Top 10 books for every software engineering manager
When I moved into the management world from being a software engineer, I quickly realised two huge surprises that I wasn’t expecting.
First, the length of the feedback cycle is measured in months instead of minutes. I can’t run the code against my tests and check if my management decisions are proving right. It takes months to see tangible results and sometimes the failed decisions are non-reversible. This length of the feedback cycle makes us be much more deliberate about approaches we take and the decisions we do.
Second, every situation seems different. It’s always a new direct report, different project problem, different stakeholder. But the truth is that there is always a lot in common, you just need to really distil the type of the problem you are facing and use a well-proven process or principles based on your experience. Obviously, you often realise that it’s either very hard to distil this problem to be generic or it’s hard to find similar experiences in the past.
That’s why I believe reading books is one of the best ways to educate yourself as engineering manager outside of your day to day work. Good books are well researched, based on experts opinions and cover a huge scope of the topic they talk about.
I would like to share my highly opinionated list of books chosen specifically for engineering managers. It’s a mix of core management, leadership, technical and technical leadership that will grow you and give guidance on every dimension of engineering management. Reading these books is not the end. Embracing the knowledge, knowing when to use it and knowing how to use it - this is.
I also added a personal recommendation on when I think it’s best to read a specific book. My suggestions are only based on the assumption that there is a very limited number of books you can read. If you are reading more than 10 books a year, read as many as possible of these. If you need to make trade-offs and only choose a few, here is where I hope my recommendation will be useful.
The Manager’s Path
An excellent book to have a high-level overview of career opportunities for engineers interested in the manager’s path. A lot of simple, straightforward tips ready to use in almost every working environment. It is lightweight and really well crafted for its audience - engineers or entry-level managers. On the other hand, in more ambiguous work environments, you can use the path described in the book as reference and guidance in what skills you should work on for your future career and how to become better in tasks you might be already doing without consciously thinking about their impact.
When to read: If you are moving from IC role towards your first tech lead or engineering manager role or you are during your first few years of management, you should read it.
Turn the ship around
Awesome book about building a culture of leadership on every level in the organisation. Based on a true story of Captain Marquet, US Navy, who took over the worst submarine ships at that time and over next years successfully turn it around to the point where they were considered one of the best ships, winning multiple achievements and building very successful careers for all their crew members.
I was sceptical at first, thinking that it might be a classic American-dream success story. Absolutely opposite - the book is fast to read, very interesting and during reading, brings a lot of reflection moments about your team and your behaviour. Most interesting, Captain Marquet built a leadership-first culture in one of the toughest environments for that - where following is more important than leading - US Navy.
When to read: building leadership culture is definitely a skill that is critical in manager career but wouldn’t recommend it in the first one or two years. It’s more important to make sure that you deliver a good job in core engineering manager skills like giving feedback, performance management or project management.
This book early on shaped my long-lasting approach to people management. It explains the value and needs for building and maintaining relationships and how the personal approach can drastically change the outcomes of a manager.
After reading, I started to deliberately invest much more time in building a personal connection with my direct reports, being genuinely interested in their lives and making sure that I share my personal life with them too. In the same time, I was forcing myself to be more and more candid about their work, give them more feedback and don’t hesitate to give challenging opinions. I think this book was the biggest game-changer in my career. Also - plenty of really practical tips and processes to introduce.
When to read: as soon as you move into a manager position. And then again after two years.
An Elegant Puzzle
Relatively fresh book from Will Larson that I think is a great gathering of receipts, processes and principles to use day to day as engineering manager. All the knowledge is well covering multiple levels of management - from a line manager, through middle management up to challenges that usually are handled among senior leadership.
When to read: At every level of experience. If you are more experienced, you probably already managed all or majority of challenges covered in the book, but I still believe that deliberate and systematic approach that Will is promoting will be a fresh perspective for you as it was for me.
Fascinating scientific research on what makes software companies accelerate and achieve a significantly bigger market impact than their competitors. It brings a very interesting perspective on what to focus on and what kind of metrics are highly correlated with business success.
There is plenty of common sense in the book that makes you realise that it’s not a sense - it’s science. The book will change (or solidify!) how you think about shipping to production, caring about the quality or evolving your culture.
When to read: I think that it’s probably more actionable for senior managers, but the mindset is worth solidifying at any point of your career.
Start with Why
Relatively short and concise book from Simon Sinek on why it’s important to make sure that everyone you work with understands the why behind it. Great to uplevel your leadership skills and learn how to bring people with you through any journey. I would also recommend Start with Why Ted talk that Simon gave a few years ago.
When to read: At every stage of your career. It’s easy to consume, brilliant book.
The book that had a similar impact on my career as Radical Candor. Amazing content that explains how to not avoid hard topics and conversations. The book brings an easy to remember framework to prepare and carry on your hardest meetings. It works for tough feedback, resolving disagreements and any other topics. I loved that it also focuses on how to improve how you consume other perspectives, to avoid getting biased and always assume good intent.
When to read: While you are settling as engineering manager. All the lessons from this book will eventually be useful - you just never know when.
A very similar book to An Elegant Puzzle - encyclopedia of situations, challenges and processes that you will bump into in your career. Focusing a lot on the specific flavour of software engineering management.
When to read: Always. First time end to end, but later I would treat it as something to come back to when you have a challenging situation.
The Art of Scalability
Excellent overview of all the critical processes and principles that are needed while scaling your engineering organisation. The book covers things like technical design processes, incident management, risk management, organisational design, horizontal and vertical scalability solutions and more.
When to read: To be honest, it’s intense literature that is mostly useful for senior management or leadership roles. However, I would recommend it to every more experienced manager in fast-growing companies.
The Coaching habit
Last but not least, practical introduction to coaching. I love how simple framework you can apply to really uplevel your coaching game. Based on the research of habits, it helps you define what triggers your old behaviours - like jumping into solutions - and design coaching behaviours instead - asking right questions, one at a time.
When to read: I would recommend it to settled managers that are looking for opportunities to grow. Coaching is a critical skill in the life of a manager, but I would focus on more foundational books like Radical Candor first.