Eurostar 2016 – A Newbie’s Experience: Down the Rabbit Hole We Go

After four full days of meeting new friends, stretching ourselves and sharing our experiences in the whirlwind that is Eurostar, I find myself wanting to stay in this wonderland world. Luckily, I do not have to go back through the looking glass as the Test Huddle is alive and kicking online, my newfound friends have social media accounts and Eurostar 2017 is less than a year away. As memory is fickle and my handwriting tends to become illegible over time, I thought I’d preserve my summaries and thoughts on this Eurostar 2016

As a newbie to Eurostar, I nervously approached the early registration desk on Sunday. I need not have worried as I found myself greeted by the lovely Eurostar staff. That night, glancing sideways during a conversation with a colleague, we spotted some actual real-life Eurostar Speakers close by. We couldn’t gawk too much, as they immediately waved us over and invited us to join their discussions. Eurostar is a conference: a place to share experiences and discuss ideas. For me, the sense of community started that night: discussing our vision on testing, thinking and conferring with some large names in the field, who welcomed us as peers.

Bright and early Monday morning, Fiona Charles opened her tutorial The Art and Science of Test Heuristics with the message that her tutorials heavily depend on participation and discussion amongst ourselves. We are at Eurostar for a conference, so that rang true to me. What are heuristics? What makes it art? Where is the science? A heuristic is a fallible method of solving a problem. It is a rule of thumb. A mental shortcut to help you solve a problem. There is an art to coming up with your own heuristics and science loves to test things out. A heuristic is fallible. They can be useful in a large number of situations, but they are dangerous too if you apply them to a situation where they don’t work.

That raised the question: how do we test heuristics? One way: find three circumstances in which it works, and three where it could get you into trouble. Luckily, our community is already well-involved in this topic. Fiona directed us to a few resources: Elisabeth Hendrickson’s heuristic cheat sheet, Adam Knight’s e-book and Karen Johnson’s list.

In her tutorial, Fiona challenged us to think about testing and to test our thinking. Through a number of exercises, she encouraged us to come up with our own heuristics. It allowed us to hone our ability to verbalize which heuristics we use in our work, and then to communicate this. By stating it aloud, it allows one to see when the heuristic works and to recognize when we are using an unsuitable heuristic for the work at hand.

The first exercise also functioned as an icebreaker. First, the entire group joined a human knot, and our goal: untangle back into a circle without breaking our arm holds. This soon proved impossible, as shown through one of our heuristics: perceive based on experience. (Our arms were so mixed up that multiple people held onto the same person, therefore, a circle could never be formed without breaking our hold). Other heuristics used: question the rules, question the target, examine the possibilities within the constraints, define the problem and just try something to get started. We redefined our goal and the rules, allowed limited hold breaking and formed two separate circles instead.

After debrief, we tackled the next challenges in small groups. Each group would play two games or puzzles and focused on what heuristics you use to win the game. Some games were meant for a single player, which we played as a group, and other games were multi-player games. In debrief, each group shared which heuristics they’d applied to each game, which ones worked for one game and not the other and so forth. Generous time was allotted to this part of the workshop, and for me, this space for discussion of different approaches and strategies, my fellow participants’ experiences and how they related these tactics to their everyday work proved to be most valuable. One of the lessons I’ll take away from this workshop: the difference between cooperation (working together as a whole group to find out how to win the game) and competition (each trying to win themselves in a multi-player game), and the impact it has on communication and learning. How often do we set ourselves up for competition when we seek cooperation instead?

The afternoon, the commercial from Molson promoting their Beer Fridge (sing Canadian anthem to open) made its appearance. What heuristics would we use to test it? Each group tumbled down their own rabbit hole. What is it? How does it work? Does it matter if it actually works as long as the marketing works? What is its purpose? When should it open? What if it opens and the beer is warm? Or there is no beer at all? How does it get replenished? How can we break it? Needless to say, the afternoon debrief proved interesting and engaging, as these (and more) questions were raised, and addressed. Thinking about testing and testing our thinking.

The tutorial closed with an opportunity to raise our own testing questions to the group, to help each other with the issues we face in our every-day working life. The openness and willingness to share and exchange experiences, shows how welcoming this community is.

At the end of the day, a bunch of us agreed to share a dinner that evening, and some brought a colleague or friend along as well. I had a marvellous time meeting the two Malins, Joel, Simon, Arno, Bernard… we chatted the evening away, and throughout the rest of the week, would often meet up and share our stories. As a newbie to Eurostar, meeting these wonderful people on the first day means always seeing a face you recognize in the crowd during the rest of the week.

