5 Best Head First Books for Coders in 2023

“Your brain thinks this is important.” Head First books always caption a tiger with that text to demonstrate how the brain learns. Tigers are dangerous — pay attention!

“Your brain thinks this is important.” Head First books always caption a tiger with that text to demonstrate how the brain learns. Tigers are dangerous — pay attention!

The Head First book series is like nothing else. The books are packed with games, puzzles, and graphics.

Concepts are anthropomorphized and given voices and quirks. You can see these concepts arguing amongst each other in a Fireside Chat. You may find yourself writing them into a crossword or dragging them to the right place in a word-magnet puzzle.

But most fascinating about the Head First books is its claim: the Head First book series is brain-friendly.

And it really is brain-friendly: you learn faster, better, and with less effort. Head First books are amazing for beginner programmers.

In this article, we’re talking about 5 great Head First books. Head First books are all quality. But in this collection, I aim to give you five titles that you can read all of and learn something new to help your technical career.

If you find yourself addicted to the Head First series and want to read more, this is the list for you.


Why Read Head First Books?

Do you prefer stimulating dinner party conversation to dry, dull, academic lectures?

[T]his book is for you.

Head First Book Series

True story: my first introduction to coding was with a Head First book.

The summer after high school, I got my hands on a then-new copy of Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML. I could say that I “read” it cover-to-cover over the entire summer. But Head First books are not “read.” I did all of the puzzles — all of the crosswords and exercises — and I was in love.

Once I completed reading the book, I was sad and in longing for more. Going into college, I intended to study English literature as I felt that writing would always be my all-consuming passion. To ‘compromise,’ I enrolled in a certification program in web development at my local community college.

After graduating with my degree in literature, I tripped into a web development internship, which transformed into a career and to talking to you right now.

A Head First book changed my life.

And if you know anyone curious about this career, Head First books are fantastic introductions.


What Makes Head First Books “Brain Friendly”?

The quote below is next to this image of a tiger. Images are important for our relational thinking.

The quote below is next to this image of a tiger. Images are important for our relational thinking.

Each Head First book starts with a similar introduction.

The book acknowledges that it does not look academic. It is packed with pictures and white space. You will not feel ‘big brained’ reading it or perceive just how much you are learning.

Here’s what Head First says about being a brain-friendly book:

We know what you’re thinking.

“How can this be a serious programming book?”

“What’s with all the graphics?”

“Can I actually learn it this way?”

And we know what your brain is thinking.

Your brain craves novelty. It’s alway searching, scanning, waiting for something unusual. It was built that way, and it helps you stay alive.

Today, you’re less likely to b e tiger snack, but your brain’s still looking. You just never know. So what does your brain do with all the routine, ordinal, normal things you encounter? Everything it can to stop them from interfering with the brain’s real job — recording things that matter. It doesn’t bother saving the boring things; they never make it past the “this is obviously not important” filter.

How does your brain know what’s important? Suppose you’re out for a day hike and a tiger jumps in front of you, what happens inside your head and body?

Neurons fire. Emotions crank up. Chemicals surge.

And that’s how your brain knows…

This must be important! Don’t forget it!

What Head First explains about learning is something that many of us still do not understand. We think that through sheer willpower, we can learn.

But that is far from true.

We learn faster when our subconscious thinks the material matters. And what matters to our subconscious pertains to our survival. Our brain notices novel experiences — things that surprise us and take us out of autopilot.

Head First books have a power of making you learn without knowing it. I also talk more about what makes good textbooks in my free email course, Getting the Most From Technical Books.


The Best Head First Books

Here we go! In this list, we’re looking at books from a wide range of topics so that you can keep learning and growing from the Head First series.

Let’s take a look at these top Head First books:


1. Head First Design Patterns, 2nd Edition (2021)

Head First Design Patterns is one of the most popular and praised books in the Head First series — and it has a fresh 2021 edition. Design patterns are powerful and essential for any programmer of an object-oriented language. When you know these common solutions to problems, you can communicate more effectively and in a short-hand way.

If you want to upgrade your skills as a programmer, this book is great. Each chapter discusses a different design pattern and is packed with exercises and games so that you can grasp each pattern.

Here’s what you will find in the book:

  • Introduction — Explains who the book is for, how the book is brain-friendly, and the best way to get the most out of the book.

  • Chapter 1: Intro to Design Patterns — Covers the use and benefits of design patterns as well as some object-oriented design principles. This chapter also teaches you your first pattern.

  • Chapter 2: The Observer Pattern — Explains one of the most commonly-used design patterns.

  • Chapter 3: The Decorator Pattern — Is all about inheritance and not making code changes to underlying classes. This chapter teaches how to decorate classes at runtime.

  • Chapter 4: The Factory Pattern — Teaches instantiation, which should not always be done in public. This pattern is about saving you from “embarrassing dependencies.”

  • Chapter 5: The Singleton Pattern — Teaches one of the simplest patterns in terms of its class diagram. Despite its simplicity, it requires deep object-oriented thinking.

  • Chapter 6: The Command Pattern — This chapter is about encapsulating method invocation to do “wickedly smart” things for reuse and logging.

