DEWT4 – a peer conference on teaching testing

dewt4-participants-v4

From left to right: Jeanne Hofmans, Rob van Steenbergen, Jurian van de Laar, Peter Simon Schrijver, Jean-Paul Varwijk, Bernd Beersma, Huib Schoots, Arjen Verweij, Zeger van Hese, Joris Meerts, Markus Gärtner, Bart Broekman, Angela van Son, Pascal Dufour, Ard Kramer, Jeroen Mengerink, Kristoffer Nordström‏, Philip Hoeben, Daniël Wiersma, Joep Schuurkes, Duncan Nisbet, Eddy Bruin, Wim Heemskerk, Ruud Cox, Richard Scholtes, Ray Oei

Teaching Software Testing

DEWT IntroIn the weekend of 7-9 February, the fourth edition of DEWT took place at Hotel Bergse Bossen in Driebergen, the Netherlands. DEWT stands for the Dutch Exploratory Workshop on Testing and is a LAWST-style peer workshop on testing like its older siblings LAWSTLEWT and SWET. This means a presentation is followed by a facilitated discussion that goes on as long as it brings value.

This edition was extra special to me since I volunteered to be the Content Owner during our preparatory meeting in september. Jean-Paul Varwijk agreed to fill the Conference Chair role and Peter Simon Schrijver would be the main facilitator. Why yes, you do need a good facilitator to make this kind of thing work.

The main theme of this edition was “Teaching Software Testing”

In this edition we also added the obligation – for all attendees – to send in a proposal for an experience report. I wanted attendees to look at teaching software testing in a broad sense, and asked for experience reports on:

  • How software testing is taught
  • Unconventional or alternative ways of teaching software testing
  • Lessons learned by teaching software testing
  • Learning how to teach software testing
  • The receiving end of teaching – learning (being taught)
  • The transfer of theoretical versus practical knowledge
  • Teaching novice testers versus teaching experienced ones
  • Acquiring teaching skills

Apart from the DEWT core members (10), an additional 16 people were invited, of whom three came from abroad – Markus Gaertner (D), Duncan Nisbet (UK) and Kristoffer Nordström (SE). Actually, that makes four since I am from abroad (B) as well – I keep forgetting that I am DEWT’s legal alien.

Friday, February 7

The first night of a DEWT conference is usually an informal meetup, with a welcoming dinner for the people that can make it in time. A great evening it was, with strangers getting to know each other and old friends catching up. Lots of games and testing talk – and in some way or another, My Little Pony () became a topic as well. There were not as many drinks as we would have liked, though, since our first evening happened to coincide with a wedding in our regular hangout, the Grand Cafe. This meant we were banned to a room with a part-time waiter, dividing his inevitably part-time attention (I’m guessing 85/15) between drunk party people and relatively sober software testers. His selection of Belgian beers and copious amounts of deep-fried snacks (it is common knowledge that Markus Gaertner will attend any meetup that involves bitterballen) made up for it.

We ended the night giving the bride and groom some heartfelt marital advice, and by sipping from that curious bottle Duncan brought from Gibraltar – Patxaran (Zoco). When Duncan started cleaning tables to compensate for our invisible waiter, we knew it was time to go to bed.

Saturday, February 8

In front of a notably bigger group than we ended the day with on friday (some people were only joining in on saturday morning), Jean-Paul, Peter and myself kicked off the conference. In the previous weeks, the three of us had come to an agreement on which talks should go highest on the list, being well aware that in the end, a schedule like this is always tentative since you never know when discussions are going to end or where the energy of the group will be going.

The roomKristoffer Nordström went first with “Learning and change in a dysfunctional organisation“, illustrating the difficulties of a consultant that represents both management and the outside. Are learnings and change even possible is this situation? He compared a team with a spring that is attached to context and culture. When a string is attached to something, it is very hard to change. You can bend the spring and make it work at first, but inevitably, the spring – the team – will veer back to its original position. He explained how he tried to cope with his plight: establish trust, show passion and enthusiasm, lead by example, show respect, take time to teach instead (not tell). Even simple things like smiling and saying hello to people helped him to achieve his goals. Kristoffer’s experience report was rich and well-prepared, and touched many things which I could relate with. The discussion afterwards went on longer than planned, but hey, we’re all flexible, right?

