Holiday Season Gift Ideas for Techies
From books, gadgets, and office accessories, to decor, wellness, and non-tech gifts. If you’re unsure what to buy friends and relations who work in tech, this article offers some inspiration
👋 Hi, this is Gergely with the monthly, free issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover challenges at Big Tech and startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers.
Today’s issue is a little different than usual. Holiday season is just around the corner, meaning it’s time to think about gifts – which can be a non-trivial challenge in itself. With so many choices, what are the best presents for people working in tech? I’ve put together a list for the upcoming holiday season to make this process a little easier.
For this list, I crowdsourced recommendations from Twitter and Linkedin, and also added some suggestions of my own. If you’re stuck on what to get for your nearest and dearest in tech, maybe this article can serve up some ideas…
Books and creative thinking
Gadgets and tinkering
Toys for adults
As always, none of the links below are affiliates (meaning I make no money from purchases,) and I’ve not been paid to mention any product or category. See my ethics statement for more.
1. Books and creative thinking
Books. They are a tried and tested – and increasingly underrated – way to learn something new. See my newly updated list of software engineering, engineering management, and product strategy books recommendations.
While nonfiction books can teach you something new, fiction books are an excellent way to unwind by escaping into new worlds. Websites like Goodreads offer recommendations, as do lists like the most anticipated adult fiction books for 2023, or Amazon’s best books of 2023 list.
Breaking creative blocks: Oblique Strategies is a set of 100 cards, each with a suggestion for how to break creative block. For example:
State the problem in words as clearly as possible
Work at a different speed
Try faking it!
These cards are popular in the creative professions and it’s a gift that could help software engineers get unstuck by prompting some outside-the-box thinking. Get it here.
Magazines or newsletter subscriptions. Giving a magazine or a digital subscription that the recipient would enjoy — but might not get on their own — can be a practical present. Some ideas:
Newsletter subscriptions. See technology newsletters on Substack, business ones, or browse all categories. Plenty of newsletters live off of Substack. Some popular with techies include Stratechery, Command Line and Benedict’s Newsletter. You can always gift the Pragmatic Engineer, too.
Educational subscriptions. Subscriptions to learning resources to keep up-to-date with tech could be a welcome gift. Platforms like Pluralsight, Frontend Masters (frontend), Egghead.io (frontend) are popular, but there is an ever-growing list of courses and platforms.
2. Gadgets and tinkering
Flipper Zero. The single most mentioned, most recommended gift idea this year. A multi-tool for security folks and those loving to hack around with signals and hardware.
You can use it to hack around with digital stuff like hardware, radio protocols or access control systems. It’s open source, accessible, and a lot of fun! It features:
A sub-1 GHz antenna with a 50m range which can trigger things like garage doors, IoT sensors, and keyless systems
NFC module supporting all major standards
An RFID chip which can be used to emulate simple IDs for access control
Bluetooth to connect to smartphones and third-party devices
Infrared transmitter to control items like TVs, air conditioners, and stereo systems
MicroSD card for external storage
… and a bunch more neat features to hack around with!
Arduino. An open source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. Ideal for engineers looking to hack and build interactive projects. It’s considered a kit given its capabilities, and prices start at just under $100. Projects built with Arduino include:
… and thousands more!
3D printer. On the more expensive side (usually above $500,) but a gadget that can unleash a lot of creativity. One of the more popular hobbyist printers is the Bambu P1P. More advice on 3D printers for hobbyists.
USB data blocker. USB charging ports can be used to compromise your devices which you plug into them, such as phones and other smart devices. USB data blockers disable the ports used for data transfer, and only permit charging. This is especially useful when traveling and using random, potentially trustworthy USB charging ports. Search for USB data blockers.
Raspberry Pi Maker Advent Calendar. 12 projects for “Codemas.” The box offers a fun introduction to Raspberry Pi programming, delivering increasingly challenging assignments. A surprisingly inexpensive gift given the contents. Get it here.
