Review: 37signal’s Getting real, the book

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).

The Book: Getting real by 37 signals ($19, online PDF only)
Free Excerpts: Scale later, Meetings are toxic, and more

7 Responses to “Review: 37signal’s Getting real, the book”

  1. Alexander Schmid

    Hi Scott,

    I have a very different view on your “lowlights”. To me “Getting real” does give you THE tool to change a dysfunctional team: a change of attitude! Most of the time saving a project is not about some magic process, tool, methodology or any other “practical” thing but about a change of attitude (and I actually count your book as one of the outstanding examples in project management literatur that does recognize this). So I’m really astound to read that point in a review from you.

    And for the price: well if you just don’t have to implement only one unnecessary feature, the $19 are already safed hundert times. So I’m not sure if $19 should be a problem here, but that is a thing everybody has to judge form themself…

    Ciao Alex

  2. Scott (admin)

    Hi Alex: Just to be clear, I did recommend the book :) But my point was that an attitude is very hard to implement alone. Take this example from Getting Real:

    > Here’s an easy way to launch on time and on budget:
    > keep them ?xed. Never throw more time or money at a
    > problem, just scale back the scope.

    Great – I agree! But this paragraph assumes the reader has complete control over the scope. Reducing scope, if you have 5 programmers in your start-up that want to keep, or (gasp) expand the scope, is damn hard. How do you convince them? What do you do from day 1 to set yourself up to be able, as a team, to reduce scope? That’s what “how” means to me and that’s what I meant in my review. The same criticism applies to many of their points – they assume autonomy and unity of mind, something I doubt they always have even at 37s.

    As far as the $19: part of what I buy books for is the author’s view of the world – if they say something powerful that comes from somewhere else, I may want to learn more about that thing and from the source the author recommends. But “Getting Real” has not a single link in it! How can one of the worlds leading web development shops resist linking ideas together? It’s either an arrogant or lazy thing for an author to do – acknowledging sources makes connections, adding value in both directions, but ignoring or abandoning them makes a book an island.

    From their introduction, we get only this:

    > We’re not claiming to have invented these techniques.
    > Many of these concepts have been around in one form or
    > another for a long time. Don’t get hu?y if you read some
    > of our advice and it reminds you of something you read
    > about already on so and so’s weblog or in some book published
    > 20 years ago. It’s de?nitely possible.

    This is a disclaimer, not a value proposition. There is no offering of anywhere to go to learn more in depth knowledge of the techniques (or credit their authors) – and that limits the value of the book to me, and I think, many readers. Extreme programming is an obvious progenetor of many of their ideas, but the approach isn’t even mentioned (nor its creators credited). There’s a diminshment of my trust as a reader if the author isn’t taking the time to show me deeper, or alternative, paths to the one they offer, or demonstrating respect for those that came before (Mythical Man month was another obvious missing reference).

    And this gripe is easy to remidy – a few days effort and the enlistment of some of their readers (myself included) would provide them with the connections this book needs to be of signifigantly greater value.

  3. Alexander Schmid

    Hi Scott,

    ok now I got your point. Actually I also would say that “Getting Real” is more a book for “product managers” than for project managers (I don’t know if this is the correct English name for the role, but I hope you understand what I mean).

    So, yes most of the things you say/they write are not implementable/solveable by the team or the project manager alone. But it is the job of a product manager to solve this issues (and he has the power to solve (most of) them). So maybe we just had different reader perspectives in mind when we read Getting Real…

    And yes, you are absolutely right withe the “missing references” thing.

    Ciao Alex

  4. Douglas Irvine

    Thanks so much for writing about 37Signals (did I suggest it?). I have two feeds in my blog reader that stand high above the rest. Your’s (naturally) and Signal vs. Noise (from 37Signals).

    Their articles have reshaped my thinking about software development and project management. I don’t agree with everything they say but their approach to offering “less” than the competition, their subscription business model, and so much more is resonating throughout the blogosphere more and more.

    Plus the fact that they created the fastest growing programming language (ruby on rails) says something too.

    I met with our IBM sales team yesterday and told them Sametime 7.5 should do what Campfire does. They didn’t even know who 37Signals was. I told them they should pay as close attention to companies like them as they do to Microsoft.



  1. Getting Real…

    The fine folks at 37signals took the time to write down a few pages of they think is good advice for small software companies. Why do they think that? Because they too are a small software shop, and seemed to learn their lessons from their own experien…

  2. […] Jason Fried, 37 Signals – I loved Jason’s characterization of More and Less: More is a guy who corrects your grammar, fixes your spelling, and arrogantly does tons of things on your behalf that you didn’t need. While Less, clearly Fried’s best friend, gives you what you need done well. As much as I like the philosophy, at times this talk itself felt like More – the presentation itself dictated and proclaimed, more than it convinced, enlightened or shared with the largely design centric crowd. My small brain exploded at the anti-matter/matter paradox this generated. (I had similiar consumption challenges with the 37signals book “Getting Real“, which I recommend). I half expected him to talk for 7 minutes instead of 20, pulling a less is more stunt, but I doubt I’d have the balls to do that either. […]

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