It’s all about the conversations – TestBash 2015 Review

Firstly, a preemptive strike for my love of TestBash.

I make no bones about it, I love this conference. No other expression of emotion comes close. Its almost up there with my wife, family, friends, my cat and Doctor Who. (And to anyone that knows me, that is a pretty big deal)

Regardless of the quality of the conference track, speakers and workshops, this annual event is now rapidly becoming a part of me, my learning as a tester and driving my desire to evolve my testing. It also helps me support and mentor other testers – both those I work with, and those I don’t.

As I mentioned in my previous post, where I previewed TestBash 2015, if it hadn’t been for TestBash I most likely wouldn’t be working where I do today, with a company I enjoy working for, and a team that I admire and value. I also wouldn’t have had the courage to do any public speaking or workshops if I hadn’t attended TestBash in 2013. As long as it is running, and as long as I can attend, I will go. With some luck and preparation, I hope to be more involved in TestBash 2016!

Now with the context of this blog post set out, I’ll try to present my ‘impartial’ review of this conference. It’ll be hard!

For the last three years I have made a pilgrimage back to my home town of Brighton to attend TestBash. Each year it has produced a different mix of learning, excitement, comradeship and an emotional exhaustion that my friend and BrighTest organiser Kim Knup has aptly described as the post TestBash blues. Through TestBash, social media acquaintances have become colleagues in testing, and in some cases firm friends. I may only see them for a few hours a year, but for that, above anything else I am grateful to Rosie Sherry, Simon Knight and all of the Ministry of Testing team that run the event.

Brighton Pavillion at Night

Brighton Pavillion at night

I took the photo above of Brighton Pavillion, whilst having a fantastic chat with Stephen Janaway on our way to the meetup on the Thursday night. And it is this that indicates the value to me of TestBash as a whole. It’s all about the conversations. Stephen was not the first great chat that weekend, nor was it the last. We discussed testing, my poor recollection of the geography of Brighton seafront, our upcoming conference talks and workshops and even family. I suppose you could say that the testing community, formed around this conference has become as sort of family to me.

Here we are at dinner with Chris Chant, Vernon Richards and Rosie. For me, the conversations start with the small events and gestures like this, and reminds me that I owe Rosie dinner! It had become a bit of an in joke that Vernon was going to wear a tutu on stage on the conference day, and in the end he did, but not in the way you might expect.  More on that later. I was lucky enough to hangout with some of the conference speakers and workshop facilitators at dinner, discussing their experiences and feedback on the day. As conferences and workshops go, it very good value for money, as the Ministry of Testing is able to attract some high calibre speakers and contributors every year from across the community, even just to attend!

Chris, Vernon and Rosie at Dinner

Chris, Vernon and Rosie at dinner

Sadly, I was unable to attend the workshop day on the Thursday. However, I was able to catch up with some folks at the end of the day down at the Brighton Dome. There was an open meetup and test gaming session to wrap things up, so I watched a round of Set, and led a few testers in a few rounds of Zendo. If it hadn’t been for a lunchtime learning session with my colleague and friend Chris Simms a few months ago, I wouldn’t have had a set of rules in my head ready to play! All power to the test community. Even though he hadn’t attended this year, Chris’s impact was felt from afar!

Ryan and Danny at the Meetup

Ryan and Danny at the meetup

So, off to the meetup, at a bar I hadn’t been too since my early 20’s. We took a minor detour on the way, but got there in the end. Here is my colleague and good mate Danny Dainton, enjoying a drink with Ryan Rapaport, a representative of one of the conference sponsors QA Symphony. (Shameless Plug 1: I use their tool QSnap, it’s pretty good).

The greatest value of TestBash for me comes from the conversations had at meetups like this. Sure, there was a lot of talk about testing, about our experiences of testing, our learning from various books and speakers, the relative merits of one conference over another, the relative merits of one beer over another. Here I was able to catch up with my (Shameless Plug 2) Weekend Testing Europe colleagues Neil Studd and Amy Philips, and plan our ground breaking trio 99 second talk for the following day! I also managed to grab conversations with; Matt Archer, about the Ministry of Testing Dojo and Abbie Maddison, the new runner of the NottsTest meetup. It was also fantastic to catch up with Guna Petrova from Latvia, who is a key player and track organiser at Nordic Testing Days. Her outlook on testing is always refreshing and enlightening.

Without communities like TestBash, and those generated around other conferences like Let’s Test, Weekend Testing wouldn’t exist. Communities generate conversation, which lead to initiatives and plans, which lead to more communities and more conversations and deeper learning experiences. Similarly, though meetups like this, there are opportunities to develop professional relationships, which can lead to other meetups, brown bag sessions, invites to speak at conferences, or even work!

