Go with the flow

Registering for STAREAST nearly a year in advance gave me a lot of time to plan my conference schedule. At first, the website for the 2011 incarnation of the conference was just a stub, leaving me only previous conference sessions to peruse and time to speculate about which speakers might return.

Then, the website filled with a schedule and pages of session descriptions, allowing me to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: juxtaposing classes in a week of schooling. My college roommate always found it a bit comical that I would happily push around little notecards with course names on them trying to see how to maximize my time for the semester’s courses. Since I have so many diverse interests, narrowing down the field of conferences sessions to those I could actually attend was a challenge. I finally highlighted some session names and tucked the pages into a file folder.

You can imagine my joy when the glossy printed copy of the conference materials arrived in my mailbox within months of the conference start date. Cue another round of reading, wrangling, circling, highlighting, and underlining. Wash, rinse, repeat. Of course, this list of session selections was different. I was sure these iterations were producing better and better approximations of the conference experience I wanted to have.

When I registered on the first day of tutorials, the registration folks handed me yet another source of scheduling bliss, the official course program. However, at this time, I had registered for specific tutorial classes and so considered my schedule set in stone for the first two days of the week. I attended my first day’s registered tutorial, which was a good refresher from my certification training last year. I had come out of my certification class all fired up to implement the new strategies I had discovered only to meet the reality of slow organizational change. This year, I could use a reminder to try again.

What I didn’t expect was Lee Copeland’s advice: if a session isn’t working for you, respectfully depart and find one that really speaks to your needs. I thought how nice that the conference scheduling chair is encouraging us to be flexible and went on my merry way.

The next morning, I arrived to find my morning tutorial and my afternoon tutorial actually had a conflict since my afternoon tutorial was really a full day in length. I decided to trade off the morning session for Dale Perry’s full day instruction on performance testing and went in ready to learn. After an hour of helpful instruction, I realized that this type of testing was not my company’s urgent need. Since I had already forgone one type of instruction for the other, I was a bit loathe to disrupt my schedule again until I thought about Lee’s suggestion.

So I gave myself permission to adopt a structured, exploratory approach to the conference and made a real-time decision for better learning. I happened to recognize the name James Bach and “crashed the party” of his session. Both presenters were clearly passionate about their subject matter and the audience had opportunities to interact and ask questions. One question that came up just before the break led to me approach both James Bach and Michael Bolton with a related question of my own. I had no idea how much that moment would affect my conference experience.

I ended up following Michael Bolton and pretty much taking over his lunch with Bernie Berger after Bernie mentioned an exercise that involved a critical thinking challenge. (Sorry, Bernie! I hope you found it entertaining to watch me flail through that exercise.) I must have said something worthwhile because Michael took me under his wing and introduced me to other great test professionals.

From that point on, I decided to design my schedule as my day – and the conference – progressed, abandoning all my careful selections and preconceived notions about what my conference experience should be. My focus changed from a script of training on specific topics that I could implement back at the office to a learning charter of growing in a more open way as a quality professional. I was simultaneously learning about my professional needs while designing and executing my conference schedule.

As the days of the conference progressed, my experience adapted the use of my limited time as I was coming to understand this skill of exploratory learning. Just as in exploratory testing, “through this process, one discovery leads to another and another as you explore.” (SQE training Exploratory Testing In Practice). I adopted a session-based framework for exploratory learning that included logging the discoveries I was making with each short interview of my talented and more experienced peers. These discussions were a highly interactive process organized into a series of time boxed missions: their generous listening and providing “suggestions that might work,” to quote Gojko Adzic.

I will be better able to add permanent value to my company through the practical notes I recorded during each session that are now helping me to develop into a more mature and well-rounded quality professional, but more importantly these kind people have reawakened my love for testing and changed the conference into a transformative experience for me.

Special thanks to my benefactors: Lee Copeland, Janet Gregory, Dale Perry, James Bach, Michael Bolton, Selena Delesie, Jon Bach, Dale Emery, Lisa Crispin, Greg Paskal, and Dawn Cannan. You all took time out of your busy schedule to encourage me to become excellent.

I enjoyed meeting speakers Bart Knaack, Andy Kaufman, Gojko Adzic, Robert Sabourin, Paul Cavalho, Naomi Karten, and Bindu Laxminarayan as well as hearing Julie Gardiner speak.

I also enjoyed meeting my fellow conference attendees Andrew Dempster, Greg Johnson, Roy Francis, Richard Michaels, Jeremy Hart, Yvette Francino, Susan Clever, and Niclas Reimertz.

Someday I hope to meet these additional test professionals I am now following on Twitter: Lanette Creamer, Karen Johnson, Fiona Charles, Lynn McKee, Nancy Kelln, Anne-Marie Charrette, Jerry Weinberg, Brett Pettichord, Johanna Rothman, Don Gray, Esther Derby, and Elisabeth Hendrickson.

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