Inclusive Conferences

I went to my first testing conference back in the early 90s. I learned a lot, but I was too intimidated to try to “network” with anyone. The speakers seemed standoffish, the feeling I got was “You’re a nobody, so don’t try to talk to us.” Maybe that was an unfair interpretation on my part, but there was no effort to make non-speaking participants feel included. Since much of the value of conferences is the people you meet and the learning you do outside of the official sessions, being inclusive of all participants is vital.

A more welcoming community

What a difference I found at XP 2001 in Raleigh (one of the precursors to the current Agile 20xx conference). The people who “wrote the books” were all so welcoming. Even being such a shy person, I had conversations with many of the leading XP authors and practitioners, and met people who still help and support me today.

I can’t put my finger on what made the XP conferences so welcoming, other than the humility and friendliness of the “big names” there. Perhaps because it was a new and passionate community. I think we need to identify the factors that make everyone at a conference feel included, and make sure they are in place.

Cliques

I’ve been to several conferences where I felt part of a friendly and helpful community. Agile Testing Days and TestBash are both good examples – to me.A few months ago I had read a post by Chris George in which he discussed conferences, cliques and community. (I had forgotten who wrote the post until after I published this, so I’m giving credit where it is due). It raised my awareness of how many conference participants can feel like their “outsiders” and not getting the full benefit of the community.

Since then, I’ve heard myself from first-time participants of both of these say that they found that the “veterans” of the conference formed cliques and that new participants felt excluded. Stories like this: “While I was talking with <name of person who is well known in the community>, someone came up and hugged her and started talking to her, excluding me. It was so rude.”

I know how hard the organizers of these conferences work to promote a welcoming environment. Agile Testing Days 2017 had a Meet and Greet evening the night before the conference. They made reservations for groups at several different restaurants, let people sign up for a group, and had a volunteer escort each group to dinner. This gave each person a group of familiar faces, with whom they connected throughout the conference. Even so, some people who participated experienced rude behavior on the part of conference speakers and other conference alumnae.

A group of friends at the hotel bar, might look like a clique to newbies
A group of friends at the hotel bar, might look like a clique to newbies

I love hanging out in the hotel bar with friends I have known for years. But I want everyone to know we would love them to join our group. I have to work a lot harder at this.

How can we make conferences inclusive?

Cassandra Leung came up with a terrific way to motivate herself to meet people at conferences: Tester Bingo, which she explains on the Tester’s Island Discs podcast. She provided Tester Bingo cards for Agile Testing Days, they were available at the registration desk. As a shy person, I found it a great excuse to walk up to a stranger, introduce myself, and ask them to write their name on my bingo card. Unfortunately, a lot of participants somehow didn’t learn about the Tester Bingo. I think the bingo cards would help a lot of people be brave enough to go introduce themselves to both the people pictured on the card, and to other people to fill in the blank spaces.

At Agile Testing Days, a first-year participant noted that the conference name badges were color coded. Speakers had one color, first-time participants had another. The idea might have been to let veterans know who was new and help them feel welcome. And it can be a great conversation starter to ask a speaker “So, what is your session about?” Still, it could also make people feel categorized and excluded.

I think conference organizers can do a lot, as seen with the Agile Testing Days dinner idea that I described above. But they can only do so much. I think it’s up to us, the veteran speakers who love to catch up with each other at conferences, to include delegates that we don’t know. I tried to be really mindful of this at Agile Testing Days, but I fear I probably was sometimes the one who interrupted a conversation to hug a friend. I did work at speaking to new people (filling in my bingo card!) and sitting down with strangers at mealtimes.

Make an effort

I had a lovely serendipitous moment at breakfast on the last day of Agile Testing Days. It was early and the restaurant was pretty empty. I saw a young woman who looked familiar and asked if I could sit with her. This was way out of my comfort zone – I’d rather eat alone than with a stranger, and I wasn’t even sure she was there for the conference. She was there for only the last day of the conference, because she had to pay for it herself and she had traveled from Budapest to Potsdam to participate. She made the most of her one day: she attended the Women and Allies workshop the night before (which is why she looked familiar), she came to the 7:00 am Run/Walk, the 8:00 am Lean Coffee, and the regular conference sessions. It turned out that we had a mutual friend, and we accidentally all had lunch together. That was a wonderful connection for me, I enjoyed learning about her testing community in Budapest. I hope she found value as well.

