The Best Non-Technical Books for Early Career Software Engineers

Some problems are not solvable by code.

In my own quest for solving problems in the last 5 years, I’ve read dozens of books and applied their ideas to my own life. This list contains some of the best non-technical books that I’ve read. They’re the real deal.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

As a kid, I was totally awkward: typical nerd, irritated by other people, and rarely smiled. How to Win Friends and Influence People took my social skills to a new level. You’re not doomed to a life without social skills. This skill can be leveled up just like strength or blacksmithing. Think about a communication problem you might have.

  • Do you want to persuade other people?
  • Do you have trouble working with certain individuals?
  • Do you need to get someone to listen to you?
  • Is your job search hitting dead ends?
  • How do you handle a coworker who isn’t meeting expectations?
  • How do you make friends in a new city?
  • How do you charm a romantic partner?

This book is exactly what you need.

Ironically, the people who most need to use the principles in Dale Carnegie’s book are the people who think they don’t need to read the book at all. How to Win Friends and Influence People should be required reading for any communication class.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R Covey

Covey suggests seven foundational habits that high-agency people do, and how you can apply them to your own life. Habits are Archimedes levers that you can use to change your world. If you have a poor mindset where you blame other people and chance for everything, you’ll never succeed in the 21st century.

Take the initiative. No one else is gonna do it for you.

Captivate by Vanessa Van Edwards

Captivate is an awesome, practical book about how to apply psychology to your people skills. Van Edwards touches on public speaking, nonverbal cues, predicting behavior based on personality, and ways to deepen a connection with someone. Absorb her ideas, and you’ll be a level better at talking with people.

Van Edwards also runs The Science of People, a blog dedicated to using science to improve interpersonal communication. It has a ton of articles and videos that build on the ideas in Captivate. I especially like this video on power of hand gestures.

Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Book Series

  • Little Black Book of Connections
  • Little Teal Book of Trust
  • Little Gold Book of Yes! Attitude
  • Little Red Book of Selling

Jeffrey Gitomer is a philosopher who worked as a salesman. He’s not a sleazy jamoke at a used car dealership. His books touch on networking, interpersonal communication, negotiation, and mindset. I also found it interesting to peek behind the curtain of what salespeople do.

Honestly, Gitomer’s books were more useful than a university course on negotiation.

The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide by John Sonmez

This one has little bit of technical info in it, but the majority is a practical approach to your career in software. The huge book is broken up into easily digestible chapters that you can read in any order. Need to prepare for a whiteboard interview? What should you wear to work? How do you deal with your annoying boss? Sonmez answers all these questions and more.

Sonmez also writes about a wide variety of software engineering topics at www.simpleprogrammer.com.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi

If you don’t know anything about personal finance, start here. Ramit Sethi is a personal finance genius. Thousands (maybe millions) have used his simple, practical principles to pay off debt, grow their wealth, and live the Rich Life they’ve always wanted.

Sethi takes in an unconventional approach to personal finance. For instance, you don’t have to pinch pennies by cutting back on 25¢ sticks of gum. Instead, focus your energy on the Pereto levers that really matter, like a $30,000 investment decision.

Sethi runs the IWT blog, which holds more personal finance tactics, as well as GrowthLab, which focuses on online entrepreneurship.

The Bogleheads Guide to Investing by by Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, and Michael LeBoeuf

As a software engineer, you have extra money every month. (If you don’t, go back and read Sethi’s book.) Bogleheads is a great introduction to investing. When you start out, you don’t know anything about investing, or you think that the stock market is too dangerous.­ Set those beliefs aside for a moment.

In order to retire, you need to save money. Bogleheads provides a no-nonsense guide on basic questions like:

  • How much should I save?
  • What do I do with my savings money?
  • What kinds of stocks and bonds should I invest in?

Follow the Bogleheads’ philosophy and stay the course. If you jump ship and dump everything into Dogecoin instead, you’ll regret it.

On the other hand, if you read these books and use the information that applies best to your situation, you’ll find yourself standing on the shoulders of giants.


(Legal disclaimer: The above references are opinion and for information purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.)

Posted in Software | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

8 Good Communication Habits for Early Career Software Engineers

Communication is a superpower. As you advance in your career, you are not limited by technical expertise, but by your ability to influence other people.

You might think, “I’m bad at talking to people.” That might be true today, but you can improve your communication skills. Good communication can be learned just as much as Big O runtime analysis.

