The #1 Book to Grow Your Programming Career in 2021
Learning more technical skills is an obvious 2021 resolution for a software engineer. There are plenty of resources on technical topics (which I cover for front-end developers in my article about The Definitive Guide to Front-end Development), but what if learning more technical skills is frankly not motivating?
What if there are other more pressing problems: you are stuck at your pay bracket with seemingly nowhere to grow, or you want to transition programming jobs, or you are simply stuck professionally, confused about the next career move?
There is a book for that, and it is specifically for programmers, hallelujah! Published in 2017, this programming career book is still relevant and unrivaled.
The Complete Software Developer's Career Guide by John Sonmez is exactly as the title describes, with no understatement. This guide is truly “complete”: it is 798 pages and it seems to have every programming career topic under the sun. The book is written to capture a broad audience, encouraging readers to skip chapters and read what is most relevant in the phase of their career.
Here is just a handful of topics this guide covers:
The technical skills you need to have to get started as a programmer
The various ways you can pursue a programming education
Types of programmers you can choose to become
How to write a resume, interview, get an internship, and get a job
How to switch to programming mid-career
Soft skills you need to work well with others as a developer
How to advance your programming career by networking and growing a reputation
The book is available on Amazon and free for Kindle Unlimited users. This was a deterrent for me since I use neither Audible nor Kindle as my main ebook retailer (speaking to all fellow Kobo readers), but this isn’t a problem for many readers.
In this review, I am going to cover three main takeaways after reading this book cover-to-cover (more about reading cover-to-cover in Takeaway #3).
Then, stay to the end for the Review Snapshot, which includes important key information — like whether this book was actually fun to read. Fun matters, even in careers books about programming.
Even technical books provide a personal experience for readers. That is why I include key takeaways that resonated with me in my reviews. By sharing what resonated with me, I hope to allow you to imagine how the book might impact you.
Takeaway #1: Be Deliberate About Your Career
The book is about mindset: taking ownership of your career, getting over social anxiety, and attacking success by making opportunities happen.
Personal branding and in-bound marketing is a major talking point in this book, and by the end, the book’s true mission becomes apparent: it aims (without pressuring too much) to convert you into an entrepreneur programmer and into the path the author himself took.
The Complete Software Developer's Career Guide covers personal branding, networking, blogging, becoming known for something, and not just being a 9-to-5 career programmer for life but “breaking the glass ceiling” on the programming career.
The personality Sonmez brings in the audio version is also motivational and uplifting. It’s like having a career coach in your ear.
The best advice in this book is not about programming. In fact, the content about just programming is the least valuable. An overview of the difference between a back-end vs front-end vs app vs mobile developer provided more rudimentary information than a top Google search. The content is not worth it, particularly if you are lugging around a hard copy of this behemoth.
It was the true career stuff — personal branding, interviewing, getting internship opportunities, networking, and negotiating, specifically from a programmer’s perspective — that makes this book shine.
I found it motivational and infectious, which may have helped push me to starting Books on Code and sharing my niche: love of software development and love of books (Note: Have yet to find a way to incorporate my love of matcha).
The book states that networking and reputation building is 90% giving and 10% receiving, which is a message I can 100% get behind. Expanding the heart, spreading positivity, and building mental resiliency are all positive on top of furthering a career.
To give you the flavor of the book, I picked some key quotes related to being deliberate about your career:
“[Y]ou can be the best programmer in the world, but if you are sitting alone in your basement and no one knows it but you, it doesn’t really matter. You aren’t going to have much of an impact. […] I’d rather have a medium amount of skill and a huge reputation than a huge amount of skill and no reputation."
“The first thing you need to do when you create your personal brand is to define what it is that you want to be known for. And you can only pick one thing at a time. That’s what makes it so difficult."
“The problem is many software developers start a blog and write blog posts for about a year, see no results, and give up. […] You’ve got to be willing to stick it out longer if you want to have success. […] Most people never achieve anything great in life because they give up too soon."
“[B]ecome the kind of person who people want to be around and want to know because of the value you create for them."
Takeaway #2: Programmers with Soft Skills Excel
Break stereotypes. I’m an introverted developer, and likely so are you, but we ultimately sink and swim by the hands of others. All business is still about people, and while most of the job as a programmer is (ideally) spent programming, soft skills are an essential and often uncultivated necessity.
Here is a quote from The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide along these lines:
I find that soft skills developed in other professions translate really well into the software development field and have the tendency to move people who possess them ahead of the normal learning curve. Having them may give you a distinct advantage, especially if you worked in a field where soft skills or people skills were highly valued.
I can relate to “being in another profession." In college, I majored in not computer science but English literature. I got my Master’s in literature while working full-time as a web developer. But even as an undergrad student, I had the intention of entering tech.
