conferenceI'll never forget attending my first software testing conference. It was QAI's 1989 Software Testing Conference and I was a new software testing manager trying to learn what testing was all about. For the first time in my 12-year IT career (most of it as a developer at that point), a company actually paid my expenses to attend a conference! 


As I reflect on that experience, I regard it as one of the foundational experiences in my testing career. I learned many new software testing approaches but, more importantly, I formed some relationships that I still value and have been instrumental in helping me over the years. I also learned that I was not alone in dealing with many of the challenges I was facing at the time ("You think your requirements are bad...").


The first book on software testing I ever read was by Boris Beizer. When I got to meet him and speak one-on-one, it was a very cool experience. The next book I read was by Bill Perry. I met Bill at the QAI Testing Conference, and over the following years he has become a good friend and mentor to me. We have written two books together.


My first year (1989), I was an attendee. The next year I was a speaker, then an invited speaker the following year. In fact, I have spoken at one or more software testing conferences somewhere every year since!


A couple of months ago, I took a stroll down memory lane. I was looking for something I had seen in a past presentation at a testing conference, so I had to scan through many years of notebooks to find it. By the way, I really like having conference proceedings on CD as opposed to a 4-inch binder! I came away with two observations: 1) It was good to think of all the people I have had the opportunity to meet at conferences over the years and 2) In spite of all the knowledge sharing that has occurred in software testing the past 20 years, only a small portion ever seems to get applied. I'll address that in a future article.


Last week, I gave a recap of attending two testing conferences to a local QA chapter meeting (The Red Earth QA Association) here in Oklahoma City. One of the questions that arose from that brief presentation was "What would you recommend on how to get the most value from attending a conference?"  Great question. and here's my list, not in priority order but the first one I think is the most important.


1.  Meet lots of people

I agree with the point Cem Kaner, James Bach and Bret Petticord make in their book, Lessons Learned in Software Testing that "conferences are for conferring." Don't just go and listen - go and find out what other people are doing. This requires interacting with other people. That's why there are plenty of social venues at testing conferences. Don't just go and eat shrimp - talk with people, ask questions, even ones you think are basic. Hey, we've all been there.


Talk with the speakers. They aren't gods. Grab them and ask for a few minutes of their time. The best time to do this in my experience is after they have left the room.  If you try to crowd in while they are still packing up, they can't devote full attention to your question. Or, if the speaker is really pressed for time, simply hand them your business card with a note written on it about your question. Then ask if it is OK to contact them next week to follow-up. 99.9% will say "yes". The .1% will probably say "yes, but it may take me a while to respond." The software testing community is very open and I don't know anyone who isn't willing to field a question or chat for awhile to help someone else solve a problem.


2.  Take a small pocket-sized notepad and use it

I don't advise taking lots of notes during presentations. However, I often get great ideas while listening to presentations. In fact, I have outlined future presentations while listening to other people speak. I'm not talking about stealing material. I think of ways to combine concepts, think of alternative approaches, play the devil's advocate, etc. 


The great thing about the pocket-sized notebook is that you can always have it with you, even at the social events and still not look like a geek, at least as far as the presence of the notebook is concerned. You may also have the need to jot down a quick reminder to send something to someone after the conference, or some similar reminder. By the way, I carry a small notebook everywhere anyway.


3.  Have an idea of what you are looking for before attending the sessions.

The key here is flexibility. I'm not suggesting that you make a plan and follow it rigidly, but rather that you know which topics interest you and may provide value back home. When you are the only one attending from your company, it is especially important to make each session count. Try to review the slides of the session in advance (perhaps the night before), but beware that a good speaker may have less-than-interesting slides and vice-versa.


In the event you find yourself in a session that is not what you expected and you wish you were in another one, it is common culture at software testing conferences to quietly exit and try to slip into another session. If you have doubts at the outset, you may want to sit in a place from which you can make a quiet exit. I've become a master at doing that!


