Have you ever looked at a word you use and see every day, like the word "What," and suddenly start doubting yourself and wonder if it's spelled correctly? There you go. What. Is THAT how it's spelled? That doesn't look right. Why would such a simple thing suddenly be called into question?
Anyway, there's a glut of technical books out there, and I'm starting to realize that I take their style and their existence for granted. They usually describe what some product is and what it does.
I really enjoy books/blogs and writing that spend less time on the What and more time on the So What? and Now What? and What For? I'd like to see more books that put technologies into a larger context and less on just What.
It'd be interesting to take any book title and add one of these phrases to the end, like "Professional ASP.NET 2.0, So What?" or "Ruby on Rails, Now What?" or "SQL Server, What For?"
The Ruby Way does a good job explaining What Ruby is Good For. It answers the Why, to me at least, very well. It's the best book I've found that doesn't just teach Ruby syntax, but also Ruby idioms; it's mastering idiomatic structures that brings fluency in any language, human or computer.
Programming Pearls - I used this book while teaching my C# Class at OIT even though it had nothing to do with C# because it's just that good. It's a series of collected articles from Communications of the ACM. It helped me understand what a number of things were for. I better understand computer problem solving, what Math is for (its relationship to programing, which isn't always clear to everyone)
How to be a Programmer (free) by Robert Read - This is a fun, short read that is general enough that it makes sense in most languages. If you want a CS101 (or 201) practical refresher, this is a great book that answers mostly "how to" questions, but ultimately explains what a number of technique are for.
Dissecting a C# Application: Inside SharpDevelop is a fantastic book and one of my favorites because it's a story that's full of So What? answers. They talk about what they tried, what failed, what didn't and how they moved forward. The Reviews on Amazon aren't all favorable as one reviewer says this is "an extremely difficult book from which to learn" but if you learn, as I do, from reading source with explanations of design decisions, then this (slightly old, but still useful) book is worth your time.
Programming WPF by Chris Sells and Ian Griffiths (his blog is a technical joy) is great because the authors are always trying to answer these "so what" questions. Chris is like this in real life. "So What?" is, I think, his number one question as he takes little for granted. If you read Ian's blog, you know his knowledge is deep to the point of being obscene (that's a good thing) and when you put these two guys together you get a great book that answers, for me, WPF, So What?
OK, after I've learned a technology, Now What? What's the next step in my learning and what should I do?
The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and Dave Thomas is a book that answers a lot of Now What questions for me. It shows a complete, pragmatic attitude towards the software development lifecycle. I wouldn't say it's complete in an Enterprise sense, but good for medium-size projects, and most of the general kinds of things you're going to bump into.
In May, my friend and long-time compatriot Patrick Cauldwell will release Code Leader: Using People, Tools, and Processes to Build Successful Software which I read, enjoyed and happily wrote a foreword for. This is a book based on Patrick's "This I believe: The Developer Edition" post of last year. He takes many different tools and processes and answers the Now What? question.
Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun is an update to The Art of Project Management and I now have both editions. Scott answers lots of the Now What questions in a comfortable, conversational tone with a deep focus on getting things done in software development. He helps with planning and execution.
This is a woefully short list. Perhaps I'm missing something, but other than actually doing it (and failing and trying again) there aren't a lot of books that describe how to build large, complete applications that support the entire software development lifecycle.
What books have you read that answer these So What, Now What, and What For questions?
Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.