I interviewed Angie Jones about the value of QA and software testing conferences, why someone would want to work out loud, how testers can give back to the testing community and how they go about making that happen. As a renowned figure in the testing community, a frequent speaker at international conferences and a heavy blogger, Angie tells us about her conference experiences and what working out loud means to her.
Christin: The classic question, the question we must start with is of course, what was the first conference that you went to and what do you remember?
Angie: I’m not even sure if I remember, maybe it was one of the TISQA conferences. It’s a local conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, close to where I used to live, and it is focused on testing. I remember really enjoying the format of it, and this is pretty typical of conferences but I didn’t know that at the time. There was a day of workshops so I was able to do a hands-on full day workshop to really get some practical experience and then followed by the conference of actually listening to several talks. I thought that was just so cool because it was a way to get a taste of both.
Christin: Do you remember any of the people that you met that made an impression? Were there people that you already knew from before or did you bump into a lot of new people?
Angie: I didn’t know anyone. I look back on people who spoke there, and I, of course, know them now, but one of the people who was there was Paul Merrill. We actually became really good friends after that. He did a talk and I asked questions and followed-up with him after the fact. Mike Lyles was there. Mark Tomlinson was there. Bob Galen and Mary Thorn were there. Janet Gregory gave the keynote, which was amazing.
Christin: If you didn’t really know a lot about conferences from before and you didn’t really know the people that were there, how did you end up at the conference?
Angie: I remember colleagues of mine, they would be absent for a day or two and they would say, “Oh I’m going to a conference”. And I would think, “Wow, how do they get to go to a conference?” and so I asked people about it and they were like, “Oh I just asked the manager if we have any training budget and they let me go”. But this wasn’t something that was ever offered, it wasn’t one of those things like they’d say, “Hey, we have some extra training budget, anybody want to go to a conference?”. So I never got the vibe that it was something that I could even do. And then I was also terrified to even ask about it. And the conferences my coworkers went to were usually required them to travel so I definitely didn’t feel comfortable asking for funding to go to the conference and travel, I was just terrified of to ask. The TISQA one, by it being local, it was really inexpensive as well and so I kind of mustered up the courage to ask if I can go to that. The manager was really nice about it, it wasn’t a big deal or anything, and since then I’ve asked to go to several conferences and I’ve never been given a ‘no’ answer so it was just kind of silly on my part to even be afraid to ask for that. Typically, there is some budget for that and managers value you wanting to further develop yourself and your skills.
Christin: That is great, but it’s like you say, it’s not that easy to ask for it especially if you don’t know that there is something to ask for. How did you make the journey from attending that first local conference, which was fairly inexpensive, to speaking the first time? What made you decide, I want to speak at a conference?
Angie: After a couple of the conferences I went to, one in particular, and I won’t say which conference it was, but I didn’t really take much back from that conference as far as new knowledge. They had really good speakers and they were saying really wonderful things but it was all things that I already knew. And so, as opposed to criticising the conference, I kind of looked at myself like, “well if you know so much why don’t you present something?”. I thought about that for a while. I was fortunate enough to work with some really awesome automation engineers. One team in particular was just outstanding, like everyone on the team was wonderful and that really helped me grow but we got to a point where we had several more openings and we would try to interview for those positions and we couldn’t fill them because we couldn’t find people who had that level of skill that we were performing at. So this was also another indicator that maybe there’s something that you can give back to help grow the industry.
If people aren’t given the opportunities to work in these spaces, how can they grow? A lot of times we’re all trying to solve the same problems, but I was fortunate enough to solve them with a bunch of other people. Whereas on a lot of teams, they’re the sole automation engineer on their team and so they have to figure these things out on their own. So I figured, I should probably give back at the conferences and help build the skills of fellow automation engineers.
Christin: I really like that, and of course, that’s what we’re talking about today, giving back to the community. You felt you had something to share, and you wanted to give back to your fellow testers. Why is giving back to the community important to you?