On Tuesday morning, James Lyndsay enthusiastically welcomed us to his tutorial: Stay Sharp – Games to Engage and Enthuse your Testers. Right of the bat, everyone received a button that joined you with your tribe: all those who have the same or similar buttons. The importance of community is the first message in this tutorial. James put us through exercise after exercise after exercise, allowing us to experience and examine how these exercises impact us. From closing our eyes, changing our posture and movements to feel different emotions, to discussing in a small group how our testing can be characterized when one is bored vs engaged, as well as the things we are most proud of while testing, we rushed through them all. What are two things you do to make testing fun? What drives us and motivates us? What would you like a bit more autonomy over? What would you like to master on the short term? List three things that will help you engage with your testing and your work. Name one thing that you intend to do with your colleagues collectively when you get back home. Exercise after exercise after exercise. This tutorial was a rollercoaster ride, and only in the reflection afterwards and the sharing of materials do the lessons take root. It does give food for thought: pausing and reflecting are vital for learning and it is important to reserve time for this rest during the whirlwind that is Eurostar.

Liz Keogh taught about patterns recognition, apophany and the Cynefin framework in her keynote How to Test the Inside of Your Head. We make models in our heads, based on observations, filtering data, gathering assumptions, drawing conclusions and building beliefs. Humans love patterns, but there’s a risk for confirmation bias and being too certain. A developer at heart, Liz spoke about a difference between the problem-solving mind-set of developers, who find patterns, and the problem-finding mind-set of testers, who break patterns. Later that week in the hotel bar, she hammered home this same point, by squarely beating us testers at the pattern recognition game Set, which we had showed her that same evening. Well done, Liz. I loved her emphasis on the power of success stories versus failure stories, as it resonates with a lesson learned from a TED-talk I saw a while back by Carol Dweck, The Power of Believing that You Can Improve. Make it safe to fail, to try new things, to indicate: I do not know how to do this YET. For this opens the mind to the possibility that you will learn and will be able to do this. It’s a great way to battle all those bears on the road that we love to conjure up.

With that encouraging message in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Ru Cindrea’s presentation Lessons Learned from the Worst Bug I Ever Found. What a bug and what a story. Her honesty in describing the story and the errors she herself made while reporting and communicating about this Worst Bug Ever is humbling. She turned this horrendous experience into a learning lesson for the whole community. How do we build our reputation as testers? How do we report about bugs and walk a tightrope between finding a lot of false-positives versus a lot of misses? She offered practical advice in the form of RIMGEN for bug analysis and bug reporting: Replicate, Isolate, Maximize, Generalize, Externalize and use a Neutral tone

After Harry Collins’s keynote The Critique of AI in the Age of the Net, the busses lined up to take us to the Awards Dinner in Stockholm centre. (Shout out: thank you, Malin, for getting me tickets!) The informal gathering, the mingling and talking to so many people is exhilarating, amazing and exhausting at the same time.

Luckily, we had Ben Simo to wake us up on Wednesday morning with his absolutely terrifying story of using and his journey to being labelled a not-too-bright, folk-hero, web-expert hacker. Thank you Ben for sharing your Stories From Testing I especially enjoyed the sensitivity Ben showed in blogging his concerns and addressing it in such a way it would not be exploited. Additionally, he convincingly showed how you don’t have to be on the payroll or have inside knowledge to test professionally. I loved it and simply have no words for my sheer astonishment at the content of his presentation.

Quality Azimuth – The 6 Principles to Transform QA by Jukka Talvio, Adam Gryko and Raigo Ounapuu communicated a positive vision for how we look at quality and the role of testers within that. I especially loved the second principle: ‘Is it AWESOME?’

Miguel Hernandez Ruiz’s Abuse Cases – From Scratch to the Hack used humour to great effect. His cartoon characters showing a hacking story made me laugh. He advocated adding Abuse Cases in addition to Use Cases to show situations in which the business logic can be maliciously applied. Misuse Cases are a logical extension of that as well. Realize: this could actually happen to you (after all, it even happened to our optimistic cartoon business owner). Hacking goes beyond the technical capabilities and frequently uses business logic build into the application. Put on a different hat and think: how can this be exploited?

To carry on in this theme, Daniel Billing showed us 10 tips to build our hacking skills in his presentation Testing or Hacking: Real Advice on Effective Security Testing Strategies. 1) Consider the scope; 2) Know your stack (The components of your application); 3) Understand your weaknesses; 4) Power Up! (Start learning!); 5) Use Tools Effectively (without complacency); 6) Scan > Check > Explore > Scan again; 7) Be Occasionally Evil; 8) Don’t do it alone; 9) Be clear. Be heard; 10) Be determined

After three presentations, it is time for a break. Luckily, the couch session with Fiona Charles on Test Ethics started a few minutes later in the Test Huddle. I had a blast discussing this with everyone who joined us on the couch and chairs.

After such an energizing discussion, Alexandra Schladebeck’s Growing a Company Test Community: Roles and Paths for Testers highlighted the importance of culture, sharing and conferring on the work floor and creating a community of testers who all work within different projects. Even when you are the lone tester in the project, you can still belong to a team and community of testers. Her hiring practices and training program resonate with me: an English Literature major, who taught High School English before becoming an IT Nerd. Communication skills, creativity, a critical mind-set and an inquisitive curiosity are skills that are needed in the testing field. Testing, business and IT system knowledge can be taught on the job (with focus and dedication). Invest in your staff, empower learning and sharing, transfer knowledge and create co-responsibility by practicing coaching without the fear-factor (still often seen in performance management).

