The Reading List

People learn by making mistakes. In the modern world it’s probably impossible to make enough mistakes fast enough to excel, so you’re going to have to cheat.

You are going to need to learn from other peoples mistakes.

As a mentor I was often asked about subjects that were far removed from my “core” knowledge base, and constantly surprised myself by being able to intelligently answer a number of these questions. Since part of the discussion I always had with people I was working with was “if something I say doesn’t seem to make sense, ask me why” (which forced me to THINK about why I had some closely held, and in many cases ultimately wrong assumptions). The answer was often “I read it in …”

This got me to thinking, and after Joel Spolsky ( posted a reading list I realized that I should blatantly steal the concept. Joel’s reading list just got converted to WordPress, and can be found here. Joel just posted a pile of book covers: I added notes to explain why I recommended these books to colleagues and people I was mentoring. These notes may be useful, but they are not the only reason to read them.

This resulted in putting together a progressively larger reading list, and it’s still growing. Most of the books in the list are not textbooks, and some of them (like “The Goal”) are almost novel-like in structure. Regardless of their format or apparent “fluffiness” I have found every book in this list valuable. Will they be equally valuable for you?  You’ll have to read them to find out. On the plus side, there are those notes I mentioned, so a quick skim may help you find the book that will help you.

I blatantly stole the concept for a reading list from Joel Spolsky ( who was a big influence on my thinking through the 2000’s. His reading list just got cnverted to WordPress, and can be found here .

It is also worth noting that these notes outline why I recommended these books to colleagues and people I was mentoring: they are NOT the only reason to read them.

7 habits of Highly Effective people

If you haven’t read this, please just go out and read it. If I’m 10% of the leader and teacher that Stephen Covey was before I die, I’ll be doing well.

October 24, 1932 – July 16, 2012 – he will be missed

Waltzing With Bears

This is a fairly accessible book around risk management. Some of the most important risks are around time risks, and for anyone who has ever been involved in software projects, it clearly articulates that most software schedules are based on the most optimistic possible schedule. This is useful in and of itself, but it also provides some useful commentary on the shapes of time risks, and ways to determine what the actual most likely distribution of completion dates are for each task. Even if you aren’t using a software package like @risk, this lets you examine more likely completion times for sub-tasks, determine which project components that are not flagged as “critical path” have the possibility (or near certainty) of becoming rate limiting, and what your real project completion dates are likely to be so that you can communicate these with stakeholders before they become “surprises”

The Mythical Man-Month

The source of Brook’s Law (Adding manpower to a late project will make it later) and a number of other observations, many of them appropriate to both software and non-software projects alike.
Be sure to read about “no silver bullet” which is probably one of the more influential / debated predictions in software, as well as commentary on building pilot software (always expect to throw away the first version, since it will teach you what you need to know for the real one). The Facet Decisions System team actually made a decent business out of this before “agile” was a concept, since we had a defined Proof of Concept –> Prototype –> Pilot methodology which assumed that much of the code would be replaced in successive versions.

Built to Last

The predecessor to “Good to Great” this book tried to answer what makes a great company. I found it interesting to note that by the time I was reading it, almost half of the companies that were “built to last” had lost their way and were trending back towards being just another company.  The core question was “What makes the truly exceptional companies different from the comparison companies and what were the common practices these enduringly great companies followed throughout their history?”

Good To Great

An interesting analysis of how some companies which appeared to be very similar to their competition came to dominate their industries. The BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and corporate culture insights are worth keeping in mind. This also introduces the “Hedgehog” concept – finding the thing(s) that your team can be the best at the world at and focusing on that. Whether you “focus to the exclusion of everything else” or “focus to avoid distractions” this focus was one of the key differentiators through the period of study.

Quality is Free

This is one of the early works in Quality Management, and its sequel “Quality is Still Free” is also worth a read. Much of the content dates from before the “Toyota Miracle” AKA the Toyota Management System which has since become one of the cores of Lean and Six Sigma manufacturing. Deming is really the architect of this movement, but Philip Crosby articulates the core principles well, as well as pointing the responsibility for Quality squarely at upper management, in my opinion where it belongs. While this (and many of his follow on books) are about Quality, you can also take a lot of the material as gospel for how to effectively build a safety culture.

A core part of the “quality” discussion is around compliance to specification, which is something that is still difficult for a lot of people to get their heads around. High quality is not getting the more expensive bolt, it’s making sure that the bolt you are using is appropriate for the purpose.

how-to-win-friendsHow to win friends and influence people

Dale Carnegie was not one of the “rich” Carnegie’s, but was actually a (successful) salesman. An important part of the book is about how to influence (as distinct from “direct”) which is a critical part of a project manager’s toolbox, and arguably more important in a leaders toolbox. It is full of useful nuggets about how to work with people, and figure out what they want and need. one of these nuggets is around authenticity and provides tips on how to build better relationships. I will include a strong recommendation to go to the library and find the oldest printing that you can, since this book keeps being “modernized” which, in my opinion, does not improve it.

What Color Is Your Parachute

More than just how to get a job, this dense (but accessible) book helps you figure out what you are good at and what you want to do. This book and the concepts in it have caused several folks to leave the project management field as they realized that it wasn’t actually what they wanted to do with their lives.
This is full of information on how to get the job you want, and the most effective ways of getting there from where you are now, whether you are currently employed or not.

Since this is updated annually you have another hint as to when I last did an editorial reviewed for this list!

The Goal

This is an excellent introduction to constraints and process optimization. If you are thinking about Lean or Six Sigma, then it is probably worth reading this first. This book makes a number of good points around why it is important to track your process using the right metrics. There are amusing examples of driving your business into the ground by
following the “correct” metrics, and how organizations can react to those trying to change these metrics – even if it is demonstrably improving the profitability and cash flow of a

The Goal also helps underline why incremental increases in production are generally more profitable (and less expensive to produce) although some of the examples should be taken with a grain of salt.

Required Legalese:
Scott is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. The main perk is that it makes adding book covers and links to these reviews a lot easier!