Weekend Testing Europe: Amy, Neil and Me

Weekend Testing Europe: Amy, Neil and Me

Later in the evening led to even more discovery and exploration of our craft (testing, beer and music). It with great surprise that I could discuss the merits of the music of Fairport Convention and Jefferson Airplane (whom, thanks to my Father, I have an appreciation of) with Michael Bolton and Neil Thompson.

But that isn’t really what we were there for. Here’s Radomir Sebek, a tester from Serbia, who works for a music production software house in Berlin. He’s playing “The Pen Game” with Michael, one of the many testing games that were going down at The Globe late into the night. That same conversation led me to be challenged on a variation of the Pen Game, this time with my observation and listening skills put to the test. I got the solution, in the end!

The Pen Game with Michael and Radomir

The Pen Game with Michael and Radomir

Richard challenges Abby and Dan

Richard challenges Abby and Dan

Above is conference speaker Richard Bradshaw challenging Abby Bangser, from Thoughtworks, and Dan Caseley, from Common Time, to more testing games over a beer or three.

So here is the problem. With so many fantastic folk to talk to and learn from, you can’t really chose from them all. You pick up on different sounds and movements, explore what is interesting to you, find people you have never met before, or have had online communication with. It’s a bit like (exploratory) testing, in that you can define your conference by the actions you take, the information you gather, the people you speak to and your responses to them, and how you record them…like this.

So to the main event.

Each year, Rosie manages to attract excellent speakers to TestBash. And this year was no exception. As I mentioned in my previous post, there was no diversity in terms of gender at the 2014 conference. Not so this year, with three female speakers on the conference track. I have no details on the selection process, but I feel that the overall content, tone and message of the conference was all the better for the selections made this year.

There was also a lot to learn, from a range of experience reports, new thought leadership and science around testing, as well as technical challenges. Where TestBash is usually strong is dealing with the human element of testing, rather than drowning the attendees with technical jargon. Testing is for me very much a social discipline, as much as it is a technical discipline.

First up was Michael Bolton with “The Rapid Software Testing Guide to What you meant to say”, which looked to our use of language as a tool of our trade, and challenged many potential assumptions that could be drawn from testing behaviours. It’s my interpretation of this talk that Michael was trying to draw out the reasoning behind certain language choices in software development, and in some ways subverting their use through the prism of context driven testing. Why for example would we say automate all the testing, where we couldn’t possibly do that with development?

Up next was Iain McCowatt, with an excellent and animated discussion of the need to include intuition and the importance of tacit knowledge in our detection of bugs.  Iain emphasised that socialisation and interactional expertise was an essential skill of testing.  Being able to discuss and share our work and experiences appear to be key in finding bugs and communicating them effectively. It was also a great reminder to pick up the work of Harry Collins, whose writing and research contributed greatly to the themes Iain was conveying. I managed to catch up with Iain during a break, and sought his advice on combating biases in my testing. I find sometimes that because I test a lot for security, I feel that this sometimes blinds me to other considerations whilst I am testing. His insight will be invaluable in trying to balance my approach and test design processes in future.

Next up was an interesting talk about the challenges and learning gained from The Guardian’s approach to mobile testing and delivering software across multiple platforms. Sally Goble and Jonathan Hare-Winton presented a fascinating and humorous exploration of the differences and pitfalls of testing on both the iOS and Android operating systems and associated hardware. Playing on the rivalry in historic advertising campaigns between PC and Mac, and a distinctly divided audience (seemed to be more Android users than iOS, but only marginally so). This was a great talk for me, as I know very little at all about mobile application testing. The style of presentation drew more out of the audience than I expected it would, and it did not dwell too much on technical details. Great stuff!

After the break came the double bill of Martin Hynie and Stephen Janaway. Both talks approached the problem of organisational change and perceptions of testing and test management within development teams and businesses as a whole. Placing these two talks together was a masterstroke, as they complimented each other so well. Martin’s talk “What’s in a name? Experimenting with Testing Job Titles” focused on a social and professional science experiment. Martin found that following a change in job title and team name, to remote test, or testing; enabled his teams to have greater impact and authority within the business. He did all this under the radar, with the testers maintaining their responsibilities, whilst having a different job title. With an exciting presentation style, Martin was able to convey that maybe businesses see testing and testers as limiting and a blocker to progress. In doing so, he discovered that other teams and key stakeholders responded more positively to the alternatives. There is a lot to discover in this talk, and I won’t spoilt it further for anyone who want’s to watch the video when it comes online. Let’s just say for me that Martin’s talk it is one of the highlights of the conference.

