The Books That Shaped Today's IT Pros

From cyberspace to regular expressions, these are the books that that shaped the brains and culture of today's tech pros -- and forecast future directions for the industry.

Credit: Ryan McVay

If you want to learn about tomorrow's science, read today's science fiction. But what if you want to learn about tomorrow's tech trends? Start with the books that make up the modern canon for IT. Here are the top 15 picks for the first Tech Canon.

"The Art of Computer Programming, Volumes I-IV" by Donald E. Knuth (1968, 1969, 1973, 2011)

Originally planned as a single twelve-chapter volume, The Art of Computer Programming (or TAOCP, as it's often known) is a four-volumes-and-counting set that’s regarded as the industry's defining work. Bill Gates once said, "If you think you're a really good programmer ... read (Knuth's) Art of Computer Programming.... You should definitely send me a résumé if you can read the whole thing."

"The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering" by Fred Brooks (1975)

Sometimes, to unravel the knots in a new software project, you need a classic set of tools. This book was first released in 1975 and updated in 1986 with the essay "No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering," which posits that "there is no single development ... which by itself promises even one order of magnitude [tenfold] improvement within a decade in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity." But if the news that there's no magic bullet for increasing productivity tenfold is bumming you out, stick around for the part of the chapter where Brooks argues that rockstar programmers should be compensated like, well, rockstars.

"The C Programming Language" by Brian W. Kernighan & Dennis Ritchie (1978)

Multiple InfoWorld readers recommended this text via Twitter, which, to us, constitutes the strongest argument for inclusion in the canon. But in case that argument doesn't hold water, consider this reason for hugging K&R close to your nerdy bosom: The coding and formatting styles of the programs in this book served as the coding style used by convention in the source code for the Unix and Linux kernels.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams (1979)

Another Twitter cite, and the reason someone in every meeting will mutter, "The answer is 42," when someone starts talking about solving a thorny technological problem.

"The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder (1981)

Written in the twilight of the era when a single engineer could really know the CPU of a computer, this book is a riveting true-life tale of the trials and travails endured by the engineers who developed the first 32-bit minicomputer offering from Data General (aka "The Eagle"). It's a classic that Wired magazine once called "the original nerd epic."

"Neuromancer"/"Count Zero"/"Mona Lisa Overdrive" by William Gibson (1984, 1986, 1989)

The dystopic sci-fi trilogy conceived of online culture back when the Internet was still the province of well-connected science and government types, and described the medium through which it would happen. As Gibson explained it, cyberspace was "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts.... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.  Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters, and constellations of data."

"The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT" by Stewart Brand (1987)

Don't let the Reagan-era copyright date fool you: The projects Brand described in this book have given rise to Lego Mindstorms, Internet portal sites, and other fun technologies that have ceased to be revolutionary and just become background noise. This is a must-read for anyone who's looking to demonstrate the benefits of techie types asking questions that they'd never thought of asking before.

"The Cuckoo's Egg" by Clifford Stoll (1989)

A tense whodunit detailing international espionage carried out over computer networks and unraveled by a programmer who had to track down the origin of a $0.75 accounting error, this book is a primer on computer secrecy and a snapshot of life in the San Francisco Bay Area in the last days before the dot-com boom of the 1990s.

"Envisioning Information" by Edward Tufte (1990)

Tufte started from the premise that readers were busy, not stupid, and went from there to create a thoughtful primer on how to convey information clearly and meaningfully to the end user. Any geek who's been tasked with putting a human-friendly interface on any software tool can appreciate the examples and principles in this book.

"Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson (1992)

A pizza deliveryman-cum-code samurai unravels a conspiracy that's about to deploy the first computer virus that can also hack the human mind. The sci-fi novel is an eerily prescient look at a world of "augmented intelligence" where people regard the flow of data between their computers and their brains as a natural cognitive process.

"Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software" by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson and John Vlissides (1994)

Recommended by InfoWorld's readers, this is an important source for object-oriented design theory and practice, not to mention a crash course in how to use object-oriented programming in classic software design patterns.

"Microserfs" by Douglas Coupland (1995)

The novel as proto-blog, this outing from Coupland introduced a generation of dot-commers to the concept of a "geek house" -- think a commune of coders -- and documented life in both Microsoft and start-ups in the early 1990s.

"Applied Cryptography" by Bruce Schneier (1996)

The definitive work on the theory and practice of enciphering and deciphering data. “Applied Cryptography” describes dozens of cryptography algorithms and gives how-tos on deploying them in real-life software solutions.

"The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" by Alan Cooper (2004)

You know how you've been in meetings and you've noticed that the people who come up with business initiatives and products are never the people in charge of developing and implementing them? This book takes that observation and argues for a new way of making technology products for everyone.

"Mastering Regular Expressions" by Jeffrey Friedl (2006)

Get automated! Regular expressions are one of the most powerful tools out there for coding complex data processing, and this primer shows readers how a regular expression engine works, how to match and exclude patterns, and how to deploy regular expressions in n a wide range of languages.