EuroSTAR 2014: Wednesday In Review

Wednesday saw the busiest day of EuroSTAR 2014, with two keynotes and 24 track sessions which had been carefully selected to support the conference theme of Diversity, Innovation, Leadership.

Following last night’s exquisite community dinner at Trinity College, and the “after-party” which followed it in The Ferryman pub, there were more than a few bleary eyes in the auditorium when the day’s activities kicked-off at 8:30am. Personally, I was suffering from a tremendously hoarse voice, solely from all the talking I’d done on the day before – but, as with the hangovers, the tea and coffee solved all our problems!

Today’s first keynote came from Isabel Evans. In “Restore to Factory Settings: When A Change Programme Goes Wrong”, Isabel told her experiences of working at Dolphin Computer Access for the past four years, but (in a unique twist) wanted to focus on talking about the failures that she’d experienced during that time, and how she had worked to overome them.

Some of these failures were of the type that I’d experienced before. For instance, introducing a more rigorous testing process resulted in more bugs being logged, a larger backlog of issues to fix, and a slower delivery to market – meaning that a positive change was interpreted as a negative one. This illustrated that attempting to improve testing in isolation may not have the impact you desire – it’s important to address the wider business attitude to quality.

The title of the presentation was taken from peoples’ tendency to revert to a “last known good setting” when things go badly, making it hard to implement lasting change. Sometimes this can be as a result of hostility within the team, where somebody is publically supportive of a change initiative, yet privately is resistant and sows seeds of discontent.

Isabel gave some useful takeaway tips to handle leadership within such environments. Leading is not always about being in front; sometimes it’s better to be alongside in a supporting role, and sometimes it’s about standing back and letting others lead, or waiting for the right time.

Some success was achieved by creating a “virtuous circle”: the Managing Director was asked to commit to priorities, and the team focused solely on the highest priority tasks, building trust as they delivered each iteration.

One of the recurring messages was that change is painful, but that this pain can be beneficial: it forces people to look more closely at what could be made better. Too much change can, of course, create an insurmountable level of pain, so it’s important to change incrementally, with buy-in from colleagues, and with opportunity ro rest and reflect.

The bulk of the day was comprised of a series of track sessions. With six blocks, each containing four sessions, we were truly spoiled for choice. In particular, I was interested in some of the diversity-themed talks, and a couple of these that I attended were particularly compelling.

The track sessions began with Trude Britt Rosendaal & Gro Rognstad from Sogeti, giving a talk entitled “Is Girl Power Enough?”. They focused on how Sogeti had managed to achieve what they labeled as “true diversity”, not only in gender but also in other demographic areas, including age, experience and bilingual speakers. Their talk focused on the culture that they foster which allows diversity to thrive.

Trude and Gro spoke about their company’s core values, including honesty, trust, freedom, fun and team spirit. Above all these is respect: “You need to give respect in order to get it”. They illustrated the various phases of a company’s maturity as being similar to the process of moving from a child, to youth, to adult: As a child, you can get away with having childlike qualities, you’ll then experience growing pains as you proceed through your youth years, and then as an adult you have to act mature. Throughout all of this, it’s important to remain smart and easy-going.

Above all, never give up. Echoing Isabel’s keynote message, Trude and Gro advise us to iteratively make small improvements to company culture, and to celebrate victories as a team. They also explained how they are able to promote their organisation to the wider world, to encourage new talent: we saw their team’s entry into the Capgemini Testing Innovation Awards, just one example of a number of external events in which they participate. (I guess EuroSTAR is now another of those!) This is a really important step – I’ve previously worked with companies which foster a culture of diversity, but whose job applicants fit a very narrow profile because they’re not good at telling others about their company culture.

I also watched a brilliant, humorous and insightful talk from Nathalie Rooseboom de Vries – van Delft: “How Diversity Challenged Me To Be Innovative As Test Team Leader”. She spoke about leaders who had inspired her, such as Marie Curie and Joan of Arc: “They both died doing what they love. I hope I don’t go quite that far…”

Nathalie spoke about her experiences of joining an organisation as a test leader, only to feel as if she had travelled back in time: the business was not talking to the IT team, and testers were only becoming involved in the final days of a project. There was a resistance to change: people were hoping that if they ignored her, she’d get frustrated and leave, to be replaced by a more compliant leader. At times she felt like a “translating machine”, being stuck as a go-between for two conflicting parties in the company.

