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.
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.
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.