Next up was Arjen Verweij with “Preaching software testing: evangelizing testers among non-testers“. In his experience report, he described how he advocates for testing with different stakeholders:

  • Talk to project managers about value
  • Inform and explain customers about changes in the software
  • Convince engineers that you need their expertise.
  • Help support people by providing them with good tools that facilitate bug reporting
  • Work with sales to set reasonable expectations
  • Get buy-in from the developers by supporting their work

One of Arjen’s take-aways was to not mention “testing” if you want non-testers to test, which spawned a hefty discussion on-site in which several people on twitter got involved.

After lunch we decided to go for a walk in the woods to avoid that dreaded carb coma. The hotel staff provided us with instructions for a walk, and it turned out to be a strictly scripted procedure: no map, but a list of written instructions. Great, a bunch of (mostly) context-driven testers asked to follow a walking script. As could be expected, we got lost in a heartbeat. Our explorer’s instinct – supported by many a gps module – got us back with only 20 minutes delay.

Aside from harassing us with more space unicorn songs then we could handle, Markus Gaertner got us up and about with a workshop that used the principles from the book “Training From the Back of the Room!: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn” by Sharon Bowman, after which he elaborated on the 4 C’s, a framework to help design classes that leverage accelerated learning. The acronym stands for “Connection, Concept, Concrete Practice, Conclusion”. During the connections step, learners make connections with what they already know about the topic at hand. In the concepts step, learners take in new information in multi-sensory ways: hearing, seeing, discussing, writing, reflecting, imagining, participating and teaching it to others. The concrete practice step serves to actively practice a new skill using the new information, participate in an active review of what they have learned and again teach others what they know or can now do. During the conclusions step, learners summarize what they have learned, evaluate it and make a commitment to use it at work or in their lives.

Joep Schuurkes and Richard Scholtes were up next with “Teaching testing with a chain testing simulation“, in which they described their experiences in designing an apparently simple chain testing simulation exercise. In it, participants were provided with five laptops running the applications that make up the chain, and each was assigned to one of the laptops (or was assigned the role of testing coordinator), after which the group was given the assignment to “perform a chain test”. Joep and Richard contrasted the things they thought should happen with the things that actually happened, which lead to a couple of nice surprises. Chaos ensued, apparently, and people stayed on their own island for way too long. But it proved an engaging format for all involved – people continued during breaks, were discussing it the days after and it led to quite some aha-moments as well. Another take-away: putting an empty chair in between two people is an effective means to stop all communication.

Bart Broekman‘s experience report brought us “Back to the Middle Ages“. Or at least, a part of the theory did. He talked about the master-apprentice model, which is fundamentally different from the teacher/student model which is now so common. Later on he linked it to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Bart saw the biggest gap to be bridged in going from “competent” to “proficient”. How can we make our students make that big leap? Bart went on to explain how he tried to do that through organising masterclasses, working with the student’s own content and real-life problems to solve.

By the time the discussion after Bart’s report died down, dinner was calling, and we gladly obliged. The evening was filled with drinks, puzzles, games, poetry recitations and Dutch people winning gold, silver and bronze medals in the Winter Olympics. Leave some for us, would you?

Sunday, February 9

Sunday morning saw the first (granted, UK-imported) Gibraltarian DEWT-invitee ever take the stage: Duncan Nisbet with a report on his experiences teaching testing to new/non testers, “You can’t learn to drive by reading a book“. A misleading title, since he proceeded to compellingly relate it to how he used to train his pupils in wildwater kayaking. In that line of sport, it is important that you first give your students a safe place to fail, like clear, calm and warm water. Whitewater is an unforgiving place for newbies. Slowly progress, and if you fail, do it more often. Books don’t prepare you for the whitewater experience. Duncan then explained how he tries to teach testing to newbies in the same way. Start simple and build confidence gradually. First, give them a Web/GUI to play wit, later make them aware that of the existence of logs that can help them in testing, and then on to other more specialised disciplines like performance and automation. The facilitated discussion afterwards spawned so many question threads that Simon Schrijver dedicated a whole blogpost on how he facilitated it.

Angela Van Son is a DEWT regular, although she is not a tester. Angela is a professional (procrastination) coach, and she made the program because I was convinced that she could contribute to the topic by offering a view on teaching in general. In “The skill of teaching: How do you make them WANT it?“, she told us about the 30 Day Video Challenge put out by Holly Sugrue that she participated in. She witnessed how Holly managed to energize and inspire the group to deliver in this challenge, a remarkable feat considering that the different people all had different goals to participate. Angela then analyzed what was so peculiar about this challenge. How did the challenge make the people want to master it? As it turned out, it was a combination of many things. It was well chosen, with clear limits. There was a lot of playful repetition that never got boring, and great group dynamics that pushed people forward. There were no obligations – it was a safe place to learn.

