Trivial Pursuits

I think a true passion for learning is one of the things that makes testers great. The best testers I know are always looking for concepts or viewpoints they haven’t heard before and looking for opportunities to learn anytime they can.But it’s usually not enough to just to want to learn – you need some skills on how to learn – on how to learn what you don’t know you don’t know. You have to be able to do a lot more than type things into a search engine. If you want to learn about something, search engine results are just the first clue of many that will take you on the learning journey.

I’ve taken two classes in my life that I will forever be grateful for taking. The first was typing in 9th grade. I was awful in the class, but it’s amazing how the basics have helped my productivity throughout the years (just ask anyone who’s ever been annoyed with me for continuing to type while I carry on a conversation with them). The other class was a Methods of Research class in grad school. To be specific, the class was Mus 510: Methods of Musical Research. The class was entirely about how to find information…and it was intense. My favorite part of the class (and the most hated for many others in the class) was the weekly “trivial pursuit” exercise. Each week we were given a page of questions, and asked to find the answers (and note where we found them in a specified bibliographic style). This was 1992, so the internet wasn’t really cranking along enough to help. Instead, the university library was our playground.

So you can get an idea of what we went through, here are a sampling of some of the questions. There is no additional context – this is exactly – and only, what was written on our assignment sheet.

  • Whose death was “bewailed” in Thomas Campion’s Songs of mourning in 1613? Where in this country will you find a complete copy?
  • Who made two snare drums dated 1839 and 1841 now owned by the New York Historical Society?
  • In what book will you find biographical notes on 53 song composers of India?
  • Who first decided that A should be 440 vibrations per second?
  • (and, my favorite…) What does “Gabriel” have between his teeth?

Every week we’d have ten or so of these, and every week I’d arrive at the library at 8:00am on Saturday when they opened, and wrap up just in time to leave at 5:00 when they closed. It was a long day, and it was mentally hard work, but I loved it. Little did I know that I was studying to be a software tester.

What I learned was how to dig deep. Start with whatever you think is the keyword and look there – then look for citations or references. If there aren’t any, look for unique phrases and search on those. During my eight hour Saturdays in the library, I learned that the first place you look for an answer is almost always only a clue for where you need to look next.

Let me put it another way – if you think you found the answer on your first try – or think you know what something is truly about because you read the wikipedia article or someone’s blog post, you will almost always be wrong. If you want to be a great tester, don’t settle for surface area answers – dig deep and pursue!


  1. Are the IE team applying your testing principles? I ask because it’s very frustrating to develop Ajax-rich sites and find that only IE8 and below trips on the most basic of things, such as an incorrect implementation for JScript’s string.split({insert regex here}).

  2. I grew up in a university library, worked in Cataloging for a summer job in high school, then at a medical library part time for about four years part time while I was playing music professionally.

    Reference librarians are trained to have amazing deductive and inductive skills. Typically, someone comes to their desk to say “I need help on a paper.”

    Librarian: “What subject?”


    “When in history?”

    “Middle Ages”

    “About people? or things?”

    etc. etc. etc.

    I’d suggest it’s worthwhile for a tester field trip to go watch a reference librarian at work.


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