August 7, 2016 · Events CAST 2016

CAST 2016: TestRetreat in review

OK, so I didn't bring enough equipment (particularly spare batteries) to live-blog all of CAST, but I'm going to attempt to produce a blog post within 24hrs of each day. Thanks to the "trusty" computer in my Airbnb (a Windows Vista machine with a no-longer-patchable version of Chrome), I'll be bringing you a potted summary of each day.

I'll produce a much longer article once I'm back home, as I really want to get outside again (today, Sunday, is the pre-conference rest day, but there's already plans for a 15km walk, and lunch/dinner meetups on separate sides of the city).

TestRetreat began with an introduction to the open space format, and then we were straight into lightning talks! These were all very interesting, and set the tone for the day, as we used them to guide the energy of the room - many of the day's sessions were created based on the content of the lightning talks.

  • Matt introduced us to conversational frames, and the challenges of holding and controlling them. They can lead to conflict points when encountering a "your world versus theirs" scenario, and Matt talked through some examples of times where he'd been challenged to rethink his framing.
  • Amit spoke about how tools can be used as eye-openers, revealing information that might otherwise be hidden in plain sight, showing that we're all armed with these tools (e.g. browser developer tools) and that the whole development team can glean useful insight if they just know where to look.
  • Claire told us of the challenges she'd faced when being asked to regression test an application which was previously unknown to her - a situation I've found myself in all too frequently! How do you test impacted areas if you don't know (or you're not allowed to know) what's changed?
  • Shak talked to us about earning trust, being able to question openly, and doing this all in an environment where you're still trying to learn the cultural issues which flow through your business. He gave an engaging story about a major project which his team had to turn-around against impossibly tight deadlines.
  • Miranda explained the value of seeing someone else's perspective as a creator, which is a role that testers can serve to developers. She spoke of the benefits and pitfalls of mnemonics, suggesting that we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of building software which does what it says, but not what it needs.
  • Eric's talk was themed around the challenges of surviving and adapting to the changing skill demands in the marketplace, wondering whether we're all being pushed towards SDET roles. This is a topic which is very close to my heart right now!
  • Ash gave an equally compelling talk on the subject of becoming and staying relevant. She made the excellent point that many of the figures who are trying to shape the future of the testing craft are veterans of 15+ years experience, but these people make up a small (and decreasing) portion of our population. It's important to consider those who are newer to the industry, to allow for a wider circle of experiences - skills are less important as they can be built upon.

After the frantic round of lightning talks, we proposed sessions for the day and pitched these to the group, adding them on post-its and building an agenda on the wall. We had enough ideas to fill four tracks for six 45-minute sessions, many of which exceeded their allotted time, which speaks volumes about how interesting the sessions were, and about how engaged the attendees were.

Here's a potted summary of some of the sessions that I attended:

How to test in the dev room

This was a really interesting discussion about how to break down barriers between segregated teams. We looked at the historical and sociological reasons for keeping developers and testers separated, and the benefits of closing the gap. We also looked at how to survive being thrown into the lion's den, if you're a lone tester trying to keep pace with 10 developers who are working on deeply technical tasks. As with many of the day's sessions, we transitioned into discussions about increasing your own technical skills, but tinged with simple improvements which can deliver benefits without much need for coding experience, including pairing/walkthroughs with developers (if you are comfortable with trying to keep pace with their vocabulary) or even simply gaining read-access to source code repositories, allowing you to progress at a more manageable pace.

Having agency versus doing what you're told

A session which was so engrossing that I completely neglected to tweet anything during it! We talked about times when our own creativity had been shut-down by people (often managers) telling us "You can't do that" or "You have to do it this way"). Oftentimes this manifests itself in ways which can block progress, for instance being told that automation is deemed to be too expensive.

We discussed ways to get past these problems, including the use of 'lullaby language' (Weinberg), overcoming the fear of "being in trouble", questioning your own approaches, and becoming comfortable with the idea of trying-failing-learning.

For me, having agency is about having integrity - if you do something because you believe it is the correct thing to do, for the benefit of the project, and you don't pursue it beyond the point where you're neglecting other riskier facets of the project, it should be possible to remain beyond criticism. However, a company's appetite for this is deeply ingrained in its culture, and as one person in our group pointed out, "It seems a lot of us have significant problems with authority"!

Waking up testers at home

This was a session which I felt compelled to join, because the pitch made a reference to my specialist subject, 9-to-5 testers. We actually held a mini-session in front of the agenda board (thanks Claire & Amit!) where we clarified the actual angle of the session. I don't want to talk about the session itself in too much detail, as it mostly involved people (myself included) telling personal stories from their workplace. But in summary, we were looking at how you can stimulate interest in personal development among a team of testers who aren't appearing to show any concern for this.

Matt introduced us to the Six Boxes Model to show us that personal development is more than merely skills acquisition. At a team level, it's vital to set expectations, and to increasing these expectations over time in order to raise the bar. You also need systems for tracking feedback and measuring progress, an environment which gives people the capability to pursue improvement, and you need to create the desire/motivation to proceed with this. The final one is particularly difficult - motivation is deeply personal, and not easily prone to influence from others. But we looked at what managers can do to improve this situation for their teams, focusing on actions - a manager who does, rather than just say they do, can make a huge difference.


We ended the day with a retrospective session, discussing the positive and negative elements of our TestRetreat experience. Despite its size, it was one of the healthiest retros I've ever experienced, with everybody phrasing their issues in terms of actionable improvement. Problems were few and far between, and almost entirely related to timekeeping: we didn't have any clocks in the rooms, meaning that sessions were prone to over-running or being suddenly shut-down when we realised we were out of time. Similarly, we could have benefited from an extra room to allow a previous session's discussion to continue for those who were deeply engrossed.

I actually tweeted my main takeaway just before the retrospective began:

And with that, a busy day of unconferencing drew to a close. That's only a small snippet of the day's events; I didn't even talk about lunch (we broke into self-organising teams to organise lunch venues, and my team stumbled across a perfectly nice little pizzeria), the evening's sunset dinner cruise (where I was quickly brought up-to-speed on the benefits of whiskey sours) or just the fact that I was finally able to put faces to names of people who I'd only previously interacted with via Twitter or Weekend Testing. It was an amazing day, and the conference itself hasn't even begun yet!

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