The Engineering Manager's Bookshelf

This collection of books has helped me understand how to be a software engineering manager. They cover the complexity and nuance of middle management in the software development space. There are technical books, people management books, books on planning and strategy. I have found value in all of them and recommend them to anyone who is or wants to be an engineering manager.

There are many more books I still need to read and I’ll add more as I find ones I can recommend. If you have any comments or recommendations please don’t hestiate to email me.

I’ve mirrored this list on bookshop.org and most of the links in this post point there. I encourage you to buy the books from your local bookshop, though. I get an affiliate cut if you buy a book from bookshop.org, but it’s not something expecting to ever be worth cashing in.

Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Link to Nine Lies About Work on bookshop.org

No other book has aligned so closely to the way I think about things than Nine Lies About Work. I refer to this book all the time when I talk about the work I do or when I’m working on people problems.

Some of the things I try to remember:

  • People need attention and feedback isn’t the same thing
  • You can’t reliably rate people but you can rate your experience of working with them
  • The performance/potential grid your HR team tries to make you use is harmful
  • Don’t cascade unrelatable goals, talk about why your team’s work matters

Cheers to Chris Baker for insisting I read chapter one

Turn The Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders by L. David Marquet

Link to Turn The Ship Around! on bookshop.org

A staple book for anyone who is accountable for other people getting stuff done. Marquet outlines principles and techniques that move descision making and responsibility to the people with the most knowledge and understanding, and shows how that not only makes the organisation perform better, it enables a positive feedback loop that enables continuous improvement and creates new leaders and role models.

Marquet reinforced for me the idea of optimising the practices rather than the metrics. Promotions, sailor retention, and certification were important metrics to Marquet, but his approach wasn’t aimed at them specifically. Instead, he worked on getting the basics of running a submarine right and building on that. When the team was performing well at their day-to-day work, it showed in the higher level metrics.

Shouts out to Matt and Para for both recommending Turn The Ship Around and then showing me how to put it into action.

The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, & Security in Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Gene Kim, Jez Humble, and Patrick Debois

Link to the DevOps Handbook on bookshop.org

This book is my framework for helping software engineering teams get better at everything they do. The authors use the term DevOps in its original meaning - the combination of Development and Operations capabilities in one team - and it’s aimed at anyone who is involved with modern software development. I think it’s an essential read.

There is so much bang for buck in these pages, so many ideas all tied into a coherent system for continuous improvement. The book can help you understand and visualise how a team creates value and identify and mitigate risks and roadblocks. It describes practices to enable fast, safe, development and deployment of software via fast feedback loops, a focus on security, and constant experimentation and learning.

Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Gene Kim, and Jez Humble

Link to Accelerate on Amazon

If The DevOps Handbook is the framework for helping teams get better, then Accelerate is the the evidence that it works and can help your organisation succeed commercially.

Accelerate describes the practices of high performing software engineering organisations, describes some simple metrics that are improved by implementing those practices, and shows how performance in those engineering metrics correlates to commercial performance for elite organisations. And it is backed up with comprehensive surveys, statistics, and science.

Like Turn The Ship Around the key takeaway for managers is the practices, not the metrics. Combine this book with The DevOps Handbook and you have a pretty good map for helping your team get wherever they need to go.

Big thanks to Paul Meyrick for introducing me to this book.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Link to Radical Candor on bookshop.org

It’s kind of a cheat putting Radical Candor on the bookshelf right now as I am only about a third of the way through as I type this. The thing is, that first third has already proven useful, and I have been surprised and delighted by what I’ve read so far.

You may have heard about Radical Candor. You might have heard it’s about being a straight shooter, about speaking your mind, about skipping niceties and getting to the core of a subject. It’s not that book at all.

Radical Candor is a book about relationships at work. Kim Scott’s idea is that to succeed as a boss, you need to form genuine, caring relationships with the people you work with, and strive to empathise and communicate with them in ways that reinforce those relationships.

