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Issue 27

A way of testing software testing conferences

Alexandra Casapu
Software Tester
@Altom Consulting
TESTING

Two international, pretty known, software testing conferences that I participated in were EuroSTAR in 2012 and 2013(in Amsterdam and Gothenburg) and CAST in 2014(in New York). With the experience from CAST still fresh in mind, I reached the conclusion that participating in this sort of events is a good opportunity to have a beneficial experience.

When I participate in such an event, the chances are that I am in a perimeter with a high density of people who are passionate about what they do, who like testing, who look for ways of improving their work, and who are open to share their experiences. The interaction with such people is in most cases valuable.

Sometimes I get ideas that I try to apply as I return back to work. Other times, the influence of participating is not so direct. There is also a more subtle influence. Getting to talk to people I only knew from Twitter or from conferences lineups, I have the opportunity to expose myself to ideas which model my approach in testing. This influence is not a result of talking to "famous" people. Concepts like critical thinking, exploratory testing, heuristics, leaky abstractions, game of life, intractable systems, reification, latent assumptions, and many other, are present in that context. The conferences are a space in which I have the opportunity to ask questions and challenge the people who talk about them and master them, in order to better understand and internalize their meaning.

One of my favourite parts is the space in which I can practice testing. At EuroSTAR there is a powerful TestLab, with a lot of challenges and tasks from which to choose, including practical sessions with speakers from the conference. That is the place where I tried to find patterns in the behavior of the Lego robots, or of the exploratory testing puzzles of James Lyndsay, and I tested open source applications. I sometimes work on them alone, other times I prefer to pair up with people around me. I have seen very interesting approaches in solving problems. I saw how others structure information. Doing debriefings and creating reports, I understood how other found solutions to challenges.

At CAST I participated in the testing competition, a two hour interval in which the goal was to collaborate with my team mates (people I hadn"t worked with before and didn"t know) in order to find bugs and write a good report.

So, although mainly socializing spaces, these conferences also offer contexts in which you can exercise testing and learn from other"s approaches.

EuroSTAR, as well as CAST, offer a one day workshop, where I focus on a certain theme and approach it in depth. So far I have participated in practical sessions, in which I had the opportunity to put my mind to work.

The discussions at the beer after the conference schedule are noteworthy. And not only because the bars have good beer. For me, they were good opportunities to have casual talks, to get to know better the people with whom I share the excitement about testing. I find it relevant to find out how others got into testing, what experiences they went through, what they want to improve and their opinions. The possibilities on the importance, the context and the diversity of the work I do become many more at once!

Out of my three participations, two were as a speaker. So, in what comes next, I want to share a few of the useful, and sometimes totally unexpected things I was left with from these experiences, and to show why I think that participating as a speaker can be more interesting than simply participating.

Speaking at conferences

Public speaking. Wow. When it comes to voicing an opinion, there is always someone around with a strong opinion about how things should be, someone who cannot restrain and who takes over the conversation. The world has plenty of people who have something to say.

Or people who just like to hear themselves speak, who use shiny words to say...nothing. You wouldn"t want to be one of those, would you?

Public speaking can be about that. It can also be about many other things, as far as I"ve noticed from the experiences I recently had.

Let me tell you a few words about my main activity. I test software.

Which means that I devote a large part of my day to an intellectual activity of technical and empirical investigation of the product I contribute to and I analyze critically the ideas that lead the software development process. Yes, my activity is part of the development process.

I question the decisions taken in the team, as part of the product design process. Yes, my activity is part of the product design.

The area in which I operate is in the realm of engineering, because I use heuristics in order to make the best change in conditions of uncertainty and limited resources. Yes, my activity is part of engineering.

The product of my activity is information that I pass over to stakeholders. For me, this does not sound precisely as the description of a person who speaks publicly very often. Still, I did OK and, most importantly, I survived.

How did I get to be a speaker?

The answer to this question is not very clear for me either.

The support I got from people around me I think helped. A work colleague and then the Test Manager I work with encouraged me to apply and to speak at testing conferences. Even after the first time when my application was not accepted. The idea of speaking sounded nice because it meant attending the conferences with reduced costs.

Before my first presentation, at Eurostar in 2013, my experience with an audience consisted mostly of end-of-year events in elementary school, and presenting my university thesis. I also had spoken previously at a local testing event, showing some exercises from a tutorial I had participated at, so that was not my content. Other than that, I had not had a very large audience and a formal setting (at least as far as I remember, so if I"m missing some repressed memories, please understand my omission).

Fortunately, my EuroSTAR talk was quite popular, so I presented it again in the same day, in the do-over session, where the most voted for talk was held again. That"s how I gained my second experience with public speaking at testing conferences, in the same day as the first. With an even bigger audience and with high expectations.

Since then, I have spoken a few more times and had the opportunity to experiment with new situations each time. I even had the experience of a person in the public falling asleep during one presentation (only once until now, thankfully). I cannot say my experience is vast, but the experiences I have had gave me enough opportunities to learn things.

