I recently interviewed Lisa Crispin on the topic of testing conferences. Lisa is the co-author of the books “Agile Testing: A Practical Guide for Testers and Agile Teams” and “More Agile Testing“, and a contributor to the book “Beautiful Testing”. Lisa was named one of the 13 Women of Influence in testing by Software Test and Performance Magazine. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and teaches Agile testing courses and tutorials worldwide.
Testing Conferences: Then and Now
Christin: Do you still remember the first software development or testing conference you went to?
Lisa Crispin: Oh yes, I do! I don’t remember the name of it though, it was back in the early 90’s. You’re probably familiar with the SQE conferences like STAREast, STARWest and Better Software but, back then, they had a competitor that held similar conferences with similar attendance, and that was the first one I went to. It was in San Francisco in ’93, I think.
Christin: How did you end up there?
Lisa: Our company decided that testing might be a good idea, and started a testing team – which I joined. We didn’t know very much about testing, so we looked around and found that conference. Honestly, I probably picked that one because I wanted to go to San Francisco. It was very much like the STAR conferences; they had big named speakers like Boris Beizer (he was a big name in testing then), and it was 3 days long. There were lot of vendors and I think Cem Kaner spoke as well. For us, not knowing anything about the testing world, it was very eye opening and useful.
Christin: I would expect the content was a little bit different compared to today’s conferences, or was the content the same?
Lisa: It was rudimentary in defining things like white box testing and black box testing; it was very basic, but that was exactly what we needed. One of the sessions I went to still sticks in my mind, because it helped me so much; it was a session on testing requirements. I can’t remember the name of the woman who did the talk, but she explained how you can take a requirements document and actually test it. It was really valuable.
At this point in time I was very shy and I didn’t know anything about testing, and I didn’t really make any contacts (I don’t recall that they had social events). It was missing that part of a conference that I now find the most valuable.
Christin: That’s very interesting. It’s amazing that, given that it was over 25-30 years ago, the session still sticks in your mind.
Social Events and Interactions at Conferences
Christin: Let’s talk about how you mentioned that there weren’t really any social events, and how that seems to be a really important part of big conferences today.
Lisa: You can learn a certain amount in a 45- or 90-minute talk, or even in an all day workshop you definitely can learn some things, but it is important to find people who have ideas about problems that you are having, or having similar problems and challenges, and keeping in touch with them.
You contact them and get feedback, especially from the people who use the same framework; or even connecting with developers themselves has been a hugely important resource for me.
People are so generous with their time and I try to do that for people too, especially once I started going to Agile conferences. People that I see as a guru and a leader in this area are just so down to earth and generous with their time. I try to pay that forward.
Christin: Which I think is great, and you’re proving that by doing this interview with me, so thank you. I agree, I find the social events or the networking time to be almost the best part of a conference, but have you seen any other big changes over the last 25 years where you feel the conferences have gone from point A to point B, so to speak?
Lisa: Those same kind of conferences are still going on. I think that the SQE conferences like STAREast and STARWest are still aimed at people of a more basic/beginner level, and are more valuable for those people. There are a lot of people at those conferences and there are a lot of good basic sessions for people. But by going to more of the Agile conferences and the smaller testing conferences, I feel like there’s been more of a shift to interact at sessions. We learn better when we can participate and try things, and when we can talk to each other and not just listen to somebody talking.
The conferences I’m selecting, the conferences that I find the most valuable, are the ones where people understand the “training from the back of the room” concept, and they can make it a good learning experience. I think that’s a huge shift and it makes it much more beneficial for people.
Christin: Yes, and I think it ties in to what you said before too, about having more social events, so maybe that is a general trend over all: more interaction, more discussion, more conferring.
Automation Topics at Conference
Christin: I guess the topics have changed a little bit as well. I would imagine that automation wasn’t as common of a topic, and Agile of course didn’t show up until a bit later too.
Lisa: Well, I remember that automation conferences started heating up around 2000. I can remember going to a test automation conference sometime around then, run by the same people as the very first conference I went to, and all of the sessions were about test automation in some way.
Christin: Have people changed what they talk about when they talk automation, or are we sort of going through the same automation topics we did 15 years ago?
