A recommended reading list for IT consultants

Here is Erik Eckel's short list of books that he believes best serve technology consultants.

I spend a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, doing two things: working as an IT consultant and reading. I likely complete 45 to 55 books a year, not counting texts I start and don't finish. Over time, I've found myself thinking coworkers and other consultants would benefit from reading some of the same books.

Before you go "oh, here's another list of best-selling business texts," think again. There's no overhyped pop psychology Malcolm Gladwell here. Nor are the likes of the commonly tread Good to Great or How to Win Friends & Influence People. Instead, my short list collects those books I believe best serve technology professionals battling as consultants today.


37signals' Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson authored Rework, the somewhat politically incorrect business book that cuts right to the chase. What I love about this book is the way it leaves politeness and common sense behind in favor of lessons learned actually building a tremendously successful organization boasting popular, compelling services. Consultants will find refreshing admonitions to "start making something" vs. waiting around for perfect new ideas to gel, stop claiming there's no time and instead of "playing World of Warcraft, work on your idea," and "build half a product, not a half-assed product," meaning stop trying to do 10 things well all at once and reduce ambition to ensure you do a few things really, really well. As they write, "you're better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole."

Related TechRepublic post: Follow this counterintuitive advice for IT consulting success

The Checklist Manifesto

Some solutions are so painfully obvious that we often miss them. Atul Gawande demonstrates this phenomenon within The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by proving how using checklists helps ensure consistent, reliable results. Read this short book, or listen to the audiobook, and you'll likely begin implementing simple checklists within your consultancy when deploying new desktops and servers, performing data migrations, and coordinating site relocations. Your clients will thank you as common mistakes, errors, and omissions are eliminated.

Related TechRepublic post: Leverage checklists to improve efficiency and client satisfaction

Unfolding the Napkin

Consultants frequently find themselves having to explain complex and confusing network and systems information to clients. Dan Roam's Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-on Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures provides consultants with simple techniques for communicating difficult concepts succinctly, even on a napkin at a local coffeehouse. The book should be required reading for project managers, business development staff, and sales executives.

Related TechRepublic post: Why IT consultants must read Unfolding the Napkin

What Should I Do with My Life?

Po Bronson, who originally spent some time working in Silicon Valley, penned one of the more thought-provoking books I've ever read. What Should I Do with My Life: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question is largely responsible for my deciding to leave the corporate ranks (not easy after 16 years) to branch out on my own as a consultant. Bronson's book does an incredible job collecting individual case study stories of people who found their true calling, either through happenstance or dogged persistence.

I recommend consultants read it, as reflecting upon its stories can help one determine whether the harried, complex lifestyle of an IT consultant is, indeed, the best career path based on one's personality, desires, and goals.

Related TechRepublic post: 10 personality traits of a highly effective independent consultant

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow explores how humans think and make decisions, something technology consultants must do daily. Stick with him, and he'll help guide you through the processes (emotional vs. logical) that both clients and technical professionals navigate when making critical business decisions. Better yet, Thinking, Fast and Slow can help consultants determine when to trust intuition and when to make slower, more deliberate decisions. The subsequent lessons can be applied not only when servicing clients but also when determining how best to grow and manage your consultancy.

Steve Jobs

I wrestled with including this entry, but I believe it belongs. Walter Isaacson's impeccably researched biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs is important to consultants for several reasons. A close reading of Steve Jobs reveals how decisions are made within key technology companies while also helping consultants (who are charged with making all these technologies work) better understand the co-dependencies and rivalries between Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Oracle, and other firms that produce and distribute the technologies upon which clients depend. Ultimately, the book makes the list if for no other reason than consultants who read it will gain management lessons by learning how not to manage; only Steve Jobs could get away with the many storied tantrums this book recounts.

Related TechRepublic post: Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson

Bonus books

Ultimately, I believe working as a technology consultant is a means to an end for most professionals. Consultants I know work in the IT industry because they're attracted to technology, love the challenges, and enjoy consulting's inevitable variety of tasks. But most everyone I know really works in order to pay a mortgage, obtain insurance, and afford groceries. There's more to life than just working, though.

I've found several books that remind me why I do what I do. The next time you face a Sunday evening potentially regretting the weekend's end and the need to return to the daily grind, you might consider Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Esquire columnist A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, or Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. You just might find yourself feeling a little better equipped to battle the workweek.

Which books make your list?

What books have helped you as an IT consultant? Give your favorite read a shout out by joining the discussion below.

More reading recommendations for IT consultants