Experience and experiments
TestRetreat is an open space event. That means it is a conference where the attendees build the schedule themselves and sessions are more likely to be group problem-solving, starting with a question more than an answer.
About a third of the attendees were not just new to TestRetreat, but new to Open Space Technology. To break the ice our organizer, Matt Heusser, suggested we start with Lightning Talks. Many who had signed up for TestRetreat posted talk proposals in an online forum ahead of time. Curtis Pettit volunteered to run the clock and provide just enough structure. We didn’t perform all of the proposed talks and we had at least one emerge in real time.
Miranda’s lightning talk on “Analogies to convey what QA does and the value added” highlighted a negative perception of testing mnemonics. Frustrated testers may feel mnemonics are a shopping list to look for what is missing. Instead, Miranda thinks of the elements as a recipe for pulling things together. Testers can be reviewers thinking from the point of view of the person who’s going to use the software. In this role, a tester helps teams to produce software that solves the problem that they haven’t thought through, not just what they said it should do.
Then we had brief presentations of session proposals in the open space marketplace, which flowed naturally from the lightning talks. Each potential speaker brought their topic of interest and pitched the idea to the other attendees. We cooperatively built a schedule, including combining some related topics to bring perspectives together. As a long-time attendee, I was familiar with these elements of TestRetreat’s unconference format.
I noticed one thing about TestRetreatYVR that I haven’t seen in other years of TestRetreat: several sessions drew large crowds. Constant exchange of ideas and allowing many voices to be heard becomes much harder with a large group. I think the larger gatherings meant more people listened than spoke, which is a different dynamic from the smaller group interactions where everyone in the room is contributing. I like both of these experiences. I just expect the former at CAST and the latter at TestRetreat. I think the larger clusters were indicative of both burning questions in our community and interest in hearing lesser known voices discuss their points of view.
One such large discussion focused on “What do Testers do in the Dev room?” We had some very diverse real-world experiences of collaboration – or lack thereof – with development team members. Some attendees had strong all-day collaboration across roles while others were only just exploring new ways to begin conversations. Carol discussed both physical distance and social distance that impact our ability to work well together. Decreasing physical distance can provide serendipitous opportunities for information transfer and looking for opportunities to figure out better communication. Being conversant with technical information about your product can help to build these bridges, but participants reported taking a year or more to build relationships. Being interested in doing an activity another teammate does may help with integrating into the team. One way of transferring skills is pairing, especially with the senior member of the pair explaining and the junior member of the pair asking for clarification. The team must overcome concerns like time pressure to provide a safe environment. Asking questions can eventually stop being a vulnerable point and start being a strategic point. Testers can inspect and adapt their small experiments in collaboration to improve teams’ relationships and outcomes.
Inspect and adapt
I keep coming back to TestRetreat year after year to share personal experiences in a supportive environment. We also shared skill development in interviewing candidates, command line tool usage, personal branding, and building community in testing among many others.
We received a lot of value from the experience we had. One attendee’s cost analysis emphasized his return on investment. We took time at the end of the day to reflect on things that puzzled us, opportunities to improve, and insights we gained. One learning we had was focusing on insights at the end of each session as well as at the end of the day would provide quicker feedback and help us to express the value of TestRetreat. We contemplated our personal progress from previous years while investigating skills testers will need for the future. I personally missed the serendipity of multiple sessions in the same room, allowing me to social butterfly while getting. Self-organizing to share practical advice based in real-world experience of smart, committed people is what TestRetreat is all about.