Growing up, I was never an avid reader. I remember I enjoyed some expanded universe Star Wars books. But that was about it. Even reading The Lord of the Rings or easier to digest books like Harry Potter would be a struggle. It was not until I started getting access to technical books when I learned to appreciate the act of reading. Before I had a reliable Internet connection, technical publications were the only learning tools I had access to. They have been extremely useful to understand the point of view of experienced people in areas that I’ve been trying to get better at.

Since I moved to Silicon Valley, my goal has been to try to read at least one book a month, or about 12 books a year. It’s not an ambitious goal at all, but it helps me to grasp the content better and forces me to choose carefully. I don’t usually read fiction. I prefer to consume fiction in a different format (like movies, TV shows, or, more recently, story-based videogames).

To be honest, I did not do that well this year with my goal. I cheated a little bit. Some of these books I was re-visiting as they became more relevant with the growth of RevenueCat. With the pandemic, after the long work from home days, I was not particularly drawn to reading. Instead, I spent a lot more time than usual binging Netflix and playing videogames.

In this post, I will look back and quickly review the books I chose in 2020. I am planning to do this every year so that I can check how I did with my goal.

I read only one technical book this year. The main focus areas were leadership, company building, and scaling culture.

  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. This book had been on my radar since Paul Graham tweeted about it. But it was not until other non-surfers friends recommended it to me that I picked it up. It’s the first book I’ve read for pleasure and not for learning purposes in a long time. It’s not fiction. In fact, it’s autobiographical. Finnegan describes surfing and the search for waves with such passion that it hooks the reader, even if they have never tried surfing. It was particularly delightful for me to read since I am privileged to have traveled and surfed a bunch of the spots featured in the book. It won the Pulitzer in 2016.

  • Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chriss Voss. I’ve never been a great negotiator so I was really hyped for this book. Chris Voss is a former FBI Hostage negotiator and the book was strongly recommended by multiple people. However, I did not get as much as I was expecting from the book. Perhaps I was not in the right mood while reading it (beginning of the pandemic/lockdowns). But I felt it was mostly war stories and not a lot of actionable examples. It was an entertaining read, and maybe I should give it another read in the future. Though I personally found other books like Crucial Conversations more useful for high stake situations.

  • It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and DHH. Another book from the founders of Basecamp and the creator of Ruby on Rails. Though I might not agree 100% with many of the ideas described (they have really strong opinions), it was an entertaining and quick read. The way they do business and their culture is very different from most companies. There are some policies, like being fully remote and San Francisco-based salaries everywhere, that we also have at RevenueCat. We tried some other things like 6-week sprints, but it did not work that well.

  • SQL Antipatterns: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Database Programming by Bill Karwin. This is the only technical book I read in 2020. I saw it recommended in a Hacker News post and it was a very fun read. Very useful for any programmer (novice or experienced) that works with relational databases (it’s not engine specific). It describes in detail common database design and query antipatterns, as well as how to get around them.

  • Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham. Startup classic I had never read before. I decided to pick it up while on vacation in Southern California, instead of a heavier read. It might look a little dated but it is still quite relevant today. It is essentially a collection of essays about startups, nerds, socioeconomic policies, and programming.

  • Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. I quickly skimmed it after YC when raising our seed round, but it became way more useful for our Series A. Of course, it does not cover everything and it’s not a substitute for a lawyer. But it’s an amazing resource for first-time founders raising capital, to navigate term sheets, or for curious startup enthusiasts.

  • The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp. One of our investors recommended me this book as his favorite leadership read. I enjoyed the approach, each of the 15 steps is actionable and well explained. It’s a book I will have to revisit constantly as I grow as a founder and technical leader.

  • An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson. Very well thought and systematic approach to scaling engineering teams. Based on his experience at Digg, Uber, and Stripe, Will studies the biggest challenges of engineering management: culture, sizing teams, career progression, managing technical debt…

  • High Growth Handbook: Scaling Startups From 10 to 10,000 People by Elad Gil. If I had to choose a single book to recommend to startup founders, this would be my choice. I first read it in 2018 when we were doing Y Combinator. I remember I read it from front to back and I loved it. However, the best use of this book is as a reference. It covers all the aspects of managing high growth startups: recruiting the executive team, managing the board, financing, M&A, product development… as well as engaging interviews with world-class founders. I added an event in my calendar to revisit it every year.

  • Scaling Teams: Strategies for Building Successful Teams and Organizations by Alexander Grosse and David Loftesness. I would strongly recommend this book to every technical leader, particularly to founder CTOs. It describes in detail all the challenges of hypergrowth and how to rethink processes properly at each stage. It covers everything: hiring, people management, team structure, culture, communication…

  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. At the moment of writing this post, I was still finishing it, but so far, I am loving it. It describes in detail Netflix’s culture and what’s unique about it. It’s similar to It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work but it feels less aggressive or strongly opinionated. They are very transparent about the mistakes they made along the way, which makes it even more useful. You might not agree with all of their policies, but it’s an amazing exercise for founders to discuss how they want their company culture to look like and challenge the norms.