Massage or spa voucher/booking. Gift someone special a massage or spa coupon to revitalize with. Gifting a pass to a salon or spa you can personally recommend based on your own experience makes it more personal.
Most of us software engineers spend far too much time sitting at desks, so a professional massage can help mitigate the effects of a sedentary job.
A back, neck or foot massager. A massage in the comfort of your own home can be a great gift, and there are plenty of gadgets that provide a surprisingly good experience. Search for electric back massagers, neck massagers, and foot massagers.
Events involving physical activity. Technical program manager Michael Davé suggests:
“Most tech people (including myself) are too much in their heads. So, give something that gets them out of their head and into the moment (i.e. something that awakens or delights the senses).“
A few ideas:
Hiking or a guided trip
WHOOP subscription. WHOOP is a smart band which tracks biometrics such as skin temperature, blood oxygen level, and more. It uses an annual subscription model, with the option to upgrade to the latest models. Get it here.
4. Office equipment
A rubber duck. “Rubber ducking” is a popular concept among software engineers, where you talk through a problem to a rubber duck, and through this process of explanation, you discover the solution to the problem (sometimes.) There’s no shortage of rubber ducks to choose from, and there’s also dedicated online rubber duck stores offering personalized ducks in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Paris. Search rubber ducks.
Noise-canceling headphones. I swear by the Bose Quiet Comfort 700 – and there are plenty of other recommended models. A great – if rather pricey – gift for any software engineer without a pair, or who’s in need of an upgrade.
Ember mug. A drinking vessel that keeps its contents at a constant temperature, so your coffee stays hot for 90 minutes. This is handy for when you get distracted and absorbed by a problem, so that when you reach for your drink an hour later, it’s still nice and warm. Tech lead Andrei Podznoev recommends it as “a life changer for any office worker.” Get it here.
Anti-stress ball. Useful for hand and finger exercises, or just for squishing while thinking! Search anti-stress balls.
Ergonomic wrist rests. These are tailored to reduce wrist strain and promote a natural wrist position. A few recommendations:
Caprio 2.0 ergonomic wrist rest. “I have been using it for the last 2 years and it helps a lot with wrist strain.” – Gourav Kambij, software engineer.
A variety of wrist rests on sites like Amazon
A felt & cork desk mat. A minimalistic desk mat to go under a keyboard and mouse. Search for felt & cork desk mats.
Laptop cleaning kit. Get a kit that has a screen cleaner, and perhaps even an air blower for cleaning the keyboard. Most laptops are used for several years, making this a practical gift. Search for laptop cleaning kits.
Desktop charger. Plenty of engineers prefer to charge phones, smart watches and laptops at a desk. As most USB interfaces move to USB-C, chargers like the Ugreen Nexode 200W USB C GaN charger or other USB-C desktop chargers, are handy gifts for techies without one.
Wireless charging station. More smartphones, headphones and smart watches support wireless charging. If the person you are thinking of gifting has devices like these, then a charging station could be perfect for their workspace. Search wireless charging stations.
A leg rest. Especially useful if you work from home. Search leg rests.
Nixie clocks. A unique clock built using neon tubes and Nixie tubes. Doubles as a neat conversation starter. Get it here.
Rotating globes. Powered by light, with a variety of planets to choose from.
Code-inspired posters. Created by software engineer Tomek Skupinski and his wife, in Poland:
There are plenty of neat designs that combine code and art to choose from. Get them here.
Lots of sites sell software engineering-themed posters. Search sites aggregating products from artists on Etsy or Redbubble, or Google it. You can, of course, design a poster yourself and have it printed at many online shops that specialize in this.
Wooden world maps. A suggestion from Diana in the comments is the wooden decor from the brand “Enjoy the wood,” and their wooden world maps. They are pricey, but a unique decor:
Search for more wooden decoration ideas.