What ideas do you have to make sure everyone feels welcome at conferences, and avoid these sort of high-school style cliques? Intentions are good all the way around – but we need to change the reality.

6 comments on “Inclusive Conferences

  1. I think it’s great seeing people again at all the Agile Testing Days (or other conferences) and I do immensely enjoy talking them. Also, I agree that we may look like a clique. Maybe we can find a way to visibly and obviously open the circle for more people to join?

    One thing I did this time during lunch, is to sit down at an empty table — and wait to see, if someone asks whether they may join. (Of course they do!) Apart from getting to have lunch with someone I may not know yet, I don’t have to ask to join a table. Yes, I’m an introvert.

    The color-coded name tag could indeed support a feeling of different ‘grades’ of attendees. In the case of the Agile Testing Days this year: Rookie, Alumnus, Speaker, Volunteer & Organiser (if I remember correctly).
    But it also helped: This way, I was able to talk to first time attendees, assuming that they might be a bit intimidated by others. I definitely has when I attended the conference the 1st time back in 2009.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Important points in your post.

    I think I remember some of those private club type of testing conferences in the 1990s – remember it was at such an event that you and I first had a chance to get to know each other!

    These days I like to hang out at testing labs at conferences and chat with delegates and speakers who wander by. I like to test with people to get to know them … I use a sort of “test with me” theme to meet and share with others.

    So I suggest testing conferences make friendly places available for people to test together … make new friends and make things real all at once.

    Nice reading you blog

    It’s all about people – and the occasional bug!

    cheers

    RobSab

  3. Hi Rob, as I recall, we met at that conference in Brussels in 2000 where you were so kind to me and campaigned on my behalf to get me voted best presentation! So yes, that conference was a different experience. But also, I was a speaker, and I find that more people talk to me in that case.

    I often see you during social events or just in the bar at the conference hotel welcoming new people – we can all learn by your example!

  4. Yes, I was surprised that some people don’t like being designated as a first-time attendee. Maybe we could give everyone a sticker or ribbon with whatever designation – speaker, veteran, first-time – and they can attach it to their badge if they want?

  5. My first Agile Testing Days was last year. It was only my second speaking conference, and my first where I turned up without any colleagues and only knowing one or two people there. I also consider myself shy (it’s remarkable just how many of us do), but I was determined to make the effort to try and interact more.
    The good thing about ATD is that you have multiple opportunities to do so. I turned up a day early to do some sightseeing, and just by hanging about the reception on the Sunday evening, I ended up going around the Christmas Market with the organisers and a couple of other speakers. On the Monday we had the Speaker’s Dinner, which was relaxed and fun, and then I gave my talk on the Tuesday, and people came up and chatted to me after, and that was great. Then at the evening party, again I was sat with people I didn’t know, and again it just didn’t matter.
    After the party, because we were all in the same hotel, I ended up in the bar and managed to grab a seat where a card game was going on – and ended up playing it for the next four hours. Next evening was Games Night, and again those opportunities to just sit with a bunch of strangers and talk and laugh (and have the odd beer…). Then the cabaret, and the same thing happens. And every mealtime. And every coffee break. And then I went to the Women in Agile event and the same thing happened again. And then I stayed on the Friday night, and ended up going out for a meal with about 10 of us who’d stayed on (that was with you and Janet and Mike…).
    I think my point is – it’s not a clique – it’s a community. You do have to make some effort if you’re new to come out of your comfort zone and interact, but you do have multiple opportunities, and many people, who will help you do so. And the rewards are worth it, and you’d be amazed (like I was – and still am) just how quickly you will be welcomed into it.

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