Being Geek: The Software Developer's Career Handbook Paperback – Aug 13 2010
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About the Author
Michael Lopp is a Silicon Valley-based engineering manager. When he's not worrying about staying relevant, he writes about pens, bridges, people, and werewolves at the popular weblog, Rands in Repose. Michael wrote a book called "Managing Humans" which explains that while you might be rewarded for what you produce, you will only be successful because of your people.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
If you have not read his blog, you will find lots of good tips here. However, they are buried in the narrative and must be mined - this is no bullet-point reference work. The book is worth five stars in this case - if you're willing to do the work. Those looking for a quick fix or easy reference guide should look elsewhere.
Looking on my own experience in tech companies, I think that his advice is often spot-on. There have been times when I've read one of his blog posts after a difficult situation and found myself understanding it better. He's got a keen eye for detail and for understanding the nuances of geek behaviour, as well as all of the interacting forces that come into play when you're working for a big geek company. I've gone back to read half-remembered posts that I felt were pertinent to a given situation.
I found it amusing that Lopp says in his introduction that he's not writing a book that gives you ten steps for anything, or that will define the five characteristics of a top leader, but most of his essays are structured in just that form: distill a situation into some archetypes, identified by Capital Letters. For an occasional blog post, I don't mind this style; as a book, this structure got rather repetitive. While I love the blog, I found that I couldn't read the book for more than a half-hour without losing interest because the style just didn't work for an actual book.
Honestly, I was hoping for more. The blog is excellent. I hoped that a book would use the blog as a starting point and give more consideration, more depth. But it's not there. If, like me, you've been reading his blog for some time, I can't really recommend this book. You've read most of it before, albeit in a different order. The new pieces don't really add that much. If you're not a reader of his blog, this book is a good look at moving through your geek career. I'd recommend adding his blog to your reading list while you're at it.
Section 1 - A Career Playbook: How To Win; A List of Three; The Itch; The Sanity Check; The Nerves; The Button; The Business
Section 2 - Deconstructing Management: The Culture Chart; Managing Managers; The Issue with the Doof; The Leaper; The Enemy; The Impossible; Knee Jerks; A Deep Breath; Gaming the System; Managing Werewolves; BAB; Your People; Wanted; The Toxic Paradox; The Pond
Section 3 - Your Daily Toolkit: The Nerd Handbook; The Taste of the Day; The Trickle List; The Crisis and the Creative; The Foamy Rules for Rabid Tools; Up to Nothing; How to Not Throw Up; Out Loud; Bits, Features, and Truth; The Reveal
Section 4 - Your Next Gig: The Screw-Me Scenario; No Surprises; A Deliberate Career; The Curse of the Silicon Valley; A Disclosure; Mind the Gap; The Exodus; Bad News About Your Bright Future; Hurry; The Rules of Back Alley Bridge
The author sets out to help the technologist, one who wonders why the world of people doesn't run with the same rules and precision as computers, navigate through the real world of how life works in an organization. Rather than approach the subject with a slick methodology meant to be understood by business people, he cuts to the core of the topics using language and stories that any geek would understand. And that's the value here... the techie will say "YES! I struggle/deal with that exact same problem" as the author has been there, done that, and thinks the same way they do. It's written in a no-nonsense, no-bs style which is just what most techies want.
It seems like too many books on managing and surviving in a corporate environment assume a certain type of personality that is closer to the average office worker than the hard-core technologist. Or books that *do* focus on organizational skills for technology workers seem to take a process approach or methodology, thinking that a set of rules to follow will work all the time. The author here assumes that the real world is messy, nothing fits into neat boxes, and the techno-geek is a different animal. As such, his advice is much more realistic than most other books that attempt to cover this topic in some way, shape, or form.
This is targeted squarely at the person for whom technology is a passion, not just a job that is 9 to 5. These people are comfortable with other geeks or on their own digging into a problem, but they don't easily or readily grasp the intricacies and realities of social interaction or corporate politics and gamesmanship. They need someone to explain what's going on, why things work that way, and how they can figure out the rules so they have some shot at surviving long enough to do what they love to do... build things.
I also appreciate that he tries to cover the entire scope of a person's stay with a company or organization. From being hired to leaving for the next gig, from trying to relate to management to standing in front of a group making an important presentation, this book gives you three to six pages on various topics, easily digested when you need to get a reality check in a given situation.
I've seen too many people who were technically brilliant, but that you didn't want to let out of a locked room because you knew they'd get eaten alive in the real world. Being Geek gives them a fighting chance to adapt if they care to do so.
Obtained From: Publisher
In many ways, the author takes his specific experiences and incorrectly generalizes them. Perhaps they are commonplace in Silicon Valley, but not in technology in general.
Further, key information is omitted. For example, he states that a good way of getting adversarial coworkers to get along better, is to get them to play Back Alley Bridge during lunch - but that crosses two management challenges - getting employees to do non-work events and getting employees to sacrifice their lunch hours. No advice whatsoever is given on how to deal with either.
Probably the worst oversight is assuming that the career path is limited to either staying a developer or moving into management.
That said, I think this is an enjoyable book that one can learn from, but that it should not be interpreted in any way as a career handbook.
"Being Geek", by Michael Lopp, scores high on all three points. As someone with a background in software development management, "Being Geek" struck home with me. I recognized myself, my staff, and many of my friends in the pages. I also got some good ideas on how to become a better software developer and development manager myself.
The book's genesis is in blog posts from the Rands in Repose blog, but edited, expanded, and organized. There's also some new material. The book is organized into several sections - how to manage your own career and job search process, how to deal with management: managing up, managing down, managing sideways, and managing toxicity, tactics and strategies for dealing with the day-to-day panics and crises of life as a developer, and how to think about how, why, and when to consider your next gig.
The two sections that I found most valuable, and will be returning to, are these: first, prioritization and keeping both a task list and a "trickle list" - strategic items that need a little bit of attention every day, not necessarily a big box of attention and then they're done. Second, the chapter on managing managers - communication styles, meeting schedules, and dealing with surprises - led me to some useful introspection about my own strengths and weaknesses as a manager. The section on "The Nerd Handbook" didn't really resonate for me, but the stereotyping in the chapter certainly has plenty of basis in fact.
Lopp has a clear and conversational style of writing that gives you the feeling of sitting with him at a table (probably on your second glass of good beer each) and a notepad between you for quick diagrams, while he explains his view of how software development teams work. He's opinionated, he doesn't pull punches, and he's occasionally pottymouthed for emphasis, but it all works. The book offers advice and food for thought both on how to get through the day, and how to get to where you want to be in your career.
Several other reviewers commented on bad editing and proofreading in the book. I also found this to be true in the first advance copy I was sent. However, a subsequent drop of the ebook had fixed the dozen or so errors I found in the initial draft, and I think they're also addressed in the print version.
If you're a software developer, you owe it to yourself to read this book. If you're not sure, check out the Rands in Repose blog as a sampler of the material that's here, but also be aware that there's material in the book that's not on the blog - the book is more than a collection of posts. I wish this book had been out 15 years ago when I was contemplating moving into management; I think I'd have gotten better faster.
O'Reilly offered me a free copy of the ebook in exchange for the review. I'll likely be buying the dead tree version anyway, in order to loan it to some friends who really really really need to read it.
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