After lunch, to finish on a lighter and more active note, we scheduled a workshop on the design of exercises to teach testing, led by Huib Schoots and Ruud Cox. The crowd got divided in several small groups and given the task to design an exercise to teach some testing concepts. That exercise would then be run by one of the other groups followed by a debrief. The tricky part was of course that the time to accomplish this was very limited. I already knew from attending Jerry Weinberg’s Problem Solving Leadership that designing a good and fun experiential exercise can be very, VERY hard. But given the circumstances, the teams did a good job – resorting to ruthless peppermint crushing and exploratory walking. I felt that the debrief helped a lot in seeing where our own exercise could be improved.

This concluded DEWT4. Two + days filled with learning and fun. I hoped to achieve a good variety in the topics and I am glad how it turned out. The atmosphere was focused yet relaxed, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. A big thank you to all the participants for their time, their stories and their passion.

Sketch-notes

To finish of this lengthy report, here are some sketch-notes I made during the weekend. Click the thumbnail to see a bigger version.

For other reports and impressions of DEWT4, check out the DEWT after party blog page.

Back to the middle ages - Bart Broekman You cant learn to drive by reading a book - Duncan Nisbet Learning and change in a dysfunctional organisation - Kristoffer Nordstrom Preaching software testing - Testing with non-testers - Arjen Verweij Teaching testing with a chain testing simulation - Joep Schuurkes Richard Scholtes The skill of teaching - how to make them want it - Angela Van Son

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The Eurostar 2012 diaries – part 3 (tuesday Nov 6)

Super Tuesday

Photo by Rik Marselis

Early tuesday, and my dreams were filled with empty auditoria and keynote speakers stuck in airports. A first reality check eases my mind a bit. The people I dreamt about are already checked in, and ready to rumble. As am I. I skip breakfast to be on site as early as possible, but halfway there I realize I left my phone in the hotel room. I hurry back and when I finally get to the premises, James and Julian beat me to it. While we help the tutorial speakers get all settled for the morning, the registration area is again being flashmobbed by testers. Delegates are now flowing in at a steady pace, but I notice remarkably few hiccups. Sure, there is the occasional delegate who is worried about his tutorial enrollment, but Siobhan seems to have a firm grip on payments and registrations. Siobhan handles all the adminstrative stuff throughout the year, a job that can never be underestimated. Rumor has it that she can even make Chuck Norris comply with Eurostar’s presentation materials deadline (which we couldn’t verify this year since his submission “I sit down in stand-up meetings” didn’t make the cut). The Eurostar team deals with the rush-hour queues swiftly, and before I can say “Morning coffee, anyone?”, the AM sessions are kicked off.

Photo by Randy Rice

Like yesterday, I wander around the now quiet and peaceful venue and do a temperature reading in the different tutorial rooms. Fiona Charles has everyone in her room up on their feet, milling around and fully engaged in her “Right-sizing Test Documentation”.  Paul Gerrard is testing the room capacity boundaries in his totally sold out “How to Create a Test Strategy”. Randy Rice – all the way from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – is mighty popular with his “Free and Cheap Test Tools”. Michael D. Kelly – all the way from Indianapolis, Indiana – is spreading his wisdom about managing exploratory testing for a full house as well in his “Session Based Test Management”. When I check in with Alan Richardson’s and Simon Stewart’s Selenium Clinic, I see a screens full of code and two presenters on fire. All is good.

Again I feel sorry that I cannot sit in – imagine all the learning I’m mssing! – but as it turns out there is plenty of learning to be done elsewhere: rendez-vous at 11 AM in the main auditorium for a run-through of the conference opening. Finally, the auditorium is made Shrek-free and we can admire the beautiful – blueish – theatre. While the main idea of the run-through was a rehearsal of the opening remarks, we spend an hour test-driving four yellow tourist bikes through various aisles of the auditorium, checking where to brake and how to park – testing the risky bits first, so to speak. Daragh and Paul of the Eurostar team were able to secure these bikes last-minute as we are going to use them in the most vital part of the conference opening: the committee entrance. While James, Julian and Shmuel get in touch with their inner 13 year-old and do little uphill races on the blue carpet, ringing frantically, I try to make my slideset work on Alan Page’s nifty little Surface RT. Hungry? Not really. No stress, no sirree.