On the other hand, keep in mind that just because someone isn't a great presenter, they may still have a great idea to share. So, I advise people to be patient and remember that we're all here to exchange information and to focus on the ideas, not the presentation style.


While I'm on the topic, let me share one of my pet peeves. Some people feel that unless they are fed a stream of immediately applicable information appropriate for whatever level of experience they feel they are at (beginner, intermediate, advanced), they are disappointed. They seem to be unable to take a concept and tweak it some to make it useful to them. I've sat in hundreds of presentations about things I already knew, but I was able to take that basic information and think of things in new ways. I get a lot of good article ideas like this. So, even though a session may not be innovative or immediately applicable, try to get something good from it.


4.  Visit the vendor expo

A good software testing conference should also have a good vendor expo. Yes, these people are there to sell products and services. Some are there to recruit people like you to work for them. If you are considering buying a tool or something else, a good expo can save you days of time by letting you see first-hand what the various companies have to offer side-by-side. You can conduct the majority of your vendor screening at the conference.


You can also pick up all kinds of freebies, such as notepads, stress balls, flashlights, sunglasses, T-shirts, mugs, ink pens, etc. that you can use back at the office, give to your kids, you get the idea.  Of course, you should, as a professional courtesy, interact with the vendors. People who don't are known as "trick-or-treaters."


Personally, I visit the expo to see what is new in the test tool world and to build good relationships with the vendors.


5.  Keep a separate ongoing list of ideas you would like to implement back home

I have been to conferences where my list was over 50 items long. You should have a least 10 things that would make a positive difference in your testing efforts. In fact, I recommend prioritizing your list to be no longer than 10 to 12 items. Then, I divide the list into three categories:

  • Short-term goals, which can be accomplished in less than 2 months. This shows some quick, tangible return on investment.
  • Mid-term goals, which you can start on right away, but will probably take 2 - 6 months to complete. This helps to build momentum.
  • Long-term goals, which will take 6 months or longer to complete. This would include things like getting a good testing framework in place, changing a culture, implementing a new tool, etc.

If you don't write this stuff down, you'll forget it by the end of the conference. Good ideas are too valuable to waste!


6. Think about becoming a speaker

I'm sure you have good ideas and have learned many lessons that the rest of us need to hear. It's not easy to get on the program, but you should keep trying. It's one of the best ways to boost your value in your company and to build your own career.  It worked for me!


7. Leave the office behind

I know there are times when you just have to stay in touch back at the office. However, it's sad to see people travel all the way to a conference and then spend a lot of their time on the phone or the Internet, while missing sessions and events.  I think most of us can delegate tasks to others on the team.


For those things that can't be deletgated, budget your time and make sure your team and company knows that you will only have 10 minutes a day or so to be involved in phone discussions. They should also not expect a quick response on e-mail. If you can't do this, then then send someone on your team who can attend without being pulled away for stuff back home.


8. Have fun!

There's a reason conferences aren't held in places like...well, plug in your favorite place here...I don't want to disparage anyone's home city. Conferences are held in places like Orlando and Anaheim because of the local attractions. I find it interesting (and good) that most people who attend software testing conferences don't see them as a junket. People for the most part don't skip out and just go to attractions. However, after the conference there is still plenty of time to explore and have fun.


Go to dinner with new friends. Play mini-golf or whatever you find interesting. You're there, so have fun in the evening - don't go back to your room and work all night.


On the flip side, don't have so much fun you can't get up the next day!


Based on the surveys I take every year at software testing conferences around the world, the majority of attendees are first-timers. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. I would hate to think that the reason more people don't repeat attending conferences is because they didn't find any value in them. Like with anything, you get out of a conference what you put into it. The things I write about here are things I have learned over the years attending many software testing conferences. I hope you also find value in them.


Remember that the greatest value of a conference is not to be a training event, but to be a place to get new ideas. That means that you'll need to keep your eyes and ears open at all times. You'll need to jot down a few things and you'll need to talk with people. It may just be that the best thing you get from a conference is not what you had in mind before you attended it.