  • Chapter 7: The Adapter and Facade Patterns — This pattern is very cool. It’s about adapting interfaces to look like something they’re not.

  • Chapter 8: The Template Method Pattern — This is about encapsulating pieces of algorithms so that subclasses can hook themselves into a computation whenever.

  • Chapter 9: The Iterator and Composite Patterns — This is about allowing your clients to iterate through your objects without getting a peek at how you store them.

  • Chapter 10: The State Pattern — Digs into the relationship between the Strategy and State pattern.

  • Chapter 11: The Proxy Pattern — Proxies are about controlling and managing access, standing in for the objects they proxy.

  • Chapter 12: Compound Patterns — Patterns can work together. This chapter talks about ways you can combine them.

  • Chapter 13: Better Living with Patterns — This final chapter talks about a few extra details about what you would encounter in the real world. This chapter talks about how to organize and think in patterns in a professional setting.


2. Head First PMP, 4th Edition (2018)

Head First PMP is for those studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) agile certification exam. I place this book on the list because I believe that any software engineer can benefit from the information in this book. This book teaches how to avoid common problems in a team and project. It also gives you a mental framework to find well-functioning teams and good work environments.

This book makes us better engineers and prepares us for team leadership positions or even an engineer product manager role.

This certificate is in place to improve the success rate of projects, since there are many opportunities for failure.

So what’s in Head First PMP? Let’s take a look:

  • Chapter 1: Why get certified? — If you worked on a lot of projects, you see the same issues come up. PMP is about common solutions. This chapter talks about the value of the project, the project lifecycle, what a project is, and more.

  • Chapter 2: Organizations, Constraints, and Projects — This chapter talks about the different types of organizations and which type you should look for in a new job.

  • Chapter 3: The Process Framework — This chapter talks about the pattern to all of the work that gets done on a project.

  • Chapter 4: Project Integration Management — This chapter teaches a few processes you can use in your projects every day to make stakeholders happy.

  • Chapter 5: Scope Management — This chapter is about tracking project scope as the work is getting done. You also make sure that the people who asked for the work are satisfied with the result.

  • Chapter 6: Schedule Management — This chapter teaches about tracking your work so that the work gets done on time. This is where the deadlines are set and met.

  • Chapter 7: Cost Management — All projects are about money, ultimately. That’s why projects need to have budgets. This chapter is all about that.

  • Chapter 8: Quality Management — This chapter is about measuring quality, which means the product is as promised and efficient.

  • Chapter 9: Project Resource Management — This chapter is about building the best team with the best people. This chapter also talks a bit about human resource management.

  • Chapter 10: Communications Management — Communication management is about getting everyone on the same page. Projects can break down without effective communication.

  • Chapter 11: Project Risk Management — This chapter covers how to deal with unexpected problems as you run into them. It also talks about how to plan for and expect a level of risk and to minimize that risk.

  • Chapter 12: Procurement Management — Some jobs are too big for you and your team to do on your own. This chapter is about finding another company to do the work for you.

  • Chapter 13: Stakeholder Management — This chapter is about knowing your audience and managing them so well that everyone is satisfied.

  • Chapter 14: Professional Responsibility — At the individual level, you need to make good choices consistently. Project management is about being ethical and making good calls.

  • Chapter 15: A Little Last-Minute Review — Reviews previous chapters and tests you so that you are prepared for the PMP exam.


3. Head First Agile (2017)

Head First Agile is a book that teaches agile and its most popular methodologies. The book also serves as prep for the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner credential. In my time working in the software industry, I have been exposed to Scrum, XP, Lean, and individual team’s “own flavor” of agile. If you have any intention of joining a software team in the future, this book is great for preparing your mind and your expectations.

Here’s what you can find in Head First Agile:

  • Chapter 1: What is agile? — This chapter discusses the real, sustainable way to solve problems through many iterations of hard-earned lessons. This chapter discusses the importance of agile as well as the challenges of implementing it because of mindset.

  • Chapter 2: Agile values and principles — This chapter covers topics such as how to cultivate the right mindset in a team with the values in the Agile Manifesto.

  • Chapter 3: The Rules of Scrum — Scrum is a flavor of agile that is one of the most popular. This chapter talks about the rules and values in Scrum.

  • Chapter 4: Agile Planning and Estimation — This chapter teaches how to plan together with a team each sprint’s goal. Agile is about a team’s collective commitment. This chapter also talks about user stories, planning poker, velocity, and burndown charts.

  • Chapter 5: XP (extreme programming — XP is an agile methodology that’s focused on building teams that communicate well and share an environment where context is shared so that the team can embrace change. This chapter discusses what XP is and how it works.

  • Chapter 6: Lean/Kanban — Lean and Kanban are another flavor of agile methodology. Teams with a Lean mindset find where they waste time. This process involves setting work-in-progress limits and creates systems to not get sidetracked.

  • Chapter 7: Preparing for the PMI-ACP exam — The PMI Agile Certified Practitioner credential is a popular certification that verifies that you know and understand the concepts of agile. This chapter discusses the exam and helps you think about how to prepare.

