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Book review of The Career Programmer: Guerilla Tactics for an Imperfect World

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A 635-word book review of a non-technical book written for a technical audience. The book review uses a conversational style.

Book review of The Career Programmer: Guerilla Tactics for an Imperfect World

You write great code – everyday. One day, your supervisor comes in and tells you that you have one hour to clear out your desk – you have just been fired and have no idea why. You write great code. The credit and recognition for the system you designed, coded, and for which you sacrificed sleep and time with your family goes to the marketing manager. As unusual as these two events seem, they are surprisingly common.

Survival and success in the corporate world

Developers are a bright, passionate bunch of people that work hard to help others. These traits work to contribute to developers’ and the profession at large success but can also work against them because developers are typically very focused on their work and thus disregard other seemingly unimportant elements around them. The Guerilla Programmer brings to light some of the darker areas that developers must delve into that have seemingly nothing to do with programming, yet have everything to so with survival and success in the corporate world.

Pragmatic advice

The book is divided into two large parts: Software Development in an Imperfect World and Guerilla Tactics for Front Line Programmers. The first part of the book serves as a wake-up call to seasoned and new developers alike while the second part of the book describes some unusual tactics for managing your career in the often hostile and seemingly illogical business world.

The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book with a pragmatic description of typical workplaces that programmers end up in, in terms of their role within the organization and day-to-day interactions with others in the organization.

Duncan skillfully describes the close yet subtle relationship between a business and the programmers that work for it. While many programmers believe that they are in control, because they’re responsible for producing software that represents part of many businesses’ revenue streams (directly or indirectly), Duncan asserts that belief is dangerously wrong. Duncan describes that software simply as a means to an end – a way of getting customers to part with their money and that programmers happen to produce that means.

The programmer’s career

Software is simply part of a larger business model – a business model created by business people who ultimately pay the programmers, thus clearly putting the business people in the diver’s seat. This chapter essentially establishes where programmers fit in and what they’re capable of influencing.

The author describes, in the second and third chapters, what factors influence a programmer’s career and introduces three ways of addressing them. The factors include internal politics, prioritizing shipping ahead of testing, not taking management seriously enough, trusting in others (like project managers) to manage your time for you, providing overly optimistic schedule estimates, and focusing too much on code and not enough on “annoyances” like interacting with non-technical staff.

Non-technical aspects of a technical job

In rounding out the discussion, Duncan describes why non-technical aspects of the programming profession are important (like creating the potential to earn more) and introduces some of those aspects in detail including: organization, spending more time on design rather than coding, improving communication with others, and knowing what you want to achieve in your career. The underlying theme of the first part of the book is if you don’t control your own destiny within all aspects of your career that you can influence; someone else will do it for you – often with what we programmers perceive as unexpected results.


The book really comes down to one thing: attitude. Getting fired from a job, being passed up for a promotion, or not getting a contract can both be a humbling and learning experience. This entertaining and informative book discusses why technical skills are not enough to either keep the job you have or help land the job you want and offers great tips and practical advice on how to survive in the corporate jungle.

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