You Must Read At Least One Book To Ride

Two things are true.

The first is going to sound bad in a culture where engineers are encouraged to apologize for existing while it is totally acceptable for a grifter that can't code to insist that they're a "thought leader". It is that, in my immediate professional environment, I am consistently acknowledged to be one of the best engineers around. As a rough rule, I study more than the average engineer around me by up to two orders of magnitude. I've been made an offer at the senior level at one of the best companies in the state, various Serious People happily re-employ me, and become incensed when I see lazy commit messages. I'm doin' pretty good.

The second, and this one is going to sound bad because I sometimes need to convince people to employ me, is that I am clearly worse than almost everyone that emails me along all of these dimensions. I only have a dim understanding of how my 3-4 years of experience coming from a strong background in psychology has rounded to "senior engineer", I've only ever written tests for personal projects because no employer I've ever seen actually had any working tests or interest in getting them, and I wrote the entirety of my Master's thesis code without version control because one of the best universities in the country doesn't teach it. In short, I've never solved a truly hard problem, I'm just out here clicking the "save half a million dollar" button that no one else noticed. I'm a fucking moron.

I know the second is true because I see how truly complex some of the things people do for a living are, and I know the first is true because I have been effortlessly cruising my way to the top 3-4% of the country's income bracket as an immigrant. How are they both true?


Throughout high school, I was a truly horrendous art student. It was my least favourite class, as I had recently moved to an international school, and the local Malaysian syllabus didn't waste time on things like "creativity", or "culture", or really anything other than maths and language. I'd turn up, I'd not really understand how the other students from Western backgrounds were translating mental images into drawings so effortlessly, and I'd score the lowest possible passing grade. Eventually I decided that I "wasn't artsy" and didn't draw anything other than doodled cubes for about ten years.

A great deal of life experience later, I decided that it simply couldn't be that hard, and it would be an amazing accomplishment to get through this barrier. In 2022, I tried a course called Drawabox, which was incredibly boring and led to no progress. On a whim, I decided to look on Hackernews, a place that at the time I thought of as exclusively for technical articles, for a good drawing tutorial, whereas previously I had allowed myself to be guided onto the rocky shoals of Reddit. They are actually dumber on there, sorry Reddit.

This led me to Betty Edward's Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, a book whose title profoundly upsets me as someone that left psychology due to the field's horrendous epistemology. The book came with glowing recommendations, but it also came with before and after pictures that I assumed were too good to be true. The after picture felt so unattainable that saying you could get to that level felt like a weight loss scam. Still, I was determined, and my intuition said the testimonials were real despite all of that, so I gave it a go.

The first thing the book asks you to do is draw your hand as best as you can, so that you've got a frame of reference. I sat still for 30-45 minutes and poured my heart and soul into it. This is the result I got.

A malformed drawing of a left hand, with too-long fingers and a bulbous thumb.

This was the best drawing I had ever made in my life at the time, and it clearly leaves a lot to be desired. The book continues by providing some theory and exercises. The first exercise after this was to trace the lines in a drawing by eye, and if I recall, you are asked to trace it upside-down.


This was actually more-or-less exactly what the drawing was. At this point, I have done exactly two drawings, with no unshown practice of what I assumed was the vital mechanical skill of drawing, but decide to trace two more (from the internet this time) while dogsitting at a friend's house. You will note that these are both strongly nerdy fantasy-themed, because at the end of the day, I am very much a stereotypical programmer.



Now these are the best drawings of my life, again with no unseen practice. They're a bit unclean and I made the initial components way too big so they both don't fit on the page. But at this point, as simple as these look, I am flabbergasted at the results I've gotten. I've lost 100 KGs with this One Simple Trick, doctors hate me (but this is because I didn't go into medicine like my parents wanted).

