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10 Books Every Engineering Student Should Read

I graduated in June of 2015. It was a crazy journey, and one I could not have done without the amazing support system around me.

On reflecting back over the previous year, I was seriously contemplating what I learned, what important milestones meant, and things I would have done differently.

I realized that I had not read nearly as much during my school terms as I had wished — I made up for that during my work terms. Reading is one of life’s greatest gifts. The ability to pass knowledge so seamlessly from person to person, generation to generation, group to group, is nothing short of a miracle.

Thinking about the important of knowledge transfer, I decided to compile the 10 Books Every Engineering Student Should Read (aka the ones I wish I had read earlier).

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1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — Stephen Covey

This has to be one of the best books I have ever purchased. I try to read it at least once per year, because it really is that good.

This book gives you an excellent framework for the way to approach your career like a world-class individual.

The tips in this book are simple, open-ended, and easy to follow, but are the kind of things you wish you would do all the time, but don’t. Just as the most important things in life you likely learned in Kindergarten, this book lays it out simply, straight-forward, and challenges you to revisit the basics. If you want to become better than your peers, you just need to master the basics, and everything else will follow.

Just as in an engineering degree, the things you learn in your first 2 years are fundamental building blocks to the things you learn in your last 2 years. Ultimately, if you can master the basics, the really complex systems can easily be broken down. If you fail to master the basics, it’s an uphill battle.

I read this book at least once per year to revisit these important lessons, and to continually build my framework for approaching problems.

Note: above is an excellent summary from the gang at Hubspot, but I encourage you to buy the book to get the real deal - it’s invaluable.

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2. The Four Hour Chef — Tim Ferriss

As an engineering student, your brain likely works in the same way mine does — analytical, detailed, pattern-oriented, logical — and this book is as if someone wrote a cookbook for engineers (although that does exist). Tim takes something quite complicated and mysterious, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized steps.

For engineers, this process of taking the complicated and making it manageable, is something you will do daily, in all aspects of your life. I have somehow figured out a way to optimize my morning routine through this very thought process.

But more than that, this book outlines some key frameworks for thinking about structuring complicated problems, and optimizing learning of new and difficult concepts. He applies this particularly to food, but his techniques apply to anything.

If you’re going to be an engineering student, which likely leads you to being an engineer for the next 30+ years of your life, you had best learn to cook. It is easier than multi-body dynamics, and as quick to learn as any physics concept. Learning to feed yourself, properly, and doing so 2–3 times per day will not only make you a better cook, it will make you a better engineer.

In my second year, the wheels fell off. I wasn’t eating properly, I was stressed out, I stayed up late doing nothing of importance, and my grades started to suffer. More than that, I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally ill. I decided to make a change.

I did two things: eat 3 good meals per day, and get at least 7 hours of sleep per night (I aimed for 8, but having some breathing room is important).

If you aren’t eating, sleeping, and taking care of your body properly, your grades will suffer.

So the solution? Learn to cook. It’s cheaper, healthier, fun, and gives you a worthwhile break from all that studying, while teaching you a new set of skills.

I cannot recommend buying this book highly enough — everything from snacks to dinner parties, it has you covered. Only want to eat the same 3 things everyday? Perfect, it will teach you how to make those things in 30 minutes or less.

When you approach any difficult problem, you have a framework of previous experience, problem solving techniques, and information that would be useful given to you. Why not approach cooking the same way?

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3. Zero to One — Peter Thiel

This is the more important book on start-ups, economics, business design, and the future of tech that has ever been written.

This book fundamentally changed the way I think about business. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t read the vast enormity of business books out there (because you really should), I am just saying that if you ever are considering going into business for yourself, as an entrepreneur or otherwise, you should read this book.

Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America, wrote a book called “Smart People Should Build Things”, which I have linked below. I think it is a good accompaniment to Zero to One, and do fundamentally believe that if you have the skills to create something new, you should.

More so, we talk often about the two fundamental concepts in productivity: efficiency and effectiveness. You are efficient if you “do things right”, but you are effective if you “do the right things”. Zero to One is all about doing the right things.

Don’t know whether your idea is actually a game-changer, or if it’s just noise to the signal? Read this book and find out.

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4. Engineer to Win — Caroll Smith

Engineer to Win
Current state of the art in racing technology by a foremost expert in the field. Covers all forms of racing cars and includes a thorough analysis of metallurgy, metal fatigue and general materials technology. Details specific components and specific activities such as heat treatments, stress relieving, etc. Plus aerodynamics, ground effects, brakes, tools, and more. …excellent information. Popular Cars magazine.

Caroll Smith is legendary in the high-performance racing (Formula 1) community, and has written half-a-dozen books on the topic. This one in particular I find super interesting.