Angie: One reason is because I see a lot of test leaders, managers, directors and executives, who have misconceptions about test automation. And given that, you see a lot of people make a lot of the same mistakes over and over again. That gives automation a bad name in general, to the point where people may believe that automation is not worth the effort or we don’t need automation engineers. So there’s a lot of education that I think is missing and not just from the practitioner’s standpoint, but for leaders and executives. I love when I speak at a conference and I have a lot of managers in the room because they can use the knowledge just as much as the practitioners.
Christin: Oh absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I think really it is important to take opportunities to educate people. What is your impression if you look at the conferences you go to, do you think there’s a majority of the speakers that look at it as giving back to the community?
Angie: I really do. I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the speakers. No one is making a living off of this stuff. You’re fortunate if the conference has enough budget to even cover your travel expenses but sometimes that’s not even an option. So a lot of times the speakers are coming out of their own pocket, they’re taking vacation days from work to come and give back to the community. I think most of the people I’ve met, the vast majority, are in this for the good of the community.
Christin: I know, as a speaker myself, that sometimes it can be very frustrating that you don’t get your travel expenses paid. But do you think that it’s also helping us be very passionate about what we talk about?
Angie: I do, but I try to be careful with that as well. No one wants to be taken advantage of and, although I’m passionate about it, I do try to steer towards the conferences who are willing to, at a minimum, fund the traveling expenses. I’ve seen some conferences like Selenium conference, who has changed their model where they used to not cover speaker expenses and they were able to figure out a way to do that while still keeping the conference affordable for attendees. Sometimes, I do conferences where I come out of pocket, but you’re right, it has to be one that I’m really passionate about that I don’t feel is just trying to take advantage of me but that the organization is also in it for the good of the community.
Christin: We often talk about working out loud. And we of course see speaking at conferences as being part of that. What does working out loud mean to you?
Angie: I love that term. I’ve never heard of it till now, and I love it, it’s perfect, working out loud. What’s interesting, when I thought about speaking, I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to just jump into something, I like to lurk a little bit and figure out how to exactly do this and do a little bit of research and kind of prepare. There was a conference that was called, “Write/Speak/Code”. This conference is for women who are interested in becoming thought leaders and contributing back to the technical community. The idea behind the conference is that we don’t have enough women’s voices. We go to the conferences and we complain that there’s not a lot enough women there and conference organizers themselves complain about not getting enough submissions from women to talk. So this conference tries to address that by preparing us.
I went to this conference before I ever gave a talk and it was life changing for me. It defined for me what it means to work out loud. We talked about writing in the form of blogs or books. We talked about speaking at conferences and things like that. And then we also talked about coding out loud, in a public venue such as open source. This became my definition of what it means to work out loud and it’s so perfect because that’s exactly what we’re doing. I try my best not to ever get on stage and preach to the audience, “This is what you should be doing, this is what you should not be doing”. Everyone’s situation is different, everyone’s context is different. I just like to share work that I’ve done or lessons that I’ve learned. So basically, as you figure something out, as you’re doing your day-to-day work, how do you share that with the rest of the community?
And like I said, a lot of times there are automation engineers who are working by themselves on these things and they have to figure this stuff out on their own. And when you don’t know something, what do you do? The first thing you do is go to Google and try to see if someone else has hit this problem and solved it before. So as individuals, as we work and figure these things out, let’s share it so there are some results that come back when people have to search for this stuff.
Christin: That sounds like an absolutely amazing conference, I have to say.
Angie: It is. They’re actually doing it again next month and I’m going to speak at it this time so it’s really exciting.
Christin: Congratulations, that’s wonderful.
Angie: Thank you.
Christin: I like the concept of writing, speaking, coding, and I think that seems to really reflect how you work out loud. You are a conference speaker, we’ve talked a little bit about that, but you’re also a prolific blogger and writer. Did that start at the same time as your speaking?
