How we think, absorb information, and maximize time—these are the topics Shopify developers and engineers are reading up on.
We have a book bar of the company’s favorite reads and make sure any employee who wants a copy of any title can get one. So we thought we’d flip the script and ask 10 of our technical minds to tell us the books they think everyone in tech should read this year.
Many of their choices were timeless, suggesting a clear desire to level up beyond hard skills. There are a couple deep dives into software design and computing systems, but many of the titles on this reading list are guides for reframing personal habits and patterns: taking notes, receiving feedback, sharing knowledge, and staying focused amid myriad distractions.
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
I received my copy of The Talent Code shortly before uprooting my life to attend a front-end bootcamp. The school sent a copy to every student about to start their nine-week program. Coyle’s thesis is “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown.” He highlights areas that allow us to become great at almost anything: deep practice, passion, and master coaching. The book made me rethink whether I’m destined to be bad at some things. One example for me was softball, but a more pressing use case was my upcoming immersion in coding. Coyle’s lessons helped me thrive during my course’s long hours, but I haven’t applied the same lessons to softball, yet.
Carys Mills, Staff Front End Developer
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird
(Princeton University Press)
I’ve always followed the adage of “work smarter, not harder,” but in knowledge work, how do we “think smarter, not harder”? The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking presents an answer, packaged in a framework that’s applicable in work and life more broadly. The book is short and pithy. I keep it near my desk. The elements of the book include how to understand a topic, how to think about failure, how to generate good questions, and how to follow those questions. I won’t spoil the fifth element for you, you’ll have to read about it yourself!
Ash Furrow, Senior Staff Developer
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone
As developers, we give and receive feedback all the time—every code review, tech review, and, of course, feedback on our foundational and soft skills too. There’s a lot of focus on how to do a good code review—how to give feedback, but there’s also an art of receiving feedback. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone’s Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well does an excellent job of laying out the different layers involved in receiving feedback and the different kinds there are. Being able to identify the kind of feedback I’m getting (beyond "constructive")—appreciation or encouragement, coaching or evaluative—has helped me leverage even poorly delivered feedback to positively impact my personal and professional growth.
Swati Swoboda, Development Manager, Shipping
How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens
Occasionally there are books that will totally flip how you think about doing something. How to Take Smart Notes is one of those. The title is about notes, but the book is about taking a totally different approach to learning and digesting information. Even if you choose not to follow the exact note taking technique it describes, the real value is in teaching you how to think about your own methods of absorbing and integrating new information. It’s completely changed the approach I take to studying nonfiction books.
Rose Wiegley, Staff Software Engineer
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
The book that I'd recommend people read, if they haven't read it before, is actually a book we recommend internally at Shopify: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Don't let the fact that it's about the Navy SEALs put you off. There are so many generally applicable lessons that are critical as our company continues to grow at a rapid pace. Success in a large organization—especially one that is globally distributed—is about decentralized leadership from teams and individuals: we all have the autonomy and permission to go forth and build amazing things for our merchants, so we should do just that whilst setting great examples for others to follow.
James Stanier, Director of Engineering, Core
The Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles by Noam Nisan and Shimon Schocken
(The MIT Press)
Curious how tiny hardware chips become the computers we work on? I highly recommend The Elements of Computing Systems for any software developer wanting a more well-rounded understanding of a computer’s abstraction layers—not just at the level you’re most comfortable with, but even deeper. This workbook guides you through building your own computer from the ground up: hardware chip specifications, assembly language, programming language, and operating system. The authors did a great job of including the right amount of knowledge to not overwhelm readers. This book has given me a stronger foundation in computing systems while working at Shopify. Don’t like technical books? The authors also have lectures on Coursera available for free.
Maple Ong, Senior Developer
A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout
A Philosophy of Software Design tackles a complicated topic: how to manage complexity while building systems. And, surprisingly, it’s an easy read. One of Stanford computer science professor John Ousterhout’s insights I strongly agree with is that working code isn’t enough. Understanding the difference between tactical vs strategic coding helps you level up—specifically, recognizing when a system is more complex than it needs to be is a crucial yet underrated skill. I also like how Ousterhout likens software to playing a team sport, and when he explains why our work as developers isn’t only writing code that works, but also creating code and systems that allow others to work easily. Read with an open mind. A Philosophy of Software Design offers a different perspective from most books on the subject.
Stella Miranda, Senior Developer
Living Documentation by Cyrille Martraire
Living Documentation isn’t so much about writing good documentation than about transmitting knowledge, which is the real purpose of documentation. In the tech world where the code is the source of truth, we often rely on direct interactions when sharing context, but this is a fragile process as knowledge can be diluted from one person to another and even lost when people leave a company. On the other side of the spectrum lies traditional documentation. It’s more perennial but requires significant effort to keep relevant, and that’s the main reason why documentation is the most overlooked task in the tech world. Living Documentation is an attempt at bridging the gap between these two extremes by applying development tools and methods to documentation in an incremental way, ensuring knowledge transmission in a 100-year company.
Frédéric Bonnet, Staff Developer
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Sometimes you need to read something that’s both resonant and entertaining in addition to job or specific skill-focused books. In the memoir Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener vividly describes her journey from working as a publishing assistant in New York to arriving in the Bay Area and befriending CEOs of tech unicorns. At a time when tech is one of the biggest and most influential industries in the world, her sharp observations and personal reflections force those of us working in the sector to look at ourselves with a critical eye.
Andrew Lo, Staff Front End Developer
Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
(Grand Central Publishing)
I've found that the most impactful way to tackle hard problems is to first get into a flow state. Having the freedom to work uninterrupted for long blocks of time has often been the differentiator in discovering creative solutions. Once you've experienced it, it's tough going back to working any other way. Most of the activities we do as knowledge workers benefit from this level of attention and focus. And if you've never tried working in long, focused time blocks, Deep Work should convince you to give it a shot. A word of warning though: make sure you have a bottle of water and some snacks handy. It's easy to completely lose track of time and skip meals. Don't do that!
Krishna Satya, Development Manager
For more book recommendations, check out this Twitter thread from last year’s National Book Lovers Day.
If building systems from the ground up to solve real-world problems interests you, our Engineering blog has stories about other challenges we have encountered. Visit our Engineering career page to find out about our open positions. Join our remote team and work (almost) anywhere. Learn about how we’re hiring to design the future together—a future that is digital by default.