Lisa: I think the approach right now is quite different. It is more about learning good patterns and good practices. You can still find tool specific sessions at conferences, but I find what’s more helpful are session like when George Dinwiddie did a workshop at the Agile Alliance Technical Conference, and I think he did it again at Agile Testing Days last week. It’s on test automation, and he’s using whatever he’s using (I think maybe he uses Cucumber for it), but it’s more to teach you good practices such as: don’t repeat yourself, or here’s how to get started, here’s where to start, do this first and then do this next step. It’s kind of a step-by-step way to have maintainable automated tests, and make sure you’re covering the right things, and also building in what’s more important: the shared understanding of what the code needs to do.
I’m seeing more sessions in that lane, which I think is more useful, although test automation tools tend to be so similar; if you learn one it’s pretty easy to learn others, but I think it’s more important to learn the concepts, principles, and patterns than to learn the specifics impacts of any given tool.
Christin: That’s another trend that I like, is that it’s moving away from being more tool specific, and now it’s more practice focused.
Lisa: Yes exactly. I can remember going to an SQA robot class and learning just that tool. Tools and framework change so quickly, you really need to have that underlying skill, rather than mastery of the very specific language of the one tool.
Lisa on Conference Knowledge Retention & Learning
Christin: In going back to your very first conference where you actually have this lasting impression and you can still recall the sessions, do you have any tricks or message you use to make the impressions last? Sometimes you go to a session and it’s amazing when you’re in it, but when you walk out the door you forget about it, or it just disappears a little bit. So, how do you make it stick?
Lisa: I have actually found that, for me, sketch noting helps me remember. The process of trying to capture things in a visual way, as well as writing things down, allows me to go back to my sketch notes a year later and remember what the session was about. The other thing I try to do is share it with people. I went to Agile Testing Days last week, so this week I’m trying to blog some of the highlights I’ve taken away from that. It helps reinforce my learning.
Christin: Oh absolutely. But that also makes me think about another thing: a lot of conferences have parallel tracks, and you learn a lot in-between the sessions (you said you learned about Example Mapping outside of a session), but you still tend to go to sessions. How do you pick which sessions to attend?
Lisa: Oh, it’s so hard! I just try to pick something I can actually use in my job, something I can apply practically. Sometimes it’s just because I’m intrigued by it, or I just want to support the speakers.
At Agile Testing Days, they had a new voices track with all new speakers, so I wanted to support those people, and I had also mentored a couple of them with their proposals and their sessions. It’s really exciting to have helped somebody out and to see the finished product. That’s one reason. I like going to lightening talks too, because you get a lot of different topics in a short time. But it’s really hard when you get conferences that have 8 or 10 tracks. And sometimes the one that might be my first choice is full by the time I get there, so I have to go to plan B.
Speaking at Conferences
Christin: You’ve been on the other side too right? You’re also frequently a conference speaker. When you are presenting, what do you hope to get from the audience, and what makes a good audience?
Lisa: Well, I definitely do all my sessions interactively, even if it’s just a 40-minute track session, I find something for the audience to do because, like I said, I’m a big fan of the training from the back of the room approach. I just don’t think people are going to learn very much from only me talking at them. So, I try to find simple exercises, and I’ve actually been pretty successful, even in a big auditorium or theatre style room, to think of something people can do that gets the concept across and makes a point; something that helps them understand what I’m trying to say, and see how it might be useful for them. A good audience for me is one that is willing to play, and willing to get engaged.
Even in a workshop, if it’s a big workshop and I have 50 people, a lot of times there is just one table of people that maybe don’t quite understand what I want them to do; they just don’t seem to want to go along with it, and I have to spend a lot of time encouraging them. If you can get people to feel safe and comfortable, they will join in.
Participating at Conferences
Christin: Since we’ve talked about how, in general, conferences are more interactive, do you find that people are starting to be more and more accustomed to being asked to participate?
Lisa: Yeah, I do, I think that’s true. I think that if I went to do STAREast or STARWest, I might still have trouble, because those people are still new to conferences, and they are maybe not expecting an experience like that. But I think at the smaller Agile conferences, or even the bigger Agile Alliance conference, people go there expecting to do interactive things. And a lot of the testing conferences like TestBash or Agile Testing Days, people have heard about it, and that’s why they want to go to that conference. They are prepared to go and have that experience.