Angie: It did. All of this came together. When I left that conference, I left so inspired and when I went to the conference, I’ll be honest, I went to the conference because I just wanted to know more about speaking and how to prepare myself but they delivered this whole package. And I had already made up in my mind, oh I don’t care about the writing part and I’m not interested in contributing to open source projects, I just want to hear the speaking part. But when they gave the whole package and how all of these things kind of play together to help the community and get your voice out there, then it made sense to me. And so, initially I was kind of put off by writing, because I thought I didn’t really have time to write and I don’t want to feel obligated. So, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t put myself on a schedule. I wouldn’t say, “Oh I’m going to write a blog every week or every month”, I just wasn’t going to do that because then it would feel like a chore. It’s more of the whole working out loud. When I figure something out or there’s something I want to share, then I blog about it. So it doesn’t feel like this big huge commitment or a burden, it’s more something I want to do.
Christin: That, I think, is a fantastic journey. So, do you also feel that the community is still giving back to you?
Angie: Most definitely. And I see this even now. I recently switched jobs, I’m now at Twitter and it’s a different ball game than I’m used to. Things move really fast here and I’m doing a lot of new things that I haven’t done before. So these are the times when you really need to lean on the community. I find myself Googling a ton and I’m so thankful when I find a blog, it’s like, “Oh my God, thank you so much”. So these things help me out. I’ve reached out to people on Twitter as well. In researching tools and technology, I ask if there’s any one who’s worked on this. And you get a couple of people that say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done it”. And those people have helped me out. So I’ll talk to them in DM or on Skype and ask them about it. They’re just so willing to share their stories and their lessons learned. That saves me a lot of heartache and time so that I don’t make the same mistakes that other people have made and learned from already. I’m so thankful for the testing community, not only do they allow me to share my stories but I get a ton back from them as well.
Christin: I really like what you’re saying and it’s of course how I use the community too. It’s amazing how friendly and helpful people are and how much smart people are out there that can help you out.
Angie: That’s true. What really resonated with me is that, I don’t know if I would have put the same request out a couple of years ago. Or if I would have gotten the volume that I got back as far as responses. I’m sure there would have been one or two people that would have helped me, but because people know that I give back, then I think that they are happier and more willing to give back to me as well. So it’s a two way street.
Christin: Absolutely. And I think if you’re helping someone that you know is going to share it with their community it also feels better because you know it’s going to spread more. I also tend to use conferences and conference presentations to refine ideas I have, something that I’m not sure about, but I want to get people’s input and I want to get feedback on something I’ve been thinking about. Do you ever do that?
Angie: I do in the form of a blog post. So I haven’t done it as a talk. More so because probably I think, “Oh wow, people have actually paid money to come hear me so I want to give them something worthwhile”. But, in a blog post, I don’t mind saying here’s my ideas on something, I’m not sure of how this is going to go, or I’m new to this space, this is what I’m thinking, what do you all think? And interact with the community that way.
Christin: And do you feel that it really helps you get those thoughts together better?
Angie: It does. You hear so many different perspectives and things that you didn’t consider on your own. And then also again, the lessons learned. Maybe someone has tried that before and they come with all of this knowledge about things that worked and didn’t work and why. I found that very, very useful.
Christin: I absolutely agree. And one thing that I find is that, you mentioned getting different perspectives, and I work for a testing services company so I’m surrounded by testers. But when I reach out, I get a much more diverse group of people giving me feedback and I get really valuable feedback from people that have different roles, different backgrounds and difference experiences. How do you feel about that?
Angie: That’s really interesting. You’re absolutely right. Some of the things that I write about, to be honest, most of the times when I’m writing, I’m thinking about people who are like me. So other automation engineers, or if I’m thinking any broader maybe it’ll be testers, exploratory testers, that sort of thing. Most times, that’s my target audience. But a lot of times I’ll get developers, agile coaches, scrum masters who will read this and then provide a perspective that I hadn’t considered at all because I just don’t have that point of view. So that’s really interesting and gives for a much broader scope on what you’re trying to do.