Like Nine Lies About Work, Radical Candor digs into what being a manager is really like. Kim Scott illustrates the book with dozens of examples of how the combination of caring personally and challenging directly can foster effective and productive relationships. Scott also cautions us to watch out for times when we opt to not care, or to prioritise feelings over doing the right thing, and shows how that can lead to an ineffective team or a toxic atmosphere at work.

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt

Link to Good Strategy, Bad Strategy on bookshop.org

As an engineering manager it’s generally your job to “implement a strategy, created by the executive level, in the most efficient way possible.” At some point you’ll probably have to write your own. This book will help you with both.

Richard Rumelt posits the key aspects of a good strategy are diagnosis of the problem, guiding policies that address the most important aspect of the problem, and actions that are coherent with the policies and each other.

My takeaway from this is that a strategy document should be unambiguous about what problem is being solved, what ones are not, and how we know if it successful. It should be specific enough that the actions are obvious but flexible given changes in context or scale. And a good strategy should be able to be followed by anyone, not just the group of people reporting to the person who wrote it.

Lean Change Management: Innovative Practices For Managing Organizational Change by Jason Little

Link to Lean Change Management on bookshop.org

This is a short book covering how to effectively plan and roll out organisational changes in a flexible, and collaborative way. Making changes can often be a fraught process. Nobody likes change, especially if it seems like it will be a threat to their job. Like the authors of Nine Lies About Work, Jason Little stresses the importance of cascading meaning, that is ensuring everyone involved understands the reason for change early on and feel involved in the implementation of the change.

My key takeaway: involve the people affected by a change in the change itself.

Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Link to Drive on bookshop.org

Drive is a book about engagement and motivation. What are the things that help people enjoy their work? What motivates them to get better? What makes people stick around when there are plenty of opportunities to other things or work with other people? Like all the books on this list Drive can help you figure out what practices will help your teams become and stay engaged and high performing, but Dan Pink also digs into the theory behind the practices and gives you a great framework to build your management practices on.

Key things for me from this book

  • Intrinsic motivation is what keeps people “engaged”, so try to help people feel like they have purpose, mastery, and autonomy
  • There’s a baseline of extrinsic things that folks need before intrinsic motivation becomes the drive, so keep on top of remuneration and team dynamics.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Link to Range on bookshop.org

Ryan Holiday calls Range a parenting book and a must-read for anyone with kids. I think the same idea applies to anyone who works with people who want to grow in their careers.

Epstein argues that people who cultivate a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience tend to be happy and successful. He contrasts the ten-thousand hours of specialised practice approach with the broad experience and late specialisation method and shows that both can lead to high levels of achievement.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked pretty closely with our Graduate Engineers and I’ve combined Range with Will Larson’s A Forty Year Career as a framework for conversations about career growth and technical direction. If you’re trying to explain the value of T/M/Comb shaped developers, you can get a long way with quoting both those authors.

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Link to Show Your Work! on bookshop.org

This might seem like a weird recommendation for engineering eanagers. Austin Kleon writes books for “creative” folks – artists, writers, designers – and he doesn’t really talk about the things Kim Scott or Richard Rumelt talk about. Or does he?

Let me put it this way: ever feel like you aren’t making a difference? Or do you ever feel like other folks don’t understand how your work adds value? It’s common! The work of someone in an engineering manager’s position is often invisible, or not well understood. Show Your Work can help with that.

Austin Kleon has written a short, snappy guide to feeling good about what you’re doing and showing it off to the world. He breaks it into ten easy to digest concepts like “Think process, not product”, “Tell Good Stories”, “Teach What You Know”, and “Learn To Take A Punch”. Kleon encourages us to become “documentarions” of what we do.

I have been doing that privately in a journal for myself for a few years now and it’s helped me get to grips with my job, what my company needs from me, and what I want to get out of it. This website is the next step in that process.

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About Joe Mahoney

Joe is a programmer, engineering manager, surf life guard and local dad who writes about and curates links covering links covering software engineering and management, career growth, continuous improvement, creativity, and productivity.

Wellington, New Zealand