      Half past one. The official conference opening is upon us. The auditorium is packed, music is blasting out of the speakers and the four of us are in the – by now deserted – registration area, using our dubious trial bike skills to balance our yellow monsters in place. Lorraine gives us a go and we make our way to the front of the auditorium, all the time aware of the bizarreness of the situation: low visibility, a steep decline, funny brakes, loud music and a suit don’t make for a fluent biking experience. This concludes our very own “Men in Black”/”Boys are back in town” moment – and I’m glad we make it in one piece. We park the bikes and I climb onto the stage for the opening remarks. It is there that I have my first aha-moment. When asking how many people are attending the conference for the first time, I expect someting like 10-20% but see a *lot* of hands going up. I am a little thrown by that and I would like to see some official numbers to be sure what happened this year.

Ferran Adrià
Photo by Wired Magazine, 2012

I go ahead and explain the conference theme (Innovate/Renovate), telling the story of Ferran Adrià, the former chef from El Bulli, the best restaurant in the world for some time. Adrià started his career as a dishwater but managed to change the world of gastronomy by bringing elements of other disciplines into cooking: chemistry, psychology, physics. He expanded his cooking toolbox (his new toys were lyophilizers, liquid nitrogen, candy floss machines,…) and started investigating how the presentation of a dish influenced the perception of taste (did you know that strawberry mousse is perceived to be ten percent sweeter when served on a white plate compared to a black one?). My main message? In testing, it’s probably the easiest easy to say that innovation is not your job, rather something for those crazy boys and girls in R&D. But it’s not – it’s everyone’s job. Innovation is not just about products: it is also about business practices, processes, tools – it lies in everything we do. Everyone can be an innovator – testers too.

When the committee takes the stage for a personal address, expressing their wishes and hopes for the conference, I can actually stand back for a while and be amazed by the size of the whole endeavour. So many people here, in difficult economic times, all undergoing geographical and financial inconvenience to be here to learn and share experiences – this is great, and humbling at the same time. It is super tuesday alright.

Photo by Rik Marselis

Time now for Alan Page to step into the light, with his opening keynote “Test Innovation for Everyone” (a link to the presentation can be found here). It turns out to be a great talk, in which he points out that innovation is all about ideas, which makes test innovation mainly about test ideas. We innovate to solve problems – but are we solving the right problems? Try a lot, but keep checking whether you are doing the right thing. Alan’s talk is also book recommendation hour: “Where Good Ideas Come From” (Steven Johnson), “The Wisdom of Crowds” (James Surowiecki), “The Lean Startup” (Eric Ries), “Jimbo – Adventures in Paradise” (Gary Panter), “Brain Rules” (John Medina), “The Myths of Innovation” (Scott Berkun), “They All Laughed” (Ira Flatow), “Steal Like an Artist” (Austin Kleon), “The 5 Elements of effective thinking” (Edward Burger, Michael Starbird) and “The Innovator’s Dilemma” (Clayton Christensen). Some of these are already acquired as we speak.

AlanRichardsonKeynoteNext up are the first track sessions of the conference. Finally, time to watch the sessions we have been debating way back in march. I switch to track-hopping mode again and sample bits of as many tracks as possible. The afternoon flies by way too fast, and before I know, we are all inside the auditorium again for Alan Richardson‘s eclectic closing keynote, “Unconventional Influences”. I am very much looking forward to his talk – I chose this talk from his long list of possible subjects because I am all for bringing elements from other fields into our testing practice. And I am happy to see that Alan completely nails it with references to Dr. Seuss, H.P. Lovercraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”, the “Fortean Times” magazine and ghostbusting. He tells a story about how he never allowed his testing to be limited by other people’s attitudes to testing or company mandates. He thinks that is an excuse that people embrace to stop them having to identify their beliefs about testing and challenge themselves to become better testers. Slides of his talk can be found here. He also wrote an unconventional paper to go with it, link here.

Tuesday evening is the traditional Expo drinks moment, and I take the opportunity to mingle and talk with as many people as possible. I drop by the Improve boot, where my very pregnant DEWT colleague Jeanne Hofmans hands me the first issue of “Quality Level Management – Managing quality in outsourcing”, a book she wrote together with Erwin Pasmans. Once I make it to the Test Lab, I see that Shmuel brought his infamous box with testing games and waste the rest of the expo drink time trying to solve puzzles together with great testers – and beer. How awesome is that? Totally sucked into puzzle solving, I fail to notice that the expo is closing, and together with Shmuel (still limping like a hunchback) I spend a good 30 minutes deciding whether we should ride our yellow bikes through the torrential rain or take a taxi. Taxi lines lines outside the RAI are rather discouraging, so we end up getting soaked on the bikes. Back at the Novotel, the Test Lab people set up a portable Test Lab in the bar, but even the most die-hard TestLabber gets hungry after a while. And so it happens that a group of twentysomething people find themselves in a great tapas restaurant for an evening of comido, bebidas y alegría. The athmosphere was so relaxed that I am tempted to stay up until the wee hours, but I am being a good chair and take the taxi back – mañana es otro día.