6. Toys for adults
Fidget toys. From staff engineer Lee McKeeman:
“Not all people in tech have ADHD or Autism, but there seems to be good synergy. Even if people aren’t one of these neurotypes, I have seen a lot of people that love some sort of decoration or toy related to their interests. For the more neuro-distractible sorts, fidget toys are really solid. We forget to refresh these or use what we have, something fresh can be a good reminder. Stimara are some of my favorites.”
One of the many take-apart puzzles is the Hexa puzzle, described like this:
“Part puzzle, part geometric torture device. The goal is to remove the hexagonal nugget of brass from the hexagonal bars of the steel cage. Of course, the chunky brass Hex doesn't seem to fit through any of the six-sided holes. This sort of puzzle can be particularly maddening since it's clear from the beginning what needs to be done yet it seems that every element of the object has been specifically crafted to work against you.”
Wodden puzzles. In the comments, Diana recommends wooden puzzles, such as one from Ugerars. She shares how “the quality is great as well as the creativity behind the models.” Indeed, there are creative ones: there are model puzzles for clocks, the Discovery space shuttle, cars and many others. Search for more wooden puzzles for adults.
Analogue Pocket. A tribute to portable gaming, compatible with the Game Boy cartridge library. Highly limited sets, and released in drops. Get it here.
Playdate. A new, tiny-handled system that’s a homage to old-school gaming. I own one and it’s a lot of fun. Shipping can take a while, though. Get it here.
LEGO. No longer just for kids, there are countless sets aimed at adults. LEGO ideas is a series of unusual sets like Sonic the Hedgehog, or the Home Alone house, there’s LEGO Star Wars for fans of that classic series, LEGO architecture which recreates iconic landmarks, and LEGO Technic which includes advanced mechanics that are satisfying to build.
Check out the LEGO 18+ section for more ideas.
7. Board games
There’s plenty to choose from, including evergreen games that are great fun with friends and family. A few lists for ideas:
The best adult board games by The Strategist (2023)
11 board games we love by The Wirecutter (2023)
The top 25 board games, by The Board Game Geek (2020)
Board games for software engineers are a bit harder to come by. However, the Revelry team has put together a list of ones which developers may enjoy even more:
Dominion. “The game lends itself to a lot of strategy centered around the correct order of chaining different cards.”
Fields of Arle. “The branching decision trees spanning multiple rounds when planning your future turns can get very complex and confusing.”
RoboRally. “It can teach us to plan for and deal with errors.”
Tzolk’in. “Challenges our ability to plan ahead and manage resources.”
Burke’s Gambit. “It not only improves deduction skills, but also social skills.”
On a Reddit thread discussing these suggestions, users added more recommendations for games techies may enjoy:
Zendo: “a game of inductive logic, where players work to ‘reverse engineer’ a moderator-designed construct to discover the rule.”
Epic Spell Wars: “another good one for this list because it has pre-programmed actions and lots of chaining. Plus, it's just goofy fun!”
AquaSphere: “an eurogame with a cool underwater theme. You play as programming bots and program other bots in your resource chain.”
8. Non-tech gifts
Music and the arts. Indulge the senses by gifting an experience. Don’t forget to take into account who an experience is for, to avoid disappointment:
Food and drink. There are plenty of options for gifting a tasty, culinary experience:
Home cooking kits, or vouchers for services like HelloFresh or Blue Apron
Special or interesting food or drink
Homemade food or drink as gifts
When gifting food and drink, you could consider going local and sourcing from small vendors. For example, in The Netherlands, The Good Box is a gift box with products from local startups and scaleups. Look for similar initiatives in your region, or just seek out local producers.
A plant. Plants are less conventional gifts, but in my view, they’re underrated. I once received one from a friend; and although at first I was surprised, I found it therapeutic to have to keep it alive. It was a nice, big, green plant which lasted a few years, and also reminded me of this friend.
I hope you’ve found some inspiration for the holiday season. Going through the suggestions, one thing that comes to mind is techies may value non-tech gifts which get you away from screens.
And don’t forget that sometimes just spending time with family and friends may be a better gift than any single thing you could purchase.
I hope this guide is useful. If you have more suggestions, please put them in a comment!