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Looking Back and Looking Forward with Michael Bolton

  • 04/12/2013
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Looking Back and Looking Forward
EuroSTAR 2013 ended almost a month ago as I write, and I’ve had some time to reflect on the week of the conference and the year that led up to it. In one important respect, the conference was a success: EuroSTAR 2013 was the second-best attended EuroSTAR ever, and the best since the Worldwide Economic Cold Shower of 2008. But there are other ways in which the conference was successful, and that’s what I’d like to write about as I wind up my own participation.

I was very honoured to be chosen as Programme Chair. The role allowed me not only to choose the content for the programme, but also to contribute to the overall design of the conference. In a way, I was the Product Owner. Still, I’m a tester at heart, so I wanted to design and perform some experiments on the EuroSTAR model. I’m grateful EuroSTAR Conferences team afforded me the opportunity to do that, and that the Programme Committee (Bart Brokeman, Rikard Edgren, Maaret Pyhäjärvi, and Alan Richardson) aided and abetted me. So, what were the experiments, and could we learn or infer from them?

The theme of the conference was Questioning Testing. I wanted to create room for questioning to happen, not only in the content but also in the structure of the conference sessions. Particularly for the track sessions, we wanted to avoid Best Practices talks and instead to focus on experience reports-people’s actual stories of how they tested, the problems that they encountered, the solutions or workarounds they had found, and the puzzles that they still faced.

As of press time for the blog post, I’m still waiting for the formal reporting from the conference staff. Going by the reaction for the Do-Over sessions (see below), by the feedback that I have seen and received personally, and by comments in the conference app, people seemed strongly engaged by life stories.

We also wanted to break down the wall that separated presenters and participants. So, perhaps the biggest experiment this year giving two thirds of the time to the presentation and a third of the session time to discussion (“Open Season”). In order to do this, we provided facilitators and K-cards (http://testingthoughts.com/blog/26) to organize the flow of discussion. What were the results there?

Some people had been concerned about the learning curve for participants and facilitators alike, especially since system was originally designed for much smaller groups. Although some people had experience with the model, there were a few rough spots. Some participants weren’t clear that only clarifying questions (examples: “What does CRM stand for?” “Could you repeat that?” “How many programmers did you say there were?”) are permitted during presentations, and alas some facilitators weren’t sufficiently clear or firm at first, so that some stories were derailed for a time. With a few explanations and some experience, by and large the system seemed to work surprisingly well, considering the scale of the event and the novelty of the approach.

Some peopled were worried that not enough people would step up and participate in the discussions, especially in the keynotes. That theory appears to have been disproven; Open Season for the keynotes was filled each time, although larger crowds seem to dampen the energy compared to smaller, chattier crowds at the track sessions and at other conferences.

Some people-particularly presenters-objected to the half-hour presentation times as being too short. Certainly for some presentations, it may have been, and a number of people suggested that session slots be extended to one hour. I’m on the fence on that; I saw some terrific, concise, to-the-point stories; maybe the pressure of a half-hour slot encourages some people to eliminate fluff. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to believe that some topics warrant deeper, more patient exposition. In future, perhaps a mix of session times-longer and shorter-would be worth trying.

The most straightforward test of what people thought of the facilitated discussions was performed by Graham Freeburn. Just before formally ending Alexandra Casapu’s Do-Over Session (another experiment; see below), Graham asked directly, “How many people like this form of facilitated discussion?” A picture says it all:

michael bolton tutorial_500x375

In my observation, strong facilitation and familiarity with the format made a big difference to the quality of the discussions. I certainly hope that EuroSTAR continues the experiment in future years.

The Do-Over Session was an idea that I purloined from the Agile 2008 conference in Toronto. When a conference programme is good, participants will often have a dilemma between attending one session or another in the same time slot. When a particular presentation is good, participants will rave about it to their colleagues, but normally the opportunity to see the presentation has passed. The Do-Over session compensates for this by repeating talks that participants wanted to see, or that they believe others should see. This year, Alexandra Casapu’s talk was chosen. I was personally delighted, since I had missed it the first time myself.

