AST CAST 2013 – The good, the bad, and the cheese curds…

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My journey to Madison for the Association for Software Testing’s (AST) annual conference (CAST), can be summed up in two words: Paul Holland. Not only was I working with Paul the previous weeks at Per Scholas teaching the STEP class, but he was also the lead facilitator at CAST and little known to me, also my travel buddy. I found out that Paul was travelling on the same flight from NYC to Madison at the same time (7am on Saturday), but better than that, Paul swapped his seats to sit next to me so we could share in our sleep deprived state.

Now, ordinarily, as someone who travels a great deal for work, I rarely speak to anyone on a plane, as it is often the only time I get to read, catch up on videos, or just a moment of silence from my busy life. But if you know Paul, he’s a lot like me: once he gets going, he never stops talking! And we were both highly charged from the previous week together, so I feel really sorry for all the people sitting around us who probably learned more than they ever thought they would about the software testing industry. As this was my first CAST, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but if the trip to Madison was any measurement, I was sure it was going to be a corker. Here are my impression from my time in Madison: the good, the bad, and the cheese curds…enjoy!

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The “bald eagles” of Testing                                   Testing talent at the Hilton

The good…

Let’s start with what was the real star of the conference: the people. I was honestly not ready for how many fantastic testers would be concentrated in one place, and if you like discussing (or arguing) about things, CAST was the place to be. My day (outside of the couple hours of work beforehand) started at around 9am and didn’t finish until after 1am every day. The time was filled with great conversations with extremely talented testers from all over the world and covered too many topics to list. If CAST is about putting the “confer” back into conferences, then they had this down in spades.

The next part of the conference I really enjoyed was the facilitated discussions. Highly unusual in my experience in software testing conferences, but now something I think is vital to learning at them and getting your money’s worth. Most conferences allow Q&A with the speakers if “time permits”, but in my experience, they are usually taken up with people wishing to make statements or are so off topic they are just a distraction. Some of the facilitators did better jobs than others, but when it worked well (which was most of the time) it added to the experience and guided the “open season” section to wring out all the value of the talk.

Another observation I had about CAST which stood out from other conferences I have attended is the number of women not only in attendance, but also participating as speakers. As someone who hires loads of testers, and feels we should be casting a large and diverse net for candidates and opportunities to enter the field, it was particularly encouraging to see so many talented women software testers in one place. Jean-Ann Harrison, Anne-Marie Charrett, Claire Moss, Dee Ann Pizzica, Anna Royzman, Julie Hurst, Alessandra Moreira, Jay Philips, Lou Perold, and Dawn Haynes are all great examples of excellence in testing for everyone in the field.

Speaking of Dawn Haynes, she absolutely killed her keynote on “Introspective Retrospectives: Lessons Learned and Re-Learned”. Honest. Authentic. Full of self-reflection. I was shocked to hear from her that it was her first talk she had given at CAST. It was so easy to connect with her stories and her style was so accessible, I found myself starting to analyze decisions I’ve made and relationships during her talk. You can watch the entire talk here

But the highlight for me was Erik Davis’s talk on “How to Find Good Testers in the Rust Belt”. Forget about probably one of the best presentations I’ve seen in a long time based on visual and technical merit alone. You maybe even gloss over the fact that Erik basically gave a master class in hiring testers ANYWHERE, let alone in the relative isolation of the mid-Cleveland market. But there was no denying, that his honest and funny communication of key ideas: candidate background risks and issues, casting a wide recruitment net, and LOADS of experiential advice on how to hire (and not hire) testers, was world class in its execution. Pay attention conference chairs: Erik Davis is keynote worthy and has the chops to headline a conference.

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“Mr Friendly”                                                 Madison, WI

The bad…

So now for some disappointments from my five days in Madison, and to top the list would be despite my personal experience with great discussion – there weren’t enough of them! Specifically, I mean in during the “open season” portion of the talks which is supposed to be where we get up and ask questions of the speakers. I could only count a handful of times where I felt the speaker was being challenged or a contrarian view was being expressed. Some of the brightest minds in software testing were gathered together in one of the few forums to generate some light (or heat), which means we should be taking full advantage of the opportunity. As I tweeted then, “Hey Testers, if you are not getting engaged with the thought leaders at CAST2013  - you’re doing it wrong!”

All this leads to my next point, which is the large amount of confirmation bias in the discussions I had with speakers and attendees. I realize that there is a high likelihood of this occurring, as we are all self-identified “context-driven” testers, but I was holding out for a bit more controversy. Ranking on the ISTQB (guilty!), ranting about automation, and schools of testing were variations on a lot of the common themes through the days and nights activities. As we grow and mature as a community, I believe we should feel secure in our relationships and scrutinize more of the accepted truths of our world view.

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Testing Games                                                          Lions of the industry

 and the cheese curds…

Finally, as someone who grew up in hostile “Sconi” territory (Illinois), I have to say Madison was a great time with good food, good sites and good beer. My overall impression after my first CAST is pure mental exhaustion with too many ideas to plow through in too short a time. Being surrounded by a veritable “who’s who” of CDT experts was quite an experience, and I look forward to the next one – only with less cheese curds.

CAST

 

  • pkirkham

    Good write-up and I have to agree with the highlights being Dawn and Erik.

    I was a first-timer – I think about 1/3 of the people there were – so just asking a question or joining in a discussion with ‘the thought leaders’ was a challenge to be taken ( and met!) Perhaps as people get used to it and if CAST2014 is their second or third one then they may be more challenging to each other?

    Good to meet you offline at last – though as with everyone else I met, not enough time to chat fully with everyone that I wanted to…

  • matthewheusser

    Great write-up, Keith. I was only able to stay two days, and didn’t see much “bad” in that time, If I had to pick one thing that seemed different, it would be to agree that there wasn’t much “FULL-ON open season” in the LAWST tradition.

    No one said “That trick never works!”; I only saw one strong challenge on content, in Paul Holland’s Talk. Even then, the questioner apologized in advance for “being an asshole” (their words).

    The few arguments I saw were generally things the community has been over a thousand times – “You can’t assure quality so why call yourself QA” and the like, usually from first-time attendees.

    Given the opening keynote was on how to argue, that did seem a little odd, but I’m not sure it’s bad. Still, in another venue, I’ve had an attendee stand up at one of my talks, point his finger at me, and cry “bullshit”; I’m no big fan. (Especially when it turns out the dude heard me wrong and didn’t understand my point. It’s possible we are headed for a more civil era.)

    The only worry I have with this ‘more civil’ attitude is the possibility that people present sloppy ideas without being challenged, and those grow to become accepted. Given this community’s focus on 1st person experience, and willingness to cry fowl, I’m not too worried … but you do have me thinking!

    Again, great post. Thanks man.

  • Tracy Benton

    Nice to see this writeup on CAST, which sadly seems to be a well-kept secret in some software circles — primarily, I suppose, because they do not have the budget to send us a glossy flyer every week.

    However, given the topics presented at this CAST and the theme of “Lessons Learned,” how much direct confrontation could there be, exactly? Was somebody going to get up and tell the presenter, “No, you didn’t have that experience!”?

    I was just very happy to see people who had not been at CAST before screw up their courage and hold up their cards.

    This year was the first time in too many years that I could make it to CAST — broke employers prevented me for years. But I’ve had about enough of trying to convince bosses to send me to testing conferences anymore… if I can afford it in future I’ll just send myself.

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