages and environments, though the examples typically use the most popular language of the day.

The practice of Programming (Kernighan and Pike)

Brian Kernighan is famous as the co author of ‘The C programming language’, another of my favourite books, and his clear writing style is put to good use here. The tag line to this book is: Simplicity, Clarity, Generality. Written in 1999, its examples are mostly in C, C++ and Java, though there is a C and Unix bias, not surprising from the people so heavily involved with both. And it’s short, only 288 pages.

Code Complete (McConnell)

A heavyweight tome. Very comprehensive and a little verbose. McConnell backs up his advice with plenty of citations from industry studies. This one tops many peoples favourite technical book lists. It’s best to pick up the second edition, which has more of an OO focus than the first. I’m hoping for a third edition one day incorporating more agile and lean practises.

Clean code (Martin)

A book for the agile era, so an emphasis on things like unit testing and code as documentation. The cartoon about the only true measure of code quality being ‘WTFs per minute’ is a classic, and sets the tone. Bob Martin is very opinionated, so the book is a bit of a polemic, but the content (especially the early chapters) is excellent.
This book is required reading for all developers in our company.
There are mny books that focus on a single practice (such as TDD) or best use of a given language, but surprisingly few books like the three above, that focus on the nuts and bolts of general programming. Hopefully there will soon be one incorporating functional programming elements…