Five Books all Aspiring Software Engineers Should Have On Their Shelves

image of smiling man in front of a computer with code
image of smiling man in front of a computer with code

Software engineers thrive in work environments where they can grow and confront new challenges. In its 2022 State of Software Engineers report tech employment firm Hired identified continuous learning as a primary career motivator. For aspiring software engineers, a library of must-reads for software developers can aid professional development and growth.

Decades of literature on software development add difficulty to the search for the best books for software engineers. We’ve compiled a list of five books addressing different aspects of the software engineering field.

1. A Philosophy of Software Design

John Osterhout’s A Philosophy of Software Design (2018) walks readers through the core elements of effective software engineering. The Stanford computer science professor provides a comprehensive answer to the question, “What does a good program look like?” This is a must-read for every software developer because it is helpful no matter the reader’s level of experience.

Osterhout advocates for modular designs that minimize exceptions and complexities. Engineers learn the virtues of deep modules or modules with many functionalities and simple interfaces. This software engineering book notes that “it is more important for a module to have a simple interface than a simple implementation.”

The author combines technical lessons on software engineering with tips on project management. Readers learn how strategic programming focused on system design works better than tactical programming of individual components. An important takeaway is that functional code only applies when part of a well-designed system.

2. Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

A 2018 survey of software developers found that 85.7% of their projects relied on Agile methodology. Robert C. Martin is one of the co-authors of the Agile Manifesto, a 2001 document laying out the methodology’s 12 principles. He also wrote Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship (2008), which has become a must-read for software developers.

Clean Code is one of the best books for software engineers because it addresses a central problem of the profession. Engineers and developers often create new coding issues while addressing other coding problems. Martin’s method for achieving clean code includes:

  • Using single-purpose, intention-revealing names that are searchable;
  • Separating good comments from bad comments;
  • Creating small functions and classes 
  • Designing systems that minimize complexity while expressing the programmer’s intent

Martin presents step-by-step case studies about turning complex code into clean code. Clean Code also identifies “code smells” - or signs of poor or ineffective coding - as a resource for readers throughout their careers. Engineers and developers can revisit the core lessons from Clean Code even with the rapid evolution of technology.

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

Object-oriented programming is a popular approach to software development because of its modularity and flexibility. Newcomers to the field can feel overwhelmed by available objects and classes. Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (1994) offers a catalog of object-oriented templates, so readers don’t reinvent the wheel with each project.

Computer scientists Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides assembled 23 patterns. This is a must-read for software developers because the templates apply to the most common engineering challenges. Each pattern includes the following information:

  • Intent
  • Applicability
  • Implementation
  • Known Uses
  • Sample Code

The pattern catalog is divided into creational, structural, and behavioral patterns for easy use. Design Patterns created a common ground for speaking about and understanding software systems upon publication. This remains among the best books for software engineers because of its ongoing applicability to new projects.

4. Rapid Development

Software projects require some level of organization to fit within time and budgetary constraints. The ongoing temptation to overwork developers and shrink timelines for quicker turnarounds can lead to costly errors. Steve McConnell - the founder and CEO of Construx Software - wrote Rapid Development (1996) as a guide to effective management practices for software projects.

This book for software engineers argues that hyperfocus on one phase of development can lead to costly errors. Engineers and team leaders can achieve rapid development through a balanced approach that best allocates resources. McConnell defines the ideal rapid development process as four pillars:

  1. Avoiding classic mistakes
  2. Applying development fundamentals
  3. Managing risk to avoid catastrophe
  4. Applying schedule-oriented practices

Engineers still find this book relevant because its sections on classic mistakes and best practices remain relevant. McConnell’s descriptions of people, processes, products, and technology mistakes provide useful tips decades after publication. Detailed analyses of best practices like evolutionary prototyping and change boards keep Rapid Development a must-read for software developers.

5. Working Effectively with Legacy Code

Outdated or inherited code - also known as legacy code - is a challenge for any software with ongoing demand. Poorly managed legacy code can lead to security vulnerabilities and diminished software performance. Michael Feathers turned years of consulting with development teams into Working Effectively with Legacy Code (2004).

Feathers begins the book by exploring why software requires change over time. He also argues for identifying seams in code for easier testing and editing. Working Effectively with Legacy Code structures its Changing Software section as a help section with chapters such as:

  • How Do I Add a Feature?
  • My Application is All API Calls
  • I Don’t Understand the Code Well Enough to Change It

This work is among the best books for software engineers because of its thorough section on Dependency-Breaking Techniques. Feathers explains refactoring techniques like Introduce Instance Delegator or Extract and Override Call with steps for implementation. This software engineering book provides an evergreen resource for legacy code management.

Learning Software Engineering Skills at Baylor University

The best books for software engineers build on lessons learned in school and on the job. Baylor University’s Online Masters in Computer Science provides the advanced foundation necessary for success in the software industry. Graduate courses are entirely virtual, and applicants are not required to submit GRE scores.

The Software Engineering Degree builds the design, analysis, and testing skills needed in a rapidly changing job market. Students prepare for senior roles in software development with the help of experienced faculty members. Baylor University requires 30 credits of graduate courses, including:

  • Advanced Object-Oriented Development
  • Advanced Software Engineering
  • Distributed Systems
  • Software Verification & Validation

National recognition for Baylor University stems from its support for student excellence and post-graduate success. U.S. News & World Report ranked Baylor No. 77 in its ranking of National Universities. The publication also placed the university among national leaders in the following categories:

  • No. 20 in Most Innovative Schools
  • No. 46 in Best Colleges for Veterans
  • No. 113 in Best Value Schools

Prepare for worldwide impact and in-demand roles in software engineering.

Learn more about Baylor’s online Masters of Computer Science program.