Here’s the thing: I knew my peers had no intention of doing the same. A few vocal individuals in my "Business of Writing" class felt electronic books were the death of literature, and the general sentiment among my peers was to make a living with literature or “sell out.”
I found a differentiating quality, and I am pleased to see that this idea is becoming more mainstream, having now met awesome people who majored and minored in literature and computer science. Even Stanford now offers a joint degree called CS+English. The degree page states "the world of computer engineering thrives on the creativity and adaptability taught in literature departments.” To state that the education from literature makes computer engineering “thrive” seems a bit much— but hey— I’ll take the compliment.
In my literature curriculum, particularly my Master’s program, I found most valuable the requirement to give presentations and lead discussions. Leading discussions often involved lengthy sessions of about two hours, asking smart questions about the reading and listening attentively in order to gently guide the discussion toward meaningful insights. Keeping on topic was a key part of the job, which later became an instrumental skill in my career. Facilitating meetings can be one of my favorite activities, and my career’s greatest highlights have been in building bridges to join differing perspectives (like between developers and designers).
The book advocates for not just being a good communicator, but a good networker and speaker as well. One of its many suggestions was to join your local Toastmasters chapter and to do public speaking. Having participated in a Toastmaster’s group myself — I recommend!
Takeaway #3: Always Be Reading Technical Books, But Don’t Read Cover to Cover
The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide said it: read technical books. I am biased since my entire thing on Books on Code is about reading technical books. But John Sonmez says it as well, so let’s talk about it.
In the chapter titled “Keeping Your Skills Up to Date,” Sonmez says:
You should always be working your way through at least one technical book. […] Now, just reading books cover-to-cover isn’t the best way to learn, but getting in the habit of reading and working your way through new technical books all the time is a great way to broaden the base of your programming knowledge and stay current on technology. For this kind of reading, try to pick books that you will benefit the most from or that will have a lasting value.
Sonmez goes on to recommend design patterns and methodologies as a classically good choice.
Notice that it advises against reading cover to cover. This means a particular skill is required in reading technical books, which is pinpointing what you want to get out of them and finding just those things you need. We all know, or might ourselves be, completionists with books. But reading is for knowledge and not to boast that our eyeballs were on every page. As somebody who has written technical things about enterprise software for eyeballs, if the writing is not working for you, skip it.
The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide makes clear that there is no substitute for hands-on experience and advocates for side projects as a way to get experience, generate questions, and then find answers to those questions through books, Google searches, or video courses like Pluralsight* — given that you’re currently working as a developer or disciplined at being self-educated.
If you like the more structured class formats, I recommend courses offered by Coursera or Udemy.
When it comes to learning your next programming language, Sonmez encourages getting stuck in the weeds first. Knowledge sticks when you have an active, practical use for it.
Reading alone isn't the answer, just like practicing yoga alone does not give a sculpted physique. When reading a technical book, it's often hard to gauge what information will come most in handy.
Instead, let experience inform what you read rather than let reading substitute experience.
* Pluralsight link is a referral link
This review snapshot covers all the basics you need to understand about this book: the audience that suits this book best, its affordability, how much value the book brings, and most importantly, how fun the book is to read. Since after all, books on programming ought to be fun to read.
Main Audience: “Transitioning Developers”
While developers at any phase in their career can find value out of this book, the most suitable reader is someone who is feeling stuck in their career and looking for a change.
Affordability Score: “Inexpensive or Free”
This book is sold exclusively on Amazon and free with Kindle Unlimited, which makes the book extremely affordable. Without Unlimited, the ebook copy is $9.99, whereas the physical copy is $29.99.
Value Score: “Many, Many Light Snacks”
This nearly-800-page book covers many topics, but each topic doesn’t have much depth. The paragraphs are written like blogs, with short-short paragraphs, bold text everywhere, and sometimes zingers without zing. I recommend reading this book how I read it — audio book and while lightly focusing on something else like driving or washing dishes. Though the content is light and not dense, over hours of listening to Sonmez, I felt inspired and enlightened in general.
Fun Score: “Motivational at Times”
Especially with the audio version, I enjoyed Sonmez’s energy. He motivated me to think more deliberately and to consider the value of becoming an entrepreneur programmer. A book this long gives you plenty of time for personal reflection and to get ideas.
Conclusion: “Read this book if you are seeking career growth”
And if you have a long commute and don’t mind the light material.
As someone who purports to read “technical books” for Books on Code, The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide is not very technical. But it is for programmers and it gives valuable career insights.
Sonmez is a successful entrepreneur and programmer, and he authenticity wants to help others reach new heights in their career. In some ways, I felt that I was not the target demographic. I could feel that the persona (or avatar, as bloggers might call it) he wrote to had a completely different look and personality to mine — someone who lacks my sunniness and affinity to both matcha and group fitness classes. Yet, that did not detract from my enjoyment listening to this book.
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