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Review: Getting Real – by 37signals

This is an excellent book about building a web application. Quite different though, from most books you’ll find.

It is (as far as I know) an online-only purchase, you pay and get a PDF. The folks who wrote it are 37signals, a company that makes web-based enterprise management applications. I know them mostly from their excellent Signal vs Noise blog, and from their almost unbelievably simple free app, TaDaLists.

I finished my first reading of the book in less than two days. Although it’s decently long at 170+ pages, these guys don’t beat about the bush. In fact, the whole book feels more like a TeXpoint slideshow than a real book (it doesn’t even have a cover image). Because of this, their point comes through and makes much more of an impact – to me, at least. Flowery language is fine for fiction, but for a non-fiction book I prefer to read stuff that gets to the point and states it in simple, clear language. This book does a great job of it.

The essence of this book is keeping software (and software development) simple. That’s whats worked for them and they make a really strong case out of it. The point that made an impact was – know your priorities and do them well, and don’t worry about the rest. Unlike a lot of other KISS (for those who don’t know thats Keep It Simple, Stupid) approaches, they actually talk about what “simple” means, and what should be a priority at different stages of development – planning, design, coding, support etc. Their approach in the book is to state their point, explain it briefly, and give a lot of quotes from people about the topic. They also talk a lot about the business process – finance, customer relationships etc. While I don’t have any experience with this, their ideas seem to make a lot of sense.

Surprisingly, a lot of the ideas in the book seemed natural and familiar, and I realized that’s because the way software development is done in academic research is similar to what they advocate. We don’t generate large quantities of requirements or specifications; there are very little “extra” features except fulfilling the main goal; we keep the software small so it can be changed easily (and it often is); and most importantly, we code stuff that we care about and are interested in. In this sense, the ideas of simplicity in the book were not exactly new, but to me its an important validation that the same things can work even in the corporate world.

A final point. They say at the beginning of the book that the strategies they talk about can be applied to a lot of other activities and projects as well, and I wholeheartedly agree. After reading the book, I could very well imagine that any task that needed a systematic approach could benefit from the ideas in Getting Real. An excellent book if you’re thinking of building a web application and a wonderful read otherwise as well.

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