I have no idea if this newfound skill carries over when I'm not tracing lines, and instead drawing from life. I read a chapter or two more, and finally, with great trepidation, I take a stab at drawing my hand again. And is thus that, in about six hours of reading and practice spread over months, I moved from this:

A malformed drawing of a left hand, with too-long fingers and a bulbous thumb.

To this:

A pretty good hand drawn from a foreshortened perspective!

A hand making a finger gun!

I was prepared to go my entire life missing out on the joys of art until I picked up the right book. I am still typically the worst artist when I enter a room full of artists, but people outside those rooms (who didn't read one book) occasionally think I'm pretty okay, which is something I never expected to experience.

II. The One Book Barrier

With this in mind, there seem to be two major clumps of engineers.

There are the engineers who have read 1+ books on a given topic, and sometimes on several topics, and they all come off as extremely competent. These are, for the most part, the people that make up the audience of this blog. Of course, you do not literally need to read a book - a sufficiently high volume of technical blogs or courses are probably the equivalent at varying levels of efficiency - but take it for granted there is some Large Sum of information that someone has studied.

Then there are engineers (and people in every profession) who never try for the entirety of their careers, and this is the majority of every profession. I spoke to a reader who is employed as an extremely high-level engineer, Seth Newman - by the way, I'll connect you if you want to hire a genius data engineer in the U.S - who described the average professional as sleepwalking through their working lives, and this rung true. Of course, they are not literally asleep so something else is going wrong, but the description still seemed apt. There is movement - enough movement to fall down a flight of stairs - but none of the awareness needed to avoid such an outcome.

Then there are people like myself, where I have read exactly one good book on most topics relevant to my profession, but have never gone particularly deep. I have a firm grasp of the Git data model through Pro Git, for example, but know nothing about the algorithms underlying it - which is still enough to dominate a truly randomly selected engineer. I've read enough of the arcane tomes that I can cast a cantrip and it looks like magic to the sleepwalking, but I look at a project like Evennia and realize that some people are out there casting Quickened Silent Still Maximized Disintegrate, which is extremely impressive for the non-D&D nerds out there. I have spoken to high-performers in all sorts if fields at this point, and every single one has said that their profession is plagued by people that are essentially not even trying. I'm not sure how this is possible in things like medicine - have you seen how hard they have to work to pass those exams? - but it is nonetheless true.

III. Our Endless, Numbered Levels

In the same conversation with Seth, I asked about what allowed him to work on the type of problem he was involved in, while I'm out here just trying to convince people to stop applying "flexible" schemas to every problem as if MongoDB has taken their kids hostage. This led to the topic of how deep specializations can go, and just how goddamn good people can get. I know very little about basketball, but Seth linked me to this video where one of the worst players in the NBA, ten years post-retirement and out-of-shape, assassinates both amateur and professional athletes from lesser tiers. And he's one of the worst players, or so I've been told by people that actually know basketball.

But I can give a good example from my own experience too.

Here in Melbourne, I was considered a decent sabre fencer. I cleaned up most other amateurs, but there were always a couple of people around that would just wipe me out then go compete for the State championship. In particular, I've mentioned in earlier writing that I trained with a guy that eventually won Nationals here.

That guy once fenced someone trying to qualify for the Olympics, and was unable to score a single point on him. So we know that someone struggling to qualify for the Olympics is way better than the best fencer I know, and arguably the best in the country.

Malaysia entered one fencer into the 2012 Olympics, Yu Peng Kean, who was eliminated 15 to 1 by the guy that actually won that year. There are fencers that seriously train that can barely score a point on me. I can barely score against the top guy in Australia. That guy can barely score against someone trying to make the Olympics, and that guy can probably barely score against the guy that actually won the whole thing.

This is actually hardly a surprising result. One only needs to look at Magnus Carlsen's absolute domination of chess players that have trained their whole life, but it feels different when you're actually going up against it yourself. Competing against the top fencer in Australia feels oppressive. He is always effortlessly slightly out of reach, slightly faster, slightly more precise, and you're left feeling like a toddler trying to tackle an adult. And because I do have that level of edge over some people, untrained as they are, I know that's exactly what it's like from his perspective.

