With the number of programming resources available online these days, there is still a place for truly great software engineering books.
Books can help software engineers approach subject matter from a holistic point of view and tie together different concepts in a way that makes sense. They also have room to go into more depth on their subject matter, using examples and clear and concise writing so readers may make connections they never saw before.
From beginner to advanced reads, here are the best software engineering books to pick up.
Must-Read Books for Software Engineers
- Clean Code by Robert C. Martin
- Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction by Steve McConnell
- Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides
- The DevOps Handbook by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick DeBois and John Willis
- Inclusive Design Patterns by Heydon Pickering
- The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas
- Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold
Software Engineering Books for Beginners
If you’re a computer science student or completely new to software engineering, these books are the ticket for beginners. Get a glimpse into the basic do’s, don’ts and philosophies of software engineering, plus a bit of the history that holds up the field.
CLEAN CODE BY ROBERT C. MARTIN
This classic software engineering book was written in 2002 by Robert C. Martin, one of the creators of the agile method. The book’s popularity spawned an entire series, also written by Martin, that includes books on clean architecture and clean agile. But it’s Clean Code that has maintained its relevance over the years by focusing on how to write code that is easy to read and maintainable — not just for the sake of the application, but for other engineers who will work on the code in the future. The book sprinkles in Java code snippet examples to illustrate its points, so it’s especially helpful for beginning Java developers.
THE MYTHICAL MAN-MONTH BY FREDERICK BROOKS, JR.
This book suggests best practices for effective project management, like standardizing documentation and tooling across teams and fostering constant team communication — all of which are still relevant in the workplace today.
Author Frederick Brooks, Jr. published the first edition of this book in 1975, practically prehistoric times for books about software project management. The title refers to a phenomenon Brooks observed while managing the development of the S/360 mainframe computer at IBM in the 1960s. The costs of software projects were calculated by how many “man-months” they took to complete — that is, how many months it would take for a full-time software engineer to finish a project. When projects fell behind, managers solved the problem by adding additional engineers and developers to the team. Brooks pointed out that this practice, counterintuitively, actually delayed projects further because of the cost of training new developers.
“Some people have called the book the ‘bible of software engineering,’” Brooks said in an interview with Fortune magazine in 2005. “I would agree with that in one respect: that is, everybody quotes it, some people read it, and a few people go by it.”
Software Engineering Books on Coding Style
As a software engineer, there’s no substitute for knowing how to write clean, readable code. These books will steer you toward programming best practices and help you avoid pitfalls that turn codebases into spaghetti code. They’ll also reduce the amount of hair-pulling future engineers will have to suffer through after you’ve left and someone else takes over the codebase.
A PHILOSOPHY OF SOFTWARE DESIGN BY JOHN OUSTERHOUT
Written by computer science professor and respected software engineer John Ousterhout, A Philosophy of Software Design introduces programming principles that lead to good, maintainable programs, such as finding the right level of abstraction for your code. This 2018 book is a relative newcomer to the software engineering book club, but it’s already a heavyweight contender. It also isn’t tied to a particular programming language, which helps it be less prescriptive and more widely applicable.
Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction by Steve McConnell
A practical guide for intermediate software engineers, Code Complete outlines the fundamentals of coding and software construction in a digestible way. This book covers best practices for code organization, variable naming, loop layouts and more programming specifics — backed with findings from studies in the field. McConnell also provides real-life examples of coding cases, so readers can follow along for practice. The book’s second edition in particular is recommended, as it adds up-to-date practices and examples in relevant programming languages like C++ and Java.
WORKING EFFECTIVELY WITH LEGACY CODE BY MICHAEL C. FEATHERS
For those who know how to approach legacy code in the right way, untangling it can actually be an exciting adventure. This book helps readers get there by teaching them to use extensive testing to examine and stabilize confusing legacy code. Being asked to update and maintain an existing application that has been humming away in a dusty server for years is not high up on most software engineers’ wish lists, but most engineers have to deal with it at some point in their careers, and this book will make the process of taming legacy code a whole lot smoother.
Software Engineering Books on Design Patterns
Design patterns are one of the most important tools in a software engineer’s tool belt. Picking the right pattern to structure your code gets at the fundamental question of how to put software together and prevent future problems that need fixing.
