Attending TestBash: The Dos and Don’ts

I’ve been to four TestBashes now, Manchester ’16, ’17 and ’18, and Brighton ’17. Only now, after Manchester ’18, do I feel I’m really getting the full potential out of the experience, and I’d like to offer a few tips below. Some may be consistent with other similar posts, but I’m willing to bet some will be a different angle to what you’re used to hearing.

The Context

After Brighton ’17, I had what I like to call “The Wobble”. The conference itself was good, I got a lot of information and took some things away which really moved my testing forward. But overall, the conference left me feeling very much “outside” the testing community. I wasn’t close to best practice, everyone there seemed to know one another already (and I didn’t), I found it hard to break into conversations and to gain the “good stuff” both hosts and fellow attendees spoke about. It felt cliquey, I felt very much “outside” the cool core of “previous and current speakers”, and it honestly shook my confidence to an alarming degree. I actually left testing for a while (not a long while…), in part because I simply didn’t think I could scale the mountain placed before me that day.

I should add – my experience was not usual, or even shared, by most who attended that same event. I reflect on it now and realise it says something about me and my approach, moreso than the event itself.

And yet – here I now am, talking to you about a fantastic conference in 2018, feeling impassioned, inspired and ready to (in words of my celebratory heading-home tweet) “kick some arse”. So what changed? Below, I’ll set out some of the problems I’ve had and the reason I think they were worth overcoming. I expect they’ll be relevant to any single-track conference in any discipline, although I have a small basis for comparison.

DON’T: Feel under pressure to network (or do anything else)
DO: Respect your own boundaries

You’ll no doubt hear a lot about the networking opportunities at TestBash, and they are massive, exciting and, quite possibly, totally terrifyingly overwhelming. A huge hall full of testers (you know, like you and the 3 other people at your work) can induce THE WORST Impostor Syndrome of your life, and there’s absolutely nothing surprising about that, if you’re an introvert. The Ministry of Testing guys have made huge strides in this area – asking people to invite people to join in, for the extroverts to approach willing introverts and even setting out a secluded quiet space for those who don’t want to be part of the chaotic networking outside the main hall. Use them. Be you. If something causes you pain to do it, you don’t have to do it. You can gain a huge amount of value and maintain your personal boundaries.

And, of course, the disclaimer – networking is actually fine, you don’t need to have Impostor Syndrome as your experience, expertise and opinion is valid. I absolutely love the fact I’ve made friendships and struck up conversations at TestBashes past – but more of that has been done at Meetups, which seem somehow less formal (and certainly less massive), are free hence less time-critical and pressurised, and more “me”. I’m comfortable with pushing my limits a bit, and I don’t go to TestBash to become an expert socialiser – just an expert tester.

DON’T: Put speakers/hosts on a pedestal
DO: Thank people for their effort

For my first few TestBashes, it was a really big thing for me to overcome my awe towards speakers. I mean, these people who are such experts at testing… how could a mere mortal like me actually speak to them? Which is a pity, because if I had I’d have had a much better clue that – they’re just testers. They are experts in the field they’re talking about, sure, but they remain testers, fundamentally engaged in assessing software quality (OK, OK, let’s debate that another time). They work in organisations and dev teams a lot like mine. They have problems, flaws, biases. They can be wrong. They can be funny. They can be annoying, actually! In short… they’re just people, like any of us.

But… they are people who have made a lot of effort, probably faced a ton of nerves and spent many hours in preparation, for you. Yeah, you paid. Yeah, they got paid. And that doesn’t change the fact those who have made a personal difference to you, mere moments before, deserve your thanks. And this includes the hosts – Vernon and Leigh (for example) are two of the most supportive people this community has to offer, and the amount of prep, the amount of heavy lifting they have to do, the good grace and good humour with which they have to do it deserves not just our respect, but our appreciation.

