The more I learn, the less I know

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

This famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld was given in a press briefing in 2002 during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld was discussing the evidence (or lack of evidence) demonstrating that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction.

I have been reminded of this quote regularly in the last couple of years. After spending close to two decades in software testing I am becoming increasingly aware of how little I know. This is probably not my best sales pitch, but bear with me.

In January 2013 I moved from the UK to Australia with my family. Having spent a brief period working here a decade or so ago, I was keen to return. I had come away with the impression that there was a pioneering spirit which had found its way even into the darkest recesses of the IT industry. I also wanted to move into a Test Consultancy role as I hoped this would broaden my experience.

So, for the last 18 months, I have been working in Sydney and confirming my suspicions that test consulting in Australia would be a great experience. I am fortunate to work with some very smart and innovative people. My colleagues have given me more opportunities to learn than I’ve ever had before.

That isn’t to say that learning is a new experience. Throughout my career I have had plenty of clever people to learn from. Sometimes I have been shrewd enough to learn from them and sometimes I have been foolish enough to miss the opportunity.

It is certainly true though that a well-run consultancy business can give people opportunities to try new things and learn from each other. Allowing people to try, to fail, to try again, or perhaps to try something different, is an investment that can reap great rewards. In this kind of environment I have discovered that whilst my career has given me at least some experience in the various disciplines that are typically considered part of the testing profession, there is a whole lot more going on than I previously realised.

To return to Mr. Rumsfeld, I can probably put my professional knowledge and experience into his three categories:

  1. There are some areas of testing in which I have spent many days, weeks and months working. In these areas I’m on home ground. I can talk about this stuff and people will listen and nod. I feel confident that I will do a good job and in some cases a great job. I will meet or sometimes exceed my customer’s expectations. These are my “known knowns”.
  2. There are the elements that I am aware of, understand the importance of, but also recognise that I am not necessarily best placed to deliver. Some of these I could probably muddle through and might meet my customer’s expectations. With others, I would probably do more harm than good. These are my “known unknowns”. (If I am being entirely honest there are a few “known partly-knowns” but I really don’t want to confuse the quote any further).
  3. I have discovered that there are “unknown unknowns” for me too. I’d love to tell you what they are but I don’t know yet. There are unquestionably some very clever and cool things that people are doing in the world of software testing that I haven’t encountered.

So how do I know they exist? Because as I have moved through my career I have become aware of some of these clever and cool things that people are doing. In the last year and a half, more and more of them have come into view.

I therefore have more “known unknowns” than ever before. I could probably spend months, if not years, on some of them before I could comfortably move them into the “known knowns” category. The great thing about this is that I can now move my career in different directions. I can take control of what I spend my time on in the future and I will probably enjoy my work far more because of this.

The picture below (thanks to my colleague Greg Barnett for this) shows the transition between the three categories.

Recognising “known unknowns” allows me to identify where I need to bring in the expertise of others. I can take the opportunity to learn more from these experts or I can just let them get on with it and take comfort in delivering a better outcome for the customer.

If you are a software tester who is reading this, you are probably somebody who enjoys learning new things. A curious mind is an important thing in this line of work. However, regardless of your occupation, my experiences would suggest that broadening your knowledge can only bring opportunities your way. Maybe this all seems painfully obvious, maybe not. I certainly wish I had realized this earlier in my career, when I sometimes thought I knew it all.

If Rumsfeld isn’t your cup of tea as far as quotes go, try this one from Socrates:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

If one of the great Brazilian footballers of the 1980s says this, who am I to argue?


2 thoughts on “The more I learn, the less I know

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