Here are Esther Gons‘ graphical recordings of this day:

Opening remarks

Test Innovation for Everyone – Alan Page

Curing our Binary Disease – Rikard Edgren

Value Inspired Testing – Neil Thompson

Unconventional Influences – Alan Richardson

… to be continued

The Eurostar 2012 diaries – part 2 (monday Nov 5)

So it begins… tutorial day

En route from the novotel to the RAI on this dark and rainy monday morning, I am pleasantly surprised to see “Eurostar Conference” signposted everywhere (next to Shrek the Musical, where it belongs) – who knows I might have ended up at a conference far, far away. It is only 7 AM, but the RAI is buzzing with activity. The registration desk is fully (wo)man(n)ed, and last minute checks are being done. Not too long before the hounds will be released, and the eurostar crew is very much “in the zone”.  I decide not to disturb them too much and go for a little orientation walk around the venue. The main auditorium remains closed this day (secret Shrek stuff, I assume) and the expo is still being built, but I am able to get a good idea of the venue layout. Loungy sitting areas, roomy but cosy session rooms – this place has the right vibe.

By the time I get back to the desk, the first tutorial speakers are already registering. Part of my job today is to show them to their rooms, make sure they get all settled and have everything they need. Dorothy Graham (“Managing Successful Test Automation”) and Janet Gregory (“Transitioning to Agile Testing”) are our first teachers on site, soon followed by Bob van de Burgt & Iris Pinkster O’Riordan (“Lessons Learned in Test Management”) and Rikard Edgren (“Exploratory Test Design”). I walk them up to their campsite for the day and when I get back down, the registration area looks like it is being flash-mobbed by multiple nationalities – minus the dancing. The desk is invaded with people waiting to get a name tag, conference bag and that very slick looking 20th-anniversary running shirt. They get a complimentary friendly word and welcome from the Eurostar crew, some advice and orientation, and off they are to learning heaven. By now I realize that I somehow missed Michael Bolton (“Critical thinking for testers”) entering the venue, but Siobhan reassures me that he /is/ in the house. I go upstairs again to say hi, and notice that Michael’s room is nearly full. Wait, is it 8:30 already? The last queues are cleared, and we have a lift off.

Standing by the registration desk, I notice keynote speakers Alan Page and Simon Stewart check in. As they are not teaching/speaking today, and they probably won’t be hanging around the venue the whole time, I make sure to remind them of the speaker’s drink taking place this evening in a bar behind the RAI. Apparently, I wasn’t the first:

The rest of the morning I spend wandering from room to room, sitting in for short periods of time, to catch the vibe and to see whether the delegates are enjoying themselves. This is a strange change of perspective. During the previous years, I was always in these tutorials myself, focused on learning. Now, I am checking the reactions of people and not really paying attention to what is being told. I am a lousy multi-tasker. Not that I don’t pick up stuff – I vividly recall Rikard walking around without shoes, talking about software potatoes. I catch Bob and Iris talking about a thin (cheese) slicing test management method (mmm… cheese), and Michael debriefing one of his many exercises and quoting Jerry Weinberg (*). I hear Dorothy highlighting and explaining stories from her award-winning book (“Experiences of Test Automation“), and Janet is scaling her normally much more intimate workshop to a way bigger audience – and she seems to handle that with style and grace.

The rest of the RAI is empty at this time of day, which makes for a strange contrast with the invasion of only an hour earlier. During the coffee breaks, the friendly chatter reappears, and I observe and talk. Finally, I bump into Shmuel, who is limping like someone with bad shoes who had a very long walk in Amsterdam on a rainy sunday. It adds to his overall funniness, although I think he already is funny enough as is. We discuss the subject of yellow tourist bikes to go back and forth between the Novotel and the RAI – bikes that will play a role in our conference opening as well.

Right before lunch, as I am welcoming delegates into the lunch restaurant, fellow committee member James Lyndsay enters the venue. He is sporting a big bag that mostly contains a stylish – and heavy – kilt. Guaranteed gala dinner goodness. During lunch, James is mentioning his upcoming gig with the London Bulgarian Choir – the friday after the conference. And I thought /I/ had a hectic schedule! When the tutorials start up again and the restaurant is emptying, Shmuel and I act as a (poor man’s excuse for a ) choir while James rehearses one of his deep-voiced solos, leaving the waiters and RAI staff wondering what they just witnessed. The RAI restaurant has good acoustics, actually. Rumor has it that James’ voice is still haunting the premises.

