Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Considering Conferences: A Reflection

The last week I have had a series of interesting thought/introspection sessions. The kind where I pour a decent measure of good whisky sit back and look out the window and think. It helps to have a nice garden to see when I look out the window - and since the house does not have a fireplace and it is too bloody cold out to have a fire in the garden, well, staring into the fire is out of the question right now.

The gist of my thoughts? Let's see.

After speaking at many conferences a year on for several years, on various topics, then filtering down to a few conferences each year, and now one or two conferences a year - I have observed things that make me wonder why I should keep going and speaking at conferences.

Don't get me wrong. I really enjoy the conversations and sharing ideas that happen. Most of these, for me, happen in the hallway or "after hours."

Perhaps it is just that I've grown cynical with regard to the desire of so many people to belong to the cool-kid-club.

What do I mean?

For example - Cool-Kid A and Cool-Kid B talk about an exercise or a book and how awesome it is. They write about it and talk about it. In a short time, loads of other people are jumping in - recommending the same book or exercise. IN a year or so - SCADS of people are talking about how awesome it is and how cool it is. A year later they are all onto something... else. Typically endorsed by the cool kids.

People stopped talking about what they KNOW - what they have experienced and can demonstrate and instead talk about ... whatever the cool kids are talking about. Presentations - even keynotes - get more hand-wavy and full of dancing unicorns (the kind that are on the screen and don't really have a bearing on what is happening with people in the room) and truisms get spouted and straw-men get setup and then slain and people applaud and talk about what a great presentation it was.

My question is - What was the presentation about and how will it impact your work when you get back to the office?

Is the information really new to the people who think it was awesome, or does it merely confirm their beliefs on a subject. Are they so shallow as to not be able to consider going to a presentation they disagree with? Are they afraid of learning something new or taking on material that might lead them to reconsider what it is they think or believe?

I feel the same way about the cool books or exercise - the cool kids advocate.

How has this changed what you do as a tester? NO - Don't give me more bullshit answers about how it changed how you think. LOADS of things can change how you think. Good whisky can change how you think!

How did THIS book or THIS exercise change how you do your daily job? Because frankly, I suspect much of it is little more than mental self-indulgence (I had another word but a proof reader said it might be too explicit for some folks...)

And don't even get me going on so many bullshit keynotes I have heard. The abstracts were... harbingers of hand-wavy crap. Somehow the reality of the presentation so many times has been... more hand-wavy than the abstract. I find it actually quite depressing.


When I read proposals for conference presentations, I see a series of similarities and "sameness" among them. There are the ones that regurgitate ideas from 20 years ago. There are the ones that claim a new take on a topic - and when I dive in I find them to be regurgitating ideas from 20 years ago.

I see the cookie-cutter, instant solution to all your problems so frequently, I swear (as in take an oath) when I review proposals for conferences, I will not go to any conference that has people presenting such shallow rubbish - ever.

What is one of my warning signs? If the speaker or potential speaker cannot carry on a conversation for 40 minutes ON THE TOPIC THEY ARE PRESENTING ON - do they have any experience in the area or are they babbling theory only? Do they have any real-world applications of what they are presenting? Or...

I'm not sure why this is. I am not sure why people latch onto certain ideas and never vary from them. I am not sure why hand-wavy bullshit is so appealing to people, except for one small thing - it takes no effort to think about because there is nothing there TO think about.

I expect keynote speakers to be exceptionally well versed in their subject. When talking with them, either in advance when preparing a program or over drinks at a conference, I expect them to be able to cite specific experiences - nothing that would violate an NDA, but something like...

There was this problem where... The possible solutions I saw and presented to try were... The team tried this approach... The results were... 

IF they worked - fantastic. What was it that made the solution work? Why did this work? If not - then why did it not work? Talking over drinks (or over the phone) I want to know if the person has "been there and done that" to steal an over-used phrase, or if they are telling a fairy tale/war-story.

When I try to coach new speakers - to help them find their voice - the ground they are going to stake out as their own, I try to help them find a message that is uniquely their own. I try and help steer them away from the ground so often trod on by others and show a little used path they can take.

I expect that speakers will give me something I had not thought of before, some insight I have not considered or some point of view I can make use of when I get back to the office.

Avoid the band-wagon cool-kid trends. Speak and write on what you know and are passionate about.

That might just convince me to read what you write and maybe even go to the conference where you are presenting the idea.

Until then, be well and be.


  1. But isn't this a sign of a vibrant and growing community? One where the cool kids are trying new stuff and there ARE "latest cool books" and "latest cool tools" and people who have just come into the community or the profession and don't yet know all the cool stuff. I'd be a bit more worried if we get ten years down the line and the number of new testers was static and the same cool stuff trends were still circulating and being talked about.

    Yes, there needs also to be people like you who look for the paths less trodden, and either go down them or encourage others to go down them. But to take the path less trodden, you need to know what everyone else knows, you need to have already gone down the well-worn route; then you can say "Hey, look, you've all forgotten THIS thing!".

    Or perhaps it's just that the real reason anyone who's been around for a while in the community goes to conferences is to network with new people and hang out with people you already know but haven't seen in a while; and the formal conference sessions are something you can easily skip because you've been there and done that. But that would be a sign of a mature but possibly static community. And then we'd be having to decide where to strike the balance between reinforcing the groupthink about what was cool to know and what's new to find out about.

    (The big risk then is that if your attendance at the conference is sponsored by your employer, they find out what conferences are really like and cut your funding on the grounds that they don't pay for corporate jollies - but that's another story.)

    1. Indeed. I celebrate people coming into testing and software in general. What I am frustrated by, and conference organizes have a role in this, are the number of people speaking who have nothing to say which speaks to their experience.

      I see many with "happy endings" and "they all lived happily ever after" and no information, no solid examples of how they got there.

      They give nothing to others who might benefit from the lessons they learned to get to the "happily ever after" ending.

      Others cite the books touted (or written) by the cool-kids - without making it clear what it is they learned and how others might be able to make use of the lessons.

      In short - I want less fluff.