Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Secrets of A Buccaneer Scholar


Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

Since I’ve referenced this book a bunch of times in various posts, I figure it is only worthwhile that I include it as an entry to the Wednesday book review list. Again, this is not a testing book per se, but it is written by one of the most visible testers in the field (James Bach) and while the point of the book is unconventional education and developing a passion for lifelong learning, the fact that his career is that of a software tester makes much of what Bach says very relevant to any tester looking to expand their knowledge and understanding beyond the standard academic realms.


First: a disclaimer; some people love James Bach, some people cannot stand James Bach, and many people fall somewhere in between. I happen to be a fan of his blunt and in-your face approach, and find the way that he writes to be both refreshing and unnerving (I happen to like Larry Winget for the exact same reasons). James does not filter. He says what he thinks and lets the chips fall where they may. He is especially blunt about his criticism of the current school system and the reasons why he dropped out of high school. If this is the message you get from the book (i.e. drop out of school, it worked for me) you will be greatly missing the point of this book.


Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar tells James’ story of disillusionment with the school system and how it set him on the path to want to walk away from it. Much of the book shows that James’ concepts of Buccaneering developed over time; the way that the loosely associated bands of brigands and the precursors to the pirates of fiction were, in many ways, a societal model with a lot of parallels to the way we live and learn today. I found this idea fascinating. Here are some more of the ideas that form the core of the Buccaneer Scholar ideals (for all of them, I recommend picking up the book; these are the ones that resonated with me):


View your education as lifelong; learn to educate yourself by scouting and using all of the resources available (books, web, podcasts, friends and colleagues).

Look for and work on "authentic problems". You will be much more likely to be engaged on trying to solve problems that matter to you rather than those that fill a textbook, but have no bearing on your own life or interests.

Find those things that interest you, that you find fun and enjoyable, and work with the way that you think. I wrote about this in one of my previous blog entries called “Training the Tiger to Test”.

Be willing to experiment, and try things that may or may not pan out, and be open to that notion that what you follow may lead to a dead end (but you still earn from that experience).

Explore a variety of methods of learning; don’t force yourself to try just one way (I will frequently read for or five books simultaneously on the same topic, just to see which one engages me better, and usually I find that different sections from different books work for me at different times).

James likes using heuristics and anagrams for describing these heuristics. The idea is that, by building models and frameworks to try out ideas, you can use a disciplined approach to solving problems or addressing areas with a completeness and focus.

In many ways, a passion for one thing will give you a framework for how to apply what you have learned to something else (as I have frequently said, Snowboarding and Scouting are common metaphors that I use in my day to day testing. My understanding and appreciation of the two disciplines have helped me frame situations and issues elsewhere).

Learning without doing something with it is oftentimes pointless. Yes, it can be fun and a nice diversion, and shouldn’t be discounted entirely, but we mostly learn by doing, so roll up the sleeves and experiment, even if the experiment proves disastrous.

Challenge the status quo. Be willing to look at things differently, and ask why something that is being taught is being taught. Question everything. Don’t let someone or some dogma stop you from trying to understand what is really happening.

Your reputation is what will drive your career more than any diploma or certification you hold (personally, I believe this to be true; the diploma will open some doors, but is not a guarantee of success. For many, after their first job, their diploma isn’t as valuable. Note, I have one, so I don’t see 100% eye to eye on this, but I know many engineers who do not have diplomas or degrees who have likewise done very well; their reputations are what carried them through).

Being a part of a community that gives to others, and giving much of what you have learned to others will help to develop the network and opportunities to build your personal brand, and give you a change to grow in your area of expertise by helping others do the same (I wonder if Bach reads Seth Godin, as this idea is almost a direct parallel with what Godin writes about in Linchpin).

Bottom Line:

James Bach has forged an incredible life, one that many of us would love to emulate. His life story is fascinating, and the challenges he has faced have brought him to where he is today and the philosophy of learning he embraces. Will this fit for everyone? No, it requires a tremendous amount of drive and self-discipline and work to do what Bach is advocating (and he freely admits the same). Should kids in school today use Secrets as an excuse to chuck school and follow his lead? Again, no, I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement. There is much value to a formal education and for many they can do very well in that environment, perhaps better than venturing out entirely on their own. What Bach advocates, the art of the Buccaneer Scholar, is that we all must take hold of our own educations, and work to do our best to make that approach a part of our everyday lives. Would I give Secrets to a kid in junior high or high school who is struggling with school? I might, but I would have to do so with heavy caveats (for some it may be the perfect advice, for others, it could prove disastrous). Would I recommend Secrets for those of us who want to remain lifelong learners and want to kick start our approach to getting in the groove to learn again? Absolutely.
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