And there are two steps at least that large after you get to the National champion level? Jesus Christ.

IV. Incentives

This is an aside, but there are many areas where I sleepwalk. I have mentioned many times that I am not making good progress on my piano lessons, and while it is true that I feel like I lack some natural talent in the area, it is also true that I simply don't practice enough.

However, I don't play the piano professionally and no one would pay me to do so. I can't help but feel that something has gone dreadfully wrong in society in that we've decided to start incentivizing people with no talent or interest to participate in the technology space. Many of them are extremely wide awake in other areas, be it sports, art, mathematics, whatever. Unfortunately for complex reasons related to some sectors having more money than they know what to do with, large organizations being impossibly hard to run well, and talking magazines covers trying to launder company funds into personal status, we're willing to pay people to be extremely bad programmers and extremely bad leaders. In fact, calling yourself a PowerBI developer is probably the single easiest way in the world to slack off 6+ hours a day in air-conditioned rooms at well above an average wage.

But since they're producing nothing anyway, or are a net negative to society accounting for opportunity cost, I can't help but feel that they'd somehow be so much more fulfilled if they got the sack somehow and we provided them all that money to just like, take care of their children and stop fucking around with databases they keep damaging. Of course, that likely isn't actually feasible (especially at executive compensation) but I can't stop thinking of this quote from the late Christopher Hitchens:

My worst job was my first job. It was very important to me, because in those days you had to be a member of the union to get a job in Fleet Street, in London journalism. And I couldn't get into the union so I couldn't get a job. And if you couldn't get a job then you couldn't get a union card. But finally there was a new job created - for a new magazine - I can still pronounce its horrible name, "The London Times Higher Education Supplement". And because it was a new job I didn't need to join the union, it was a new creation, so I got job and union card, and I was so proud, and so happy. I was the social science editor... and I cannot tell you how boring it was and how bad I was at it. And how I would literally watch the clock as the long day crept by. But it was a job, and it brought me to London, and it made me a member of the National Union of Journalists. And it was everything I wanted and it made me miserable. Finally, I was so bad at it that it could no longer be concealed from the editor. I got the sack, very traditionally in Britain, I got the sack on Christmas Eve. I was very depressed, I thought "how will I ever recover", "I'll never get another job", "maybe I can't even keep my union card". But I still sometimes think about it, and think "If I had been any good at that job, I might still be doing it."


Something about having your skin in the game is that your relationship with sleepwalkers changes. That is, instead of resenting them, you're glad that they're so bad because they give you people to beat without having to dedicate your entire life to perfect performance.

There's some great reading on a similar concept in video games by Dan Luu, on how it takes very little effort to be a high performer. To be a high performer either means that you can do some fairly unambiguous task (like a backflip) or it can mean that you're performing well relative to other people.

Reading one book typically gets you to the point where you can do things like "add new functionality to this React app without incurring technical debt". This is good enough to make an ethical living, so long as you intelligently chose to do a thing that society pays for - sorry if you didn't, I'd build society differently if I was writing the rules. Reading multiple books is how you get good enough to compete for the absolute highest-paid jobs out there, where the fact you can do the above in a day instead of a week matters, and in the latter case you're simply going to have to read N+1 books, where N is whatever your competition is reading. It's an arms race.

But because Deloitte and the average developer don't read any books, they're just easy pickings. When you're trading off all your skin-in-the-game and working a permanent job, your interactions with these people leave you feeling helpless. You have to work with whoever the boss tells you too, and if they suck then you just have to deal with that.