Christin: It’s really fantastic how that works. So, you’ve been to a number of conferences now. If you had a magic wand, what would you like to improve just in general about conferences? Is there still something you feel like we tend not to get quite right at conferences?
Angie: I think if I could make one wish, it would be for newer and more diverse voices to be present. I go to a lot of conferences and pretty much it’s a set of speakers that are on the circuit and you kind of know these people already. And I get really excited when I see someone new is going to speak. It’s a new perspective. When you have the same speakers, I already know where they stand on a lot of these issues. Whatever topic they’re going to talk about, you already know their stance on it. You still go and it’s still entertaining but you want to hear something new and fresh. It’s not just on the conference organizers but there are a lot of people who are just afraid to speak. They may be afraid of public speaking or they may doubt they have anything that they can share with the broader community.
To those people who are thinking about wanting to speak but not sure about what they want to say, I encourage you to just take what you’re working on. If there’s an interesting problem that you solved or you’re working in a new space, share your story. You don’t even have to have a solution, really. Talk about the hurdles that you have to overcome. And that’s really refreshing. You find that people identify with that. Any time I speak, afterwards I have a bunch of questions or people come to me and say, yes, I had those same issues, thank you so much for giving me ideas to take back to work.
Christin: I think that’s very true. When we’re not an experienced speaker, we tend to look at speakers as the experts and the authorities that have all the answers so we think of it as unattainable. Let’s say that I have worked up my courage and I do want to speak at a conference, what’re your tips for getting accepted to one? Because you still have to write that abstract and there’s a lot of competition for the speaking slots.
Angie: Yeah, you’re right. What I recommend is getting someone to look over it for you, someone who’s spoken before. And what I realize is that a lot of people are really shy about maybe asking speakers that they know to help them. They think that they’re not going to help them or are too busy or something like that. But just reach out to them. I would say mentoring but that’s such a scary word, it has this connotation of long term commitment so I wouldn’t even ask for that.
I’ll use myself as an example, if anybody wants to reach out to me, “Hey Angie, I’m thinking of writing an abstract, would you mind taking a look at my draft?”. And that person would probably be more than willing to help you and they can give you some feedback and some pointers, they’ve done this a bunch of times, and help to make your abstract more competitive.
Christin: Are there any conferences you’d recommend for beginner speakers?
Angie: Most conferences are looking for fresh voices. So if there’s any that you like, go for it, but I’ve found Test Bash to be extremely friendly to new speakers and very welcoming. That was the first conference that I spoke at. They were so welcoming, they were so nice. Everyone was really supportive. You got the feeling that the entire audience wants you to succeed when you’re onstage.
Christin: Which is kind of nice and what you’re looking for.
Angie: Exactly, you don’t want to feel like people are critiquing you, waiting to correct you, or anything like that. Test Bash was really good to me.
Christin: And let’s say that I do get accepted to a conference, do you have any tips for how should I best prepare to be successful when I give my first presentation?
Angie: I still have to do this pretty much every time I give a talk, I have to remind myself that I’m not there to teach. I’m a teacher by profession, I do this on the side, teach college classes. The conference is not the place for that unless I’m doing a workshop. When I do a talk, I have to switch modes and remind myself that I’m here to share my experience and my story. I’ve found that people are much more receptive to that.
When you come off as very professorial, people are more likely to challenge your thoughts. Saying it won’t work in this instance and it won’t work in that instance. And it might leave a bad experience for you. But if you come at it like, “Hey, here is my experience, this is what I did, this is what I learned”. No one can debate that. They can take what they want from that. If they get something out of it, then great.