Many people think it’s weird to intentionally practice good communication. Those people are jamokes and you should ignore their recommendations. You’re not a jamoke. You want to be respected by your peers. You want people to feel confident that you have the ability to make things happen. By doing good work and communicating its value well, you become a trusted engineer that people like to work with.

Without further ado, here are eight good communication habits that you can practice early in your career.

#1 Listen

I put this first because I think many people struggle with this. Everyone wants to talk, and no one wants to listen.

When you let other people talk, they are more than happy to give you information. When you stop talking and let the other person explain themselves, you can more accurately solve their problem.

I can’t count the number of times when someone (let’s call him James) said, “It’s easy, just do XYZ,” and proceeded to detail a long solution. Meanwhile, the other person wanted to interrupt James because James was solving the wrong problem.

#2 Better to over communicate than under communicate

Working hard is important. But it’s even more important to work on the right thing. If you’re unsure of what you’re supposed to do, try saying, “You want to do XYZ. Is that right?”

#3 Express genuine appreciation for a coworker’s specific action

When you notice someone do something cool, compliment them.

One of the best compliments I received was an offhand comment. A senior engineer came to my desk to ask about a class that I wrote. I showed him, and he remarked “That’s a clean API.” He made me feel confident that I had designed the class well.

#4 Be concise

Imagine a coworker casually asks, “Is the bug fixed?” You have two ways to respond:

“You know, I was, umm, working on the database issue, and the mobile client is having a little trouble connecting to the server, and, umm, I’m talking with the backend team, and I think it’s going to be alright, umm yeah, I’ve just gotta check with them later, and yeah, I think it’s just one of those things where I just gotta put more work into it because of the protocol. So…”

Versus

“Not yet. The fix will be ready tomorrow.”

Managers especially appreciate brevity. They have a lot going on, and they can only handle the bird’s eye view of the situation.

#5 Learn other people’s names

This is pretty obvious. People love it when you remember their names.

#6 Don’t give unprompted explanations

If someone asks why, tell them. If they don’t ask, you might not need to say. You sound less credible when you constantly justify your actions and questions.

Your friends already trust you. Your manager mostly cares about the end result. Your enemies will never believe you. (Hopefully you have no enemies at work. If you do, maybe it’s time to find a new job.)

#7 Build trust by following through with your promises

Trust is an underacknowledged trait in engineering. Have you ever said, “I don’t trust him, but I’m going to give him an important feature anyway?” No!

Building trust takes time. You can get started by promising to do small, easy things. It can be as simple as saying, “I’ll send an email right after this meeting.” Make a note for yourself and do it. Do one small thing every day, and soon, people will think, “You always get things done. I trust you to handle a big project.”

#8 Eliminate complaints

If you complain a lot, people will think of you as a negative person. They’ll be less willing to share ideas with you, less likely to have lunch with you, and less likely to want to be around you at all.

You can be realistic and bear bad news without raining on everyone’s parade. Who would you want to work with? Someone who shoots down every idea, or someone who takes a realistic view of each situation?

When possible, you want to make other people feel good. Because when you make people feel good, they like you.

When people like you, they trust you.

When they trust you, they want to work with you.

And as you advance your career, you’ll realize that working with others is truly the best way to multiply your impact.

Posted in Psychology, Software | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seven things I wish I knew my first year as a real world software engineer

I’ve been working in the industry for five years now. I’ve written about internships and promotion, but what about the first year on the job? What do I wish I knew in my first year after college?

Standard disclaimer: don’t take my advice.

1. Your job is to solve problems, not “write as much code as possible”

It took me four years to understand this.

At first, I believed that the best thing I could do was to spend time programming. Config files are boring! I want to write a clever algorithm! Documents are a waste of time! But if I could use a config file, API, or document that causes 100 other engineers to do a little work, I have accomplished my goal without personally overexerting myself. Sometimes, in a complex ecosystem, it’s the only way.

2. Take extreme ownership of problems

Most people see a problem and wait for someone else to fix it. When you take extreme ownership of a problem, you figure out how to solve it. Don’t wait for standup to raise a concern.  

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Raise concerns early

Don’t be afraid to highlight problems. If you find a roadblock, talk to another engineer or your manager. Your manager definitely wants to know about problems so they can help fix them.  They might be unhappy about the bug, but they’ll be happy that you found it earlier rather than later.

