A Hacker's Guide to Getting Ahead

This page serves as a living index of things a hacker could use to raise their effectiveness in the general sense. These are the bits of professional development that are often glossed over or skipped in the learning paths of technical people. I often refer my mentees to these resources, and have most of the books in my personal library available for loan to friends, colleagues, and Newguardians.

Time Management and General Organization

Resources in this section are focused on at least one of the three pillars of general productivity: finding more time in which to do work, fitting more work into the same amount of time, or doing more impactful work.

  • Getting Things Done, a book by David Allen, is the place to start for managing your most precious resource: time. It's not just some rigid tracking system: Allen describes the principles of time management, such as how much you gain by not wasting your mental RAM remembering things, instead entrusting all those "things to remember" to a system (paper, electronic, whatever) that will remember them for you.

  • Bullet Journal is an organization system by Ryder Carroll that he gives away for free on the web site. Instead of requiring special equipment or software, Bullet Journaling can be done in any notebook you like. It's meant to be simple, fast, and unobtrusive while getting things out of your mental RAM into proper storage so you can focus on your real work rather than remembering.

  • The Sketchnote Handbook is for people who don't take notes because they are "too visual" or because filling a blank page with words isn't intuitive or effective for them. It's a visual person's take on note taking.

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is a classic early read on how to be more effective, balancing very accessible advice on moving from task-only thinking to top-down and bottom-up thinking with useful time management tips.

  • org-mode is a powerful organizational tool as an Emacs major mode. It can do outlining, agendas, and more. Org-mode files are stored as simply marked up plain text, so they can be read anywhere even when org-mode is not available, and can be outputted in a stunning array of formats from ePub to PDF to HTML to LaTeX and more. This has a high-ish learning curve, but will appeal to Emacs diehards.

Communication, Networking, and Relationship Building

These resources each touch on some areas of teaching, giving talks, writing documentation, or day-to-day communication with peers, superiors, and subordinates.


If you are or plan to be in charge of others, these resources are worth checking out.

  • The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman is the book behind the management practice at my day job, and I've begun using it elsewhere because these methods are so effective. Instead of a lot of vague, nebulous advice like "encourage teamwork", it's focused on three practices that can form the basis of effective communication between managers and their direct reports: regular one-on-ones, frequent high-quality feedback, and coaching.

    Mark and his team also produce two podcasts: the Career Tools podcast for individual contributors trying to build or boost their careers, and the Manager Tools podcast for those running projects and managing people. The web site offers a number of other useful tools for sale, such as an interview planning tool, a resume improvement series, and so on.

Executive Stuff

"Executive education" sounds too fluffy and business-y for most engineers, because they think of "executive" in terms of "being a CEO" when, in fact, it's much broader than that: "executive" things are concerned with executing something generally: carrying out a plan, driving work forward. It matters for everyone from mid-level and senior individual contributors to leaders of teams to leaders of organizations.

  • Strengths Based Leadership isn't just for people in management roles: it's a book for people who are ready to take a step back and ask "what are my strengths, in a general sense, and how do I leverage them?". This is especially important for tech folks, because we too easily focus on accumulating technical competencies, which eventually expire, while neglecting the meta-skills that amplify everything we do. I'd recommend this book over Strengths Finder 2.0, even for people who don't think of themselves as leaders, because the Strengths Based Leadership book is more action-oriented. Buy a new copy so you are sure to have an unused code for their online assessment.

    Think of it like building a party for DoTA2 or D&D... you need complementary skill sets in order to be effective, and you play to your strengths so that you can snowball by building on places where you are strong. Too often tech people forget these lessons and try to work on teams of people who are like themselves (imagine a D&D party of only fighters when evil magic is encountered), or focus on "fixing" weaknesses while neglecting the chance to snowball (imagine someone trying to play DoTA's Puck as a tank).