The book 'Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams' by Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco makes an unreferenced claim that:

"The average software developer, for example, doesn't own a single book on the subject of his or her work, and hasn't ever read one."

The claim is notable because Peopleware is an important book in the Software Engineering field, regularly featuring in lists of important or influential programming books and has been repeated in other highly regarded books such as 'Code Complete' by Steve McConnell.

The claim has also been referenced elsewhere by leading industry figures - such as on StackOverflow founder Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror blog (citing Peopleware as a source. In this same post he also claims two books which make this claim - Peopleware and Code Complete - are in the top five books every programmer should read).

There are several possible inteperetations of this claim based around what "average software developer" and "the subject of his or her work" means but for the purpose of this question I have interpreted this claim to make 2 distinct claims:

  1. More than 50% of practicing professional software developers don't own a book on software development.
  2. More than 50% of practicing professional software developers have never read a book on Software Development.

Are either of these claims supported by evidence?

Edit: As @ChrisW mentions below - this book was first published in 1987 and so is dated. But the book (and claim) are still referenced widely. I'm interested in either the historical accuracy of the claim (and would accept research conducted around the same time as the book showing this to be true/false) or whether these claims are true for the modern state of software development.

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    Peopleware was written in 1987. Is there anyone who believes that it's a claim about software developers today? I don't.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 11, 2015 at 13:40
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    When I started work as a trainee programmer, my employer lent me a copy of Kernighan and Plauger's The elements of programming style. I was also given access to other books. You could say I didn't own a book on software development. Now I own many books but never read them because - Internet. (Except maybe Effective Java by Bloch - which undermines the point of my anecdote a little). Jun 11, 2015 at 13:51
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    @ChrisW Good point. I have updated the question to reflect that I'm interested in both the historical and current state of software engineering. I am in agreement with you that this probably isn't true today but I would be very interested if someone could provide evidence to the contrary. Jun 11, 2015 at 13:53
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    I didn't for example read Yourdon's Structured Analysis book: I learned the subject by my employer's sending me to a week-long seminar run by a training company who taught it. I learned programming languages by reading the manufacturer's manuals. I didn't begin to read many books (even now-famous ones like The Mythical Man Month for example) until the '90s when I began to hear about them from people posting on the internet or wherever.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 11, 2015 at 13:59
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    I'm counting on TAOCP existing in the afterlife. That way Knuth can finish it, and I can start it (and no, I don't own it. Yet)...
    – Benjol
    Jun 12, 2015 at 13:49

1 Answer 1


This is refuted by Stack Overflow's own survey:

41.8 percent of respondents described themselves as "self-taught," while 37.7 percent had a Bachelor of Science degree in CS or a related field (e.g. EE or Mathematics). Another 18.4 percent had Master's degree, and 2.2 per cent had PhD's, for a total of 58.3%.

So that in itself makes the claim false, since buying a textbook for a course means they owned a book (and presumably read it). And that doesn't include the self-taught programmers, some of whom must own and read programming books (or else how would they be self-taught? -- can't all be on-line).

BTW the number of self-taught programmers at large companies like Google is much lower, in the 5 to 10% range according to this post.

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    While that's a good answer for the question of whether over 50% of programmers are self-taught, how does that apply to the question of owning a book on Software Engineering? Jun 11, 2015 at 15:48
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    The clain has noithing to do specfically with software engineering. It says, "The average software developer, for example, doesn't own a single book on the subject of his or her work, and hasn't ever read one." That means any book on software development -- programming, or software engineering, etc.
    – tcrosley
    Jun 11, 2015 at 15:51
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    Hmm... based on the title of the question, I had assumed that there was some degree of context in the line before the quote indicating that we were specifically talking about Software Engineering. I believe that one of my books in my undergraduate career mentioned development methodologies, but it was merely informative that these methods existed, not exploring them. Otherwise, we never studied Software Engineering. Jun 11, 2015 at 16:18
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    @ChrisW: I think they must be making a distinction between programming books, and books on "software development". It's certainly possible (since I've done it) to get advanced degrees in computer-related fields, and develop software for everything from startups to research labs to household-name computer companies, without ever studying "software development" specifically. Which, in my admittedly biased opinion, says something about the subject's worth.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 11, 2015 at 23:11
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    @tcrosley The only thing that I stated was the the SOs survey has a convenience sample as the people most likely to respond are the ones that are active users of a site aiming at self improvement. The average programmer may be under represented here. I don't have any other cites for my claim, and hence the comment and not an answer. What I am hinting at is a large underbelly of the programming population that just does cargo cult programming and hacks together solutions that work(barely), but nothing more. Again, an opinion. Jun 18, 2015 at 7:39

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