Kiss Goodbye To Your Comfort Zone – Big Ideas from TestBash Manchester 2019

Kiss Goodbye To Your Comfort Zone – Big Ideas from TestBash Manchester 2019


Another year, another series of three posts highlighting my threads and takeaways from this year’s TestBash Manchester. A big thanks to the speakers, attendees and of course to the Ministry of Testing for laying on such a great conference!

For the third and final post in this series of three reflecting on my personal takeaways from this year’s TestBash Manchester I knew I wanted to focus on Lisi Hocke‘s closing talk “A Code Challenge of Confidence” – well, ‘talk’ may be a bit weak given the actual demonstration of her topic live in the session! – but I found there were complimentary threads in what Lisi talked about which chimed with several other talks as well.

Each year, Lisi challenges herself to learn a new skill. Something she wants to be able to do but can’t, and something outside of her comfort zone. She commits to doing this each year with a friend, each taking on a personal challenge. Once, for example, Lisi’s her challenge was public speaking (something she clearly overcame!). This year, she’s challenged herself not just to learn to code, but to become “code confident”. Lisi took us through her progress, and her process. It’s always fascinating to me to hear how others approach problems; we are all involved in a problem-solving profession which requires creativity, deep awareness and clarity of thought. Lisi is definitely not the same as me, and I have no desire to learn code myself, but I found much to reflect on in the differences in how we thought about the same kinds of problems and challenges.

Lisi gave some great advice for the whole process of achieving one’s challenge, from start to finish. She suggests that when you face a personal challenge, it helps to set a clear goal, and also to make it public so you are accountable. In Lisi’s case, this was to produce a working application, which she’d post on GitHub, as well as periodic updates and code snippets to demonstrate her progress on her blog.

Lisi Hocke

It’s important to set yourself up for success by thinking about how you do your best work and figuring out how that maps to the work of your challenge. In Lisi’s case, this meant pairing on her challenge, but for others it might mean any variety of different styles and approaches – for example I like to use trello boards and lists to get things done, because my thoughts are often highly chaotic and stuff easily gets missed or forgotten! Think about what has worked for you before, and let that guide your approach. I like the idea here that you can take a lead from one part of your life (say, your career) and use it to show you how to approach problems in another area (eg personal life).

Lisi advised us not to let the personal challenge become a chore, or overwhelm your personal life. She had the great idea of considering some markers in her personal life which will let her know if she was going overboard; in Lisi’s case, this meant if she hadn’t played computer games in a week, she knew she was letting her challenge eat into the rest of her life.

Lisi used her love of computer games to great effect, both to provide material for her slide backdrops, but also in the completion of her personal goal of becoming code confident

Lisi showed us her progress towards her goal, painstakingly working towards her first goal. A great observation was that confidence comes well before mastery – there can be a ton left to learn and you can still be achieving your aim. Lisi is confident now, but there’s still a ton to learn. Knowing that, knowing you won’t need to learn everything to feel “OK” at something can help when you’re not at that point of the journey!

The final part of Lisi’s talk involved the full-on challenge of coding live on stage in front of a conference hall of testers! Suffice to say Lisi did great and even had she not, really success or failure was not the point: daring was! As Lisi put it, the difference is daring: daring to try. That is what confidence looks like!

Live coding at a tester conference – what could go wrong?

Lisi peppered her talk with some inspiring faces and tweets which lit the way ahead of her – a selection of these below:

After Lisi’s talk I found myself thinking back to Kwesi Peterson‘s talk earlier in the day (“How I Learned to Be a Better Tester Through Practising “Humble Inquiry””), specifically his call on us to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is a key to opening up new avenues – by exposing ourselves to the risk of failure, we open ourselves to the possibility of growth (and vice versa!). Vulnerability takes many forms, Kwesi was focused on our conversations and questions but I think this common thread permeated Lisi’s talk too – how much more vulnerable can you get than coding live, with limited experience, in front of a room of software testers?! I definitely give Lisi points for vulnerability there.

Kwesi Peterson

But I also found myself reflecting on what was arguably the day’s most technical talk, from Saskia Coplans – “Threat Modelling: How Software Survives in a Hacker’s Universe“. I am the least technical tester you’re likely to meet* and as such I appreciated the approach Saskia, someone very technical indeed, must have gone to to make her explanation of how modelling security vulnerabilities in a system is a tactic hackers of all hats can use. She used the known model of the Death Star to break us into her world, and took us through the various styles of attack in ways we could relate to.

Saskia Coplans

Two comments on comfort zones here: Saskia slowly expanded on our existing comfort zone by introducing a familiar model and using straightforward descriptions of her concepts and work, but I can’t help but imagine approaching a non-technical crowd would also be outside of her immediate comfort zone of being highly technical – she would have to put herself into a non-technical person’s shoes to plan a talk like this, digestible to a room full of people with varying technical knowledge. Given both of these things, it was a great talk which meaningfully increased my knowledge of an area I’ve had limited direct contact with before now, so it expanded my own comfort zone!

Lisi’s talk reminded me that by starting, and then taking small steps, we can travel a really great distance in a year. Her advice to be mindful of our other commitments and establish strong behaviours to protect them (and, therefore, the rest of our lives) spoke volumes to me. I was genuinely inspired to see her face her fears live on stage, and I know many of the other attendees felt the same – including a friend of mine who immediately reached out to Lisi to thank her. All in all, this was a great wakeup call, full of practical tips.

What’s holding you back? What are you afraid of doing, but deep down really want to? Let me know in the comments!

Here’s my wife and I getting outside of our comfort zone in New Zealand earlier this year, on our honeymoon! Turns out when we told the jump people she wasn’t pregnant, we were mistaken…

Part 1 of this round-up published on Monday, read it here
Part 2 of this round-up published yesterday, read it here

* I actively cultivate and protect this aspect of what I have to offer as my USP – I believe by maintaining a user’s non-technical perspective on things, I don’t get bogged down in technicality in the same way the majority of people I’m surrounded by can. This requires strong facilitation skills on my part, getting layman’s answers to technical questions from my peers – but in the right environment, it adds a ton of value. Certainly respect my more technical colleagues in testing!