The folks at 37 signals have well earned their reputation for making great web applications. They’ve established a strong identity for with a line of web tools for project management (Basecamp), To-do lists (Backpack) and simple collaboration (Whiteboard).
They recently published a short book called “Getting real” about how to build web apps – and here’s my review.
The book is short – 170 pages with lots of whitespace and heavy quoting. If you’ve used any of their apps you’ll feel right at home as they do a fine job maintaining the same voice and style.
The highlight is their passion for making good things. They are most effective when they boldly express their ideals, using them to slash through common assumptions about features, big planning, organization and customers. It’s a brisk and optomistic read. At turns clever and confident, but ocassionally nieve, this book will generate strong opinions and can spark healthy debate even if you don’t like or agree with what they say.
The lowlights are the how – While I’m philosophically aligned with these guys, this book is more mantra than guidance or instruction. I imagine it working as a boost for people who believed some of these things prior to reading the book who, now reaffirmed, can point others to it as an external and respected source. There are obvious counter examples to some mantras, but they’re beyond the point, as the questions raised are worthwhile.
But for those in old-school organizations or with dysfunctional teams, this book doesn’t give the tools needed to turn things around nor provide individual readers with “Real” practices they can employ on their own. Most of “Getting real” is about approach and attitude, and it requires your co-workers to share it with you to work.
The book’s strength and weakness is the experience of the authors: they started 37 signals on their own, and advise largely from that context. While they don’t try to direct readers for how to convert older, larger, slower, less talented teams of people into “Real” teams, there is the vibe througout the book that the world would be a better place if everyone did.
Summary: I recommend this book – it’s a fast and opinionated read. It’s most valuable to small self directed teams, as a reference for how one small, talented, self directed team has successfully built quality software or as a hand grenade for teams that have been doing things the same way for too long. However it doesn’t quite justify the $19 price: there are tragically no references and no links to other sources, something I hope they’ll remidy in a 1.1 book update. (For reference: McConnell’s Rapid Development, with a 5 star average over 100 reviews at amazon, covers similiar ground with near opposite highlights/lowlights, for $22, with thorough links to other sources to go deeper than the text. These two books make a fine pairing).