I live in Michigan.

Michigan is one of the states made up of what was once called the Northwest Territory.  Well, yeah, this was back in the late 1780s an early 1790s, but no matter.  If you are an American and ever took an American History class, you may possibly remember something about the Northwest Ordinance.

Brief History Lesson

What I remembered from my history courses was how it divided up the territory into grid-like sections and mapped out some basic boundaries and things of that ilk.  It did things like establish baselines where survey measurements were to be taken from and mandated that there would be schools available and whatnot.  Its kind of a blur, but that’s OK.

I came across some thing in Gordon Wood’s massive book Empire of Liberty which covers US history from 1789 to 1815.  It is part of the Oxford History of the United States and comes in with a mere 738 pages, not counting the index and bibliographic essay.  Wood put forth that the Northwest Ordinance was the single most important piece of legislation passed by Congress before the adoption of the Constitution. It defined a process for how territories could eventually join the Union as full-fledged States.

It is kind of a daunting idea when one thinks of it. 

How do you make a plan for bettering society when you know that most of the people who will benefit will be living their lives long after you are dead and gone and most likely forgotten?  

For example – who accepted the legislation for the Northwest Ordinance that was passed into law?  The President, of course.  But George Washington was not yet President.  So, the President of Congress was the one who signed the law and he was, ummm, ah, hmmm. Yeah. That guy.

These were among my thoughts and I boarded a plane and flew West to Portland a couple of weeks ago for the 30th Annual Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference – PNSQC.

The Beginning

I had been contacted about being an invited speaker for the conference and joining my colleague and sometime partner-in-crime Matt Heusser in presenting a full-day workshop as part of the conference.  This was kind of a big deal for me.  While a regional conference, I looked over the list of previous invited speakers and workshop hosts and thought “Whoa.  Those are some huge shoes to fill.  What can I bring that will be on a similar level of what those folks have done?”

I admit, I had a brief moment of questioning myself.  Well, not so brief.  It kind of kept coming back.  I had a couple of ideas on topics to present – other than the workshop that is.  I drew on some thoughts of what I could address to the theme of Engineering Quality, and considered where the ideas led me.  So I submitted two proposals and essentially said “Pick one.”

This resulted in some delightful emails and discussions. It seems one of my submissions had a similar title to the proposed keynote being given by Dale Emery.  It may have been fun, but alas, I reconsidered the topic and we agreed on the second one – on User Experience as a model for test development.

My Approach

People who have heard me present at the local meetup or conferences or company lunch and learn type things  know that I tend to avoid the “All your problems will be solved if you do .”  Partly this is because I never believe people when they tell the stuff like that.  

They can give examples of how they did and were successful, but I tend to think “Great. That is one or two times. How many times have you done this?  Total?”  

The result is I tend to prefer presenting around times that were a total train-wreck (do software long enough and you have a lot of those examples), what I learned from that and how I would (and sometimes did) do things differently the next go-round for that software.  I also try and talk about how I’ve applied those lessons more broadly beyond that, looking for truths I can carry with me, possibly as models for heuristics. 

Then I try and encourage discussion – get people in the room involved.  Why do I do that?  Because sometimes they have great insights from their own experience.  Sometimes they have comment or thoughts or observations that leave me gobsmacked. 

What I Learned

I sometimes have my doubts with that approach, particularly when I’m presenting at a conference or meeting or whatever, I have never presented at before.  I have memories of sessions that were themselves train-wrecks.  The anticipated “discussion” never happened – or was a total of two or three comments.

People did not want to discuss.  They wanted a lecture.  They wanted a power-point slide deck with answers, not with things that made them think things.  They wanted the spoken words to match the words on the slide deck and they wanted them to reaffirm their beliefs.

(Yo.  If that is the case, do you really want to go to a session where the word “discussion” appears at least twice in the abstract?)

I was assured that people would be willing to discuss pretty much anything during the conference sessions.  So, I took a deep breath and planned the session around that.

Ya know, when you get a bunch of people together who are smart and passionate about what they do, sometimes all you need to do to get them going is say something and then ask “What do you think?”  Then look out – they will most likely tell you.

The sessions I attended, where conversation/questions-and-answers were part of the plan were quite enjoyable.  There was a fair amount of good discussion that continued into the hallway.  Other sessions were more conventional – presentations, lecture, a few questions and answers.  Generally, these were informative and well presented.

Overall – I had a marvelous experience.  I learned a lot and met some astounding people.  I’ll describe that more in another post.