The afternoon flows smoothly, I feel, and around 4 pm I follow Lorraine’s recommendation to use the last couple of hours of the afternoon to relax a bit before things get really hectic tomorrow. The weather is crisp and clear, so I go for a walk around the area. Not too long though, since the speaker drinks kick off at 6.

At the drink, which turns out to take place in a cosy Austrian log cabin, I meet Julian Harty who just flew in from Nairobi with a short detour to the UK – to switch from summer to winter clothes. On thursday evening, he has to move on to go speak at the (equally fantastic) Oredev conference, which unfortunately takes place in the same week this year. Speaking of hectic schedules, I am convinced that Julian’s travel arrangements would make Kofi Annan look lazy. It is good to have our committee finally complete, and on site. Actually, this is the first time that the four of us together meet face to face, as Shmuel was skyping in while the rest of us were meeting in Galway in march.

As the committee is hosting the drinks, we do our best to make everyone feel welcome. Shmuel goes full reversed paparazzo and has his picture taken with everyone present – behavior that he will continue to exhibit throughout the whole conference, which makes me wonder: doesn’t that make his photo albums mighty Shmuel-centric? The athmosphere is really relaxed, and I am glad to see things turning out so nicely. I am now able to put faces to submissions, and voices to pictures. Michael D. Kelly – very thrilled to finally meet him, by the way – looked so young that I didn’t even recognize him at first. I don’t know why I had imagined him older, must be his reputation preceeding him.

My evening ended in a tasty Indonesian restaurant, where a large group of testers was diving into a rice table as we entered. I was invited to eat (heaps of) spicy leftovers from other people (thank you Rob Lambert and John Stevenson for feeding the hungry and the impatient – your good Samaritanism is highly appreciated). Again,  occasions like this work wonders in putting faces to twitter handles: be warned, @GeirGulbrandsen and @Kristoffer_Nord, you’re no longer safe from me.

After dinner : plenty of rest for the wicked. Tomorrow, there’s an official conference-opening to be done. 

… to be continued

——————————– 

(*) Which comes as no surprise, as Jerry Weinberg – Patron Saint of thinking testers – is very much worth quoting. And reading, even more so. If you haven’t read any of his books, I encourage you to do so.

The Eurostar 2012 diaries (the prequel)

What a year…

It has been a while since my last blog post, and being the programme chair for Europe’s biggest software testing conference probably had something to do with that. Now that the twentieth edition of Eurostar is over and the whole event is still very much in my system, I figured it is about time to revive Ye Olde TestSideStory blog.

The Eurostar office, Galway

The whole year leading up to this moment was one big trip into testing conference wonderland. I learned loads about conference-making (I’m pretending that this is a dictionary entry somewhere) in the small and the large. Selecting a committee, a theme, keynotes, tutorials, assembling a balanced programme out of 400+ submissions – these things in itself already were quite a challenge. This, combined with a steady flow of related side-activities proved to occupy the better part of my free time. Luckily, the Eurostar team in Galway (Ireland) made this into a very enjoyable and fluent experience. I had the privilige of visiting the Galway office a couple of times in the past year, and the team has a great energy that gets things going (and a love for Belgian chocolates and all things Guinness). Props to my employer CTG as well, for giving me the opportunity to spend time preparing the conference.

Working with my committee (Julian Harty James LyndsayShmuel Gershon) throughout the year was certainly a highlight. I have fond memories of our lengthy skype sessions, discussing about anything in the testing conference realm – we even managed to find some emerging behavior in skype chat in the process. In hindsight, I was particularly impressed with Julian’s pragmatism and fresh ideas, James’ note-taking fu in the face of a truckload of submissions, and Shmuel’s contagious enthusiasm.

The last weeks, pressure had been building gradually: seeing the early bird subscriptions take off, hearing about testlab preparations, tutorials filling up… Later on, a couple of speakers opted out and needed replacement – things were getting more real every week.

