This past weekend, I was doing yet another of my clean and purge runs. For those who know me, this is a sure indication that I am avoiding doing something heavy, or that requires a lot of thinking power. My wife always knew when it was a week before a final exam in any class I was taking; the house would get progressively cleaner and more organized leading up to the night before the test, and then all cleaning activity would stop. Anyway, that's not really the point of this entry.
As I was going though a pile of cassette tapes in a cabinet in the garage (I know some people remember those, and I'm willing to bet some people my age still have some of their rarest materials in that format. Some stuff never made the jump to CD, much less to digital), I was struck at how much great material was out there that so few people had heard, and in some ways, that's how I liked it. Of course, on the flip side to that, I was once also a musician, and as a musician, I had dreams of getting my music in the hands of everyone I could think of. Can you say cognitive dissonance? Maybe a little.
One of the things about the obscure music fan is the fact of what we called the "back pocket effect", and this really requires an understanding of a late 70s and early 80s phenomenon called "tape trading" that just doesn't exist any longer, at least not in the same way. Tape trading was where you would make a mix of your favorite songs from a variety of bands and give them to other people, with the hope that they would return the favor and do the same for you. We typically would not record entire albums and give them away. We'd just "swap tapes" in that instance, with the idea that we would give them back after we heard them, decided if they resonated with us or not, and then made purchases on our own or, sometimes, just decided to swap tapes and call it a day.
So many cassette tape compilations that I have have one or two songs that, to this day, I have not seen anyplace else. Often they were from local bands or from small level national acts that never really broke through. One of the gems that I have is a tape from a band out of Fremont, California that called themselves "The Wicked". This tape is interesting in that it predicted so many things that would become tropes of early 90's metal, while still being firmly in the canon of late 80s thrash metal that was synonymous with the East Bay Scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. The beauty of this band is that, frankly, I don't remember ever seeing them live, I don't remember ever seeing a flyer for them, and I have no information to go on for the band members as to what they did afterwards. Just this tape. Five songs… and they are fantastic, if you are into that style. Their singer had a very unique and unnerving voice. It was a quality that sounded like a scared teenager, and definitely paired with lyrics that had a scary element to them (not Dungeons and Dragons scary, but street violent scary, like you would associate with Korn or Slipknot later in the 90s). It just worked for me. What also worked was the fact that I could put this in my back pocket, listen to it in my car, and bewilder anyone who heard it… dude, where did this come from?!
What does this have to do with testing? I think that the obscure music fetishist has a personality trait that works well for software testing. They have a sense of adventure. They are willing to look for the truly obscure. They relish the strange but delightful find, and the less other people know about it, the better. Many of these things also work as mental traits in software testing. The willingness to share stories about finding the gold nuggets in the strangest places. Sharing their techniques with others who want to likewise pan for gold in unlikely places. Also true to form, I think many of the software testers out there who come from this background also tend to like knowledge that is "back pocket". Just like when a band becomes too well known, and then they decry that they have become "too commercial" (how many bands have I said that about over the years? Too many to count, really). To tell the truth, I wasn't really complaining about their success (hey, I was a musician, I understood that desire perfectly well).
What I was sad about was the loss of "back pocket knowledge". My find was no longer special, it was now available to everyone. Some software testers act the same way. Their knowledge has become too mainstream, too many people are now using it, and to their minds, often using it wrong. It's become "too commercial", a catchphrase that means "diluted, too broadly shared, and not well enough understood". Inevitably we would get discouraged by these bands because they would chase the lowest common denominator (meaning the commercial hit), and that unique edge would then be gone, and their subsequent releases would sound the same. Testers also tend to feel that certain knowledge that has become "too commercial" has suffered the same fate (certifications, anyone?).
To those nerds out there that see themselves in this, I'm one of you, and I think these traits are wonderful for testing. What I think is important, though, is that we transcend the desire to keep the best in our "back pockets", but instead try to do our best to let it grow organically and let others hear what we find awesome, and explain why we find it awesome. Sure, we run the risk of it getting "too commercial", but sometimes an act just rightfully deserves that. If the music is that good, let it go where it may. If the testing ideas are that good, then let them do likewise.