All Conferences Should Be Like This! Agile Testing Days 2014

On the first night of Agile Testing Days 2014, I was chatting with one of the Keynote speakers over dinner and he made a comment to the effect that he was looking forward to speaking at ATD because your ideas didn’t get ripped apart (as was often the case at other conferences). As much as I’m in favour of constructive criticism, I do think that the software testing industry in particular has suffered from an unhealthy egotism, whereby different viewpoints are regularly shouted down by “experts”. It was therefore tremendously refreshing, and hugely beneficial, to be part of a conference that fostered a far healthier attitude of learning from other’s experience (good and bad) without a hint of elitism.

Agile Testing stalwarts, Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory, especially exemplified this attitude. They delivered the first Keynote of the conference, on the theme of the future of software testing, which was delivered with the attitude of “here’s some things we’ve learned, hopefully they’ll be useful to you”. Despite having certainly earned the title of experts, they encouraged the attendees to try things for themselves, to test and adapt, and not to blindly listen to the experts. That said, their talk was very instructional and covered a wide variety of contemporary agile testing topics, including developing t-shaped skills, pairing, developers exploratory testing, impact mapping, story mapping, community of practices and more. It was perhaps made all the more accessible by the fact that they delivered it dressed as James T. Kirk and Spock (complete with pointy ears).

Probably the one talk that really summed up ATD for me, was a Keynote on the second day by Alex Schwartz and Fanny Pittack. It was entitled Insights From Happy Change Agents, and essentially it involved a story from each of them on how they had failed to successfully implement a change. Of course, being agile, we don’t fail we just learn and their talk focused on the positives that they had learned from the experience. These included: moving with the team to the objective rather than forcing them towards it; and making good use of retrospective to draw out how people are really feeling. Not rocket science and maybe some people would have preferred more insights, but I thought it was just great to hear some honest appraisals of “failures” and apply some simple technique to learn from it.

In the conversations I had during the breaks, it seemed clear to me that the other delegates also appreciated this spirit of honest, non-elitist sharing at the conference. They weren’t there looking for the ‘silver bullet’ of successful software testing. They were definitely there to learn from the experiences of others (and share their own experiences) and hopefully take away something they could apply in their home context. There was plenty to be learned from too, with about 100 workshops to choose from on a variety of subjects. They weren’t all perfect presentations, I heard a couple of case studies that were a bit heavy on detail for me, but I don’t think that really mattered. They made a contribution to the pool of knowledge that was being formed and, on the whole, I got something out of every workshop I attended.

My main takeaway of the conference has to be the Lean Coffee sessions, held each morning at 8am. Here again, there was a tremendous opportunity and enthusiasm for people to share knowledge. I had heard about the idea before, but this was the first time I had seen it in action. It is a simple idea, you just get people together over coffee to discuss topics, which they select, in short timeboxes. However, as with many simple ideas, it is something that I can see being a powerful catalyst for positive change within organisations. Lizzie and I were both very impressed with our experience of it and are excited about the possibilities for trying it out in future.

All in all, I really enjoyed ATD 2014. The organisers looked after us well, with plenty of food and drink, and the evening entertainment (carnival, games night, karaoke) was a fun add-on, which all helped contribute to an easy-going, friendly atmosphere. Most importantly, it was great to learn about and discuss similar problems and solutions that other agile testers are engaged with all over the world and I am still chewing over a lot of the stuff I learned (and will do for a while to come). Looking forward to next year.