Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Navigating self learning

I recently have pondered how things have changed in the quest to self educate myself concerning the software field, testing or other areas of interest.   When I was still a youth, I remember going to the mall and visiting Waldenbooks, and thinking what a great place this is, they have so many books.  Oh the days of browsing just for fiction, thinking life was good.

Then moving to College, I found libraries with thousands of tomes, perhaps a million books on shelves, and bookstores that carried a lot of books not just texts.    This is also the place where I learned the evils of the text book industry.  Some books you might want to sell back, finding little utility in them, may get stuck in your possession due to a new edition, or a semester where no class is utilizing the text.  I learned early in my college career to be wary of where I spent my hard earned monies on books related to technical interest.

At a trade show, I once bought a new hard drive for my computer, a book on Access 97 published by Que, and a Java book, that was pretty worthless the moment I bought it.  It was a hard lesson to learn, and for a time after graduating I steered clear of books as much as possible, not knowing how to pick a good book from the bad.

How many volumes can be written about a piece of productivity software? I don't know, but it was frustrating at times to find the Books a Million had two shelves full of books on Office, Outlook, and Word, but slightly less devoted to areas that actually would have been of help to me as a young software developer.   We can look at publishers, Microsoft Press, or O'Reilly, and  hopefully develop a familiarity for how books are written.  This book may be a quick start guide, this one claims to teach you in 24 hours, or 30 days.

The reality is often different.  Some books are good solid references, almost printed documentation of the language you are coding in which may be useful if there was no quality documentation online (Such as MSDN). Others spend a great deal of time on one set of features, yet seem to not cover one area of advanced use that is what you are really looking for.   So how do you determine what is a good book and what isn't?

One way is to look at Ratings.  You can go to Amazon, or some other book seller site and read the reviews of the book.  Do the reviewers mention parts that you were hoping to get understanding from that book, do they down it?  Do they list the table of context, or index to give you a partial idea of topics covered? Do they describe the book as far too long to cover so little?  Yet Ratings games, like search engine optimization can still be played in the online market place, just as it could be played in a brick and mortar store where a book with a better price may actually contain significantly lower substance than a book of just a few dollars more . So, it is not always clear whom you can trust as an Author or Publisher at times.

When I first came on board as a full time tester on this project, I had not read a significant text related to testing, in several years.  I dare say, the last mention was probably in a software engineering text book, that I have opened now and then just to refresh my knowledge.  I learned to browse the shelves of fellow developers, sometimes to ask if they could recommend a good book.

As strange as it may sound, word of mouth was responsible for a number of quality books I bought when I first moved to Hinton, WV.  A lot of data can be found online these days, and that's great for helping you through tricky areas of the work, but sometimes, nothing beats a good old fashioned dead tree to plop in your lap and devour.   Sure, I may read faster in an online format than I do in print, but there is something to be said about having those pages a few finger tips away.

However, what if no one you know has a text in that area you might wish to explore?  That is the hard part.  How do you figure out who to read when there may be so many texts?  Some may contain ideas that may not be all that useful for what you or your team wish to accomplish.   Recently I've discovered a new and better way to learn about books, through Webinars, YouTube Videos, Blogs and Twitter.

I can't count the number of interesting blog entries I've read in the last few months, the thousands of tweets or YouTube Videos I have browsed.  I know it has been a treasure trove of information, both about the areas I have been researching, and about the individuals themselves.  I admit, I was a bit of a skeptic about Twitter in the past.  I found Facebook to be more trouble than it was usually worth, and was not sure quite how twitter would really help.  At some point I actually tried to follow some sports writers and bloggers on Twitter, hoping to get insight into this years NFL Draft.  A lot of the commentary linked to places that required paid subscriptions to read, and over time, I realized it was not as valuable as I would have thought.

Then I began to watch Webinars by several testers and software development 'coaches' as I'll call them, and I realized that there was more going on twitter than just simply Facebook status messages limited version 2.1.  I think Lanette Creamer was the first tester I followed on twitter, and shortly there after the Bach brothers, Marlena Compton, Michael Bolton, David Burns, and Adam Goucher and a host of others.  I admit, I have never had a good understanding of how to network with people in my field, especially given the geographic region I work in.  But Twitter has turned out to be a godsend for not just meeting and listening to conversations related to testing, but a major tool in expanding and learning how to be better at what I do.

Then I found out that, some of these folks, actually had written whole, or contributed part to any number of texts.  So I began my quest to seek out these tomes, to see what may have been written, and over time I read and absorb as much as I possibly can.  Like many testers, I've not had any formalized training, barring a few webinars, and free web courses I've taken.  I had been thrown into the fire and reacted the best that I could, and tried to be as thorough as I could be as a tester.

It's interesting, because word of mouth brought me to purchase the first few books I acquired after moving here.  Now it is not just word of mouth of coworkers and friends, but perhaps of the authors, editors, or even other readers whose opinions I have come to value highly as I consider what tomes to add next to my shelf.

To conclude, if you find the search for better technical publications to be a bit of a maze to navigate, I highly recommend seeking out individuals in the field.  Look for papers they've written, articles in magazines, or even follow them on Twitter.   Getting to know the author, is almost like establishing a relationship with someone as a trusted person in the community you live in, and grants that extra bit of confidence. I've found that makes the learning far more enjoyable.  Thanks to Twitter, my desire to expand my knowledge into new horizons has ascended again, and I hope that many others will find the fires of Prometheus flame rekindled in their desire to learn.

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