So long ago it feels like another geological age – the Pre-Childrian, anyone? – I used to be in bands and I even made a few records. I don’t have any formal schooling in music, and I didn’t make much effort to learn by myself. Playing guitar was a creative endeavour and I took the view that I could do it however I wanted and when it didn’t sound too good I just turned up the distortion because that always sounded good.
When I started using trackers to compose on the computer I unlearned what little I’d found out about music and the skill required to make it. Now I could focus on the selection as much as production; which samples to employ, how to arrange them, ways to process them to generate something new. The machine gave me space to improvise (read: bash the keyboard randomly) and then pick the bits that sounded good afterwards without ever having to be able to play them again. I embraced this freedom and began to collaborate with other people using the same simple technology.
But what I found was that the people I was working with actually knew what they were doing. They had RTFM. They had spent time understanding the limitations and capabilities of the tracker software. They had put in the effort to trying to exploit every last bit of functionality and pushed it to do things it wasn’t intended to do.
They understood music too. Yes, they might arse around sometimes, but if they had a sound in their heads they had a good chance of getting into a track. If I had a sound in my head the best I could hope for was that it would go away before I wanted to sleep.
Away from what I’ll loosely call art, on a practical level I was and continue to be reluctant to throw stuff away. I’ll always try to fix something rather than chuck it. And if that fails I’ll probably keep the bits in my shed for a while, just in case they come in useful.
Sometimes they do. It’s great when you’ve got a spare part for something or when your daughters need pirate swords right now, Dad, and you can knock something up from an old bit of pipe lagging and some bamboo while they stand there and watch anxiously, paper hats all askew and eye patches slipping down over their cheeks and then run off happily batting each other over the head. But a lot of the time it just means I’ve got a shed full of crap. And there’s not much space in the loft either.
When I started in employment it took me a long time to realise that, although I’ve got a lot of attributes that are relevant, and a real benefit, to my work, some tendencies need to be toned down or kept out of the workplace altogether.
When I started writing code I would often keep tinkering with something that already existed to try to bend it to what was required rather than start again. I can make it work, I would think. I can obscure the original intention, destroy any elegance it may have had, and chop it into minced meat, I would find. Still, the mince went with the spaghetti.
It’s also perfectly valid to pick up a tool and use it for what you need to use it for and put it down again. We all do that all the time – just the other day I needed to monitor HTTP traffic on the client side to debug a web service interaction. I installed HTTPFox, which I’ve never used before, got what I needed and forgot about it. It’s less valid to be using tools day-to-day, investing in them and accreting inertia to move to something better, without exploring the options they give you. Perhaps there’s a major efficiency gain or a new technique just around the corner, but you won’t know if you don’t look.
And if you’re using a tool to do something with a particular data format, well perhaps you should learn something about that format too. Who knows what you might notice if you have some idea what you’re looking at?
You’re a tester: monitor yourself. Be selective about the aspects of yourself you choose to deploy at work and the contexts in which you apply them. Be honest about how well they’re working. Keep the ones you don’t need out of the office. Johnny Cash said it: “Don’t take your guns to town, son“, especially when you risk shooting yourself in the foot.