Rainy Amsterdam – Sunday November 4

After some uneventful aquaplaning all the way from Belgium, I met up with Israeli-Brazilian superstar (and programme committee member extraordinaire) Shmuel Gershon. Originally there was a visit planned to the RAI to get acquainted with the venue layout, but since Eurostar happened to coincide with Shrek The musical (Ogres in the main auditorium! Fionas mindmapping a test strategy!), this was no longer possible. We decided to dive headfirst into the city of Amsterdam, to explore. Some observations:

  • A couple of hours in Amsterdam can spawn more rain than six days in Ireland
  • Torrential rain will soak up even the sturdiest shoes
  • The Anne Frank house has bigger lines than the newly opened Amsterdam Apple Store
  • From now on, if the map and the territory disagree, I’m believing the territory
  • Serendipitous wandering can make you end up in one of the finer Indian Restaurants in Amsterdam
  • The finer Indian bread is very kosher – but expensive
  • Two men with identical bright blue Novotel umbrellas look funny (I guess people expected a Gene Kelly dance routine)

When arriving back at the Novotel, soaked to the bone, a bunch of testers had already gathered for an informal meetup in the bar. I was planning to change into dry clothes first, but got engaged in conversation and totally forgot about it. Sometimes you have to plan as you go along.

Conference pre-opening (photo by Huib Schoots)

While my shoes were drying slowly, I spent the rest of the evening chatting with new friends (Cyril Boucher, Jeanne Peng, Erkki Pöyhönen) and catching up with old ones (John Stevenson, Michael Bolton, Huib Schoots, Jean-Paul Varwijk, Rikard Edgren, Shmuel). John in particular was on fire that evening, quoting book titles like some kind of human reading tip generator. The two that I managed to note down are “The click moment” and “Everything is obvious“. The rest got lost in a pre-conference haze.

Later on I ran into the Eurostar crew as well. They had been on site since friday, unpacking stuff and basically building everything from scratch. They expanded their team for the conference, and it was nice meeting new faces there too. They all looked happy and confident, which was kind of reassuring to see: the logistic side is under control. Chatting with them also made me realize that things were about to be kicked off for real.

Are those nerves I feel? Anyway, time for bed – appointment at the RAI at 7 am.

… to be continued

Children’s own pass/fail criteria (and nursery rhymes)

One month ago, my oldest daughter (6) started taking on rope skipping. The last time I had seen her practising, two weeks ago, she was still having trouble getting the rope neatly over (and under) herself, but yesterday she was able to complete several jumps in one go in a fluent movement. It was the first time I had seen her do that, so I was pretty impressed.

She was clearly in learning mode. I sat down to observe her more closely. 

– “Wow, where did you learn all that?”

– “I’ve been watching older girls do that in school, daddy. Watch”.

She started jumping and counting out loud.

– “One, two, three, four, five, six, …”

She tripped on the rope.

– “Woohoo! Six!”

– “You go, girl!”

– “Again! One, two, three, four, five, nooooo…”

– “Five is good”.

– “No, daddy, five is not good. Again!”

She repeated the process a couple of times. She jumped seven (“Yes!”), four (“Nooo!”), five (“Pfff!”), six (“Yippie!”). I started noticing a pattern. It struck me that she alternated frustration with joy, and she let it depend on the number of jumps. Time for some questioning.

– “Why are you happy with anything above or equal to six, but unhappy with anything lower?”

– “It has to be at least six, daddy”.

– “Why six?”

She seemed really annoyed that I didn’t see her point. She thought I was pulling her leg.

– “Because I’m _six_ years old, daddy. Didn’t you know? What else could it be?”.

I was totally flabbergasted. She managed to impose some totally arbitrary pass/fail criteria on herself. Where did that come from? I thought that using pass/fail tests actually sabotages kids’ natural learning processes? But this appeared to come out of herself. No-one told her that she had to make at least six.

I wondered – maybe she just chose her age as a starting point, just to set some initial learning goals for herself? Was she planning on raising the bar later on when reaching six would have become too easy? Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to follow-up on that – lunchtime!

Flash forward to work. All this reminded me of commonly defined pass/fail criteria such as

“90% of all tests must pass”

Really? 

In “Are your lights on?”, Jerry Weinberg uses the well-known “Mary had a little lamb” nursery rhyme to show how a seemingly straightforward statement is prey to multiple interpretations, depending on which word you emphasize. An invaluable heuristic when looking at requirements. Why not try that on the familiar pass/fail criterium stated above?

“90%”? What if the tests that would have revealed some serious errors happen to be in that 10% you so confidently dismissed? Why not 89 or 91?

“All”? You know “all” possible tests that can be performed? Are they all documented? Some of them might still be residing in your head. What if in the meanwhile we performed some more important tests that revealed serious risks? Are these tests part of “All”?

“Tests”? Do you only count scripted tests, or do you also take exploratory ones into account? What about important usability issues some users might have found? Or acceptance test checklists? Or automated checks? 

