The View From Jerry’s Shoulders

In the software community, when we speak of the giants on whose shoulders we aspire to perch, names like Turing, Dijkstra, Wirth, and Knuth are often mentioned–names associated with the Computer Science side of software development. And there are giants on the hardware side: Von Neumann, and, if you want to go a lot farther back, Babbage.

There’s also a side of software development that doesn’t get enough attention, but is nonetheless critically important: The side that’s about people. Until some distant future when software development is fully automated, it will remain an endeavor that includes humans. And, by extension, our imperfections and foibles.

One of the giants on the people side of software is Gerald M. (Jerry) Weinberg. If you’re not familiar with Jerry’s writings, I envy the discoveries you have ahead.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a student of Jerry’s for many years, first through his books, then through his workshops, and finally through working with him on the AYE Conference. His teachings, wisdom, and subtle wit have had a profound impact on my career and life.

Where to start reading Weinberg depends on where you are in your career.

I came to know of Jerry’s work through the chance discovery of The Psychology of Computer Programming, a book that introduced many to the idea that there’s much more to programming than languages and algorithms. It’s a timeless book; human nature evolves much slower than technology. This is where I learned about ‘goal displacement’, which you’ve seen if you’ve ever been puzzled why it’s become more important to some developer that a system runs fast than it is that it works right. I’m not sure this book is the best place to start if you haven’t read Weinberg, but do read it at some point.

If you’re just starting out, Becoming a Technical Leader is full of excellent advise for planning and managing the external and internal aspects of your career. The idea that there’s internal stuff to be managed is a surprise to some, but if you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to have to learn to cope with a whole range of emotions, including frustration, anger, and hopefully elation. It’s worth re-reading every five years or so, if only to see how far you’ve come. This is the book that I gave away the most copies of when I was a manager.

If you’re a bit further along, Are Your Lights On? How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is (with Don Gause) can help you avoid solving the wrong problems. Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design will change the way you look at requirements. Though both were written before Agile, both still apply, since much can be lost in imperfect communication between customers and developers. The perils of mind reading remain even when there’s a Product Owner colocated with the team.

If you aspire to lead projects, any or all of Jerry’s four volume “Quality Software Management” series are a great investment. Volume 1, Systems Thinking, is one of the best introductions to a this very powerful technique that I’ve found (Senge’s The Fifth Discipline being the other). Volume 3, Congruent Action is especially good if your career path leads to management. It’s all about dealing with people effectively.

If you consult or advise for a living, The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully, about the external aspects of consulting, is full of deep and useful advice. If you use the services of consultants, this book can help you get more value out of that relationship.

Perfect Software: And Other Illusions about Testing is in my reading queue, so I can’t recommend it yet, but a friend who has read it left the better part of a pad of sticky notes in his copy of the book.

Finally, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method has some very good advice on writing for those of us technical folk who have to squeeze writing in to small blocks of time. You won’t find the writing techniques that you were given in school, and may wish that you’d had Jerry’s book instead.

That should be enough to get you started. Your next step is to pick one to add to your reading queue.

Since it’s pretty clear that I’m biased about Jerry’s work, check out the reviews of Jerry’s books on Amazon.com.