The Panel Discussion on Diversity also highlighted work culture. All panellists agreed that diversity is important, but differed in their opinions as to how to best go about it. Anne-Marie Charrett takes active action via SpeakEasy together with Fiona Charles. Noam Kfir shared an anecdote about unawareness in experiencing privilege. The difference between diversity and inclusion was characterized as the difference between being invited to the party and being asked to dance. Liz Keogh shared a few anecdotes regarding diversity. Indicating in her introduction she identifies as female and uses the pronoun ‘she’, she showed by example how to foster an inclusive culture for a group such as the LGBTQA group. She highlighted the importance of having and enforcing a Code of Conduct at conferences, and her refusal to attend those that do not have one, due to earlier experiences. When faced with the statement that Code of Conducts should not be needed as people act with common curtesy, right? She stressed how ‘privilege is not knowing we need one.’

For future panel discussions, I would appreciate more emphasis on story telling. I’d like to hear more personal experiences and anecdotes versus people’s held opinions on the topic.

Challenged to do some puzzles in the Test Lab, the Community Dinner was a welcome reprieve. Enjoying easy conversation, sharing our stories, listening to fascinating people is a wonderful way to spend an evening.

Work hard, play hard. After a few late nights in the hotel bar with fellow Speakers and Delegates, the alarm clock wasn’t too kind on Thursday morning. Still, no rest for the wicked, as Anne-Marie Charrett had the honour of presenting her keynote on Test Management Revisited. In this world of Agile and DevOps, where is the role for Test Strategy and strategic thinking? Anne-Marie suggested to take a look at test leadership. Every tester is a test lead, with capability, competence and poise. Behind vision, we need test strategy. A strategy need not be fixed in stone, but instead needs to pivot and react to the volatile environment we live and work in. Be open to experimentation and drive decision making down. Look at the whole team and the environment in which they operate. Anne-Marie shared a warning as well: when you expect people to be professionals and self-steering, they are going to make decisions you will not agree with. Yet, you need to be OK with that if you are serious about respecting their autonomy to make those decisions.

The rest of the morning, the Test Lab drew me back with all their fun puzzles. Close by, the Soap Box sessions were in full swing, and I enjoyed some longer conversations in the Test Expo trying out all different tools. Dale Emery’s closing keynote Don’t Learn the Rules – Learn *From* the Rules summed up the experience at the conference beautifully: constraints are there to keep you safe while you learn. Don’t strictly adhere to rules or constraints, because they are not set in stone. Eurostar is a week’s worth of training courses, best practices, shared experiences and great networking. It’s not to teach a strict program to adhere to, but instead encourages you to think critically and creatively about the concepts encountered. To me, that is the purpose of Eurostar. Not to be told solutions or to be spoon fed information about others’ experiences and thoughts. Instead, it is to be the explorer, to be the discoverer and to learn how to resolve problems when they occur. To learn methods of coping, of communicating, of sharing your own experiences as well as listening to someone else’s.

For a bit of fun and games, I enjoyed the Is it a Puzzle or is it a Mystery? workshop by Rick Tracy. Distinguishing between the two scenarios is vital: are we missing information, thus part of the puzzle and do we need to request more details? Or are we drowning in information and need to focus our thoughts on solving the mystery. Let’s not look for a needle in a haystack, by adding more haystacks. Through a puzzle and a mystery, we could experience the difference. Finishing up with a game of Hanabi, a game based on cooperation and not on competition, my last workshop came full circle with one of the lessons from the Monday tutorial: how often do we set ourselves up for competition, when we seek cooperation instead?

Luckily, cooperation was everywhere at Eurostar 2016. I found that people respond to the way I think and the things I would like to share with the world, as well as allowed myself to be amazed at the sheer brilliance of the crowd. Speaking my mind and engaging in discussions I had so many interesting talks with people over the full week. This community truly feels a little like Wonderland: filled with weird, quirky and amazing people, who stretch themselves and make themselves grow. Four days filled with lovely events and late nights in the hotel bar, complete sleep deprivation and a lot amazing times… I can’t wait for November 2017.

3 Replies to “Eurostar 2016 – A Newbie’s Experience: Down the Rabbit Hole We Go”

  1. What a great summary of the EuroStar 2016 experience. As a fellow newbie I couldn’t agree more, specially with the immediate sense of community. It was great meeting you.
    Looking forward for EuroStar 2017

  2. Gotta agree on a great summary. Although I was a newbie at this conference it’s not my first general conference but the community aspect was definitely fun and heart warming. Happy to have met you and the rest on the monday evening and it’s been an enjoyable week (albeit tiresome :D)

  3. Nice summary and I was happy to meet and discuss with you. Something we’re bound to do more often (I hope).

    By the way congratulations on being a speaker yourself at UKStar!

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