Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Agile Testing Days USA, Thoughts on the 2019 event

Many conferences around software have a feeling, a vibe if you will. This can shift from year to year, but rarely in a huge dramatic way. Partly, this is the result of the energy from the organizers, partly the work of the people reviewing speaking proposals, and partly the feeling of people returning from prior years.

This was my first ATD USA event, as I had a conflict with last year's. I came in with a mix of eager anticipation and recognition that things would be different from what I had experienced at the several Agile Testing Days in Potsdam, Germany before. I was hoping to have some of the same energy and spirit of "fun" as the event in Germany, recognizing that it would, by the very nature of partnering organizations and attendees and speakers who had not been to an ATD event, different.

I think Ray Arell (@elmoray) has been credited as describing Agile Testing Days as a Festival disguised as a conference. He's not far off. Loads of social events, including a themed costume party, given the venue and city (Chicago) a "Roaring 20's" party seemed appropriate.

What is most important for me, personally, at a conference, is the conversation and interactions with other people. At one point in my conference life, "hallway conversations" were short, while grabbing a coffee or snack and heading off to the next session - because I was going to get my (well, the company's) money worth from being there. I'd like to think I know better now.

The result was I went to the keynote sessions (except one, given after I had to leave) and one or two track sessions. I spent a great deal of time the first day in the "Mentoring Corner" - This was intended to be for new speakers or people who WOULD be speakers. I actually was there charging devices and using the table to spread stuff out - and made a point of being as helpful as I could.

I am glad I did.

I spent a great deal of time talking with people who had similar issues they wanted to talk with and bounce ideas around with someone (my words, not theirs.) I got to see presentations grow from "this is kind of what I want to say and the arc I think I want to cover" to "This is what I am going with - thanks for your help!"

To be clear, I'm not really an expert in a lot of things, I am very good at asking questions when I don't understand something. I sometimes also make leaps from what people say, connecting ideas they are having a hard time identifying - for example, how ideas tie in with broader topics in the wide world and can be shaped by the energy in the room, or in the broader place.

Such things happened here in abundance.

The Start

Heading down to ATD USA, I was disappointed that two people would be presenting at times when I could not possibly catch their presentations - One (Jenny Bramble, @JennyDoesThings) because I was presenting at the same time and other (Bonnie Aumann, @bonniea) was scheduled to speak after I had to leave to catch my train back home. So, rather than well on things I could not change, I "hoped for the best" and spent a pleasant time milling about the day I arrived chatting with old friends and getting registered and hanging out, in between connecting to meetings with the Day-Job.

Heading to the Speakers Dinner that evening, I see Jenny has been delayed in arriving because of odd flight issues. So, sitting at a table, having found a fairly safe spot in the corner with folks I mostly had not yet met (protip - don't sit with yer pals at an event like this, find folks you don't know yet) when - HOLY COW!!!!!! Here's Bonnie looking for a spot!


One thing led to another and POOF! I had, what was for me an enlightening and very enjoyable conversation with someone who has put stuff out in public that I admire greatly and have learned from. We talked on a variety of topics, all of which dimmed when Bonnie expressed concern over the presentation to give (the one after I left...)

"Welp, I'll be sitting in the Mentoring Corner for speakers (and others) the next day, after I give my talk. Come on by and let's see if we can sort through it and help get it sorted." (I think that was something along the lines of what I said.. or at least a very polite folksy version of it...)

Later in the evening as I'm about to pack it in, I realize Bonnie knows Ray Arell and instead of packing it in, I find myself having "well, just one more" with them. (OK, I'm in full blown gob-smacked hero worship mode at this point...)

Having "just one more" with the two of them, and a changing cast of characters at the "Networking Night" - IN WALKS JENNY BRAMBLE!!!!!!! WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

What ensues is a discussion around nearly any topic imaginable. Really. I eventually toddle off to bed a happy conference attendee, with the feeble excuse of needing to go over my talk one more time.

