Experience Report on Presenting an Experience Report

Sunny morning. A cup of coffee. Kurt is singing. What else to do than reflect on my first conference talk!

So here goes… Hot off the press, uncut version of my experience.

How I Ended Up at Nordic Testing Days

At the last year’s Nordic Testing Days, I was nicknamed QA – Question Assurance. When I attended a track, everyone was assured that questions would be asked. Back then Raimond said to me that maybe I should present next year. I waived this aside as a joke… Me? Presenting at an international conference? Dude, stop it…

This really looked like a huge mountain to climb. The idea kind of stuck with me, though, and got the cogwheels turning (very slightly…). When it was time to submit a CFP, I had a bunch of loosely related ideas but a skype call with Raimond helped me to find better focus, so I was finally able to put it together. He’s the main reason I was able to present at Nordic Testing Days. so a big “thank you” goes out to Raimond Sinivee!

Getting the CFP together was a slow process because I was undermining every sentence. As always.

But then I got accepted and then… shit just got real!

The Topic

My extra special and awfully long title of the talk:

“Knocking on the Door with Kinder Surprise in Hand: Experience Report on Building and Maintaining Relationships between Testers and Programmers”

Why so long? Well, if you’re an English major, you have a knack for long and fancy titles in two parts.

I wanted to frame the talk as an experience report because I don’t feel like I am in a position to present the little I know as a bunch of universal truths. I also framed it like that for myself so that I wouldn’t go into the lecturing mode. I feel very strongly about bad leadership and lack of integrity (leadership and integrity are essential to building great teams, too) so I can get very agitated and go into lecturing mode. So reminding myself that it is my context and my context only helped me keep the focus where it should be.

I thought that probably I have ideas that I can talk about and explain how and what we have done with my team, and then people can figure themselves if they trust my presentation of those ideas to try some of them out. If there was at least one person who will try something I suggested, I think I have done well.

And what about the Kinder Surprises? This ended up being the twist I added to my talk. But it’s a true story: I have given Kinder Surprises to a couple of programmers who have helped with something. Essentially, in the context of the talk a Kinder Surprise is a symbol for the building blocks (attitude, leadership, humanity) that make up the bridge between testers and programmers.

Knocking on the door? This is a reference to trying to open the door between my team and the programmers to get the collaboration going.

Journey

After my CFP was accepted, I didn’t start working on the talk heavily right away. But what I did was that during my 20-minute walks to work and back home, I thought about the different components of my talk, how to tie them together, how to flesh out the key points in sufficient detail, how to support my points and stories with examples from my experience, and which examples to use. Looking back, I guess I did the majority of the work during those brief walks.

When I was little, I used to enjoy switching on the autopilot on my way from home to music school or volleyball practice. My feet knew where I was going but in my head I was narrating all kinds of stories. And then I was suddenly in front of the music school and had to wake up. So I did the same thing now: walking at a leisurely pace while my mind being focused on the talk. The 20 minutes was enough for getting something done in my head without being exhausted.

My main worry was that it’s clear in my head but not expressed clearly. So I tried to retell a piece of my presentation to myself and then see if the words and phrases I used made sense or if the example I used is properly linked to the point. On the one hand, I think it helped. On the other hand, it kind of hurt me too because I was very critical of most of my content… So it was somewhat painful at times…

The other big problem for me was the lack of belief that the talk would be successful. But let’s not revisit those dark depths of my mind… The short explanation is that getting crap about my background in the humanities has played a role.

Also, throughout April and May I had quite a bit of family drama going on. A couple of my closest family members were hospitalized one after another and I didn’t know how well things would turn out… The future looked very gloomy at times. So the time I had planned to spend on preparing had to spent on other things. In the end things got better but I admit I was drained… depleted.

That’s how I arrived at Let’s Test: in desperate need of something to kickstart me and kick me out of the gloom and doom. I still can’t believe my luck that it happened. The energy I sucked in at Let’s Test helped me over the finish line. Not to mention the people whom I have thanked profusely but whom I need to thank again.

I asked Jari Laakso for help and he engaged in a skype discussion with me. He asked a lot of insightful questions and took me on a rollercoaster ride: a tough question or challenging my points followed by cheering me on. This was a good experience for shaking me up.

My talk needed some polishing so my new friends Erik Brickarp and Huib Schoots  from Let’s Test delicately gave me constructive feedback about my talk. I think the most important thing they helped me with was that I saw my ideas meant something for them, so I truly started to believe that these ideas matter to other people as well. That gave me the confidence and I quit putting out the fire in my heart.

Last but not least – my wonderful team! I’m nothing without them and I’m thankful for their support!

The Conference

I arrived in Tallinn the day before and decided to relax and just hang out. I felt the nervousness build up but when I felt that, I just retold the beginning of my talk to myself. This is a great tip I got from Tobbe Ryber. I did that for a few weeks before the conference already and I found that it helped me deal with the adrenaline rush. I usually get this rush just before I have to speak in public and this is normal. But if it’s too much, the heart starts racing too fast, and then it’s difficult to breath normally, and then it’s difficult to think clearly.  And then I may fumble. And stumble. Forget an important thing to say. Et cetera.

But rehearsing the first minutes of my talk helped me to kind of “relive” the talk beforehand and I maybe signalled my body that there’s nothing to worry about.