Alexandra’s talk was a canonical example of a great presentation. She told a story from her experience on a project. She had done some good work but had also made some mis-steps-and she told us how she had become aware of them and had recovered from them. During Open Season, several people contributed interesting questions, astute observations, and alternative approaches. There wasn’t an empty seat in the room, and the talk was extremely well-received. From that perspective, the Do-Over Session seemed to indicate a demand. I had originally expected that there would be two do-overs, but in the end there was only one scheduled; it might be worth trying a couple next year.

I also wanted to experiment with the more social aspects of the conference. In past years, there has been a Gala Dinner, typically away from the conference site, and typically with an extra charge to the participants who wished to attend. Some individuals and organizations were reluctant to spend the extra money on the dinner. I’ve never enjoyed having to leave the party early because the buses are leaving, either. Last year’s Gala-celebrating EuroSTAR’s 20th anniversary-was a very formal, suit-and-tie kind of event. Considering that our work is often overly structured, I wanted to see how informal we could get-whether we needed to be entertained, or could entertain ourselves.

This year, the conference organizers included the admission charge in the cost of conference registration, which meant that many more people-all of the conference participants-could attend. The last thing I wanted was to make people dress up, pile them onto buses, and take them away for dinner only to have them pile back onto buses relatively early in the evening. The Gothia Towers/Svenska Massan conference centre had been chosen before we decided on the dinner location. We were lucky that the facility was able to accommodate dinner, and I was delighted that the EuroSTAR people agreed to keep us on-site. They also agreed with a plan that they may have considered audacious: that we would allow the conference participants to provide the bulk of the entertainment-games, music, a whisky-tasting (!), and, most importantly, conversation. (The singer/acrobats and the casino were a bit of a last-minute surprise to me.) I was thrilled at the success of this approach. Lots of people simply stayed and chatted at their tables, while others organized games, played instruments, and sang songs-and those who wanted to go elsewhere or return to their rooms could do so at their leisure without having to wait for a bus or take a cab. This seemed to work splendidly. Although festivities officially ended at 12:00, people were still being shooed out of the hall at 12:30.

The Community Hub and the Test Lab-experiments from past years-were back again this time. I felt that they were much better positioned as they were in the midst of the Conference Expo, giving an opportunity for testers and vendors to interact more closely. Yet I have also heard that some vendors were disappointed from the lack of interaction with the participants. On this, I’d take the suggestion from Keith Klain’s keynote: engage with the vendors. Question your preconceptions about them, and help them to question their preconceptions about what testers are looking for.

The Conference App was an example of an experiment that revealed some problems. At first, the time zone was misconfigured such all of the presentations were indicated to begin an hour later than they actually did. Data problems-very quickly addressed by the EuroSTAR staff-were pushed through to individual users’s handsets slowly and inconsistently. The application appeared to sum review scores, divide the scores by the number of people reporting, and then truncate the average to the nearest whole number. The app then misleadingly displayed the result to two digits of precision, such that (for example) a presentation that scored 3.92 on average would be displayed with a score of 3.0. On the positive side, the app certainly provided a target-rich environment for enthusiastic testers, and I hope we were able to provide some useful information to the app’s developers.

Those are only a few of the new things that we tried this year at EuroSTAR. I’ve told you here what I’ve seen and heard, but in the end I’m only one participant, so now it’s your turn. Please do write to the conference organizers ([email protected] is a good place to start) with your feedback on your conference experience this year.

With that, It’s time for me to pass the baton. Thank you to Bart, Rikard, Maaret, and Alan. Thank you to the presenters; to Paul Holland and the facilitation team; to the sponsors; and especially to the EuroSTAR Conferences staff. And thank you for participating in the EuroSTAR community this year. I wish everyone all the best for 2014 in Dublin!

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