Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Agile Testing Days USA 2023 - A Lot to Think About

Last year's Agile Testing Days USA was full of inspiration. This year, this conference and its community once again gave me a lot to think about.

Before the Conference

Arriving early, I had time to do a bit of sightseeing next to finalizing the preparation for my two sessions. I decided to take it slow and preserve my energy while still checking out some places I haven't seen yet.

Another benefit of being there ahead of time is to connect with people already before a conference starts and slowly getting into networking and exchanging experiences. So good to see familiar faces again and re-connect - like with Kelsey Schoen whom I met last year. On the evening before the conference started, we had a lovely dinner group which resulted in great conversations. Many thanks to João ProençaJenna CharltonJenny BramblePaul Holland and Erik Davis!

Tutorial Day

A dream came true for me: I finally could meet Elisabeth Hendrickson in person! She's one of my personal heroes in tech. I followed her and her work for a long time via social media and was eager to learn from her in person. So when I realized she'll be at this conference and also give a tutorial, I didn't hesitate once to sign up for it. Especially as it perfectly fit my situation: "Doing the Hard Stuff".

This tutorial was indeed worth it already. It was awesome. I had hoped to get insights and advice for current difficult leadership situations as well as guiding principles for those still to come and I was not disappointed. Elisabeth shared a toolkit of the wisdom she collected over years working with teams and organizations - a toolkit full of wealth of applicable wisdom. Super interesting on a meta level as well, as I am sharing some of my own tactics in my latest talk.

We had a small group with high safety where we could bring our current challenges, think openly together about them using the toolkit, and discuss options to move forward. The self-organized structure of the tutorial made me think of an all-day themed lean coffee session with lots of dedicated time for each topic - wonderful to get detailed thoughts and feedback from everyone, and also be able to contribute! One of my topics got discussed into detail as well and I received lots of input and ideas what to try next - along with validation of my own stance and connecting the dots on what I already knew. Invaluable.

At some point, I really wondered about my own confirmation bias - as I kept nodding throughout. I really related to the toolkit topics shared. Was it because I learned and adapted a lot from Elisabeth and her peers already over the years, or were they really reflected in my own experience? Well, probably a bit of both. Anyways, it was amazing to see lots of the ideas and approaches I had used in my past being validated and built on by a group of peers.

There's a lot to ponder about and make use of. I'm really grateful for having had the chance to participate, I took a lot with me. I bet more people would benefit from this content, it actually would make a great book.
Right after the tutorial, it was time to get together with everyone and mingle for a "Meet the Speakers" event. This meant new people to get to know and connect with! A curious side note was when one person mentioned that they thought speakers would get formally introduced, and then being pleasantly surprised they're already among the crowd - being just normal humans as everyone else.

Finally, it was time for speakers dinner. My opportunity to connect with Allison Lazarz and catch up with Larissa Rosochansky and Rafael Cintra!

Conference Day 1

The first full day of talks and workshops for everyone was full of interesting sessions. Here are the ones that I joined.
  • Early Morning Lean Coffee with Janet Gregory and Lisa Crispin. I make it a point to go to at least one lean coffee session per conference whenever offered. Whoever shows up are the right people and whatever topic is discussed, I gain insight from it! If I'm lucky, my own topics are selected and people's thinking help me move forward with a challenge. Like this time - I'm grateful for the input received. Many thanks to Janet and Lisa for facilitating these sessions and for doing it so welcomingly!
  • Keynote "Imperfect Agile" by Jenna Charlton. What a great opening keynote reminding all of us to remember self-care and keep our own boundaries, while also encouraging to resolve conflict in a timely manner and find closure instead of piling onto existing grudges - and emphasizing that impact is more important than intent. All that while following the story of figuring out what agile actually means. Just loved the conclusion of "Take what works, leave what doesn't, don't do harm - it works for us is enough"!
  • Keynote "Bigger than the Box" by Erika Chestnut. Great keynote emphasizing that testing is not all the work even though people try to keep us in the box. Loved that Erika showed ways how we can claim the power in what we do, seize the opportunities around us and let quality shine in a new light together with everyone. Very important messages.
  • "Stop Making QA The Last Train Stop Before Production" by Rick Clymer. Really related to this talk and think more people need to hear it. I witnessed so many folks being stuck in what they do. This talk showed very concrete and actionable things they could do to get out of their situation and not only provide more value yet also get more value out of their work themselves.
  • "Business Agility Lab" by Ray Arell, Rhea Stadick, Tobey Aumann and Shawna Cullinan. This was a positive surprise! I didn't expect much and came to the session as a mere filler. And received a nice hands-on introduction to Wardley mapping, a topic I would have chosen if it had been offered in the program! Loved the examples Tobey provided and the opportunity to try it ourselves. Wasn't too easy to get started with, yet understanding grew the more we tried it.
  • Keynote "Focus. Deliver. Learn. Repeat." by Elisabeth Hendrickson. What an amazing keynote. Just kept nodding throughout, so many excellent points made! Sadly, this could have been given twenty years ago already, and maybe was. Why haven't we learned this in the meantime? Overall, this was a dearly needed reminder to focus back on XP principles, including the reasoning why. Delivered in a wonderful energetic and authentic way.
My own session on this day was my workshop "Grow Your Technical Confidence". I had a small but great group, learning together. It's always fascinating to see people dare to try something new and potentially scary, and then have them figure out what they already know about it and that they can already contribute - hence increasing their confidence for the next step once again.

To conclude the day, organizers invited everyone to an Oktoberfest party! Loved the conversations with Melissa Eaden, it's such a pleasure to reconnect with folks I haven't met for a while. More exchange followed with Ray ArellTobey Aumann, Pete WalenTara Walton and others before the evening came to an end.