Don’t be a rabbit in the headlights, just because the person opposite you was on stage earlier. And also, don’t assume their time is yours for the whole day just because you bought a ticket. Respect the fact that not only are they likely to be “in demand” with people hoping to reflect on things they’ve said, they’re also there as testers, to learn from, engage and network with others. Two instances stand out for me with this – In Brighton ’17, grabbing 30 seconds with Del Dewar on the back stairs to discuss his talk. And Manchester ’18, momentarily disturbing Alex Schladebeck who was waiting for a lift with a “Sorry to interrupt – just wanted to say loved your talk!” before making a hasty exit. Both of these were ones I feel I got right (I hope there have been others), and made what I felt was a meaningful momentary connection which I hope showed the speaker how much I appreciated the time, effort and thought they put into their presentations.

DON’T: Let the people you’re with dictate how you attend
DO: Set some goals for what you want out of the event

I want to be clear up front – this is not a complaint, but it is a problem. People who told me what to do at TestBash: My department manager, my direct manager, my line manager, other testers, my partner, people online who had been previously, people handing out swag, the compere, the speakers… there may be some I’ve missed. Now, all of this was well intentioned. All in the spirit of helping me to achieve value from the ticket price paid. All of it valid in certain contexts (ordinarily the context of the individual giving the advice). And all of it was, unfortunately, wrong for me.

Likewise the person/people/group you attend with, if you do, is the most present and most persistent representative of “what’s right for someone else”. How about breaking that down, going your own way, discovering your own things? Follow your own path and let others follow theirs. When you leave, you’ll have time to reflect on different experiences and different conclusions.

Here’s what has worked for me: Setting my own goals. It’s a big deal, going to a conference. Big enough I don’t feel comfortable doing a lot more than being there, doing the things I feel strongly about doing, and then going home to digest it all. For me, conferences involve a journey of several hours, a night apart from my family. An empty, cheap hotel bed in a strange city. And, ordinarily, a restless night, an early start and the prospect of getting lost on the way to the venue! So, for me some basic goals are enough. Here are my goals for Manchester ’18.

– Pay especial attention to talks 2 and 7
– Keep track of good and bad speaking practice, to improve own public speaking
– Catch up with 2x people I met last year
– If I feel overwhelmed, don’t give myself a hard time about it, but DO do something about it.

Aiming pretty low, right? But the good news is… I massively overachieved these goals, as I hoped I would. Now, here I am advising you not to do what anyone other than you advises you to do at the conference. Contradiction much? And of course, I accept what works for me may not work for you in this case, too. Use your best judgement, but do not allow anyone to tell you what will be valuable to you. The only person who can judge that is you!

DON’T: Turn up 5 mins late, leave 5 mins before the end
DO: Consider attending the meetups

The first few TestBashes I went to, I spent a night out the evening before, and then caught a train timed about 30 mins after the conference finished. In 2017 I changed that, and I am SO glad I did! Often, these conferences have meetups before and/or after to socialise, meet other testers and communicate in a less structured, forced or formal setting (like a loud bar!). Attending my first meetup after Brighton ’17 (of “The Wobble” fame), I was nervous. I felt I’d slighted a community which had always lauded its inclusivity for being cliquey and closed-off. Yes, everyone had been AMAZING to me online when I spoke about how I’d felt, but would that mean anything, here, in the flesh? Suffice to say, it did, I made many new friends that day, put many faces to twitter handles and generally felt included in a way I probably never could in a huge “busy hall of people” setting, so alien to me.

If you’ve more experience of chatting in a bar, if you are concerned you might be overwhelmed on conference day, if you’re at a loose end before or after the event, do consider attending. The meetups are, to me, about half the value of TestBash. Plus, free booze. Really hard to argue with that!

DON’T: Panic about taking notes
DO: Watch the hashtag (and, later, recordings)

My first few conferences led to a complete panic, scrawling down notes like I’d never done it before, the vast majority of which remain unread to this day. I actually figured out early on, these notes would not serve me well, and pretty soon I switched to live-tweeting as a note-taking method which suited me better. Drumming out pithy quotes alongside pictures of speakers and their slides seems to make the best info stick, and the response from other testers showed me what was innovative or led to other conversations as the day(s) wear on.

