Books are fundamentally about stories, and 2019 (and really, the past decade) has been the story of technology’s domination of every industry and function of society.
Founders and tech executives are more powerful than ever, and how we use that power for good or evil will deeply shape the future of our world.
Whether it’s the sudden rise of TikTok and the ubiquity of social networks in business, economics, and politics, or the coming conflagration of climate change, or the challenges of personal and professional development, or just finding your way in building a startup, there was just an avalanche of books published this year on every topic near and dear to a technologist’s and founder’s heart.
I wanted to get a sense of what our readers thought were the best books they read this year, and so I reached out to our Extra Crunch membership to ask for their recommendations. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a group of people who actually pay for deeper journalism, our EC readers submitted dozens and dozens of book recommendations on every subject imaginable.
From those recommendations, I carefully selected a list of just 12 books that seemed the most recommended by our readers and also captured the zeitgeist of the times we are living in. Every book here is great and important, and I only wish we had more time to read them all.
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How to handle the coming total disruption of society by technology
Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall
St. Martin’s Press / 368 pages / March 2019
Anyone who has worked long enough in innovation and technology knows that great ideas can come from anywhere. But how do those ideas actually go from mere thoughts to actions and products, while avoiding the organizational politics that often prevent them from seeing the light of day in the first place?
Safi Bahcall, a PhD physicist from Stanford who co-founded and led Synta Pharmaceuticals as CEO through its IPO on NASDAQ in 2007, has been thinking about serendipity in science for years, and Loonshots is his first book. In it, Bahcall borrows concepts from science to move beyond looking purely at organizational culture to investigating organizational structure, investigating how we design our teams and how that can play an outsized role in whether new ideas flourish — or are killed on the spot.
Widely lauded by luminaries and a bestseller on Amazon and the Wall Street Journal, the book asks one of the most important questions in innovation today and gives a series of vignettes on how to improve our ability to handle spontaneity. A great book for the disrupting — and the disrupted.
Price: $19 on Amazon
The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation by Carl Benedikt Frey
Princeton University Press / 480 pages / June 2019
Digital disruption is all around us. Artificial intelligence is quickly eliminating millions of middle-class jobs, and fears of automation are growing among more and more workers, polarizing our politics and complicating the future of business.
Yet, all of this has happened before. More than a century ago, technologies like replaceable parts and the steam engine combined to create one of the greatest transformations our society has ever seen in the Industrial Revolution. But just how did the Industrial Revolution happen, and how did it affect everyday people in England, America, and elsewhere?
Carl Benedikt Frey, a fellow at Oxford University and director of the Programme on Technology & Employment at the Oxford Martin School, investigates the short, medium, and long-term consequences of the Industrial Revolution on workers, finding that in fact the changes had extraordinarily negative consequences in the short term. His lessons from this pivotal moment in history can help technology leaders avoid the biggest risks today in how we design human/AI systems in the coming age of automation.
Price: $20 on Amazon
Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction by Thomas M. Siebel
RosettaBooks / 256 pages / July 2019
You’ve re-built your structure based on Loonshots, and learned the lessons of The Technology Trap, but ultimately, many leading enterprise companies today are facing extinction from a number of new technology waves like elastic cloud computing and the internet of things. For those not doing the disrupting but rather on the receiving end, what exactly are you supposed to do?
Billionaire entrepreneur Tom Siebel, who founded Siebel Systems and eventually merged it into Oracle in 2006 for nearly $6 billion, wrote his first book in almost two decades on the topic of how legacy companies can navigate these turbulent times. Through Digital Transformation, Siebel tries to offer the disrupted a primer on just what is going on in AI and other big tech waves to help executives understand what strategies they can use to defend their businesses.
A brisk and reasonably short read, Digital Transformation offers key lessons, even if they may well be ignored by most before it is too late.
Price: $21 on Amazon
How to deal with tech’s inadequacies and head-banging, stupid behavior
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
W. W. Norton & Company / 240 pages / October 2017
While we love writing about the growth of innovative products and startups here at TechCrunch, the other side of that coin is that there has been a constant cavalcade of dumb actions by founders and engineers the past few years that has turned many sour on the future of our industry. Whether it is sexism in financial underwriting or employee political controversies (stories just from the last few days), technology is increasingly under a microscope — and the industry doesn’t look good at full resolution.
Technically Wrong, a book by consultant and tech critic Sara Wachter-Boettcher, tries to take a more playful approach to all these challenges by just sort of splaying them all out together for the world to see. While ostensibly targeted at the general public, the idiocies that Wachter-Boettcher identifies should be taught in every software engineering, product management, and UX design class.
As one Extra Crunch member wrote in their endorsement:
This is my favourite book. It highlights examples of bias in tech and how this has led to negative or even harmful applications in society. It makes a strong case for any developer to consider how their tech may be biased or have potential to be used for harm. A must read.
Given the plague of scandals hitting tech, the book is perhaps a tad out of date just two years post-publication, but its lessons are invaluable and will stand the test of time.