Tech books

I’ve got lots of tech books, and have even read many of them, I’m beginning to spot a trend. I wonder if anyone else has noticed? Or if I am wrong? Or why?

Most recent Tech books in the Office development space have been written by Microsoft staffers. Why is that?

In the olden days we had JW, and the Dummies and Bibles series, and PED etc. and for sure most of these are getting updated for 2007. But nearly all the .net and VSTO stuff is from MS staffers. That seems odd. Neutral industry experts have served us well over the years (IMO), why has it changed?

Not convinced something happened?

VSTO-Mere-Mortals – Paul works for MS as does Kathleen

Visual-Studio-Tools-Office – Both Erics work for MS

MS-Net-Development-MS-Office – Andrew works for MS

Professional-Excel-Services – Shahar – MS right?

Beginning-Excel-Services – By MS’s Lead developers of Excel Services.

(btw I think I might try to get into Excel services – tip for the future – I think there is a living to be made here)(from 2010 probably!)

See the pattern?

I’m not saying all books in this space are by MS staff, but a large proportion seem to be.

I can’t think of one VBA (ack too! [spits in disdain]) based book that was written by an MS staffer. Certainly the classics are either from Baarns, JW or part of the PED team.

Many of the pure .net books are written by non MS’ers, it seems to be just the .net/Office space.

I wonder if this stuff is sooo bleeding edge that no one in industry is really using it to the extent they could write a useful book? Or using it at all?

Or have MS simply started encouraging staffers to write?

All the non MS book authors always got good access to the product teams to ensure the books were out around RTM time, so how come it suddenly went in-house?

The thing that worries me about this trend is how real world applicable these books are if they are not based on varied, ‘in the trenches’ experience. One of the great strengths of the PED guys is you know that’s how they make a living.

If the MS books are based on the same use cases that drove the product development, it may give a false impression of product coverage. The gaps (in the product or the book) could well bite you way down the line, when you are already committed.

I remember an ASP project years ago where some books were so superficial we really got caught out (gaping security blunder), and other books that said ‘this is the way they say to do it, and here’s why you should never do that, and here is what to do instead’. We preferred the latter – big time!

I have read several of the books above, and have no complaints at all. But then I have never delivered a commercial product based on Excel and .net to a fee paying customer, so I would suggest I don’t know enough to have a valid opinion. (Actually thinking about it I have delivered a .net, Excel and Access app commercially, but I still don’t feel qualified).

What do you think? Let me know if I got any authors wrong. Is this trend happening in all tech books?



13 Responses to “Tech books”

  1. Dennis Wallentin Says:


    I’ve noticed the same progress and I’m not pleased at all with it…

    I suspect that this situation is just another (clever) way of building up a new marketing channel to promote their new tools and versions (similar to the blogging).

    The close associated MVP groups, especially on the server side, are also frequent authors (check out MOSS). Not everyone with the MVP tag has practical experience although they may from a technical point of view qualify well.

    Three importants aspects to consider when consider to buy a book “made in MSFT”

    * Employees cannot be critical about the company’s softwares
    * Employees may lack practical experience of the company’s softwares
    * Employees usually have direct contacts with large customers

    I don’t suggest that we avoid books from MSFT employee but we should at least give it a second thought before buying the books.

    Finally, Whitechapel’s book is a great example of the opposite situation then above. I find it very regretful that there will be no update of it.

    Thanks for bringing the subject up,

  2. Simon Says:

    Dennis, its hard to get practical experience with this stuff when its so new.

    I feel we are under pressure from all areas (of MS) to adopt faster, adopt faster, and yet the technology is unproven, the benefits unclear, the risks are obvious. I just don’t think the knowledge base or the support network is there yet. (Maybe it is, direct from MS, via the MS forums?)

    I have been thinking of setting up an Excel services environment on a couple of pcs at home. That would be ok, but its a world away from sitting at a large clients, with ‘Excel services for donkeys’ in one hand, MSDN in the other and a blank look on my face as I stare at ‘Your app will never work in this environment!’ on the screen. Been there, done that, got the psycological scars to prove it.

    Andrew is pretty down to earth, ex Microsoft consulting (UK), so I’m sure he has real commercial experience with this sort of stuff. I’d say working for MS on beta sites is the only way to know this stuff already.

    Good points on the MS books, as you say no reason to avoid, but do consider. I’ll buy the ones I don’t have in the next 6-12 months probably. (Unless some newer technology comes out!!)

  3. Harlan Grove Says:

    FWIW, IBM employees have written about IBM software products, and Lucent (formerly AT&T, more precisely Bell Labs) employees have written about now former AT&T/Lucent software products. Doubtful the new crop of MSFT authors could be as candid as Fred Brooks or Ken Thompson. I suppose one could draw the distinction that these IBM and AT&T/Lucent authors went on to receive Turing awards. However, those authors wrote about what they used, so the VS[TO] and .Net books may have some practical programmer-to-programmer advice, but probably no industry-specific insights other than about the software industry.

    The Excel Services stuff – who knows? I suppose it depends on the extent MSFT itself uses Excel Services, and whether the authors are involved in any of that. If not, it’s like a storybook about auto racing written by someone who only builds race cars.

    And, BTW, Excel Services still strikes me as one of the stupidest ideas of all time. Take a programming platform (Excel) which has the primary strength of being able to display and trace all (OK, nearly all) its calculations and turn it into a black box. If I want a black box (as any & all web services are), there are much more reliable tools to use than Excel, much better programming languages than Excel formulas. Spreadsheets as an end-user tool and as a platform for delivering end-user tools, fine. Spreadsheets as opaque, back-end calculation systems, God save us!

