Must-read books on the human factors of IT — part 1, the 70s

What is it that sets apart a top-notch IT executive from others of his calling? To my mind, one mark of today’s true professional, especially at the senior executive level, is to be deeply familiar with the seminal books in his or her field. The dilemma for an IT professional, though, comes from the ongoing and increasing flood of books to choose from, and trying to figure out how to walk the fine line between focus on the intensely tactical and focus on higher-level concepts and ideas.

The tactical books do have their place on your shelf, actually, and it would be a mistake to ignore them simply because you’ve moved beyond daily application of your development, configuration, and technical trouble-shooting skills: judicious selection and absorbing of nuts-and-bolts techniques and new approaches will keep your insight into technology and its possibilities fresh.

I started in IT as a developer, and I remain fascinated by the endless possibilities and techniques of the world of software. In the last decade or two, though, I’ve become even more intrigued by a metalayer above the more tactical concerns. True to my ongoing insistence that the biggest challenges in IT aren’t purely technical, I am ever more convinced that the greatest difficulties are presented by “psychology of IT” issues: the human factors in how software and systems are conceived, built, tested, deployed, maintained, and eventually decommissioned.  Here are just a smattering of the eternal, non-technical questions that go far beyond the computer language du jour or the latest hot methodology:

  • How do teams actually create and complete information technology projects? What works, what fails, and why?
  • Why are some software developers supposedly ten times as productive as others?
  • Why do some software teams gel and others don’t?
  • Why do small companies with very few resources often beat out large, well-funded efforts in the marketplace?
  • How technical should managers be?

So starting with this post, let’s embark on a multi-part survey of the groundbreaking, timeless books on such issues. I’m going to pick what I consider to be the top three books from each decade, starting with the 70s.  Each of them deserves not only a place on your bookshelf, but to be read and reread every few years. And contrary to what one might think, their insights remain not only valid after all these years, but have become all the stronger by having been confirmed by the history of the industry since their publication.

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No silver bullets. Really!

Fred Brooks wrote a seminal essay in 1986, “No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering“, a model of clear and cogent thinking that I consider to be required regular reading for anyone involved in information technology.  Despite the essay’s brilliance, and despite its wide promulgation and deserved fame, the phenomenon it describes seems to have only broadened in the last twenty-three years.  Brooks argues as follows (with bolding added):

The familiar software project, at least as seen by the nontechnical manager, has something of this character; it is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and flawed products. So we hear desperate cries for a silver bullet—something to make software costs drop as rapidly as computer hardware costs do.

There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order of- magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.”

So this basic tenet has been convincingly articulated by a leading IT thinker for almost a quarter century. Yet, the trend continues: new technologies pop up every couple of years and the hype cycle begins. Evidently, hope springs eternal.
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