So I mentioned before that I got a scholarship from Ministry of Testing to go to the conference TestBash Brighton. Last week, I went! I’ll be writing up a big ‘ol post for them about the process of applying and my experiences there, but here is shorter version of the highlights. (edit: this is not a short version of the highlights at all, I was incapable of distinguishing any particular part of my experience as being less awesome than the rest, so this is a comprehensive guide to almost everything I did at testbash. Sorry :D)
Before going, there were a few things I heard about it, the biggest and most unbelievable of which was:
The Ministry of Testing and specifically people who attend TestBash are a community. There is a real spirit of community, love and unity there.
Now, being the bitter, cynical person I am I took this with a rather large pinch of salt. I’ve heard before about communities – and they almost always mean cliques, so when you arrive you are not welcomed but isolated from the existing groupies already there.
This is absolutely, categorically not the case with Test Bash.
I cannot recall a single time in my life where I have walked into a room and felt such a strong sense of welcome and togetherness as I did stepping inside the Clarendon Centre at 7:45am on Wednesday morning. Well, maybe not quite at that moment, as I had slept terribly in possibly the cheapest AirBnB in Brighton (which I chose for myself for the novelty of sleeping in stacked pods, just like in The Fifth Element) and had no caffeine in my system yet.
I failed to read perfectly clear labels, and poured coffee on my teabag and thought to myself well this is already shaping up to be an awful day and I should probably skip the Lean Coffee morning because I would have nothing of value to add to the conversation, right? Wrong.
Because at Test Bash, everyone has valuable things to contribute – even you. Even me!
We talked about things like “how to design for testability” and “how to get developers to test”, things that I thought I had been struggling with because I was just that rubbish of a QA – but in actuality are really common questions in the community. I realised for the first time that I wasn’t crap at my job, and that the company’s lack of emphasis on quality in our product wasn’t squarely down to me as an individual. (If only I worked harder, or did more, then maybe I could make change all on my own…)
Buoyed by my new-found sense of legitimacy as an actual tester who was good enough to sit around a table with other real testers, I grabbed a vegan croissant and marched off to the Essentials day talks. I was walking on air, nothing could bring me down.
This the bit of a story where you might expect something catastrophic to happen to pop my bubble, but here’s the thing… It didn’t. The Essentials talk track was awesome. It started off with a talk by Martin Hynie that brought everyone up to speed on vocabulary – test charters, heuristics, oracles?! All explained, to my great relief through the wonderful medium of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of my favourite parts (other than realising that all the sections he’d taken us through spelled out the word TOWEL) was this quote from the author of that famous book:
The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out ot be impossible to get at and repair.Douglas Adams
I thought this is it, how can things possibly get any better than this. I am home. Well, let me tell you how it got better – the one and only Ady Stokes is how. His talk was on the Periodic Table of Testing, an exhaustive list of every type of testing you could think of, as well as important definitions and considerations to make when testing. I would highly recommend going to his website The Big Test Theory to have a look around. Now, Ady did warn us that the talk would end in a song, and it did (because among other things, Mr Stokes is a legendary testing poet). I won’t embarrass anyone by putting the video here, but we sang along to a rendition of We will, we will test you in the best way we possibly could. Which is to say, awkwardly and in a well-meaning spirit (we were mostly a room full of Brits, which means that awkwardness is in our blood).
Ady, too, had a good quote for us:
Testing is the infinite process of comparing the invisible to the ambiguous so as to avoid the unthinkable happening to the anonymous.James Bach
I also really enjoyed Dan Shaw’s talk on what it is to be a tester. We are psychologists, lawyers, spies, researchers, linguists, historians and sociologists, not just people who click on things and say whether or not a box should be ticked yet.
The day went on, stacking up blocks of greatness on top of one another – amazing speakers, great topics and awesome company. Another highlight was a super successful workshop-talk (run by Melissa Eaden) that gave us 30 second activities to do with domains and personas. It took me the entire first 30 seconds to realise that I had no idea what domain my company is in, or who its rivals are, or what I would even write in a search engine to come up with the company site (without putting the company name in). I also realised after writing a persona (a series of characteristics, behaviours etc that make up a person) for my mother, that a lot of what we build would not be easy for someone like her to use.
By this point, I was starting to feel a bit wiped from all the brain learns and world shifts that were going on – I had taken a six hour coach journey down from Bristol the day before, and then ‘slept’ in a pod where I was too terrified of offending the people around me to dare move, breathe or sleep all night. So my live note-taking took some strange turns, including “she bought a strawberry lemonade and a shot of limoncello to go in it, and she has nice earrings on today”. (I’d gone out to dinner the previous evening and unknowingly ended up with a group not composed of other simple punters like myself, but of speakers and a volunteer, all with a lot more experience and knowledge than myself. Mel was one of them, hence the strawberry-lemonade-limoncello. A great time was had all-round.)
