Tech canon: The books that shaped today's IT pros

From cyber space to regular expressions, these books shaped the brains and culture of today's tech pros -- and forecast the industry's future

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. InfoWorld surveyed its pros and readers and came up with the following 15 picks for the first tech canon.

"The Art of Computer Programming, Volumes I-IV"

Originally planned as a single 12-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 Art of Computer Programming, Volumes I-IV" (1968, 1969, 1973, 2011)
By Donald E. Knuth
Available on Amazon

"The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering"

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 "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 is bumming you out, stick around for the part where Brooks argues that rock star programmers should be compensated like, well, rock stars.

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

"The C Programming Language"

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 C Programming Language" (1978)
By Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie
Available on Amazon

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Another Twitter citation, this book is the reason someone in every meeting will mutter, "The answer is 42," when discussing a solution to a thorny technological problem.

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (1979)
By Douglas Adams
Available on Amazon

"The Soul of a New Machine"

Written in the twilight of the era when a single programmer 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."

"The Soul of a New Machine" (1981)
By Tracy Kidder
Available on Amazon

"Neuromancer"/"Count Zero"/"Mona Lisa Overdrive"

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, cyber space 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."

"Neuromancer"/"Count Zero"/"Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1984, 1986, 1989)
By William Gibson
Available on Amazon

"The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT"

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 became 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 Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT" (1987)
By Stewart Brand
Available on Amazon

"The Cuckoo's Egg"

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 75-cent 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.

"The Cuckoo's Egg" (1989)
By Clifford Stoll
Available on Amazon

"Envisioning Information"

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.

"Envisioning Information" (1990)
By Edward Tufte
Available on Amazon

"Snow Crash"

A pizza delivery man-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.

"Snow Crash" (1992)
By Neal Stephenson
Available on Amazon

"Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software"

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.

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


The novel as protoblog, 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 startups in the early 1990s.

"Microserfs" (1995)
By Douglas Coupland
Available on Amazon

"Applied Cryptography"

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.

"Applied Cryptography" (1996)
By Bruce Schneier
Available on Amazon

"The Inmates Are Running the Asylum"

You know how you've been in meetings and 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.

"The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" (2004)
By Alan Cooper
Available on Amazon

"Mastering Regular Expressions"

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.

"Mastering Regular Expressions" (2006)
By Jeffrey Friedl
Available on Amazon