Day 1

Lean coffee was an interesting exchange of ideas, questions and "Oh, yeah, I had not thought about that" moments. The opening keynote was given, then I gave my talk. Then I scurried over to the Mentoring Corner.

At some point I ate lunch, went to a couple more keynotes, then went to the "Costume Party."

What struck me was not the details around these things but the ideas floating around in presentations, conversations and questions.

Ideas. ideals and bringing together people with different skill-sets and backgrounds and experience and life experience and outlook and pretty much anything you can imagine. The common word was "diversity" - and as much as that might be a problem for some folks, the looks I got when saying something like "part of the issue is there are a bunch of folks who look a lot like me, who figure they are the only ones with good ideas."

I learned a long time ago in pipe bands that the presence or absence of "dangly-doon-bits" (as one Glaswegian put it) had nothing to do with a persons ability to play pipes or drums. Nor does skin color, ethnic identity - having hung out with folks from the City of Tokyo Pipe Band and the Royal Sultanate of Oman Pipes and Drums in Glasgow, and having had some really fun times with members of the Church Street Pipe Band in Toronto.

The simple fact is, there were some very fine players in those bands. Sure, less experienced and much to learn, but when I think back to some of the bands I used to play in? whoa. Get real.

My overall lesson from the week

The message I was hearing much of the week can be summed up thus:

Anyone and everyone can contribute to goo work. Anyone and everyone capable of thinking can contribute. Anyone who thinks differently than ME can definitely contribute. You probably don't want an entire team of people thinking like me (no matter how they look or pray or vote) because it would just be weird.

Of course, declaring a bunch of people a "team" doesn't actually make them a team. Declaring a bunch of people a "team" who have only ONE THING IN COMMON, their employer, is not likely going to lead to a successful, diverse team.

That takes trust. That takes building rapport among people who are effectively strangers and have nothing really in common with each other, except possibly species. Trust comes with time, after people have found a way to relate to one another. The folks at ATD generally approach this as "of COURSE!" and yet, for many, like many first time attendees, the "how" is really hard to get our heads around.

Until you have DONE it, it is either very Unicorn-In-The-Sky, or it is pixie dust or glitter or some hand-wavy thing where in a process diagram there should be a cloud with "POOF! A Miracle Happens Here!" (For the record, I find most "team building guides" to have the same fundamental problem, people forget about human nature...)

My favorite part of this year's conference. 

Remember way up toward the top when I mentioned Bonnie Aumann? Bonnie DID come by the mentoring corner and we talked about the message within the talk. We talked about some really key ideas. Bonnie presented a compelling graphic, which I saw get drawn in the Tuesday night conversation at the "Networking Night" with Ray Arell and Jenny Bramble.

I'm not a famous name in software. I know that. I am honored that you read my meandering thoughts in my blog from time to time. I'm thrilled when people find some value in a tweet I might send. What I am trying to do now, particularly at conferences and meetups I can attend, is to help people tell their story.

That is one thing I tell people who say "I want to speak. Where do I start?" I always ask them about their story.

Because when speaking, we take on to persona of the parent or grandparent telling a story to children. We take on the role of what is called a seanchaidhe or seanchaĆ­ in traditional Irish culture (in Scots Gaelic tradition it is seanchaidh). We take on the mission of extending memory and inspiring our listeners to be better. We take on the challenge of calling people to be bigger and better than they are now.

Bonnie talked with me about the challenge of persuading everyone and how it had become clear that was never going to happen. So, logically, start with people who were closer to you, but not in full alignment.

Over the course of a day, more or less, I saw Bonnie's collection of excellent ideas grow into a cohesive, powerful "call to action" and model for how people can build rapport, trust and a team.

My end note.

I have met loads of people with loads of things to say. I have met people with huge egos who have little to say. I have met very wise, intelligent people with much to say, if people are willing to listen.

The people I mentioned in this post, Ray, Jenny and particularly Bonnie, are all in the latter category. I learned much from them in the few days at ATD USA. I suggest anyone wishing to learn, find them and learn. They are masters in their own right.

As for me?

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening rest and sleep to meet.
Bilbo Baggins