If you’re a Mechanical, Aerospace, Mechatronics, Systems, or Materials engineering student, this will be doubly applicable given the nature of the research, but it is still relevant for any discipline. The commitment to performance at a world-class level is clearly demonstrated, and in particular this book talks about the process of engineering world-class results.

If you’re serious about becoming a world-class engineer, this is a must-read. It will not only teach you a lot about racecar design, which has applications to many other fields, but how to engineer systems at a game-changing, world-class level, and what is involved in that process.

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5. Set Phasers on Stun - S. M. Casey

This was a book that first-year Systems Design Engineers at Waterloo were encouraged to read as part of the curriculum in their introductory class.

The gist of this book is “What happens when you design something, and everything goes wrong?”. Unfortunately, as engineers, we have to deal with designing things for people who may not understand the underlying complexity of what we are designing. This often means including some sort of interface between system and user. Sometimes, if we fail to design things properly, things go horribly wrong.

I’m a strong believer in reading books that make you uncomfortable - this one certainly fits the bill. The graphic detail Casey goes into is sure to leave an impression, which is important throughout your engineering career.

As part of being a Canadian engineering student, in your last year, you will receive your engineering ring. This is meant to symbolize a lot of things, but to me the most important is your commitment to your community, to fellow engineers, and to the public at large. The things you design have effects on people, and ultimately can cause serious harm to them if not treated carefully.

Read this book and be frightened, but let it be a stark lesson that every action has a consequence.

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6. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life — Chris Hadfield

More than any other book on this list, I resonate with this one. Chris Hadfield is not only a flippin’ astronaut, he was the Chief of the ISS - a title NASA doesn’t just hand out willy-nilly - as well as a passionate Canadian, Leafs fan (it’s okay, we’ll forgive him for this), and musician. He took space travel from a reserved science, and brought it back to the public attention at levels comparable to Neil Amstrong and the Apollo missions.

His book is full of insights on life, love, commitment, determination, happiness, and what it ultimately takes to be an astronaut - both in space, and on earth.

If you want to truly change the world with your degree, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Even if you just want an average day job (nothing wrong with that), I would encourage you to peruse this one. Every chapter has about 15 quotable lines, 3 hilarious anecdotes, and half-a-dozen life lessons.

I have never highlighted a book so much. Made me proud to be an engineering student, a Canadian, and a geek, all at the same time.

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7. Getting Things Done — David Allen

This book is not only legendary, it has a cult-like following, entire conferences devoted to its teachings, and likely about 100 follow-up books by various authors. You know you are on to something when someone else writes a book about your book.

If Zero to One is about “Doing the Right Things”, Getting Things Done is about “Doing Things Right”.

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8. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big — Scott Adams

Firstly, Scott Adams is amazing. Dilbert is hilarious. You should buy this book exclusively for that reason.

Secondly, after reading something as dark as Set Phasers on Stun, you’re going to need something much lighter to keep you going.

Finally, this book is chalk full of life lessons, hilarious anecdotes, and Adams’ classic humour.

For engineers especially, it is important to recognize that at some point in your career, you’re going to screw it all up. Your project will fail, your career might tank, you will have family struggles, and you will undoubtedly feel pretty low. What Mr. Adams eloquently explains in his book, through anecdotes and otherwise, is how you can still manage to be successful despite those lows.

This book is great from start to finish, but more than that, it taught me the importance of never taking yourself too seriously - something every engineer should become more acquainted with.

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9. Thing Explainer — Randall Munroe

Explaining your Differential Equations homework to your classmate? Hard. Explaining how rockets work? Really hard. Explaining how rockets, tectonic plates, and general laws of the universe, using only the 1000th most common words in the English lanuguage? Randall Munroe.

Utterly hilarious, and insightful.

If only every engineering task was done with this level of detail and care of execution. Using accommodating, simple language to explain extremely difficult concepts is something few engineers take the time to do - be one of them.

If an 8-year-old can look at your work and understand it - draw pictures if you have to - then it’s simple enough for anyone.

That’s your litmus test, and should be applied to every concept you ever learn in engineering. Learn from the best.

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10. Creativity Inc. — Ed Catmull

Three reasons to read this book:

  1. He’s the president of Pixar.
  2. He worked with Steve Jobs for the majority of his life.
  3. He is responsible for some of the greatest movies of all time.

This book is the single resource I look to to be a better manager. Eventually the vast majority of engineers end up in some kind of management or leadership role, and very few actually know what they are doing.

Ed simplifies this process considerably, and breaks down the entire concept into a few manageable steps, with a particular focus on team creativity.

What to be the best manager you can? Learn from the best. He made Toy Story after all.

That’s it for now!

Check out more articles by yours truly here.

Be sure to check out more by the Venture for Canada Fellows here.