Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ten Best Chapters of Software Development Books

I have always had a fondness for books, both technical and non-technical. However, it seems to get increasingly difficult to read complete books. I have found that instead of reading entire books on software development, I tend to read specific chapters and portions that seem most relevant, useful, and interesting to me. In this blog post, I look at the ten chapters of software development books that I have found to be most influential or most impressive in my career so far as a software developer. These are chapters that I can enthusiastically recommend to any software developer who either wants to learn the subject of that chapter or who just wants to see what an especially well-written chapter can do.

Before getting into the chapters, it is worth noting that some of my favorite technical books are not included on this list. This is often because the entire book is great and it is difficult to isolate any one chapter that stands out from the others. For a list of great software development books, see Top 100 Best Software Engineering Books, Ever. Many of the books on this list are simply outstanding and I also like many of the "Cookbook" and "Recipes" books for practical learning, but these tend not to be the types of books with chapters on this list.

Without further adieu, here are (as of today) the ten chapters (in no particular order) that come to mind as the most impressive or influential for me from the software development books.

10. Learning Perl (Perl)

I have never cared much for Perl, but I have needed to use it off and on over the years. Because I don't use Perl regularly, I often don't remember much about it from the last time I used it. However, I have found that the first chapter of Learning Perl (Schwartz...) often provides what I need to quickly get back into writing Perl. This chapter is everything a person learning a new programming language would want in an initial chapter: a gentle introductory approach to several commonly used features of the language.

9. Java Enterprise in a Nutshell (Java)

Chapter 6 ("JNDI") of Java Enterprise in a Nutshell makes my list because it's an example of the definitive chapter on a particular subject. When I was trying to learn how to use and apply JNDI, it was difficult to find satisfactory resources. This chapter was very welcome. This is perhaps the least interesting chapter to a general audience on this list given its narrow focus and the somewhat abstracted or diminished use of JNDI in Java EE, but the chapter is representative of software development chapters on a specific subject that are the authoritative source of information on that subject.

8. Effective XML: 50 Specific Ways to Improve Your XML (XML)

The chapter from Effective XML (Elliotte Rusty Harold) making this list is not even a chapter! My favorite part of this book is its Introduction, which provides through but concise descriptions of XML terminology. This was especially important at the time of its writing to enable more precise terminology when talking about XML. I learned more from this introduction, which is available online, than I have learned from entire chapters of some XML books I have read.

7. RESTful Java with JAX-RS (Java/REST)

There are many resources (no pun intended) on Representational State Transfer (REST) that provide a high-level overview of what REST is. Chapter 2 ("Designing RESTful Services") of RESTful Java with JAX-RS (Bill Burke) goes well beyond introduction and leads the reader through the process of designing a REST-based application in a highly approachable manner. I cannot think of a better high-level description of how to apply REST (versus simply covering what REST is) than this chapter. Whether or not a developer wishes to use JAX-RS in his or her REST applications, this chapter is a useful way to begin really understanding how to design with REST.

6. Holub on Patterns: Learning Design Patterns by Looking at Code (Design Patterns)

I purchased the book Holub on Patterns: Learning Design Patterns by Looking at Code after attending Holub's presentation at SD West 2005. The book is every bit as opinionated (perhaps more so!) than Holub is in his presentations. That's why I like it so much! I especially like the first two chapters of this book. Chapter 1 ("Preliminaries: OO and Design Patterns 101") provides background information on object-oriented design and what patterns are and how to use them. This may sound basic and like nothing new, but I found many things in hear that made me re-think what I thought I knew. Primarily, I have come to agree with Holub that indiscriminate use of getters and setters is evil. Chapter 2 ("Programming with Interfaces, and a Few Creational Patterns") is also very good and covers why Holub asserts that extends is evil.

Holub believes strongly in his opinions based on a lengthy career. Although I don't always agree with everything he says and writes at the same level he does, I generally see the wisdom of what he is saying and apply similar principles (though to a less extreme degree) in my own development efforts. I like to read things that challenge my "old way of thinking," especially when they motivate improved ways of thinking and these couple chapters (with the SD West presentation) did just that.

Perhaps the most significant realization for me after reading these chapters is that objects are about the methods/behaviors and not really about the data. I had been taught that objects were structs with behaviors and this really was backwards. I especially like, and strive to follow, Holub's "prime directive" of object-oriented systems, which he defines as:

Never ask an object for information that you need to do something; rather, ask the object that has the information to do the work for you.

The get/set paradigm is really just about providing information. When an object goes way beyond providing information and does what the client needs, the need for senseless get/set methods is greatly reduced or eliminated. Specialized knowledge of how to act upon the data does not need to be in each client, but can be packaged with the data being acted upon.

5. The Practice of Programming (General Development)

The oft-cited Kernighan and Pike software development book The Practice of Programming is well-known for packing numerous useful observations from practical software development experience into a relatively (deceivingly) small book. For the software developer in a hurry, the "Epilogue" and "Appendix: Collected Rules" are especially useful. Because the "Epilogue" is only two pages and the "Appendix: Collected Rules" is only three pages, I feel like I can bend my own rules here a little and consider them together as a single chapter.

