27 March 2017


The purpose of this post is to suggest a fun way to encourage people to open up their internal walls and make life about continual learning.

Memory Lane


So who remembers being back in school? Joking around with your friends laughing, and then the teacher comes into the room, closes the door and says the words that everyone fears the most in school - “Ok, clear your desks - today we are having a pop quiz”. Remember the sense of fear and dread that flowed through your whole body at that time. No one is ever excited for a pop quiz, but I would argue that they are the best representation of why you should learn. You never know when you are going to need to apply some information and be able to find it quickly.

Let’s look into why a pop quiz made us so uncomfortable. It wasn’t the time it would take to do the test - they were usually very short. It wasn’t the impact this would have on your grade - as they were often minimal. It was the public or private humiliation that you might endure because you did not prepare [our fragile egos]. It would show that you might have not taken all of your learning seriously. It might show that you were a fraud on what happened in 1776 in Philadelphia, what the capital of France is, or how to spell Mississippi.

Expectations and Feedback

I would argue that they were actually a very effective way to educate someone. The teacher used them to reset your expectations that you are there in school to learn and to focus you on the importance of the information that you were in the middle of. The urgency of them was often very impactful - most kids would right after the quiz either look up the information that they didn’t know or ask friends about it. Most often that information stuck with us for a long time - because there was a unique element focusing our attention on those facts.

Yes, pop quizzes brought on anxiety into our lives. Worrying if we were going to have a pop quiz or how we did on the quiz itself probably has burdened all of our childhoods. I would argue that this was actually a great preparation for the real world. You never know when you are going to be on the spot to know something important or to take some action and it is always better to be prepared for the items that matter. [I am not suggesting to be prepared for anything and everything.]

One other side effect that you have probably not considered, but the pop quiz was also a tool that the teacher used to see if the methods that they were using for teaching or presenting the information was working. By seeing the results of the pop-quiz they get instant feedback on how well they are doing. They would be able to assess this and make adjustments – market research/fail fast/resetting expectations (sound familiar?).

Tool for Learning?


In an industry where there is such a need for continual learning and keeping your skills polished - isn’t there an opportunity for the use of pop quizzes? I can see multiple benefits of introducing them into an organization’s culture. They can help set the focus of key principles in the domain that everyone should know and think about all the time, they can help people learn faster and deeper, and if done the right way - they can be fun.

Did I get your anxiety riddled heart racing? Good. Let’s take a step back and talk about this.

Here is my line of thinking -

  • As an industry (software developers) there is so much to learn and know that no one out there should be expected to know everything. Because of this we should lower our ego walls and be open to talking about what we know and what we don’t in order to improve. This can only make us better in the end.
  • Not everyone has the same context for how they experienced something in the past. The reason or the approach that you used a specific pattern or technology might not align with how someone else used it in the past. Maybe you used it in a way that is not the original intended reason and it might not have worked perfectly. In our world of deadline driven development all of us pick up bad habits along the way.
  • We love going out to trivia nights or playing trivia games where we show what we do know - if there is no grade next to this - how is this different?
  • One colleague of mine suggested that if someone failed a pop quiz that is crucial for a domain that they should be reprimanded immediately. I would only recommend this for something in the domain that is of the urgency that is a firing offense.

How this would work - the rules

At any point one developer, let’s call her Susan, could go to another developer, let’s call him Jim, and say - “Jim, ready for a pop quiz”. Jim would then have to accept it - “Let’s do this Susan! I accept”. Susan would ask her question. – “Jim, can you tell me the benefits of infrastructure as code?” It should be the type of question that is related to something that is going on in their environment so they can give enough details about it. It should be answerable in less than 2 minutes. It should not need 10 minutes of laying the foundation in order to answer. Jim would then answer the question as best they could. If they get it right - awesome! They can ask you a question back if they want. If they do not know it at all - they have 24 hours to research the answer and get back to you. If they do not care to know - it might be something that is outside of their interests or experience. Ask another question or end it. If they get it totally wrong - you would have to tell them why you think that they got it wrong (not telling them the answer) and they have 24 hours to research it and come back for another try. If they get it wrong again, well, then you should take some time and discuss it (wrong base assumptions, looked only at implementation and not the why, missed an important detail, assumed wrong context).

Hell, maybe you didn't truly understand the topic or had a different experience in the first place and you could benefit from a broader understanding.

Other questions that might be useful:

  • Tell me why X is so important in our business or domain?
  • What are some of the tradeoffs of using a relational database instead of a document database?
  • If you were in a serious time crunch, what would be the quickest way to process a large batch of text files and identify all occurrences of a specific text.
  • What is the difference between X and Y (where they are two related but different concepts that people always get confused)

My experience

In the past year I have spent a lot of time learning and relearning concepts and ideas. At first my ego slowed this down because I was nervous about asking questions and admitting that there was something that I didn’t know. That only slowed down my learning. I realized that I was only hurting myself. After turning 40 I have lost the part of me that would feel shame for asking THAT question - if I don’t know something or need to clarify something - I just ask. I have benefited tremendously from some of my friends and colleagues that were willing to take the time to give me (in most scenarios their boss) feedback and information on some of these topics. It was a two way street where I often shared advice and feedback on areas that I had more experience on. In the end we all grew together at a much faster rate and formed a culture of continuous learning. We didn’t use pop quizzes at first - but this idea solidified in my head over the last month and we have experimented with it some. I wanted to put this out there to see what would happen.



My challenge to you is to find either a mentor or a continuous learning partner and try this out. Start by doing this once a week (or once a day) and have some fun with it. In the right situation this will push you outside of your comfort zone and allow you to improve yourself.

Make it fun, keep score and the person that learns the most can buy the next lunch, coffee, or first round of drinks!


As with any tool or approach you need to consider the situation, problem, and/or culture to see if it is the right tool for the job. There are going to be some times when this is a good approach and other times when this will not be. For example, if you are the new guy on a team of senior developers in a political environment – it might not be a good idea to bring this up in your first team meeting. If you are a part of a team that is learning and improving together that truly collaborates then this might be a great approach. Think about this and adjust it as you see fit – trust your gut on this as it is probably your best indicator if it is going to work. And managers – Never EVER force this on a team.

Parting words

As an architect and interviewer I have always felt that the ability to as the right questions often led people down different paths. This exercise can help you improve on your ability to ask better questions. This Tony Robbins quote has always stuck with me…

"Quality questions create a quality life.  Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers."  - Tony Robbins

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