Nathalie began with small changes that encouraged the testing team to think critically. Again drawing parallels with Isabel’s morning keynote, she encouraged leaders to start by “being there” to support their team. The creation of common, achievable goals, which provide a sense of accomplishment, is a useful step. But you do have to be careful when injecting positivity: if you’re “over-positive” then this can lead to undesirable traits such as over-protectiveness, over-rating, or a docile, indoctrinated team.

It’s critical not to forget about the importance of the individual. Nathalie spoke about how her first mission was to knead a team of 15 into 1 cohesive unit, but soon realised that she actually needed to turn 15 into 16 – the fifteen individuals, plus the team unit.

Finally, Nathalie gave some practical examples of workplace innovations which she’d introduced as a way of bringing the test team together, and building a collaborative environment:

  • “Learning with Lollies”: a display of lollipops, where any team member who added a post-it with a question (or a corresponding post-it with an answer) could take a lolly as a reward;
  • Added a large “Whiteboard of Wisdom” in a central location, which the team could use for whatever they wanted;
  • “Grabbaball”: a collection of balls which each contained a note or challenge related to a low-priority task. If you take a ball then you must finish it, and you get a point when you complete it (with a prize for the person who earns the most points);
  • A bookshelf containing a growing library of books, as well as games and printed eBooks;
  • A monthly testing exercise posted in the kitchen (similar to Google’s “Testing in the Toilet” series, but more hygienic!)

Outside of the track sessions and within the breaks, I spent a lot more time in the Expo Hall today. This was a deliberate decision as there are many exciting events taking place in the room, and the ability to talk with the exhibitors and vendors whose sponsorship make the EuroSTAR conference possible. It also allowed me the opportunity to meet with a few familiar friends who I hadn’t yet bumped into at EuroSTAR!

The final keynote of the day was from Julian Harty, “Software Talks – Are You Listening?”, talking about how we can add analytics to our mobile applications to help us connect quicker and smarter with our users. Businesse often spend too much time, working too hard on the wrong thing; profiling your users will help you to understand the impact of your changes, often before you make them.

We saw a series of examples from the cruel and cut-throat world of mobile application development. Often it’s the underlying operating system, rather than the application, which can introduce problems (such as when Android KitKat made a change to its stock browser which broke pinch-zooming functionality in many applications), yet end-users will ferociously cast their “1-star” votes in the App Store for even the simplest of issues. Your app’s average rating is one of your biggest sales tools, so it’s vital that you avoid such scenarios wherever possible.

Julian showed us that, although mobile analytics are innately harder to implement than web applications (as logs are self-contained on a user’s mobile device, rather than on a central web server), it’s possible to implement lightweight analytics which can be collated for a better view of your user. These analytics should be implemented with care; as with the Internet Of Things, mobile data bandwidth is precious (for you and your users) and you should explore the feasability of your planned analytics, perform field tests, and check whether users will accept it (in my experience, users will often uninstall applications which start asking for permission to send information over the internet with no reason specified).

Julian concluded the session by cross-referencing his talk with the other keynotes that had gone before. With regards to Rob Lambert’s continuous delivery presentation, Julian shared Rob’s goal to “become one with the data”, and to instrument application code in order to understand how to best utilise the data. He compared the sending of small analytics packets with the data transfer which occurs in the Internet Of Things, which Andy Stanford-Clark spoke about yesterday, and reminded us of an example from Isabel this morning where something which began as good-intentioned had horrific unforeseen consequences.

And with that, some ten hours after starting, events at the CCD drew to a close for the day. For many, it’s a chance to go onwards to the Awards Dinner at Croke Park, and an opportunity to reflect on a number of really interesting presentations before we reconvene before the final day of EuroSTAR tomorrow.

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