DESIGN PATTERNS: ELEMENTS OF REUSABLE OBJECT-ORIENTED SOFTWARE BY ERICH GAMMA, RICHARD HELM, RALPH JOHNSON AND JOHN VLISSIDES
This book covers three “types” of design patterns: creational design patterns that allow engineers to initialize new objects in different ways, structural design patterns for different ways of prototyping and behavior design patterns that model different actions. The authors use examples to illustrate the differences between each pattern, which makes it easy for readers to match the right pattern to their situation.
While the book was published in 1994, a lifetime ago in the quickly-changing world of software engineering, it’s still relevant and useful for software engineers learning to structure their programs. The four authors — Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides — are widely known in the software development world as the Gang of Four, a nickname that underscores the seminal nature of the book.
HEAD FIRST DESIGN PATTERNS BY ERIC FREEMAN and ELISABETH ROBSON
The authors go through 13 essential patterns, starting with the most widely used ones, and provide plenty of examples to illustrate, explain and examine how to spot programming situations that can best take advantage of the pattern, making for a fun read on software engineering. The authors’ love for design extends beyond the subject matter to the layout of the book, and they take great care to avoid pages that look like walls of text. Instead, reading this book feels like going through a well-designed PowerPoint presentation. It has informative, hand-drawn diagrams and lots of fun illustrations to keep the reader engaged enough to learn everything the book has to offer.
Software Engineering Books on DevOps and Security
Software engineering teams have realized that the most important software concerns shouldn’t just be talked about — they should be brought into project planning from the beginning and integrated into the engineering and development lifecycles using automated DevOps processes. That’s why at some companies the traditionally separate DevOps and security teams have started to work together more closely as DevSecOps.
PRO GIT BY SCOTT CHACON AND BEN STRAUB
This free 2014 book covers most of the Git commands engineers need to know for their day-to-day work in the Git Basics and Git Branching sections. Beyond that, readers can also learn about setting up their own dedicated Git servers and using off-the-shelf Git services. Let’s face it: Git is confusing. That’s why taking a deep dive into the change tracking software’s functionalities can be helpful for software engineers.
THE DEVOPS HANDBOOK BY GENE KIM, JEZ HUMBLE, PATRICK DEBOIS AND JOHN WILLIS
This book defines the concept of DevOps by explaining its motivations and goals, and ties those concepts to real-world scenarios by describing DevOps transformations that have taken place at various companies. The authors share many different ways teams can implement DevOps in their workflows, but they also caution teams against trying to change all their processes at once — it’s better to establish feedback loops and a practice of continuous improvement. DevOps is a relatively new discipline that’s still seeing continuous innovations. In 2021, the authors published a second edition, only a few years after the first edition came out in 2016.
THE WEB APPLICATION HACKER’S HANDBOOK BY DAFYDD STUTTARD AND MARCUS PINTO
This book, by web application security experts Dafydd Stuttard and Marcus Pinto, explores the inherent vulnerabilities in web applications and examines different attack vectors commonly used by attackers. New web application vulnerabilities are discovered and patched regularly, but security is still a constant concern because attackers are always looking for new ways to exploit software. At the same time, many well-known and preventable attacks continue to pose threats for websites that weren’t developed with a security mindset. Engineers and developers can learn about the dangers present in each layer of their applications and pick up tips on staying vigilant throughout the development process.
Software Engineering Books on Front-End Development
Sometimes it seems like back-end development gets all the love. While there are plenty of books on back-end coding patterns and architectures, developing code on the front end often feels more like the wild west. Here are some books that provide solid front-end fundamentals and help keep software engineers grounded in a corner of the software world that sees constant technical innovations.
CSS IN DEPTH BY KEITH J. GRANT
This 2018 book by web developer Keith Grant takes readers through all aspects of the language, starting with the fundamentals and moving into complex concepts like responsive design and scaling up with CSS. There’s not a lot of hand-holding when it comes to using cascading style sheets, the programming language that determines much of a website’s look and feel. Compared with other corners of software development, CSS has seen relatively few changes since its debut in the 1990s. That’s partly because CSS is pretty self-explanatory — after all, any changes engineers or developers make are instantly reflected on the browser. But for those working on sophisticated, user-facing web applications, CSS can get quite complex and become unmanageably messy if users aren’t careful.
