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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Nordic Testing Days 2012: Keynote – How to Become a Really Great Tester by Torbjörn Ryber

When checking in to the conference, I was handed Tobbe’s “Essential Software Test Design” along with the rest of the conference stuff. I smiled because I remembered the hours I had spent reading this. It was one of the first books (if not THE first book) I ever read on testing back in the autumn of 2010. This was just a couple of months after I had started as the team lead of the testing and documentation team.

I re-read some chapters several times, I tried out different bug report stuff customizing to my context; I photocopied some sections so I could scribble my notes and go wild with my highlighter (I had borrowed this book from somebody working at a different company) and I shared this with my only tester on the team. Thinking about it makes me nostalgic, actually. I had just started, gone through Rapid Software Testing course, seriously started reading and researching and practicing… I have come a long way since then.

Yet, Tobbe’s keynote reminded me that I have a VERY long way to go. So much for feeling good about myself.

I don’t have many handwritten notes from this presentation because my pen went on strike, so I have lonely words and desperate scribbles in my notes (so I probably have forgotten some punchlines).

However, what I took with me and what stuck with me was the following (Tobbe’s points + my musings):

  • above all, you need to be motivated to become a great tester. One might say it’s a given or stating the obvious. But well, sometimes the obvious things must be stated to trigger recognition. The ever-frequent moment of recognizing old truths is what this statement was good for. And then you have all the more reason to dig into your motivation: what is it that really drives you? If that is not easy to answer, I suggest thinking about what are your values in life. I learned that at a training. Knowing what is important in your life in general also means you know what motivates you (hmm… maybe I should write a blog post about it later…).
  • just wanting to be a great tester is not enough.  You must have a plan. And then you need to execute it. Obviously, execution is the hardest part (no pun intended), and this is what separates wannabes from serious folks.
  • practical stuff: if you delve into something, then a good way to solidify your learning is to write a paper. I am planning to do that. Also, I am planning to ask my team members to organize their learning into papers.
  • I took a note to find out what is effect mapping .
  • I also promised myself that I would create a plan (more on this in next blog posts).
  • Thinking critically is something a tester cannot do without, obviously. I think I’m doing that as I tend to analyze stuff (all kind of stuff) but I think I need to learn to communicate the results of my analysis better sometimes (especially to people who know little about testing).
  • “Say NO to bad stuff”. YES! I want to say “YES” to that. This is something I feel strongly about. When I started, it was one of the first things I had to learn to do. A lot. I agree with Tobbe that it is absolutely necessary because then you have time for the “good stuff”. I’d also add that then you’re going to have time to do what matters, and have an impact instead of doing what you’re told and not being able to apply yourself. However, learning how to say “no” to people you’re working with (in my case, Americans who often misunderstand Estonian bluntness) is also important. I had to learn it the hard way but I have got better at it.
  • “Testing should be fun”. I totally agree and I have tried to make work fun for my team. We actually laugh a lot during the day as jokes fly around about bugs or whatever comes up.

All in all, it’s a keynote I have thought a lot about because it probably put my mind on the right track.

Tobbe’s presentation slides can be found here: http://nordictestingdays.eu/2012/uploads/Presentations/How%20to%20become%20a%20really%20great%20tester%20-%20Torbj%C3%B6rn%20Ryber.pdf

Nordic Testing Days: Workshop – Practical Guide to Usability Testing

Once the conference schedule became available, the workshop on usability immediately caught my eye.

In our company, we haven’t had a usability expert at work. The creation of screens and several input forms is flexible as we have a built-in editor for this. It’s part of the engineer’s task to create and design the “look” of the components of the product. The GUI design lacks consistency, and even if a pattern has been established, it is not followed or the details are “off”.

What I was looking for in this workshop led by Hegle Sarapuu was learning some basics about how to carry out usability testing, what are the dos and the dont’s, and where to start at all. In that respect, the workshop fulfilled my expectations, and I had plenty of food for thought later. Even though the practical part took up just a small part of the workshop (thus, it was more like a track that included a practical exercise), I was very satisfied with it because I felt like a received a good starter kit that I could use at work right away. Next I’ll cover some of the useful bits from the workshop and how I have already applied what I learned.

The opportunity to test a redesigned part of the product came soon enough. This part of the application is used for data entry, so the flow and the fluency of steps is very important. The workflow used to be distributed throughout different screens that popped up but now most of the steps were consolidated into one large screen. Also, the flow had to work both for keyboard and mouse users.

Record It

Hegle showed an example of usability testing where the tester’s reactions were recorded along with their comments. In my context, recording the facial reactions would probably be an overkill since I used my own team members (two testers and a technical writer)  for usability testing. However, I asked them to create recordings of their short test session and also record the audio with their comments. Luckily we have built-in screen recording functionality in our product, so I didn’t have to use any special software for that.