4. Ask questions

First, search the documentation.  If you can’t find an answer, ask for help. If you think you’re being annoying, talk to different engineers instead of the same person every time.  Until someone says “you ask a lot of questions” or they look annoyed, keep asking questions.

5. Collaborate

Unlike competitive programming and many university classes, you’re encouraged to collaborate in the real world. One of the secrets of software engineering is copying and pasting from StackOverflow–AKA worldwide collaboration.

6. Communication is a superpower

There’s a reason engineers are stereotyped as being dorky, shy, and unable to talk to VIPs.  But you don’t have to live up to the stereotype.  Communication in all its forms–talking, emails, design docs, presentations…  They’re all useful ways to supercharge your learning and influence. 

7. Optimize your finances

No one is going to manage your finances for you. Spend some time learning about personal finance from reputable sources like The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing and I Will Teach You To Be Rich (ok, that title sounds fake, but the info is genuinely good). A few hours and $10 spent putting your finances in order will be one of the best ROIs you’ll get in your entire life.

I could write a whole other article about personal finance and why it’s important. In short, max out your retirement account each year. In the US, this is your 401(k). Your future self will thank you when you wake up one day and realize you’re a multimillionaire.

Posted in Software | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

You are an Engineer at Big Tech Co. (Humor)

You are an engineer at Big Tech Co.

You send a commit to Humayun for review. He says you need to wait until the IK4 migration is complete. You do not know what IK4 is, or how it relates to your service.

It has been a year and you still don’t know the difference between a PM and a PgM. Someone claims to be a tPgM.

You see the same guy in the microkitchen at 10:07 AM every day. You do not know his name. One day, he is gone. You miss him.

You attend the All Hands meeting. The CEO is confident and visionary. After you leave, you’re not sure what any of it actually means.

You meet another engineer. “What do you work on?” he asks. “Content quality,” you respond. “Cool,” he says.

You ask Jesse about IK4. He gives a very hand-wavy explanation. You nod. You do not understand.­

Another commit is causing tests to fail. You spend three days debugging. You quietly disable the tests.

There is one woman on your team. You wonder if she feels strange or lonely. You are too nervous to ask.

It is 6:00 PM on a Friday. Everyone is still at their desks working furiously, but you do not know why.

The cafeteria is serving your favorite thing today. You wait in line patiently. When you reach the end, they are out of your favorite thing. You have to take the vegetarian option instead.

You have a 1:1 with your manager. “What can I do to improve?” you ask. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he says.

You compile the project. It is broken. You are perplexed because you haven’t made any changes. You press “build” again. Build successful.

It is 11:58am. The cafeteria is empty. You use the bathroom. When you return at 12:01, the cafeteria is completely full.­

You restart your computer.

Steve reports that IK4 migration is blocked by RH. There are too many people in the meeting so you don’t have a chance to ask more.

It is 2:00 PM on a Friday. Everyone is missing, but you do not know why.

You meet another engineer. “What do you work on?” you ask. “Project Zebra,” she responds. “Cool,” you say, even though you’ve never heard of Project Zebra.

You meet this year’s interns. You like them. They do a good job. Then they are gone. You miss them.

Your manager asks why your commit has been stuck in review for two weeks. “RH is blocking the IK4 migration,” you say. He nods.

You are an engineer at Big Tech Co.

Posted in Software | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Is Objective-C Still Relevant?

In the world of iOS development, Swift is on the rise. But what about Objective-C? Is ObjC still relevant? Are Objective-C fans clinging onto a band that broke up 20 years ago?

This next song is called TheVariableThatTookUpMoreCharactersThanTheLineLimit

My take: Objective-C is not going away anytime soon. But if you’re just starting iOS development, learn Swift.

Objective-C is so pervasive in iOS that it’s impossible to completely remove it. Apple continues to maintain libraries written in Objective-C, so we should expect Objective-C to be treated as a (mostly) first class language in iOS.

At other companies, legacy code remains. Some of Google’s iOS apps are completely written in Objective-C.

Further proof that there are still opportunities for diehard Objective-C fans: StackOverflow conducted a survey in February 2020. On average, Objective-C developers make more money than Swift developers ($64k vs $58k).

But for new apps, Swift is the future. I bet a Swift developer could outpace someone writing in Objective-C. Furthermore, features like SwiftUI are exclusively for the new kids.

If I was building an app from scratch, I would choose Swift.

Posted in Software | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment