Whether you are thinking about launching a new company, looking for insights into future trends for new products and services, or are simply curious about the way Silicon Valley works and how the world’s top tech companies bring innovative products to market, there is a book for you.
The 11 books below represent some of the most important tech books ever written.
At a glance, you can see that both the subjects and approaches to technology have evolved over time. Books that were written during the 1970s – at just about the same time that Silicon Valley was starting to take shape – tend to focus more on computers and the upcoming Information Age.
By the 1980s and early 1990s, the focus was on the Internet, software, and IT. And by the 2000s, the focus once again shifted, to embrace cutting-edge topics such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
1. The Art of Computer Programming (1968), Donald E. Knuth
The “Art of Computer Programming” is an epic book project by Donald E. Knuth completed over a period of six years (1962-1968). In it, Knuth gives a comprehensive overview of different kinds of programming algorithms and ideas for software development.
This book has acquired a legendary status among computer programmers and software developers, with some of them reverently referring to this as “the bible.”
Bill Gates also once famously remarked that anyone actually finishing this book, from start to finish, should send him their resume 🙂
2. The Soul of a New Machine (1981), Tracy Kidder
Ever wondered what it’s like to design a next-generation product at a leading tech company under seemingly impossible deadlines?
That’s the story that Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder tells in “The Soul of a New Machine,” which details Data General’s efforts to build a new computer.
For the uninitiated, Data General was one of the first minicomputer firms from the late 1960s.
At the time, Data General was a formidable force in the computer industry, but it was under intense competitive pressure from its rival, Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC).
You can read this book as either a suspense-filled drama set in a leading tech company – or as a blueprint for business success in the tech sector.
3. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), Steven Levy
This is the book that literally coined the word “hackers.” It was written back in the day when you had to manually route email using maps of connected computers.
The purpose of Levy’s book was to chronicle the hacker movement from a counterculture movement in the 1970’s into something very mainstream by the 1980’s. As a reader, you go through an engrossing journey through three generations of hackers – starting with the early mainframe hackers at MIT and ending with the Apple 2 in the ’80s.
Almost 500 pages long with no pictures, Hackers is pure dope for IT geeks. In fact, Levy also gets attribution for popular Hacker Ethic principles.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has famously referenced “The Hacker Way” as capturing the perfect ethos of being a world-class tech company.
4. Only the Paranoid Survive (1996), Andy Grove
Written nearly twenty-two years ago, ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’ has become a modern-day classic. Late legendary Intel CEO Andy Grove laid out his thesis that any tech corporation, no matter how large or how powerful, must constantly be looking for new sources of competitive advantage.
The book tells the inside story of Intel’s extraordinary success, including the world-changing decision by Intel’s management team to focus on microprocessors.
In the mid-eighties, Japanese memory producers brought Intel to an inflection point forcing it out of memory chips in 1994, despite being profitable and growing at about 30% annually, and into microprocessors.
You would be amazed at reading Andy Grove’s views on the future of the Internet in 1996. It was as if he was blessed with the power of clairvoyance. He actually glimpses the one threat that eventually put Intel on the decline, Mobile. This speaks volumes about how insightful a leader Andy was.
5. The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), Clayton Christensen
It’s not every day that a book by a Harvard Business School professor becomes a worldwide bestseller, but that’s exactly what has happened with Professor Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In fact, the book has spawned a number of sequels and prequels, just like a Hollywood movie franchise.
“The Innovator’s Dilemma” sought to answer a question that has bedevilled tech companies for years: How is it possible that young upstart companies unseat large, entrenched companies seemingly overnight?
Professor Christensen’s answer is “disruptive technology” and this term has become a classic buzzword in the world’s leading tech hubs.
He lays out an excellent framework in which to classify the types of innovation but far more importantly, identifies how you should pursue those innovations, what pitfalls you are likely to encounter, and what you can do about them. The analysis seems thorough and complete.
6. The New New Thing (2001), Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis has always had a knack for finding great stories and bringing them to life – consider that he also wrote: “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” (both made into Hollywood movies).
In “The New New Thing,” Lewis captures the excitement of the early Internet boom and the creation of the world’s first graphical browser – Netscape and its charismatic co-founder James Clark. Essentially, the book describes his maniacal quest for wealth.
Throughout, Lewis conveys the feeling of the Internet bubble of the late 90s; the wealthy, controlling venture capitalists; the insanely-priced IPOs for companies that had no clue how to make money.
You also get behind-the-scenes peek into the creation of Netscape and Silicon Graphics with James Clark firmly rooted in the centre of the story.
7. The Hard Thing about Hard Things (2014), Ben Horowitz
Horowitz is one of the world’s most famous venture capitalists and the co-founder of influential Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. In this book, he gives his personal advice on building a young startup company.
This is a real-life story of how much it sucks when your great idea goes South and you have to dig in and go through the struggles that it takes to succeed. This is an awesome book for any aspiring entrepreneur and also anyone who just wants to get smarter and help their company grow and help themselves become a better person.
The core of the book is the first three chapters in which Ben describes his career with particular details on the founding and management of LoudCloud, which became Opsware under his management. The rest of the book contains the lessons he has learned from the experience.
8. Zero to One: Notes on Startups (2014), Peter Thiel
As emerging tech startups continue to captivate the public imagination, consumer demand has grown for “how to” books that teach them how to launch innovative startups of their own.
One such book is Thiel’s “Zero to One“. Unless you have been living in a cave, you’d know who Peter Thiel is. His book became a chart-topper soon after its release and is now the favorite of the Silicon Valley digerati.
Thiel discusses how to launch new products, how to find new competitive niches, and how to build the future. ‘Zero to One’ is the essence of Thiel’s distinguished foresight and intellectual savvy. For those taking the plunge and those struggling with their new ventures, this book is a must-read.
9. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (2015), Ashlee Vance
Every generation has its defining tech entrepreneur – somebody who not only launches a world-class company but also somebody who is perceived as a visionary. Just as the 1990’s and 2000’s had Steve Jobs, this new decade has Elon Musk.
How is it possible that the same person is responsible for cutting-edge companies in space exploration, renewable energy and electric vehicles? And don’t forget about Musk’s current plans to build a futuristic Hyperloop! Some have described Musk as a real-world version of Tony Stark.
Full marks to Ashlee Vance for giving the readers insights into Musk and how he operates. You get a complete picture of Musk as a driven visionary that is absolutely set on delivering some of the most aspirational goals of any human in history.
[If you’re not a Musk fan, then consider Walter Isaacson’s monumental biography of Apple’s Steve Jobs, a 571-page book that is simply called “Steve Jobs.”]
10. The Industries of the Future (2016), Alec Ross
Want a glimpse of which innovative technologies are going to take off over the next 10 years? That’s exactly what Alec Ross has attempted to do with “The Industries of the Future”.
A former Hillary Clinton adviser, Ross has unique insights about the future. His book focuses attention on five fields which will drive the next 20 years of change to our economies and societies – Robotics/AI, Genomics, Cryptocurrency, Codification of Money and Big data.
The next wave of transformation, Alec fears, will wring in extreme changes. The exponential speed with which the computing power is hurtling along, many industries are going to be turned on their heads. Recommended reading if you are keeping a keen eye on future technologies.
11. Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of Artificial Intelligence (2017), Max Tegmark
Artificial intelligence is here and it is all around us, in the form of very powerful algorithms that are capable of processing remarkable amounts of information.
Max Tegmark is an MIT professor and a renowned cosmologist. His book Life 3.0 captures the essence of AI, cuts out all the noise and addresses the significant questions surrounding the fate of humans in a world overrun by Superintelligence.
Will the superior intelligence wipe out mankind or will humans, cyborgs and superintelligences coexist peacefully? Will the humans end up an inferior breed kept around like zoo animals?How do we make sure that AIs retain the goals we are going to encode into them?
If you are thinking about reading about one AI book this year, let it be Life 3.0. You will not be disappointed.
Of course, there are many more books that arguably should be on this list. Here is a list of my honorable mentions:
Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet (1988) by Katie Hafner It tells the story of how the Arpanet was formed. The Arpanet’s design being essentially the same as the Internet’s except that the former was intended for connecting academic and federal government institutions rather than commercial institutions and private citizens
Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology (1990) by George Gilder started the trend of blurring stores of pure technology with lessons for business strategy and competitive thinking. Gilder is a rare combination of engineering acumen and campfire storyteller. His story of the birth of the modern computer industry is absolutely fascinating.
Crossing the Chasm (1991) by Geoffrey Moore was required reading for emerging technology companies in the early 1990’s. Many still consider Moore’s philosophy to be the best methodology available for going to market with a new technology or application.
The choice of which books you read first is really dependent on your future goals. Are you trying to launch a new business? Learn from the mistakes of the past? Or glimpse into the future? There are plenty of choices on this list for everyone.