A conference story

Across the world there were similar journeys taking place.

Delegates are boarding planes, trains and automobiles to attend a European conference in the wonderful city of Amsterdam. For some this journey is short. For others it’s epic.

Some delegates would be travelling on their own. Others would be travelling with people they know; colleagues, friends, peers or family.

For the first time conference attendee the journey can be daunting and nerves can start to form around what to expect.

Some journeys go better than others.

In England one conference delegate is flying from a small city airport in a tired looking Bombardier Q400.

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The noise on-board is deafening, the coffee cold and the seats cramped. Despite these downsides the delegate can’t help but notice that the flight staff are welcoming, well trained and during the safety overview, incredibly well synchronised. He notices the menu in the seat-back and does some impromptu testing of the contents. The first obvious bug he spots is the use of the word “gourmet” to describe the microwaved cheese toastie.

Those who often attend testing conferences are somewhat obsessed. Testing isn’t just a career – it’s a calling (or a lucrative business). It’s something they’ve been doing their whole lives. Some might call this devotion to it strange, weird or sad. Others just see it as a way of life.

Over the Atlantic ocean is one of the conference speakers, asleep on a Virgin Atlantic jet. His journey started several hours ago. It won’t end for a few more hours yet. Tiredness is inevitable.

In Amsterdam there are already a large group of delegates descending on the city’s hotels, hostels, rentals and flats. Pockets of testers are occupying three or four of the main hotels. Many don’t know each other and are destined to spend the rest of their stay oblivious to the fact that the person next to them at dinner is a tester and attending the same conference.

All of the delegates share something in common; testing. They may approach the subject differently. They may oppose each others views. They may dislike each others personalities, but they all have a common thread to at least start a conversation. Yet many won’t. Many will spend the entire time alone. Some may enjoy this, others will inevitably feel isolated.

Some delegates arrive on the Monday, others wont turn up until the start of the presentations on Tuesday. The Twitter stream starts to fill with people discussing meet-ups, comments on the tutorials already taking place and general banter about the event.

Chat sessions fire up, text messages are sent and tweets are broadcast to arrange meals, drinks and gatherings. Many of these people are meeting others in the flesh for the first time. Relationships on social channels have paved the way for a seamless ability to meet-up in person. The hard work is done. The relationships can flourish further in person, or dwindle away at the realisation that online personas don’t always match reality.

As the evening comes around small groups of Testers are travelling to bars, hotels and restaurants to catch up and relax before the conference starts.

In an Indonesian restaurant in the city centre, a group of testers are gathered around vast quantities of food and beer. Conversations are flowing about testing, life and work. People are getting to know new people or are refreshing relationships with people they met at other conferences. As more beer flows the conversations become more lucid and discussions about the state of testing inevitably crop up.

As this particular group discuss certification schemes, standardisation and best practices, in the context of them destroying the industry, it is oblivious to them that across town, in a posh hotel where Heineken is served in impossibly tall glasses, there is another group of testers talking about how context doesn’t matter and best practices are what the testing world needs.

Just down the road in a small bistro is a group of well funded testers talking about how maturity models are the future for their giant consulting business. They are busy putting the final touches to new methods of quantifying the true value of testing to an organisation.

Across Amsterdam that evening there are many tribes of testers discussing testing. Some with polar opposite views, some in perfect alignment and some who are too tired, or drunk, to talk about testing. In hotel lobbies and rooms across Amsterdam there are also testers with no-one to talk to.

As Tuesday afternoon spins around the conference centre starts to get busy. In the corner is a tester filming the queues forming using a time delay app on his iPad. Upstairs are testers sitting around talking about strategies for handling regression testing and exploratory testing. Meetings are happening and discussions are flowing.

Many testers are pacing around the venue embroiled in conversations to someone on the other end of a phone call. Are they conducting business? Speaking to relatives? Pretending to speak to someone to look important?

In the Test Lab the lab rats are getting ready for people to do some testing at the conference – a concept that is alien to some delegates.

In the expo centre are salespeople and demonstrators trying to draw attention to their products, services and goods. Some are doing better than others. Some are more involved than others.

For some of the vendor representative it is their 20th conference this year. Some of the vendor reps haven’t been home for the last 8 months, their life is a constant cycle of conferences.

Throughout the event some presentations go to plan, some of the speakers don’t quite communicate their intended message well and some experience a few technical glitches.

Some talks are funny and insightful, others masked in terminology and concepts that aren’t appealing to everyone. Some are about systems, some about space rockets, some about video games and some about standards.

There’s a talk for everyone. Many delegates are complaining that there is too much to see and they are having to make tough decisions on which talk to get to. Some consider that struggle to decide the marker of an excellent conference.

This year sees a real sense of community and involvement. The community hub took a day to get going. But on the last day was well attended with delegates wanting to listen to lightning talks, chat to new people and contribute their views and ideas to the Testa Mappa.

It’s in the community hub that delegates get to talk to the speakers and other attendees in a welcoming and safe environment. Many delegates are changing their mind about the presentation after discussing the topic further with others. Many speakers are learning a lot about themselves, their presentations and their ability to communicate their core message.

Throughout the event there are many smaller and much more focussed meetings happening, some private and by invite only, some open to a wider audience. There is business happening, friendships being made, social connections starting and also ending.

As the conference comes to a close the delegates, speakers, organisers and vendors travel home, many leaving with new friends and connections. Many will return home to families, friends and colleagues more tired than they thought they would be. Conferences take their toll both physically and emotionally. The challenge for many will be filtering and putting in to action many of the interesting ideas they took away from the conference.

The challenge for some will be working out how they can talk to more people next time and how they can ensure they are invited to the many social gatherings that are happening.

For many though the conference didn’t end when the doors closed and they travelled home; the conference continued on the social channels for many more months. And that is often the real marker of a successful conference.

(I wrote this short observational story at EuroSTAR 2012 last year. It was a great conference and this years looks like it will another great conference too – see you there hopefully.)