The "Epilogue" of The Practice of Programming summarizes in succinct text the underlying themes of the book such as simplicity, clarity, and interfaces. Each of the themes is summarized in a short paragraph and each theme is covered in detail earlier in the book with a chapter devoted to each theme. The "Appendix: Collected Rules" breaks down the "rules" of good software development covered in the book on a per-chapter basis as well. Between the Epilogue and this Appendix, one can quickly remember what he or she has read or can direct himself or herself to chapters in which he or she wants to learn more about that theme or set of rules.

4. Effective Java (Java)

I could have chosen several chapters from classic Java book Effective Java (Joshua Bloch) and could have filled this top ten with chapters from that book. However, the one chapter that particularly stands out to me from this information-rich book is Chapter 9 (Second Edition) on exception handling in Java.

There are many reasons for choosing this chapter in particular. One, exception handling is something that all Java developers need to understand. Two, exception handling is most effective when those throwing the exceptions and those catching and handling the exceptions use exceptions the same way. There have been numerous articles of using Java exceptions effectively, but a team that follows the principles of this chapter will need very little outside information on how to effectively apply Java exceptions.

3. Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (Object-Oriented Design)

For good and for bad, design patterns have left a major imprint on the software development literature. The term and its popularity started with the classic reference Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides). This book was the first major work to organize a library of design patterns and established a common "pattern" for other patterns books to following (pattern name, problem, solution, and consequences).

Although the "Design Patterns" book obviously applied a name to the concept of using recurring design strategies to solve different problems, the real value it had for me as I was learning object-oriented development concepts was its introduction to the key principles behind most of the cataloged design patterns. The first chapter of this book outlines at a high-level what a design pattern is, but its real value for me was when I read the portion of this chapter regarding interfaces ("interfaces are fundamental in object-oriented systems. Objects are only known through their interfaces."), Class versus Interface Inheritance, Programming to an Interface, not an Implementation, Inheritance versus Composition, and many other fundamental principles of object-oriented design and development that still seem to be ignored today.

2. Expert One-on-One J2EE Design and Development (Java EE)

It was difficult to select just one chapter from Expert One-on-One J2EE Design and Development that marked a change in how enterprise Java applications are implemented and brought what would become the Spring Framework to the attention of the world. One of the things this book did for me was to help me realize that I wasn't mistaken or missing something because I thought J2EE was more difficult than it was worth. Between this book and the 101 EJB Damnations, it was a relief to see my concerns more eloquently articulated. As I read Johnson's book, I recognized that many of the observations he was making were similar to what I had made. This made me even more interested in the topics that he covered in which I had less experience.

It was difficult to decide which chapter to feature in this list, but I initially limited it down to a choice between Chapter 4 ("Design Techniques and Coding Standards for J2EE Projects") and Chapter 6 ("Applying J2EE Technologies"). The latter, Chapter 6, features sections on deciding when to use and not use EJB and when to use and not use XML. However, I think if I have to choose, Chapter 4 is the one I will officially include in this list. That chapter is essentially an "Effective J2EE" chapter and is tremendous whether one is using Spring or not. In fact, this seemingly narrowly focused book has tons of generally useful discussion on building distributed and enterprise systems regardless of language or platform.

1. Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative (General Development)

The book Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative is a relatively short book and an easy read. However, I believe the general principles of software craftsmanship outlined in this book are what all developers serious about their careers should aspire to. The book also talks about how users and managers can contribute to the craft of software development, but I prefer the advice for developers because that is the area over which I have the most control. As with most of the chapters on this list, it is difficult to select just one chapter from this book. However, the very short (4 pages) Chapter 5 ("Putting People Back into Software Development") serves this purpose. In this chapter, author Pete McBreen issues this "call to arms":

We must insist that developers really know their craft before we trust them to create systems for us or with us.


This post has contained a list of ten chapters from software development books that have taught me new concepts, have inspired me to change my software development habits, or have otherwise significantly influenced me. In some cases, the chapters were simply so well-written that I wished I had written them. If I was to come up with this list on a different day without knowledge of having made this list, it is likely that I might have at least a couple differences.

What Chapter Has Impacted You Most?

What software development chapters have you found to be particularly well-written or have had a significant effect on how you develop software?


JCoulston said...

I was a fan of "XML in a Nutshell" Chapters 2 and 3. When I was learning XML, these two chaps really helped. They're well written and informative. They explained it to me perfectly.

Useful post!

Justin Coulston

@DustinMarx said...


Thanks for the response. I don't recall reading those chapters from "XML in a Nutshell" (I'm not sure I have ever read anything in that book). I've not found a lot of XML books that I like, so I am interested in its presentation of XML. I plan to check it out. Thanks for pointing me to it.


GKB said...

Good article Dustin. I'm going to pick up a couple of these and read them.

@DustinMarx said...

One chapter I almost included on this list is Chapter 2 ("Subtyping and Wildcards") of the book Java Generics and Collections. This chapter is a must-read for understanding how to effectively apply Java generics and is the chapter in which the authors coin the Get and Put Principle.