The recordings were a couple of minutes long but they provided a lot of information about the steps that were confusing or they misunderstood. This was great first-hand feedback. Also, I could later go back and compare the recordings of earlier sessions to those recorded after improvements had been made.

Usability Characteristics and Tasks

For me the usability characteristics (learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, satisfaction) gave a good way to focus the usability testing. Since this part of the product is concerned with financial information, reducing user errors, making it easy to learn, and efficient to use were the most important characteristics to focus on. Knowing what is important for the target audience helps to figure out which characteristics matter the most in your context.

Task selection

As Hegle had suggested, it is beneficial to have the usability testers do specific tasks that focus on a specific aspect. Each tester was already familiar with the older version of the flow. In case of medical billing software, it hardly makes sense to pull someone in from the street. So previous knowledge about and experience with the workflow was a prerequisite to choosing the testers. I had three general methods for going through the workflow: using only mouse, using only keyboard, using both mouse and keyboard. I combined these methods with 2 types of product specific flows (the details were slightly different), so I had 6 tasks in the end. I hoped these tasks would highlight the problem areas the best.

Results

The results were great. We got a bunch of suggestions for changing the layout, order of steps, moving focus through fields, navigation, field descriptions, etc. We also found bugs that would have affected either keyboard users or mouse users separately. Some development tasks came out of this as we found that we need to change some aspects of the application’s behavior.

Another benefit of using “internal customers” for usability testing was that they could compare the patterns and behaviors they have learned to the redesigned part of the product.

Once we had smoothed it out, the new workflow and screens were presented to some customers for additional feedback. They were able to contribute ideas based on their business context. So we made those changes and went through another round of usability testing. We also did some testing of specific areas independent of the original tasks.

All in all, we got very positive feedback on our work. We worked closely with the CEO on this one and he brought this project up in meetings and cast it in positive light. So not only were we able to help with making the product better but we garnered positive attention to (usability) testing.

I hope to use this success as an argument for doing more for usability in the future.

Link to Hegle’s slides (I didn’t want to retell everything): http://nordictestingdays.eu/2012/uploads/Presentations/Practical%20guide%20to%20usability%20testing%20-%20Hegle%20Sarapuu.pdf

Nordic Testing Days: Some Impressions

It has been a few weeks since I spent a couple of wonderful days in Tallinn among some really cool and fascinating testing nerds. If you weren’t at the Nordic Testing Days, I’d say you missed out. But no worries! I think it’s pretty certain the event will be held next year as well.

First of all, kudos to the team behind this event. Was this the first time for you? REALLY? Who are you kidding…

The location was great, the tracks were interesting, the people were awesome, and the whole atmosphere was energizing for me. For me, personally, everything went smoothly. Yes, I haven’t been to a testing conference before but I’ve been to a couple of other events. Last year I was in San Fran for the user conference held by our corporate office for the customers. I liked the event and it was awesome to meet our customers but, for example, the rooms were freakin’ cold… AC issues, yes. And I think the Embassy Suites tend to be completely anonymous (if you’ve been to a regular American hotel, you see what I mean).

It was also very heartwarming to receive a chocolate medal from Raimond (one of the organizers). I received it because I asked questions 🙂 It’s nice that curiosity is rewarded. I believe it was Kaspar who said I was QA – Question Assurance 🙂

In the first day I attended the keynotes, a workshop, and a few tracks. Then, of course, I went to the socializing event where I met interesting people. Unfortunately, people hadn’t brought their business cards… So now I can’t recall everyone’s names even. As I learned, some companies are not interested in providing their employees with business cards… Hey, business cards are no magic cards that would woo somebody over to your competitor’s office.

And then there was beer.

In the second day, I attended both keynotes, and spent the whole day in workshops which were awesome. I’ll be writing about everything soon enough 🙂

I have witnessed the empowering effects of spending time with like-minded people at the peer conference. Really, I go back to work and I feel exhilarated. I feel inspired. I feel like steering the Titanic is not that difficult even thought the icbergs keep popping up and it’s a bumpy ride.

So the same thing happened at the Nordic Testing Days where I met Sami, Pekka, Tobbe, Hegle, Kristjan, Mart, Erik, Ainars, Martti, Rasmus, and others (I’m sorry if I didn’t name you! I remember the faces but not all the names anymore…). It’s also awesome that we didn’t talk only about testing but also about photography (Sami) and beer (Ainars, thanks for the tips on Latvian beer).

Of course, meeting the “old pals” from PEST (Harles, Raimond, and Ervin) was the cherry on the top of the cake.

Thus, I’ll be looking forward to the next year’s conference, and yes, I expect it to be even better!