Of late, I’ve been looking to expand my library of technical books (despite having worked in quite a wide cross-spectrum of the software industry there’s just so many technologies out there). For whatever reason, I get on much better with a physical book in front of me than scouring the web for tutorials.
You know what I found? It’s really hard to tell which books are any good. If you don’t have someone to recommend a book, you’re pretty much left with reading Amazon reviews. Now that might seem to be a pretty good second best – if you can find a book on the right topic with 50 reviews averaging 4-5 stars, it’s got to be good, right? Well no, not really. You’ve no idea who those reviewers are… are they 20+ year grizzled veterans wishing they could dump Ruby and do everything in C… or perhaps know-it-all college students who give a book on EJB 1 star because it doesn’t tell them how to use packages. Really, the usefulness of any book is going to be very dependent on your current level of experience and how your mind works.
So I would spend hours reading reviews of the top 10 books, trying to evaluate the reviewers competence from a few lines of text. And then as like as not, the book would still be totally useless, and I’d wasted $50-60 (in the UK, books are about twice as expensive as the US).
But then I realised that compared to the $60 I wasted on a book, the time I spent poring over Amazon reviews and book contents was far, far more expensive. Speaking approximately, I charge about the cost of one book for each hour I work. I was probably spending at least 2 hours on average, choosing one book on some subject. So with the cost of the book thrown in, that’s at least 3 hours worth “spent” on a book.
Here’s an alternative approach. Imagine I scoot across to Amazon and do a search, very quickly skim the top few books and semi-randomly pick 3 of them. Time spent: practically 0. For the same cost, I still have my book. In fact since I have 3 books, I reduce the risk of not getting anything useful. And of course, I actually get some work done… which looks good when you have deadlines to meet and clients to impress.
It’s an approach I think is applicable to other areas too. For instance, do I redecorate my bathroom myself, or pay someone $100s to do it? Well, a professional can probably do things (at least) twice as fast as I can, and to a better standard (it’s not really my forte). So as long as he charges less than twice my hourly rate, it makes sense to hire him, as long as I spend the hours I would be decorating doing paid work. Another example; UK supermarkets will let you order online and have your weekly shopping delivered for about $10. If you’re used to trying to be economical, this might sound crazy. But $10 is about 10 minutes worth of me being paid, whereas shopping online probably saves about an hour of my time… for spending that $10 I can be $50 up on the deal – plus as an added advantage I don’t walk past the snack aisle and come home with a bag full of doughnuts and hot chicken!
So to summarise… if you work for a decent rate, the time you spend saving money may be far more expensive than the money you save.