At lunchtime, I decided that it would be my mission throughout TestBash Brighton to leave as big an impact possible on as many people possible. Hence I ended up with temporary tattoos on my face. (hot tip: ‘temporary’ means a few days, not the few-hours-to-a-day I had assumed)
The afternoon talks were equally awesome and valuable. Nicola Owen did one on learning to ask for testability – something we’d discussed in the lean coffee morning. She articulated better than us newbies had volabulary to, the difficulties in trying to ask for things and how to go about it. If I went through every single piece of information or every single talk I learned from then this post would simply be copy-paste of all the notes I wrote in slack. So I won’t go into the details, but one really good bit that came out of an audience question at the end was an answer to “How do I know as a tester if there’s a testability problem or if I just don’t know how to test it?” Her advice was to ask the developers and other testers – if they can’t articulate a clear answer around how it can be tested, then it’s definitely a testability problem (and if they can, then you just learned how to test that thing, congrats!)
Hilary Weaver-Robb’s talk on tools for being a cool bug detective (“she was at dinner last night and she loves carbonara pizza at Pizza Express which isn’t on the menu always, but you can request it and it has an egg in the middle omg she has a doggo” – Bruce, top journalist) and it was chocca full of things I wish someone had told me when I started testing instead of having to learn in dribs and drabs. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier? is the question this talk will hopefully have saved other testers from asking countless times as they realise there’s even more functionality to browser dev tools that you think.
Next up was the Incident of the Ice Cream in the Evening Time, begun with a story I ad-libbed live in slack for the enjoyment of my future self.
It was more than an anectode though, and my notes spanned four slack posts on implementation and considerations to take when trying to test APIs (something which I am now keen to get involved with, thanks to this talk). She left us with a last message on whether we should replace all UI tests with API tests:
Don’t use a sword to stitch clothes.Shivani Gaba
Doing a bit of both, depending on what gives you the best value in particular instances is fine, you don’t have to use the big fancy method when something small and humble will suffice.
During the breaks, I bounced from table to table, group to group, introducing myself to as many people as possible, finding out who other people were and what they did. It was so interesting to meet people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Not just in terms of identities (race, gender, age…), but in terms of work backgrounds too. I had always used the fact that I came from a children’s education background to detract from my own abilities as a tester, but here were people that had been artists, farmers, carers, debt collectors, pharmacy dispensers… and not a single one among them who didn’t have something to add to the community from their past.
What I was quickly coming to realise is that the testing community doesn’t benefit or get better because of improvements to training courses that we can take to make us all think the same way about testing – it benefits most from the ways in which we are all different, the experiences we bring to the table that we don’t even realise are valid and useful.
The revelations and learning didn’t stop there though – there were still two more talks left. First up was an awesome one from Amber Race:
More importantly than technical issues though, was that Amber easily challenged the idea that you need some deep and mystical knowledge of maths that only a PhD in Advanced-Space-Mathematics-For-Geniuses-Which-Doesn’t-Include-You can provide, to be able to understand and interpret test data. I came out of this with much higher confidence in my own ability to go away and look at the data we have visualised in Grafana (and actually understand to some degree if it’s showing something good or bad).
Similarly, I got some revelations about my role in my company and team, from Maaike Brinkhof’s talk on testing as a whole-team activity. This addressed a common feeling we get as testers – that it is our sole reponsibility to find and report every bug, and that the blame for anything that gets through to production should rest right on our shoulders alone, signifying that we are not doing a good enough job. While in reality, quality is everyone’s responsibility and the real challenge is in getting everyone else to agree with this.
The day ended (or at least, the official part of it) with a bunch of 99 second talks. I cannot remember their contents, because I spent the entire time trying to talk myself into going up there and saying something, anything, about how amazing the day had been and how glad I was to be here, and how glad I was that everyone else was here too. I just needed to get up and walk over to the side of the stage, where people were queued waiting. Just needed to… get… up… out of my chaaaaaaaiiiiiir…!
Some of you might know that I was destined to go on to make a great 99 second talk that I have been informed will go down in TestBash history. But it is not this day!
This day, I have a panic attack in a room full of people, simultaneously worrying that I can’t breathe and breathing heavily, rubbing my hands on the tops of my trousers in hope that the friction from the denim will ground me.
I was thinking – this is it, I can never show my face to these people again, I tried so hard all day to be cool and charismatic and now everyone knows how weak and awful I truly am. I knew I didn’t deserve to have the good day it had been so far. In the end, I was never going to be good enough. It would always come back to this, to me. And if there’s one thing I know about me, it’s that I will fail. Just like I was doing now. Like I always would.
It might seem dramatic, but so far as I thought in that moment, I was done with TestBash Brighton, and all these people would be done with me.
Obviously, that’s not what happened. Most of the people in the room didn’t notice at all – I wasn’t placed front and centre, I was at a side table at the back of the room and everyone was streaming out to get the drinks in.
A wonderful lady called Marta (who works with ROTARY LASERS btw) came over and asked if I was ok, to which I somehow – for some silly, inexplicable reason – answered that yes I was fine thank you and I’d see her later downstairs. A minute later, another great human and TestBash volunteer came over. Beren helped me leave the room, talked to me until I felt okay and then dropped me off in the quiet space to colour some pictures in peace.
Then I collected myself and walked downstairs and carried on, and had an amazing evening talking to even more magnificent humans (and lizard collectives in skinsuits) until we were thrown out at just after 11pm.
I think this is a good place to end the first post, as it’s already pretty long haha. Day one was super amazing, and exceeded everything I could have hoped from a testing conference. Even now, I have a fluttery heart remembering just how different I felt as a person and a tester after just a few hours at the conference.
THE ADVENTURE WILL CONTINUE IN PART TWO…