Some interesting things I discovered:

Expressing ideas clearly is not trivial

To prepare for presentations, I have formed a habit of doing the talk for people close to me, in an environment similar with the one at the real presentation. The idea is to do the presentation as if I were at the conference. Although I rehearse in my head before, or I rehearse fragments in front of others, or tell others the summary of the talk, I realized that these experiences are not very similar with the situation in which I try to do the whole talk as if I am there, at the conference.

This way of practicing helps me see what ideas I would like to highlight more, what details I can give up, or what details are missing for clearly expressing an idea.

For the last presentation I worked at, I was amazed by how unclear the final conclusions were when I tried to articulate them, although in my mind they seemed to make perfect sense. The fact that I discovered this before the actual talk at the conference was helpful. I had enough time to reconsider and clarify them.

This perspective suggests that I may not be the only one who does not express clearly on the first try. We don"t always have time for rehearsal with whatever we want to say. I realized it"s useful to take that into consideration in some cases when I attend meetings/discussions and to suspend my judgment of what someone said until I have asked the clarifying questions which can tell me if that was what they wanted to convey.

By working at presentations I learn to build strong arguments

When I want to assert something in a presentation, I think about the fact that every idea is susceptible to different reactions from the audience. Because I wouldn"t want to seem superficial and be surprised by a valid counter-argument (who would want to, yet who doesn"t experience this), I think in what ways I could invalidate my hypothesis and I try to build arguments for different reactions.

This determines me to analyze how clear my thinking is on a matter, and to answer possible audience questions prior to the talk. It"s good practice for shaping and improving my arguments.

I remember that for one of the talks, I was trying to identify reasons for not finding relevant bugs for a functionality in a timely manner. The fact that I questioned my conclusions and I tried to find counter-arguments helped me get deeper into the analysis of the situation I was facing and find strong arguments for the need of communicating effectively, and of collaborating, for the heuristic "make visible in reports the aspects which I haven"t covered during testing", for the relevance of having contextual information from bugs in other areas than the ones I am currently focusing on, as well as for the importance of grouping information into appropriate and accessible categories.

Preparing presentation helps me clarify some ideas

The previous aspect leads to a different benefit. While trying to strengthen my arguments, I am also working on clarifying the conclusions that I reach.

Not once have I changed my mind regarding the ideas I want to insist on in a presentation. The change of focus shows me that I have understood from a different perspective the situations I analyzed. And I can use the understanding I have gained on the project I am working on.

For example, for the CAST talk I focused on exploring the skills that I use in testing. The fact that I analyzed the way in which I use my skills helped me become more aware of the interaction between them, which seems more relevant than the individual skills, when evaluating the effectiveness with which I solved problems.

The reasons for which it"s worth delivering presentations can be manifold.

I could write in more detail about other reasons:

The fact that I create a presentation motivates me to critically analyze the events and decisions I am making.

The fact that when I create presentations I"m working with creating convincing and consistent stories, a skill that I can also use when talking about my testing process with the team. When I say "stories" here, I don"t refer to the meaning of "inventions", but to that of "narratives". I discovered that in my activity is useful to be able to offer a congruent narrative of what I did and why. Presenting the information in an effective, clear way makes it more probable that this information reaches the persons who need it and that it is interpreted appropriately. Speaking at testing conferences, I am practicing this ability.

Another aspect is the opportunity to get feedback, and thus to understand the interpretations and perspectives of others.

I discovered that sharing experiences brings me satisfaction because it allows me to interact with others. Although I am in a vulnerable position when I talk in front of many people I don"t even know, a lot of times they are open to relate their own experiences and knowledge to the subject I present and this leads more often to connection rather than alienation.

I think there are many reasons of this sort. And I can only discover them by presenting again and again.

What is interesting for the audience

While I was preparing the talks, I was sometimes wondering if what I say will be interesting for the other people in the room. In the end, I am making a presentation to convey something to others, not only for my benefits.

My tendency so far has been to talk a lot about my experiences, to tell stories about how I work, what I tried, my results, and what I learned.

At the moment I think that if working on a presentation leads me to a deeper understanding about something in how I test, or how I could approach the problems I"m trying to solve, and it"s based on something I experienced, there is a chance it will be of value to someone else. Maybe not in the same way, maybe in a completely different context. But people face pretty similar problems, if they live in environments of the same nature. Even if I don"t find solutions, the initiative of tackling a problem may encourage others to look for solutions which work for them.

So this question does not haunt me as long as the subject I want to talk about is of real interest to me and as long as I think it can help me in a way.

The heuristic I"m using now is that anything of deep interest for me could interest others as well. This is what I use as guidance in choosing themes and for finding presenter"s motivation.

All these arguments work for me to want to participate at this kind of events and to present. Maybe you found or will find other things of value. I invite you to share them or to look for them.

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