Losing my Education

Posted: March 17, 2013 in Testing Skills & Education

“The best university is the university of life.”
– Henrique Capriles Radonski

I am almost half way through an IT degree, via the ever-encouraging auspices of Open Universities Australia. It has been an often tedious, occasionally enlightening, sporadically interesting and frequently frustrating experience. From what I understand, such a description could be used by most working their way through university education.

Learning the fundamentals of programming has been by far the most useful and interesting part of the course to date. Although I’ve no desire to switch to the “dark side”, learning a little coding (and more importantly, the associated concepts) has helped my testing. There were probably cheaper ways I could have done this, but one thing a university does provide is breadth (if not depth) of experience – I have come across Java, PHP and am currently working on C (pointers, oh dear…). C++ and ASP.NET await over the murky horizon.

Of course, for every activity we perform in life, there is an opportunity cost. If I wasn’t sitting here writing this blog post, I could have been watching TV, reading a book or arguing the virtues of Confucianism with friends (though they would probably just ignore me). I’d rather write this than any of those at the moment, but by doing this, I pay that price.

Ever since mid-2010, I have worked reasonably hard on improving my software testing skills. Reading blogs, jumping on Twitter, attending courses, or practicing outside of work were all activities that have helped in some capacity. More importantly, as I enjoy software testing, doing these were/are also a lot of fun.

The opportunity cost of starting university was a hard-ish limit on the number of these extra-curricular activities I could do. Spending 6-8 hours a week (minimum) on uni study means 6-8 hours a week I can’t spend working directly on my craft. Sometimes that’s a price I’m willing to pay (the Java subjects were very educational), and sometimes not (writing essays about the Internet and everyday life… not my best subject selection). I took a break from uni to do the AST Foundations course, which was the most interesting course-based education I’ve done since leaving high-school. But if I intend to complete the degree, taking a break every time I want to do a separate course would stretch the affair out to a painful degree, simply because there are so many other things I’d rather be engaging with (that said, I’m taking another break in June to do the Bug Advocacy course, so there).

As an aside, it irks me that in an Information Technology degree, there is so little about software testing. Considering it is a fundamental part of any software development (be it performed by developers, testers or that old lady who always gave you a snake lolly for free when you bought 50c worth of assorted treats from the dilapidated corner store she ran), it seems obvious there should be more content on it in a course that revolves primarily around software. That said, it’s good to see other universities around the place are starting to offer some testing-based material (see Cem Kaner’s work at Florida Tech, or Anne-Marie Charrett’s offering at University of Technology Sydney).

There are times when I feel the opportunity cost of university in regard to my own education is exorbitantly high. It makes it very tempting to just stop and concentrate on my own education – another 3-4 years of tertiary education is a rather uninspiring vision, after all. Not to mention the money spent on the courses. I could fly to the US and attend a STAR conference for the price of 4 subjects, and learn an infinite amount more on software testing. If you multiplied that by 6 (24 subjects in the degree), that’s a lot of testing-focused education I could have acquired for the same money (in a lot less time). Reading James Bach’s “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar” a few months back really drove home a point –for motivated people, formal education may be a second or third-best option.

I said to my fiancée last night that sometimes the sole reason for my persistence seems to be sheer bloody-mindedness. And when I put the arguments above down on paper, it seems obvious that this is a path that could I stray from quite happily, unsheathing my “Machete o’ Motivation” ™ and hacking a furious trail through the dense underbrush of non-institutionalised education.

But this isn’t merely an academic argument (pun intended). It is heavily based on personal elements as well. I left high-school convinced I wasn’t smart enough for university. Proving myself wrong about a decade and a half later. I loudly declared in my adolescence that I would never, ever understand how to code – that stuff was far too complex for me. Proving myself wrong on that count too (even though programming doesn’t come naturally).

So while the cost has been (and continues to be) high in terms of my education (insofar as wanting to learn what I want to learn as opposed to a university curriculum), it is bringing closure (for want of a better word) to a few personal questions. The motivation to attain a degree is being fuelled by a desire to show myself that this was possible. Am I losing my “real” education over a childish urge to prove a teenager with low self-esteem and little idea what he was capable of at the time wrong?

Thanks for reading. I’ll have to end it there as I need to study a little further so I can wrap my head around structs a little better (apparently they’re like OO classes with a lot of the good bits taken out).

  1. “I could fly to the US and attend a STAR conference for the price of 4 subjects, and learn an infinite amount more on software testing.”

    You could, and it would be great. Alternatively, gather people for a peer conference – you’ll learn vastly, spend less, and will make a fine contribution to the testing community in Brisbane and beyond. Buzz me if you want a hand.

    Cheers – James

    • Hi James. You’re quite right – peer conferences are a great place in building a test community without having to travel half way round the world. Actually, I’ll be attending one organised by David Greenlees (quick plug for anyone else reading this – OZWST 2013! http://ozwst.wordpress.com/). It should be an eye-opening experience, at least for someone who hasn’t had a lot of face-to-face contact with other testers (currently just started in my first “real” job where other testers worked).

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