Christin: For sure, and they are a little bit more senior in the sense that they are used to it, they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect maybe?
Lisa: I think a lot of times. Although, at Agile Testing Days, I’ve certainly seen a lot of people who weren’t even testers. There were a lot of people there who were developers, project managers, or other roles, and they came to learn about testing. So they were new to testing, but yeah, they probably were experienced with those type of conferences anyway.
Christin: If you had unlimited resources (money, time, help), what kind of conference would you organize?
Lisa: Well, I think it would be fun if I had a big enough house to host a little testing retreat. Just invite all of my friends and spend a weekend doing whatever we can think of doing. But, I think the key is to have a conference where people do feel safe, in every sense of that word, in that they won’t be criticised or made fun of if they say something, and that other people won’t think they are stupid. I want people to feel safe and I want people to have fun, because I think people learn more when they are having fun. So, I actually think the social events are really important, and I think that’s what distinguishes a really great conference. The great conferences are effective in organizing social events where people feel welcomed and people feel part of a family. Agile Testing Days and TestBash have both been brilliant at building that kind of community, and I’m sure other conferences have too. Even for people who are new to the conference feel welcomed.
In the early days, when I was going to testing conferences back in the 90’s, I did have a sense that I would never have gone up to talk to one of the speakers. They just seemed to really be above everybody else. Whereas at these conferences that I really enjoy, the speakers are there to participate and learn too. I was really surprised at Agile Testing Days last week at how many of the keynote speakers stayed all week. A lot of times you see keynote speakers come in and do their keynote, and then they leave again. But when you see the keynote speakers going into sessions and participating, that’s a good sign. That’s the kind of conference I’d like to run.
Of course, I’ve helped with a lot of conferences over the years. Right now I’m on the review committee for the workshop and tutorial track at XP2017, and it’s a lot of work to put together a conference. I especially admire the people who do the non-profit all-volunteer conferences; I really want to support those because it’s a lot of work, and they are doing a great event. Another example of that is the Booster conference in Bergen, Norway. It’s an all-volunteer effort, and I think they get about 300 people, but it has that same kind of community feeling, and people are there feeling comfortable and having a great time learning. The organizers really care about them, because they are people just like them. I think that’s really the key.
On Choosing Conferences for 2017
Christin: I’m sure there are a number of people that are thinking about how to use their conference or training budget next year, deciding if they are going to go, and what should be their first conference.
Any advice for people who are thinking about attending, or are going to, their first conference in 2017?
Lisa: I would try to network with people who have been to conferences to get their views or recommendations. Or if you have a conference in mind, try to find somebody who has been there. If you are on Twitter that can be something that is easy to do – asking if anyone has been to XYZ and what did they think of it. Or, if you are in an online group, like Software Testing Club, or Weekend Testing, or any of the online communities that get together or have forums, you can ask there. Agile Testing Mailing List (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a place you could ask. LinkedIn has a number of testing discussion groups. Just reach out to people and get recommendations. What often attracts me to conferences is that I will catch a random tweet with a hashtag, and I’ll go search on that hashtag and I’ll make a note on maybe submitting to that conference next year.
Christin: I like that, I think that’s a really good piece of advice: see what people said about it last year.
Christin: I really appreciate your time, Lisa. I certainly learned a lot, and gained new ideas about the next conference I’m going to go to.
Lisa: One thing I would add that didn’t really come up that is that I would encourage people to submit proposals to conferences. That’s why I started speaking at conferences. I didn’t start out as a very good speaker. But, if you work for a company that can’t afford to send you, or if you are independent, how are you going to afford it? If you get a proposal accepted, you’ll at least get a free conference registration, and hopefully you’ll get even more than that, so I would encourage people to submit proposals. The Tech Voices organization is great, and provides mentors for people who are interested in getting started presenting at conferences. So find a mentor.
I really enjoy mentoring new speakers, and there are a lot of us out here trying to do that because it gets new voices to conferences. We can help promote diversity by getting people from different backgrounds and genders to the conference. So, try to find a mentor and be brave; or pair. I do all my presentations pairing with somebody, and try to get new speakers to pair with to give them confidence, and plus it’s more fun!
Christin: I really appreciate your time, thank you so much!
Lisa: Thank you so much Christin, have a great weekend!