To Stephen’s talk. For a while now, Stephen has been an inspiring member of the testing community, both personally and professionally. I was invited to speak to his team at Net-A-Porter last year, which was a fantastic opportunity. So its exciting to see how he managed to evolve into his new role as a Testing Coach, in his talk “Why I lost my job as a Test Manager and what I learned as a result”.

Organisational change is a very real challenge for testers. Stephen’s experiences here are both common, in terms of the need of testers to adapt professionally to change, but also uncommon in the approach taken by Stephen’s organisation. Rather than having overlapping development and test managers supervising the work of many people across teams, each team had its own development manager.

As a testing coach across the whole business, Stephen’s new role is to mentor the testers, enable and guide their professional development and learning, whilst not being responsible for their line management. This must have been an awesome task, reorganising the development team of a major online retailer, whilst at the same time maintaining delivery of products and services. This was an experience report beyond the normal recollection of events and dry facts, and really drove home that testers need to be able to be at the forefront of change in organisations, rather than being reactive to it.

Vernon Richards was up next, with “Myths and legends of software testing”. In 2014 Vernon blew the house down with his 99 second talk on this topic; a rapid fire list of misconceptions, musings, biases, and warnings. What Vernon did here was to distill the core of his message into an blisteringly and entertaining talk. After lunch and with everyone feeling a little full, it was the best of antidotes to wake us up.

Vernon’s talk drove home the need for testers to not only be creative in their approaches to testing, but to be wary of the fallacies and biases that can be derived from poor research, assumptions and inaccuracies. Also, looking at how to challenge the language used to describe testers and testing by non testers; such as “It’s just clicking a load of buttons” or “Anyone can do testing”. If we are to take ownership and responsibility for our craft we have to believe in our skills, and champion them to those outside testing, so that they are recognised and valued appropriately.

Maaret Pyhäjärvi came next, with “Quality doesn’t belong to the tester”. Maaret’s experiences of being the sole tester on the team, feeling responsible for quality when it seemed that no one else appeared to care resonated with me deeply. This story described how she managed approaches to testing on her team and began to build more positive relationships with the developers. In order to test sooner, and test better, Maaret elicited a collective responsibility for quality and testing, rather than taking on the burden on her own.

Matthew Heusser encouraged us to rethink our approach to regression and releases in his talk “Getting Rid of Release Testing”. This talk lead us through an approach to testing and releasing software incrementally, and becoming less reliant on the big bang “test everything” approach to release management.

Through drawing rather than slides, Matthew explained what he termed “The Swiss cheese model of risk”, where at each stage in a software release life cycle there can be different layers of testing, where there will be gaps and overlaps in coverage. It’s probably a scary approach for some, but resonates with me as working in a continuous delivery environment means that to test everything at the end would be inefficient, costly in terms of time and resources and likely not give us meaningful data. The tweet below reiterates clearly one of Matt’s main messages in a challenging and insightful talk.

Nearing the end of the main conference day leads us to Richard Bradshaw’s “Automation in testing”. I’ve never seen Richard speak before, but I have heard much about his ability to convey complex thinking in a clear and approachable way. I was not to be disappointed. Richard guided us through his evolving process of  supporting testing using automation. Built up over a number of years of learning and experimentation, he described a mature and adaptable way of incorporating automation into your testing, for the right reasons – enabling the important checks that you might need to do frequently, allowing the tester to focus on exploration, learning and asking questions about the software under test. This was an inspired and entertaining talk, which engaged me in a topic that in the past has not always held my interest.

Now to the final presentation of the day, with Karen Johnson’s “The Art of asking questions”. This was hands down my favourite talk of the day. It was less of a presentation, more of a conversation with the audience. Karen’s slides were a simple guidance to invite us to flow through the discussion with her.

Karen explored with us the finer points of questioning, both of others and ourselves. Timing was a key theme, asking the right question at the right time, something I have struggled with in the past. Even more resonate with me was the idea that, quoting author Joshua Harris “The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing” in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Relationships and Romance

Drawing on her journalism background, Karen asked us to consider the kinds of questions we ask and how they might influence the kinds of responses we get in return. The classic, yet always useful what, where, why, who and how that will never fail you as long as you use them appropriately. After all, a lot of testing is about asking questions, and asking the right question could even prevent defects from occurring before a single line of code is written. The Q&A afterward brought many excellent questions from the audience, with Karen responding with great advice, book recommendations (see Twitter for a tonne of them) and practical suggestions to solving communication issues.