Christin: I think that’s really sage advice. You want to set yourself up for a pleasant experience the first time you speak. It’s like you say, no one can question your experiences or the story you’re telling. Is there a speaker that you’ve never listened to that you really feel like, “I want to hear this person speak”.
Angie: Cassandra Leung. I think she lives in Germany now. She’s on Twitter and she blogs some as well and she has really interesting thoughts and perspectives. She’s fairly new to testing in general, which also gives a fresh perspective. She’s only been testing for a couple of years. She recently started speaking and I’m really excited to hear her. I think that we may both be at Agile Testing Days so I’m really looking forward to hearing her.
Christin: That sounds great. It was her tweeting and blogging that made you interested in watching or listening to her speak?
Angie: Yes, and she comes up with really thought provoking topics that make you sit back and give it some consideration. So I’m really excited about her and what she’s going to do in the future.
Christin: I know we primarily focused on conferences but I do just want to quickly ask, if I’m really excited about working out loud, what else should I do apart from trying to get accepted at conferences? Where do you think I should start?
Angie: I think that the way to start is by listening. Before you put your voice out there, I think it’s really important to see what others are saying. You can do this by following people in the test community, there are several test channels and also several blogs. I read a ton of blogs and this really helps me see what people are talking about and to get a gauge on the pulse of the testing community. I’m also able to see problem areas. You see people complaining about not being able to do this or do that, or they’re struggling to get something to work, so this helps me figure out what I want to talk about next. Or maybe there’s a debate going on in the community and a lot of people feel one way and a lot of people feel another way. That would be a great topic to talk about as well. What’s your stance and why?
Christin: Interesting. I think you bring up something important that working out loud is amazing but listening is important too. Is there anything that you would have liked to tell yourself before your first presentation in retrospect? Or any feedback that you would have liked to tell yourself on your first presentation?
Angie: Yes, I think the whole notion of “everyone wants you to win” was something I didn’t realize until after the fact. By me teaching a lot, I don’t get very nervous about speaking. But there were a lot of big name people who were in the audience of my first talk. And still now, even though I’ve spoken quite a bit, big-name people make me nervous, knowing that they’re going to be in the audience. It’s extra pressure that I really have to know what I’m talking about and I can’t make any mistakes because all of these big name people are here watching.
Christin: I just have to interrupt to say, you do realize you’re a big name person too right?
Angie: [Laughs] But just knowing, if I could tell myself that those big name people really want you to succeed. They’re here as part of your cheerleading squad. That probably would have given me a bit more courage and enthusiasm.
Christin: What can you do to make it a little less dramatic when you are one of those people that people actually know about?
Angie: What I like to do is, and maybe I should get better at this, but if it’s someone that I already know from the community, if it’s one of their first talks, I’ll just go up to them before or send them a little message on Twitter saying, “I’m so excited to hear you speak and I know you’re going to do well”. Just a little word of encouragement so that they know that I’m rooting for them.
Christin: I think that’s amazing and I know that means a lot to people so thanks for doing that and keep doing it.
Christin: What would be the first book you would write if you were to write a book on testing?
Angie: That’s really funny because I’ve gotten that question from a few people who said, “Oh are you going to write a book”? As if it’s just a natural progression or something [laughs]. I don’t think I have anything to say. I realize that’s ironic, considering it goes against the very thing I’m telling speakers about how you always have something to say, but I don’t think I have anything book worthy. If there are any topics that anybody would like me to write about, please send them my way to inspire me. As of right now, I really don’t think I have anything worth writing a book about but I have contributed a chapter to a book.
Christin: You are so wrong. Just your experiences, you can turn that into a whole book. From being, maybe a little lonely tester to how you interact with the community and what the community means to you.
Angie: Aww thanks. I appreciate the vote of confidence!
Christin: I really appreciate your time. It was very nice talking to you. You are doing a fantastic job of giving back to the community. It’s really important and the community wouldn’t be what it is without people like you. On behalf of all testers, thank you very much.
Angie: Thank you so much.