Despite that I still jolted awake a few times the night before thinking “OMG! I HAVE TO GIVE THE TALK!” and then dropped back to sleep. So in the morning I slept in on purpose. I just wanted to take it slowly and not put any unnecessary pressure on myself or give rise to anxiety.

At breakfast I managed just a small bowl of cereal but I got to hang out and chat with Tobbe Ryber and Sami Söderblom. They also fulfilled the roles of “familiar faces to rely on in the front row” 🙂

So I got my props, put the mic on, and got on stage after Lloyd Roden’s talk on building great teams. What a coincidence… 😀

I had a bit of trouble with the remote/clicker for switching the slides. I don’t know if the transmitter wasn’t working very well or I didn’t press the button as the designer of the clicker had expected. So sometimes I had to press it several times. However, I didn’t let that disturb me.

The next day I saw how the pros do it: Tobbe had brought his own hardware for the presentation (a clicker with a timer…).

The nervousness had turned into some sort of excited, sparkly, and confident calmness. If this makes sense…

I felt good and remembered to enjoy myself.

I felt good on stage even though the room was fairly large and also full of people. As Sami and Tobbe later commented, this track was more like a keynote 😀

But I kind of felt how the people gave me the energy as I wanted to embrace the entire room.

I know I stumbled with my words sometimes. I don’t like to learn talks by heart, I want to be able to improvise. But this also means that a problem of mine becomes apparent: I start a sentence using one sentence construction but then somewhere in the middle I change my mind (because there are so many wonderful sentence constructions out there!) and I have to stop, and say it differently.

I know I spoke fairly fast (but later Tobbe said Julian Harty spoke even faster :D) but that was because I was worried about the time limit. I forgot to ask someone to let me know the time in 10 minute segments (there wasn’t a clock in sight anywhere…). That would’ve helped me to time the talk better. Or then the clicker with the timer…

I did look at my slides during my speech but hopefully not too much. I tried to face the people as much as I could (except when the clicker didn’t want to cooperate) and also move around the small stage. The stage was placed diagonally on one side of the room and slides were on the other side.

Here’s a very rough sketch of the setup:

confroom

I would have liked to use the full length of the room to walk back and forth but then I would’ve had to get off the stage and people at the back wouldn’t have been able to see me very well. And then I would’ve had to get back on the stage (anybody up for stumbling and falling over in the middle of their talk?).

I looked at some people specifically every now and then to see if their faces go totally “WTF IS that?!” or if they’re engaged. I could improve the eye contact I think.

But in general I remember feeling good about “transmitting” my message. When I used an example from my team then thinking about them made me feel good, too. They ARE my source of inspiration!

And before I knew it, it was over… Question time! I had extra incentives for people (tied to the theme of my talk) and this worked surprisingly well 😀 Namely, I had some Kinder Surprises with me and offered them for each question. All 6 of them were gone!

Sami also asked a question (that I couldn’t fully answer because he asked about what is going on behind the Closed Door) and he got a Star Wars character Count Dooku as the surprise. Well, good karma was instant: his talk was up next but in a different room and basically, he had to get by without slides because he could show us 2 of them before the loudspeakers started banging some techno and the system had to be turned off. So he had attached Count Dooku to his neckstrap and Sami looked for comfort by fiddling with it while giving his talk 😀

I think Sami did an absolutely awesome job! When the projector went crazy, he just picked up the marker and drew models on the flip-over chart. He totally kept his calm. All I could do was sit in the front row and cheer him on.

Of course it’s sad we couldn’t see his wonderful slides. But like Sami later said himself: his topic was exploring the unfamiliar and that he got to do himself during the presentation.

When I thought about this afterwards, I think Sami’s experience is something I will use the next time when preparing for a talk. I will try to do it without the slides entirely and have “back-up visuals” in my mind for when things should go badly.

But I am extremely grateful my slides worked for me 😀

And then I was really tired. So I went to my room for a while because I felt I could fall asleep on spot. But when I laid down, I couldn’t take a nap. So yeah, then it was time for some beer .

We had a great time with some Dutch folks (hello, Iris, Armando, and Bram!) discussing some “interesting Estonian words”. Sami turned out to be very funny as I was in stitches about some of his facial expressions. Too bad he doesn’t remember all those “context-specific” jokes… 🙂 But there’s the next time, and if anyone wants to know the dirty side of Estonian language, have a beer (or two) with me.

***

There you go…

I feel content as I got good feedback also from people I didn’t know and I guess I surprised others and also myself when I considered that this was my first talk given at such an event to such audience. Armando said something about me being famous now but we’ll have to see about that 😀

I also have ideas about how to evolve this talk because there were a bunch of ideas I had to drop (or else people would have to spend two hours with me :D).

I have some public speaking experience but nothing on this scale. Now that I’ve got this talk under my belt I feel like I’m in a different place now in terms of confidence and outlook on my work.

Needless to say, I’m hungry for more now…

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2 thoughts on “Experience Report on Presenting an Experience Report

  1. Thank you for a great post, I will definitely reread it during my days of “gloom and doom” approaching CAST .)

    Love the way you tell this story btw, your openness and personal style really made it “come alive”!

    I wrote a much longer comment to this post but my phone decided to reboot .( We’ll take that over Skype some day instead.

    Ohh, one more thing… You’ve presented on an international test conference Helena!!! If you ever need an ego boost I can start list the great testers I know that would rather eat poison than do that!

    Well done!

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