Although I have been in testing for 17 years, until recently I had never attended a Testing Conference, let alone spoken at one. My new company has a strong sense of responsibility to give back to the testing community. One of the avenues I chose for this was looking into speaking at a conference. Last May, I spoke at my first testing conference, STAREAST in Orlando. It was a large event, with nine parallel sessions going on at any given time. Attendees came from all parts of the world, including many from Europe. Running such a conference requires an army of volunteers, and I have to say it ran like clockwork from what I could see.
I have spoken at over a dozen academic conferences during my past career as a research scientist, most often the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy. It’s interesting to me to consider the parallels and differences between academic conferences and testing conferences. For one thing, times have changed. Back in the eighties and early nineties, we did not use PowerPoint to put up our slides; we actually used acetate transparencies! The academic conferences could also be intimidating. At one, I looked out into the audience before my talk and saw three Nobel laureates, along with the author of textbook I relied on heavily in my research. One of the Nobel laureates fell asleep (he was 85), but that still did nothing to dispel the butterflies.
My talk at STAREAST was on testing legacy applications – hardly a hot new topic, but something with which many testers contend. The maintenance of a large, clunky application with millions of lines of code is challenging work. It can also be disruptive to an Agile workflow, so I related some of my stories from the trenches. I got a few good questions after my talk, but noticed the “late afternoon session” effect, common in my experience with any conference, in which attendees’ minds are saturated after a full day of presentations. The pull exerted by the bar or restaurant is strong at this time of day. These conversations around ideas seem universal between conference types, which is understandable because that is where passion comes into play in both academic and testing pursuits.
While the academic conferences’ socializing tended to occur mostly after the sessions, I got a couple of extra opportunities at STAREAST. For one, I hosted a lunch table on two days in which people could join me and discuss a given test topic. I fielded some good questions, and introduced interesting new topics to people which they seemed to appreciate.. My other chance to meet one-on-one was in a session in which people signed up for a fifteen-minute time slot to discuss a topic; in this case data warehouse testing. My time slots were not filled, but one visitor had many questions, so we just filled up the time. I must say these more intimate discussions were my favourite part of the conference.
One difference I noted between the scientific conferences and this testing conference was the tenor of the questions during presentations. At the scientific conferences, attendees freely, sometimes aggressively, challenged speakers’ assumptions, methods, and conclusions. At STAREAST, it seemed that people were more in information-gathering mode. Perhaps it is an illustration of different levels of critical thought in the two disciplines. I think that testers can sometimes get mired in details and that they should remember to enable themselves to step back and look at their application, the requirements, or even process, with critical thought and an eye to quality.
While academic and testing conferences are not the same in all aspects, they really do serve a common purpose for their participants. Testers (and scientists) rely on their communication skills to convey the results of their work to their colleagues. Speaking at a conference is an excellent way to improve those skills by developing clarity and logically presented arguments. For those attending the conference, it is an opportunity to speak with experts to gain some of their insight, as well as discovering new areas of interest. I would certainly recommend attending talks on subjects you have not looked into before, both for the sake of interest and to continue to expand your knowledge base. When considering whether to attend a testing conference, have a good look at the speakers and topics, which are often available long before registration deadlines. Given that conferences are a considerable investment in time and money, it is important to consider the value returned in attending, and to amplify that value by participating as fully as possible. From my recent experiences, it is obvious that the Testing Conference is an evolution of the traditional conference into something that is more effective for testers. In effect, testers took conferences and iterated; how very Agile of us!