TestBash has now established a tradition of 99 second talks, led for the final time by Simon Knight. Many great folk stepped up to the stage alongside Neil, Amy and myself. Jokin Aspiazu really coined it with “If you can’t get money for conferences, ask for time. Time is valuable.” No truer thing has been said in such a short space of time!

The after party is both a chance to relax after a long day, but to engage with as many people as possible. The quite excellent and intimate bar The Mesmerist proved to be a great place to hang out and talk testing, such as with Mark Tomlinson (he of the infamous spinning cat at TestBash 2014).

Mark Tominson at the meetup

Mark Tomlinson at the meetup

It’s the camaraderie and convivial atmosphere that really makes this event, year in year out. I recommend you come, make a week of it…to really let Brighton and TestBash soak in to you. You won’t regret it.

Reflections in a single malt

Reflections in a single malt

Although, I might do by the end of the evening

Something for the weekend, sir?

In what seems to now have been a storming comeback, the European chapter of Weekend Testing was a breath of fresh air in the learning opportunities for testers. You can find a link to the latest session here. Ably facilitated by Amy Phillips (@itjustbroke) and Neil Studd (@neilstudd) the session was dynamic and a great chance to talk with other testers in a relaxed environment. I didn’t even have to leave my house!

The main focus of the session was heuristics, how we understand, use and learn from them. There is a lot of great material on what heuristics are and how they can be used to inform and drive our testing ideas and execution. I won’t dwell too much on these areas but just hope to point you to some useful material:

Elizabeth Hendrikson’s Testing Heuristics Cheat Sheet

Michael Bolton’s blog post – heuristics for understanding heuristics

Anyway, my main take away from this session was the ruts that sometimes as a tester that we might sometimes get stuck in. I chose the Constraints heuristic, utilising data type attacks upon the World Chat Clock application we were all discussing.

I found myself falling back onto what now I feel to be a bit of a party piece. I immediately decided to perform a few simple XSS and SQL Injection attacks against the application. As I expected but couldn’t be sure, was that the application’s user interface would prevent these kinds of basic security vulnerabilities from being exploited. I did ultimately find a way of injecting XSS, via OWASP Mantra, but not getting it to expose any data. The bug did however cause some interesting display and wrapping issues.

Rather than looking at the functionality, usability, accessibility and its overall purpose somehow I have begun to think the worst about the software under test before I have given myself a chance to really take the time to evaluate it critically, honestly and objectively. I immediately questioned how secure the application was before I considered any other factors.

In my work at New Voice Media, I am part of a cross functional development team, and part of a community of testing interest within the business. During this time I’ve taken onboard a lot of security testing skills, with still a lot more left to learn. It may be that I have taken these skills to heart and want to use them at any opportunity, to develop them further, to discover more about the underlying behaviour of the application under test.

Yet sometimes I feel guilty that I am not approaching the testing of software from any number of other directions, using other skills and techniques. Maybe the newer skills I have learned are higher up in my priority list in my mind before I take other approaches. So, there are of course biases at play here. I’d like to explore that further and challenge them in the future.

Perhaps this has something to do with the way I personally learn things? Early in my career everything was driven from scripts and spreadsheets. There was no impetus to learn better ways of testing, only how to get testing done faster with fewer bugs and more coverage. I was learning how to manage my testing, but not being critical of the testing I was doing, nor evaluating the testing of other people.

Now this kind of learning is the bread and butter of the testers I work with now. We learn, explore, test, check, learn some more, share, improve and the cycle continues. A much more positive way of working. It’s not without its problems, as quite rightly so, you are much more accountable for your work, justifying your choices and decisions. There is a certain level of emotional maturity that we as testers need to develop in order to sustain this cycle, be accountable, share our learning appropriately, learn well from mistakes and improve from them.

This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Weekend Testing so much. You can’t really hide or be a silent observer. You need to get stuck in and get your hands dirty!

A couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon in the past has not been a huge cost to me, as I would only be doing a bit of housework, DIY, gardening, Scouting, sport or watching something geeky on TV. Soon though however my weekends will be taken up with the ultimate challenge of parenthood, so chances to learn with peers in a relaxed environment will become fewer and far between. More on that learning experience and how it relates to testing another time.

Weekend Testing: infinitely better and more rewarding than mowing your lawn. Thanks to Neil and Amy for running such a fun and exciting session. The same goes to the other participants for the opportunity to learn from you and the excellent conversation.