  • Chapter 8: Professional responsibility — This chapter discusses your role as an individual on your team. A healthy team and product ultimately boils down to the individual level, so this chapter discusses personal responsibility and doing the right thing.

  • Chapter 9: Practice makes perfect — This chapter is about practicing for the PMI-ACP exam.


4. Head First Object-Oriented Analysis and Design (2006)

Head First Object-Oriented Analysis and Design is all about becoming a better programmer and product lead by properly gathering, analyzing, and testing the outcome of your software features. The aim of this book is to help you get satisfied customers, solve real problems, and have real impact as a software engineer.

Here is what you can expect in Head First Object-Oriented Analysis and Design:

  • Chapter 1: Well-Designed Apps Rock — This chapter goes over the challenges of producing great software and why OOA&D is the solution.

  • Chapter 2: Gathering Requirements — Get satisfied customers. The key is figuring out what the customer really wants by creating and defining good requirements.

  • Chapter 3: Requirements Change — Sometimes — okay, often — customers change their mind. This chapter discusses what to do in this case.

  • Chapter 4: Analysis — This chapter is about evaluating the effectiveness of your software in a real-world context. The chapter teaches textual analysis so that you can turn your work into what customers want.

  • Chapter 5: (Part 1) Good Design = Flexible Software — Nothing ever stays the same, which is why software must be designed to be flexible. Your software is going to keep changing and responding to customers needs. The chapter talks about improving an existing software project.

  • Chapter 6: Solving Really Big Problems — This chapter helps you scale the concepts you learned in this book for large codebases. The chapter introduces new tools like domain analysis and use case diagrams.

  • Chapter 7: Architecture — This chapter is about helping you break large problems into smaller ones so that you can figure out where to start with building well-ordered, well-designed applications.

  • Chapter 8: Design Principles — Do not re-invent the wheel and find solutions to problems that have already been solved. This chapter is about design principles that help you work smarter and faster.

  • Chapter 9: Iterating and Testing — This chapter is about proving to the customer that your software works by using two ways to deep dive into the software’s functionality.

  • Chapter 10: The OOA&D Lifecycle — This chapter combines the concepts learned throughout the book into a single process to write great software.


5. Head First Data Analysis (2009)

Head First Data Analysis can help you become a data scientist. But I believe data analysis makes you a better thinker. When you know how to gather, sort, visualize, and get real insights from data, you gain a critical thinking skill that many people do not have. This helps you in the world of politics. It also helps you in the world of your personal finances or if you want to start a side hustle.

For programmers who love to think, learn, and solve problems, skills in data analysis is never a negative.

If you’re interested in the data analysis field, this book works well paired with Head First Statistics, Head First SQL, and Head First Excel.

Here’s what you find in Head First Data Analysis:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction to Data Analysis — This chapter explains what tools data analysts have to analyze tons of data to drive real-world action by breaking down and structuring problems.

  • Chapter 2: Experiments — This chapter teaches conducting experiments to prove (or not) what you believe true. You will also learn how to think about and make causal connections.

  • Chapter 3: Optimization — This chapter is about learning about tweakingg our decision variables to find either the solution or optimal point where we get the most of what we want.

  • Chapter 4: Data Visualization — We are visual people and so mulling over numbers actually turns out to be a waste of everyone’s time. Converting your data to a visualization can reveal insights quickly.

  • Chapter 5: Hypothesis Testing — This chapter teaches about falsification so that we do not assume anything to be true.

  • Chapter 6: Bayesian Statistics — This chapter teaches Bayes’ rule to help deal with probabilities and uncover insights with constantly-changed data.

  • Chapter 7: Subjective Probabilities — This chapter teaches the power of standard deviation and relativity for numbers that are “made up” but have worth by their relative nature.

  • Chapter 8: Heuristics — This chapter teaches the process of handling incomplete and uncertain information so that you can make decisions quickly.

  • Chapter 9: Histograms — This chapter teaches about histograms, which is a powerful visualization similar to a bar graph.

  • Chapter 10: Regression — This chapter teaches a tool to help you predict certain values such as customer behavior.

  • Chapter 11: Error — This chapter talks about the error ranges with predictions. We don’t expect something exact, but something approximate, but by how much?

  • Chapter 12: Relational Databases — This chapter demonstrates the drawbacks to dealing with a traditional spreadsheet and introduces the value of relational databases.

  • Chapter 13: Cleaning Data — Data is useless without structure. This chapter is about cleaning your data and whipping it into something useful.


List of Head First Books on Programming Languages

The following list compiles the Head First books that cover a programming language, library, or framework. These books are not included in the top 5 because the books can have significant overlap while explaining programming fundamentals.

It is best for you to select the book based on the programming language you want to learn. These books are of similar quality and worth picking up if you aim to learn any one of these languages.

A word of caution: Pay attention to the year of publication and do your own research to figure out the relevancy of the information.

Head First books on programming language (sorted by publication date):

Miranda Limonczenko

Miranda is the founder of Books on Code, with a mission to bring book-lover culture to programmers. Learn more by checking out Miranda on LinkedIn.


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