– “Must”? What if not all 90% passes? Does this mean your solution is without value? The customer might value other things than you do. Is it up to you to decide how much value is in there?

“Pass” ? What about behavior that is totally acceptable for your client, but that we find annoying? Pass or fail? What about tests that pass all steps, but that reveal important problems as a side-effect? Sometimes a test’s pass/fail decision is not binary.

My daughter went to school this morning and – for the first time –  took her own jump rope with her. I wonder how many % of her rope jump cases will pass this time.

A lesson learned from James Bach

About “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar” (James Bach)

I just finished James Bach’s “Secrets of a buccaneer-scholar” and it hit home in a weird way. I’m not an unschooler or a high school dropout, but I could still relate to a lot of things in his book. It was a tremendous read, giving me instant flashbacks to the days of yore.

As a young kid, I constantly skimmed through encyclopedia volumes that were lying around the house. I wasn’t “studying” from them, I was just fascinated by what I thought was all the knowledge of the universe compiled into 14 volumes. I let my mind wander while looking at the pictures, jumping randomly from subject to subject. When something looked fascinating enough to stay with it for a while, I dove in and read through the whole entry. I didn’t understand all of it, but I didn’t really mind. Most of the time it was just superficial browsing anyway – I blamed it on my short attention span. But as I was doing it more frequently, it became more systematic. Once in a while, I came across things that I previously ignored, but all of a sudden did seem interesting enough to investigate. Things I had previously read helped me to understand new things as well. I learned that I remembered lots of information without trying to. It just sticked because it was so damn interesting. I did the same thing with all the world maps and globes I could get my hands on. They really got my imagination running. The result is that I’m still bursting with trivia that spill out on the most inconvenient moments. It’s great in the occasional quiz, though.

I always thought that was a bit awkward. Not many kids I knew read encyclopedias and atlases in their spare time. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy school, but this kind of exploratory learning felt more natural to me. There was hardly any effort involved. It was pretty chaotic, but it was a learning style that fit me like a wet suit. 

As an adult, I am facing the same problems: I like to learn and educate myself, but in an almost impractical and inefficient way. I see interesting ideas and sources of knowledge everywhere, and this overwhelms me – so many things to learn, so little time! I purchase far more books than I can read (thanks for that, Paypal & Amazon). I start reading books but do not necessarily finish them. My reading isn’t very linear. I tend to get distracted often and feel the need to switch to something else. I procrastinate more than I would like. At this very moment, I’m trying to read nine books at the same time.

I used to feel bad about all this inefficiency. Until I finished James Bach’s book, a couple of hours ago.

It put things in perspective. It all makes a bit more sense to me now. Apparently it *is* okay and natural to let your mind wander. Allow yourself to be distracted. James calls it the “Follow your Energy”-heuristic: go with the flow of what engages your curiosity. Stick with what is fun and fits the natural rhythms of your mind. But in order to be more in control of your learning, combine it with the “Long Leash”-heuristic. Let your mind drift off, but in a controlled manner – keep it on a long leash. Remind yourself that you are on a mission and gently pull on the leash to regain focus again. 

These are just a couple of examples, but there’s more where that came from. In a way, a lot of the principles or heuristics described in the book reminded me of the young kid trying to work his chaotic way through that wealth of interesting information out there.

James Bach describes his pattern of learning with the “SACKED SCOWS” acronym:

  • Scouting Obsessively (…I discover the sources and tools I will need)
  • Authentic Problems (… engage my mind)
  • Cognitive Savvy (…means working with the rhythms of my mind) 
  • Knowledge attracts Knowledge (…the more I know, the easier I learn) 
  • Experimentation (…makes learning vivid and direct)
  • Disposable Time (…lets me try new things)
  • Stories (…are how I make sens of things)
  • Contrasting Ideas (…leads to better ideas)
  • Other Minds (…exercise my thinking and applaud my exploits)
  • Words and Pictures (…make a home for my thoughts)
  • Systems Thinking (…helps me tame complexity)

According to James Bach, a Buccaneer-Scholar is

“anyone whose love of learning is not muzzled or shackled by any institution or authority; whose mind is driven to wander and find its own place in the world”. 

So, am I a Buccaneer-Scholar? Maybe, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t a rebel kid at war with the educational system – I actually enjoyed most of my time at school. I am not radically unschooling my kids, as James is doing. I wasn’t a whizz-kid either. I don’t think that’s the point. But I do love to learn new stuff, and preferably in ways that do not really make sense. At least, they didn’t until today.

Thank you, James.