Sunday, August 8, 2010

CAST Curtain Call (Well, Review) - Part 1

I'm in the process (still) of recovering from an incredible experience at CAST 2010. As good fortune would have it, this year CAST was held 15 minutes from my house and about 50 minutes from my office.

CAST - the Conference for the Association of Software Testing - is an incredible experience. I had been told flat out by several people that I needed to go. As luck, and project status and work schedule and finances, would have it, at the last minute, I could.

It was very strange. I got an email from friend/colleague/fellow-tester Matt Heusser asking if I was available to help out. Now, I had previously told him that I may be able to help with some of the running around stuff, but probably would not be able to attend because of the state of the project. Matt sounded like a bit of help was needed. I checked with the project team on the state of things, checked with the boss, and determined that since it was so close, I could "work from conference" (as opposed to work from home) thus learning as much as possible, keeping the project rolling and helping folks with their conference as much as possible.

Long story even longer, I'm in as a volunteer, helping to lug stuff and helping to make and post signs at appropriate times and generally lending a hand at the registration table and being cheerful.

Sunday, before the conference officially began and while the AST Board was meeting, I went to the conference center (Prince Conference Center at Calvin College - lovely facilities) to pick up some boxes of books that were delivered Friday.

While there, I met Dorothy Graham, a fellow native of Grand Rapids, who was looking for someone who promised to meet her there. We introduced ourselves and I made my first uncontrolled reaction of the week "Oh yes! I have your book!" She laughed graciously. (If you have not read her book, I suggest you do so.

I then ran into Fiona Charles, who introduced me to Giffin Jones and a legion of other folks whose writings I had read for some time, but I had never met in person, including Cem Kaner.

Fiona, Griffin and I went to dinner, with my lady-wife joining us. We talked about anything and everything. A couple of bottles of a very drinkable red wine, plates mounded with pasta and a lovely terraza made for an evening that was the perfect introduction to the week.

Monday I was at the office most of the day, but swung by the conference in time to catch up with some people and meet Scott Barber and another flock of people leaving me in awe to be walking among the mighty of our craft.

Tuesday morning, I was there bright and early, laptop, headphones and powercord in hand. Jumped in with posting sign updates and then helping out with participants arriving, meeting people and sipping coffee. About the time the keynote speaker (Tim Lister) began, I was at the table dealing with work emails and helping the odd person coming in late.

Note - if you ever find yourself in a position to help at a conference, DO IT. You get to meet an amazing number of people and usually it gets you in the conference at no (financial) charge.

One poor lady came in just at lunch time - her flight from India had been delayed, getting her in Tuesday morning instead of Monday evening. She registered with the conference, checked in for her room at the registration desk and came back to ask if the conference required formal attire. I assued her it did not, and made the observation that the fellow who came in a few minutes after her was dressed very casually and he (Michael Bolton) was speaking. She was relieved went to her room, then came down to get lunch as I went to a conference call for work.

I was able to attend a couple of sessions Tuesday. One - Nancy Kelln's presentation on "Cutting the Mustard - Lessons Learned in Striving to be a Superstar Tester" was extremely good. Nancy is a bright, articulate, up-and-comer who stands out among a flock of other bright, articulate, up-and-comers. Solid questions were raised and addressed both by Nancy and by other participants.

If you have not been to CAST, that last bit "by other participants," is one of the things that sets CAST apart from other conferences. In a 60 minute time slot, 20 minutes are reserved for what others would call "Questions" but at CAST is "Open Season." There are colour coded cards distributed to each participant - Green is a "new thread" on the presentation, Yellow or light green is a comment on the current thread or previous comments - there are others, but those two are the most commonly used. A facilitator keeps the sessions in order and calls people in turn to speak. It truely is "open season" and anyone, not just the speaker, who has something to say had better be able to defend what they say.

Both of the presentations I was able to attend on Wednesday were extremely good. Karen Johnson gave a brilliant presentation (Reporting Skills and Software Testing) on approaching testing, and meeting with business experts, the same way a "newspaper reporter" might. This went beyond the fairly obvious "communication models" one might expect. She touched on several ideas that I know I, at least, had not considered.

Karen hit one idea around fact and opinion that struck me as a brilliant observation. "When do you cross the line between fact and opinion? Emotion." That is probably worth a blog entry in itself. As it is, suffice to say that when one is attempting to sift through what is "fact" and what is "believed to be fact" you can do a reality check with yourself, or with the person you are working with by checking the level of emotion. "I found something that did not match what I expected to see, is this right?" "Of COURSE it is! I checked it myself - its RIGHT!" Ones facts may be challenged, but expect a strong response if ones emotions or beliefs are challenged. Most importantly, when there is a strong response, recognize it as a reaction to the opinion being challenged and don't take it personally.

Finally, I rounded out my day with a presentation by Lynn McKee. Lynn, another bright, up-and-comer, gave a solid presentation on assessing your value as a tester. That she sparked a lively debate during open season is, in my mind, an indicator that she touched on something that many testers are looking for - how does one define value when value itself is subjective?

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