Conference Day 2

The last day of the conference provided further insights and even more to ponder about. Here are the sessions I listened to.
  • Keynote "Where is testing heading?" by Paul Holland. This keynote provided a reminder on bad trends in testing, historically and current, along with their reasoning. So what can testers do nowadays? Paul recommended to focus on what automation cannot do well, and make use of the tools at hand.
  • "The dark side of agile implementation" by Lisette Zounon. Just loved the focus on how culture is essential whether people can thrive or literally end up in the emergency room. The audience interaction to openly think about warning signs and anti-patterns was a nice addition. It was quite sad to see how many folks seemed to have endured rather toxic cultures. Yet what makes us succeed is team happiness! Loved the emphasis on taking care of ourselves and practicing self-care - dearly needed that reminder.
  • "Mobile app testing sucks. Here's how to do it better." by Eden Full Goh. This talk provided lots of insights on what we're usually missing when testing mobile apps. Loved all the examples of new features, device configuration settings, and more things that are too often not considered - especially when it comes to automation. Very tangible and practical advice and new ideas how to test better on mobile, both on exploring more and finding new ways to automate user interactions.
  • "The WHY you are!" by Dr. Rochelle Carr. What an amazing keynote in content and delivery. Loved Dr. Rochelle Carr's abundant energy on stage and refined skills to truly engage the audience with the content shared! The messages themselves - they hit home. More than I expected to, this keynote gave me lots to think about my own why and purpose, what drives me - and how it changed over time. Very impactful.
  • "How we're setting up QE's to fail" by Vernon Richards. This talk opened my eyes that should have already been open. I knew about glue work, and I knew about quiet quitting. Yet Vernon made the connection to where testers often find themselves, and that all of our work is indeed technical leadership - whew, that blew my mind. I think I heard this message before, yet this talk delivered it to me just at the right time to truly understand it. Gave me a lot to think about!
  • "Building a Culture of Accessible Software" by Jon Hussey. This talk provided a lot of actionable advice on how to increase awareness about accessibility, a topic that is very relevant to me right now. I loved how Jon connected this to his own story, what he tried, what didn't work and what did. His one request was for each and everyone of us to ask for more accessibility - something we all can do. A very important topic we all need to hear more of!
  • "Feedback Techniques for Transparent Teams" by Dee Ann Bernau. We all need to learn how to receive and give better feedback as it's essential for learning. This talk gave models to help our thinking about feedback as well as tangible steps to take and improve on feedback ourselves. One point caught my eye that I would have loved to hear more about: Creating a system to call out bad behavior in your team. More to think about.
  • Keynote "The Secret To My Success" by Melissa Eaden. This keynote was amazingly brave. Mel shared her personal story on stage which allowed me to realize how many more people are affected by trauma and systemic issues than we might realize from just seeing the "successful" facade. Really appreciate the reframing of what success means for us and finding our own definition of what to work toward. Loved the emphasis on how giving someone a chance can have a life-changing and even life-saving impact on them, and how especially tech can lift people out of a situation they would not have gotten out otherwise. As well as asking for an outside observer view! One more argument to indeed get coaching, or therapy, or both. I admire Mel for her vulnerability and I hope this talk helps more people on their journey towards more good than bad days. It definitely had impact on me, I have lots to think about.
On this day, I gave my brand-new talk "Team Transformation Tactics for Holistic Testing and Quality" for the first time live on stage - in its most condensed short form. According to feedback it seems people got something out of it to take with them, what more can I want?

A great bonus this day: Ash Coleman was in town and stopped by to say hi! Such a pleasant surprise, was so good to see her again, even if only for a few minutes.
Right after the conference ended, the social closure began with food, games and even more conversations. I joined a great dinner group with João ProençaMelissa EadenJenna CharltonJenny BrambleTara Walton, Vernon Richards and Tristan Lombard.
Afterwards I ended up in storytelling conversations with Elisabeth HendricksonJoão ProençaRay Arell and Kirtika Dhathathri. Really loved the chance to talk with Elisabeth once more - I really appreciate her for being so approachable, with people all the time and so authentic - very appreciated and amazing to see.


After a conference is over means the start of digesting everything. There's overcoming the post-conference blues of having had to say goodbye again to many dear people, there's follow-up to process all the gained insights and notes and everything, and there's rest to catch up with. And some more sightseeing to do to make best use of the efforts of traveling!

Once more I realized how much time and effort the conference follow-up tasks that I do take. This made me think about what I could cut down to make it less burdensome and tedious, and grant more capacity to work on other opportunities. One particular task stood out for me: processing my sketchnotes. Not only do they eat up a lot of energy to take during the talks, I also spend lots of time to take good enough photos of them, then transcribe them to get good enough alt texts for increased accessibility (kudos to Cakelin (Kaitlin) Marquardt for demonstrating how to write alt texts for sketchnotes!), then to create threads with the sessions and alt texts on both Twitter and Mastodon. Phew. Lots of time and energy goes into all that and it's often exhausting to do after a conference when I am tired anyway. I realized that nowadays sketchnotes don't save me time anymore, which was the very reason I started sketchnoting in the first place. So I felt maybe it's time again to for the next experiment to find a more effective way to take and share notes. And guess what? Shortly after considering that, I received abundant positive and grateful feedback on my sketchnotes, including personal messages on how impactful they are and suggestions that I could even make a book out of them. I'm feeling honored! At the same time, I guess I have to really think about how to best move forward from here.

In any case, I was leaving yet another Agile Testing Days USA with a full heart and mind, lots of insights to ponder upon and ideas to try next. Many thanks to organizers and volunteers for creating this space and making this edition run so smooth, and to my fellow speakers and participants for learning so openly together. Now I have a lot to think about.

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