There’s a lot of great stuff shared on the #testbash hashtag, before, during and after the event. Some of this really humanises the other testers, including the speakers (was particularly touched this time by Maaike Brinkhof’s tweet showing her raised heartrate prior to speaking!). People have insights and ideas which bounce back and forth between speakers, non-attendees and total “outsiders” to the testing community. And people frequently record the talks as they happen, a slide at a time, in a way which makes written notetaking superfluous.

Another great thing for an artistic idiot like myself is – people share their sketchnotes! This conference these were shared by Katja Budnikov. If, like me, you lack the ability to create beautiful works of art to refer back to whilst also enjoying and taking in a presentation, these are a fantastic resource.

Finally, all talks at TestBashes are videoed, and if you have a ticket, you will be given access to them once they’re online. You DON’T only have one go at hearing the talks. You can refer back as often as you like, potentially with colleagues who could not attend themselves. So, far be it from me to tell you how to digest the experience – if you love taking notes and sketch-noting or mind mapping, go for it! But definitely don’t let it be a source of stress for you. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get the good stuff from the speakers after the fact.

DON’T: Beat yourself up for what you didn’t do
DO: Reflect and assess the value you did achieve

This one relates to the points around pressure to network, or to adhere to what “the people you came with” want to do. What you want to get, and the value you are able to achieve, are contextual. The context is you! Your experience, your situation. If you got something from the event, even if it’s motivation to learn more and improve, that’s an excellent use of your time (and money).

For me a very important part of the TestBash experience has become blogging about it, like I am right now. Doing this helps me to assess my thoughts and feelings, examine parallels between talks and ideas, and generally process the huge amount of information I obtain in those few short hours of the event. This is what motivates me to come back to work with renewed energy, to approach the “old ways” with fresh eyes and think meaningfully about whether patterns are serving me or hurting my work.

DON’T: TestBashBashBash
DO: RestBash

One of the swag items at this year’s TestBash Manchester was an eye mask, featuring “#RestBash”. This is a great thing, because… TestBash is exhausting! I remember Alex and Huib‘s points that “Testing is a Thinking Craft”, and about the importance of rest in what we do. We are not machines, not even close. We are thinking all day long, every day, in our day jobs. But TestBash? That’s so much more intense! So packed with information, so full of new ideas, fresh perspectives and almost all of it is relevant to us in one way or another.

This was my first Thursday TestBash, and I took the Friday off. I’m glad I did. I was tired, emotional, reflective, excited, concerned. I had so much stuff to process and I really needed that time to do it. So I’d advise anyone attending a TestBash to take the weekend, relax, reflect before really trying to put pen to paper/pixel to, uh, screen(..?), mind to map (ok this is getting stupid now). Let yourself digest what you’ve experienced, let the stuff compost a bit before trying to grow seeds from it.

DON’T: Be foolhardy!
DO: Be brave!

The best things I’ve done at TestBashes have all been the result of courage I didn’t expect to have. My 99 Second Talk last year. Making friends with speakers. And the worst bits have all been because I didn’t respect my own boundaries well enough. Pressuring myself to network. Staying in conversations I wanted to leave. The lesson there is… there’s a fine line between confidence and foolishness, and it’s wise to accept these kinds of out-of-the-ordinary environments make us poor judges of which is which. Take things in your stride, however long your stride happens to be. Don’t be afraid to be antisocial if you find big rooms hard. Don’t be afraid to say hi to people, however famous they appear. Do you. Respect your boundaries more than your limitations.

DON’T: “Have Fun”
DO: Whatever “having fun” actually means to you!

I do, these days! TestBash Manchester 2018 was a fantastic experience for me, and whilst other conferences have motivated me I’ve never felt the fires of my passion for testing so thoroughly lit as I do right now. I sincerely hope the pointers here will be of use to someone out there, perhaps someone who, like me, has found themselves feeling on the outside of the community. You are not only welcome, you’re wanted! You’re not just a spectator, you’re part of it! And it’s not just a conference: it could be the springboard to the next step in your vocation.

What tips would you give to first timers at a conference? Anything up above you think makes no sense, or is the wrong approach altogether? Let me know in the comments!

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