Books for intermediate computer science students

So you’ve survived the first few programming courses, you know why bubble sort’s a bad idea and you can write tree traversal algorithms in your sleep. The question that’s eating you as the new year looms is: what’s next? There are a proliferation of books out there meant for beginning programmers and quite a few for the experts, but in my experience there are fewer resources for people who are half-way up the ladder and want to know how to climb the next few rungs. Luckily there are a number of books out there that a sufficiently motivated student can use to learn more advanced techniques. 

Before I jump in, it’s worth taking some time to clarify what exactly intermediate is. For starters, I’m assuming that you know at least 3-4 different programming languages including at least one object-oriented, one functional and one utility language (eg Perl/Python/Ruby). I’m also assuming that you’ve worked in teams and have successfully accomplished at least one medium scale programming project which involved both program design and implementation. And since computer science is more than just programming, you should have at least a cursory knowledge of computing theory and algorithms, meaning that you know, at the least, what a Turing Machine is and what Big-O notation means. That being said, let’s get on with it:

Structure and Implementation of Computer Programs

Yes, I know MIT uses this book for its intro-level programming course, but it quite clearly states in one of the prefaces that most students taking that course already have some programming experience. It’s certainly a fine book, but I do think that novice programmers won’t quite understand the full power of some of the concepts presented. However, having spent some time in the trenches, you’re likely to have a better understand of what sort of things can make your life easier. This book will teach you a lot about abstractions and algorithms and once you’ve experienced the austere simplicity and inherent power of Scheme, you’ll never think the same way again.

On Lisp

Even though the book is supposed to about “Advanced Techniques for Common Lisp”, the first few chapters are devoted to a rather basic review of functional programming concepts. I’m currently working my way through this book and I think it’s fair game for anyone who has had exposure to functional programming in general and some dialect of Lisp in particular. Be warned however, that this book is quite topic specific. It makes no secret of the fact that many of the ideas that are explored will be useless, or at least very hard to implement without the powerful framework that Lisp gives you. Unless you plan on actually using Lisp for a substantial amount of your work in the future, this book might not be worth the time investment.

Design Patterns

At the other end of the generality spectrum is this classic. It’s authors have gained somewhat legendary status in the software engineering community as the Gang of Four and the book very well deserves its reputation as a must-read for serious software engineers. If you’re bulding production software and use any form of object orientation, you’ll soon be encountering some of the patterns described here. The books purpose is to describe general patterns that continually occur in software. It reads more like a catalog or cookbook than a standard textbook, but that adds to its appeal. Each pattern can be studied more or else separately and references to supporting patterns are made clear. There is also a considerable amount of sample code in Smalltalk and C++. This isn’t exactly a book that’s made to be read cover to cover and you’re likely to get bored unless you have a problem in mind that you’re looking to solve. The best way to get the most out of this book is to treat is as a reference and another tool in your toolkit.

Code Complete 2

Another general software engineering book that will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days. Code Complete is hard to describe in a few words and the best way to get a feel for what it is to read the first few chapters. Code Complete focusses on the actual writing of code. It deals with issues that arise was you and your team sit down to actually implement the design. If you have any experience at all working with a team on a large project, you’ll understand a lot of the issues that are dealt with here. This book isn’t about fancy optimizations or agile team management techniques, its about actually sitting down and writing your code. A must-read for anyone who wants to build better software (which I hope, is everyone who has ever written software).

Compilers: Principles, Techniques and Tools

You may only have a passing interest in compilers and may not be looking to become an expert in programming languages, but learning about compiler technology will help you in numerous other ways as well. A word of warning, this book is a classic but it also edges into the ‘advanced’ domain. I’ve started reading this book in earnest since I became interested in programming languages and I still have a long way to go. This book will force you to develop along multiple fronts: algorithms, data structure, even interface design (by way of designing usable languages). And as Steve Yegge pointed out, starting to write a compiler is not for the faint of heart, because there is no end to it (though that’s something for another post). Read this book only if you are seriously committed to someday becoming an expert programmer.

The Mythical Man Month

It’s a bit dated and a lot of the examples might seem archaic, but the underlying message is clear even after all these years. This book is must read if you’re ever in a position to lead a team ( and chances are, at some point you will be). If there is any book that I would say is a must for a software engineering curriculum, this is it. It can be tempting to skip over the more technical parts, but please don’t do so. Read this book cover to cover and then read it again a few weeks later.


The books I’ve listed above won’t make you an expert programmer, but they will start you on the way and take you a fair distance along. The truth is that it’s much harder to go from intermediate to expert than to go from beginner to intermediate (though I suppose that’s true of all disciplines). I’m looking for a good book on algorithms to add to the above list, but I haven’t come across one that is at the proper level yet. I consider Knuth’s masterpiece to be at a somewhat higher level than what I’m prepared for at the moment. Any suggestions would be welcome.

2 thoughts on “Books for intermediate computer science students

  1. The classic algo text is “Introduction to Computer Algorithms” by Cormen, Lierson, Rivest and Stein (CLRS).

    I personally used “computer algorithms” – Horowitz, Sahni, Rajsekaran. Then again this book was for me the beginner. You should definitely go for CLRS.

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