INCLUSIVE DESIGN PATTERNS BY HEYDON PICKERING
This book helps front-end developers do just that, sharing resources about accessibility standards and giving advice on how to design websites in ways that make incorporating accessibility concerns into the development process easier. Web accessibility still has a long way to go, but engineers and developers have increasingly recognized its importance. It’s not enough to do accessibility audits after a software program is already written — at that point, it becomes much harder to make any real changes. The best time to think about accessibility is at the beginning, during the design phase before any code is written.
YOU DON’T KNOW JS YET BY KYLE SIMPSON
Free (First Edition): GitHub
Buy (Second Edition): Bookshop, Amazon
Software Engineering Books on Project Management
Project managers specialize in scoping out projects and keeping projects running on track, but software engineers should also be well versed in project management best practices. That’s because running a project successfully is a team effort, and nothing impacts software teams more than setbacks caused by poor project management. These books address common problems that occur when people work together on building software and offer suggestions on how to make it work more smoothly.
RAPID DEVELOPMENT BY STEVE MCCONNELL
This book leans into the details of project management than The Pragmatic Programmer — it devotes an entire (necessary) chapter on the perils of estimating software timelines and covers other problems endemic to software projects like scope creep and team building. Steve McConnell is also the author of Code Complete, which rivals Clean Code as engineers’ holy text on coding styles, but in this book he turns his attention to project management styles. Rapid Development was published in 1996 — before agile — but McConnell still discusses many different ways of approaching lifecycle planning, ranging from pure waterfall to iterative methods like evolutionary prototyping that resemble agile.
THE PRAGMATIC PROGRAMMER BY ANDREW HUNT AND DAVID THOMAS
In this book, the authors cover common issues that can lead the best engineering teams astray. They offer teachings on things like improving team communication to avoid duplicate work or capturing accurate requirements before coding. There’s also some technical advice for engineers, like how to write flexible code or do exception handling properly, but always from a big-picture perspective of how to successfully steer a team through a project.
In an interview for the book’s 20th publication anniversary last year, authors Andrew Hunt and David Thomas sounded surprised that their book about avoiding common project management and team dynamics problems is still so relevant to software teams working today.
“The names have changed, the tech has changed — but the problems, the wrong approaches, the things that cause difficulty are largely identical,” Hunt said. “It’s still people and we’re still making very similar mistakes that we were making 20 years ago.”
Software Engineering Books for Reviewing Computer Science
Many software engineers would prefer to put their computer science textbooks behind them, but it’s not a bad idea to learn more about computer science concepts. These books will help engineers gain more insight into how their programs work under the hood.
CODE: THE HIDDEN LANGUAGE OF COMPUTER HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE BY CHARLES PETZOLD
This 1999 book by programmer Charles Petzold is for those who have ever stopped in the middle of programming and stared at their laptop, wondering, “How is this working?” It focuses on the relationship between software and hardware, making readers comfortable with the technical details behind logic gates before moving on to computer memory, processors and operating systems. Petzold manages to do all this without intimidating readers with technical speak — instead, he relates hardware and software concepts to other types of languages people have invented to communicate, like Morse code and Braille, and helps readers revel in the wonder of these inventions.
THE ALGORITHM DESIGN MANUAL BY STEVEN SKIENA
This book by computer science professor Steven Skiena focuses on the origin stories of well-known algorithms like Quicksort, rather than in-depth analysis of their mathematical properties.
“Algorithms textbooks generally present important algorithms as a fait accompli, obscuring the ideas involved in designing them and the subtle reasons why other approaches fail,” Skiena writes in the book.
Instead, this book tries to show that algorithms are created out of a real need for them, usually after many false starts. Skiena presents “war stories” about how select algorithms were invented — by real-world programmers who got stuck when they realized their problem couldn’t be solved with any current solutions, and that they needed to come up with a novel solution on their own.
THE C PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE BY BRIAN KERNIGHAN AND DENNIS RITCHIE
Written by one of the creators of the actual C programming language, Dennis Ritchie, and co-author Brian Kernighan, this book was first published in 1978 and introduces the programming language in a clear and concise way. Because C is such a low-level language, readers can learn about many aspects of programming that are hidden in higher-level programming languages, like memory allocation and garbage collection. It also marks the first appearance of the “Hello, World” example program. It can be worthwhile to get to know a programming language really well. For software engineers interested in doing a deep dive into C — a popular, low-level programming language used in high-performance applications like operating systems and compilers — this slim volume is a great option.