If you're a bit more mercenary, then you get to turn up to interviews/meetings and dunk on them all day, and still have time to work out and be lazy. The last time I interviewed at a serious company, I was informed that I obliterated the competition so thoroughly that I "turned the planet into glass from orbit", and I was still a weaker engineer than any of the seniors already at that company. There are some jobs where I can't compete with the empty-suited masses, like perhaps government contracts, but that's because those industries aren't in the business of buying what I'm selling. I'm selling results and trust. Big enterprise is buying plausible lies that get executives promoted. I'll beat big consultants every time with the kind of person I actually want to work with.

Heck, you could probably eliminate almost all dud candidates during technical interviews by asking what their favourite tech book is, then only talking to candidates where you know enough to check if they've read that book. You'd have a false negative on anyone that read a great book you didn't know about, but I'm guessing almost no false positives.


But now we get to a complicated case - what about the people that try very hard but nonetheless get no results? I know several people that run teams incompetently but are genuinely trying. However, no amount of training seems to get them there. They harass engineers, they panic, they don't know how to hire, they usually overestimate their own skill, but they're trying. They just keep trying to get Scrum right. They're sleepwalking straight into a lake, and all we can see are the flailing arms of a drowning person.

There are all sorts of things that cause this outcome, but I wanted to highlight a meta-skill that many of us have but can't quite articulate, and I suspect it's what they're missing. That is, how do you know what books to read?

For example, I started with Drawabox which was plausible on its face, but found that Betty Edward's book was substantially better for my goals. In fact, not only was it better, Drawabox simply assumed that I knew the One Weird Trick that Edwards highlighted, and moved straight on to mechanical skill - it is entirely possible I could have gotten through the whole course and had no appreciable progress with that missing puzzle piece. There were actually quite a few resources available, but I had some inkling I was on the wrong track. How do we have people that are basically doing the same thing with Scrum and not thinking "Wait, this is not working, what am I doing wrong? Is this even remotely the right course?"

I don't think I can explain exactly how I do it, or if there's a precise algorithm. It certainly seems like you need a little bit of bullshit detection, so in the tech space I'll typically only read something from a person who has built something impressive themselves. Big points for maintaining something open source or otherwise having some indicator of knowledge that is impossible to fake. If they've built something more nebulous, like "a big company", they score far fewer points because you can luck out or bullshit your way there. You can't lie your way into code compiling.

There are some other weird rules too, none of them hard and fast. Catchy names tend to result in getting dinged for a bit. The best books seem to have either boring or sophisticated covers. Anything with the word "leadership" in it is probably nonsense. The more the author brags about their awards, the more I think they're lying. A colloquial tone (like mine, sadly) tends to lose a few points, though it isn't a knockdown if the topics are nuanced. Thinking about this now, these are all things that seem extremely convincing to the drowning sleepwalkers.

Management at my day job brought us an Agile consultant the other day, who they loved, but they asked the engineers "How highly we'd rate our Agile training on a scale of 1 - 5" when that questions doesn't even mean anything. Some people loved it, and there's almost a 100% correlation with their love of that session and their reading of the wrong books.

Even within a book, you have to be able to discard large segments that don't have merit. The Phoenix Project is a good example: Gene Kim has written a whole book about organizational transformation, but he only put one bad actor into the whole book then made everyone else super competent and earnest. That's not what big companies are like, so you need to have enough of your brain switched on to get the good ideas then realize the rest of it is cringe-worthy leadership fanfic.

Not having whatever that ability is seems to cripple many people's ability to learn and better themselves. This is why it's so concerning when you hear some executives disclose their reading material - it is typically immediately obvious that there is almost no way they are actually good at their job. It is similarly why my eyes roll back into my skull when a leader tells me they do their learning on LinkedIn - like, what the fuck are you sickos on about? Have vendors been causing you brain damage to make sales easier?


I was going to say that this was a post about how we should all take a moment to reflect on the unreasonable effectiveness of cracking open a book in the age of YouTube, but I guess what I actually want to say is do not under any circumstances encourage people to read books, it's easy money for the rest of us. My next blog post is going to be filled with anti-Git propaganda and links to Scrum resources. Godspeed, you glorious bastards.