  4. Simon Says:

    I’m sure the above authors would be delighted if their works became as highly regarded as Brooks and Thompsons.
    ‘Excel services = stupid’ – So? When did something being stupid stop people rushing in, lemming like? Almost the opposite in fact!
    I see it as a halfway house, a bit like weaning addicts off drugs. This year we’ll put your s/s on a server, next year once you’ve recovered we’ll migrate it to a proper app (or maybe we’ll do it quietly over time without telling anyone).
    I agree with you in absolute terms, but in the context of the orgs I see, Excel services might just work. Getting s/s users to let you put their baby on a server will be tough, but possibly easier than a big bang migration?
    Maybe you are right and they should go cold turkey – tough love?!
    cheers -simon

  5. Dennis Wallentin Says:


    With practical experience I refer to a general experience of the softwares and not only with the latest new versions.

    Nice point however it will not stop, as Simon points out, people from using Excel services. I wouldn’t be surprised if we will see a huge growing interest in this area when more and more corporates upgrade to latest version or start to use SharePoint.

    Kind regards,

  6. Harlan Grove Says:

    SharePoint and the display portion of Excel Services I understand. Something like the functionality Lotus achieved with Notes and its SmartSuite apps 10 years ago – though at the time that assumed a LAN connection to a Notes server rather than an inter/intranet connection.

    I’ll just count myself lucky for working for a company that (1) doesn’t use SharePoint (we’re purely Lotus Notes/Domino for that sort of thing) and (2) already use S-Plus on the server side for nastier calculations.

  7. Marcus Says:

    “Excel Services… black box… as opaque, back-end calculation systems, God save us!”
    Harlan, you’ve got a a very valid point there. And I tend to agree with you; but (you knew it was coming)…

    Do you remember ‘The Color of Money’ – the only Academy Awards Paul Newman didn’t bother turning up for – and he won.
    Paul Newman’s character walks into a pool hall (with his buddies) and says: “Do you smell what I smell?” The answer wasn’t smoke.

    I’m at the tail end of a project migrating a spreadsheet based Monte Carlo calculation ‘engine’ to a production environment. Mention that to me and I think Algorithmics (or similar). These guys (a major bank mind you) think: “Oh, I know – let’s port the VBA code to VB6, store the data in SQL Server and let Informatica co-ordinate the lot”. Excel Services was on the agenda but the servers weren’t up to 2005 yet.

    As Simon suggested, Excel Services may be a reasonable intermediary step.
    > It meets IT/Business budget expectations (the less the better)
    > The term ‘Excel’ is familiar to the business
    > It’s an easier sell to the business than a proper calculation engine.

    VHS didn’t dominate Beta because it was the better solution (if you have a close look around, you’ll see we’re surround by second rate technology).

    All the best – Marcus

  8. Marcus Says:

    One of the more difficult aspects I find with nerd books (I use that term affectionately) is “level” appropriateness.

    Like many of us, I know what a variable is and don’t need ‘int’ explained to me (again). I’ve yet to find a ‘good’ book that explains the programatic differences in Excel 2007 (has anyone else?). The book would only need to be a few chapters long – but that probably doesn’t contend too well in a market that sells by the kilo (pound).

    I’ve got Professional-Excel-Services and have sort of started progressing through it (in amongst all my other reading). It’s been a while that I could admit to getting ‘excited’ about a computer book.

    The Access Developer’s Handbooks (both Volumes) have saved me a few times. And I still have my original copy of ‘Excel 5 VBA Step-by-Step’ by Reed Jacobson. Although this has been displaced by PED as a current favourite.

    Regards – Marcus

  9. Dennis Wallentin Says:


    >is “level” appropriateness.

    That’s indeed true. I discovered that my favourite publish – APress – has started to use “From novice to professional” in the subtitles.

    I can understand that the publishers want some profit on their books by trying to target all kind of developers. However, what portion of the books are aiming at the real novice vs at the real professional?

    In the long run I believe that the publishers loose money with this kind of strategy.

    Kind regards,

  10. Harlan Grove Says:

    My rule-of-thumb: never buy a technical book with the authors’ faces on the front cover. If the publishers believe that’d help sell the book, then the level of the book is likely on the low side. Correlary: the best technical writers’ pictures wouldn’t help their book sales.

  11. Shahar Prish Says:

    Not to mentuion cases where the image may actually frighten potential buyers w/o even opening the book first :(

  12. Simon Says:

    Shahar – yours is one of the better pics, I have some linux books where I have to hide the covers from the kids so they don’t get scared!
    Its nothing a black marker pen beard and glasses couldn’t fix I guess!

  13. Shahar Prish Says:

    One of the best uses for the book’s jacket is the fact that my 15 month old daughter is using it as an incentive to eat. When my wife is feeding her and I am not around, she first feeds my image with whatever it is she is holding and then eats it herself.

    Needless to say, that book is in a sad state… She’s not the most.. How shall I put it… Organized and clean eater…

    I actually had a longish back and forth with the publisher. I was dismayed by the fact that their p2p series had that rule of putting the author(s’) image on the cover (my opinion of the matter is close to the one Harlan voiced, only not as fatalistic, for obvious reasons ;)). As a compromise, I suggested we put a picture of me when I was a baby or of my daughter at a computer or something similar. They would have none of that. The word “professional” kept being thrown around a lot. I tried the “English is not my native language” defense, pretending to not understand what they meant, but alas, they did not seem to buy it.

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