Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Formality in open season at a peer conference

I attended the fifth annual Kiwi Workshop for Software Testing (KWST5) this week. Overall, I really enjoyed spending two days discussing the role of testing with a group of passionate people.

I took a lot from the content. But it's not what we discussed that I want to examine here, instead it's how we discussed it. As I was sharing the events of the final day with my husband he made a comment that troubled me. I took to Twitter to gauge how other people felt about his statement:

Since this tweet created a fair amount of discussion, I thought I would take the time to gather my thoughts and those from others into a coherent narrative, and share some of the ways in which I would approach the same situation differently next time.

Who was there?

I found the dynamic at this year's conference different to previous years. It felt like I was going to spend two days with my friends. Among the attendees, there were only two people who I had never met before. Most of the people in the room were frequent attendees at KWST, or frequent attendees at WeTest, or people who help create or contribute to Testing Trapeze, or current colleagues, or former colleagues, or simply friends who I regularly chat to informally outside of work.

This meant that it was the first year that I wasn't nervous about the environment. It was also the first year that I didn't feel nervous about delivering a talk. Though I was a little anxious about the content of my experience report overall I would say that I felt relatively relaxed.

So, who exactly was in the room? James Bach, Oliver Erlewein, Richard Robinson, Aaron Hodder, Sarah Burgess, Andy Harwood, Adam Howard, Mark Boyt, Chris Priest, Mike Talks, Joshua Raine, Scott Griffiths, John Lockhart, Sean Cresswell, Rachel Carson, Till Neunast, James Hailstone, David Robinson and Katrina Clokie.

What happened?

I was the first speaker on the second day of the conference. My experience report was the first set in an agile context. The topic of the role of testing in agile had been touched on through the first day, but not explored.

I knew that there was a lot of enthusiasm for diving in to a real discussion, and was expecting a robust open season. In fact, the passion for the topic far exceeded my expectations. The particular exchanges that my husband questioned were in one particular period of the open season of my experience report.

Oliver proposed a model to represent roles in agile teams that kicked off a period of intense debate. During this time the only cards in use by participants were red, the colour that indicates the person has something urgent to say that cannot wait. I believe this spell of red cards exceeded 30 minutes, based on a comment from Mike who, when called as the subsequent yellow card, said "hooray, I've been waiting almost 40 minutes".

During this period of red cards, there were several occasions where multiple people who were waiting to speak were actively waving red cards. There were people interrupting one another. There were people speaking out of turn, without waiting to be called upon.

There were specific exchanges within this particular period that my husband questioned. I'm going to share four examples that relate specifically to my own behaviour.

The first happened relatively early in the red card period. Aaron made a statement that I started to respond to. When he attempted to interrupt my response, and he was not the first to interrupt me, I replied by raising my voice and telling him to shut up, so that I could finish what I was saying.

Perhaps halfway through the red card period, I had stopped responding to the people who were raising the red cards and the conversation was flowing among the participants themselves. Rich asked, in his role as facilitator, whether I agreed with what people were saying. I replied that no, I thought they were full of sh*t.

Near the end of the exchange I was asked whether I believed, on reflection, that I had behaved as a moron during the first experience I shared in my experience report. As a caveat my interpretation of this comment has been refuted in subsequent Twitter discussions.

Finally, there was a case where three people were speaking at once and none had used a card. I interjected with a comment that "we have cards for a reason" to shut down their conversation.

Was it a problem?

At the time, I didn't think there was a problem. I shared James' view that "it was an intense exchange done in a good and healthy spirit". I found that red card period of open season incredibly challenging, but I never felt unsafe.

On reflection though, I do think there was a problem.


My behaviour during open season contributed to an atmosphere where people were talking over one another and behaving informally. The lack of discipline in the heat of these exchanges meant that several people in the room withdrew from the discussion.

This goes directly against the spirit of a peer conference, which is designed for everyone to be included equally. I now feel that I was part of an exchange that excluded those who were unable or unwilling to voice an opinion in this atmosphere.

What would I do differently?

In future, I think that I need to remember to respect the formality of a peer conference. I felt that I was among friends and, because of this, I bought an informal attitude to my exchanges.

I believe this reflection is shared by some others who were present. On Twitter, Aaron said "I shouldn't interact with people I know during formal exchanges differently, and open season is a formal exchange". Sean said "Maybe we need to be more conscious of those relationship biases we bring to peer conferences? I'm guilty of it".

In future, if I felt overwhelmed by interruptions, I would stop and ask for support from the facilitator. On reflection, the very first time I felt compelled to raise my voice and start participating in the culture of talking across people would have been a good opportunity to pause and reset expectations for the discussion.

What do other people think?

What do you think? How formal are your peer conferences? How formal should they be?


  1. Reading "During this time the only cards in use by participants were red, the colour that indicates the person has something urgent to say that cannot wait. I believe this spell of red cards exceeded 30 minutes, [...]" and " There were people interrupting one another." made me pause. To me that's no longer a facilitated open season. If you're using red cards only, you might as well not use cards at all, as they have lost their meaning. Especially with people interrupting each other and speaking out of turn, it's become a free-for-all.
    So having the comfort of speaking on the sidelines, a good course of action at the start of the spell would have been for everyone to take a breather and then have the facilitator lay down the law. Everyone hands in their red card and discussion continues with green and yellow only. Or you could explore different discussion formats, as the facilitated open seasons was not working for the group.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions on how we could have take an alternate approach for next time.

      I have focused on thinking about what I would do differently rather than the facilitator. I think the facilitator was reading the situation pretty well. As I stated above, I never felt unsafe and, at the time, I didn't think we had a problem.

      That said, one of the things I mentioned above was that the facilitator is the person I would turn to if I were in a similar position again. In future I would verbalise that I needed some support. Now that I've had this experience, I would recognise it as a situation where I could end up behaving this way. I would ask their for their help, so that we could work out together how to proceed.

  2. As someone in the room who was new to both the group and the format, I found this ER and open season particularly invigorating. For the most part the process was being followed, people weren't over-talking one another and what I saw occurring was simply a healthy and passionate debate. When over-talking did start to become an issue, the "shut up" was well timed, well delivered, and well received. People had a laugh, calmed down a bit, and discussion resumed.
    The only impact I did notice was that you (Katrina) seemed to withdraw from the discussion after delivering this rebuke, possibly from discomfort or just considering the implications of having done so, and only really rejoined when the facilitator asked you a direct question to draw you back in.
    Over the workshop there seemed to be several occasions where red cards were used that would have more appropriately been yellows (this was often pointed out by the facilitator at the time), but this particular situation you described might have been the perfect opportunity for the facilitator to interject and re-iterate the difference between the cards and thus have removed the need for your reaction.
    Having said that, I thought Rich did a fantastic job as facilitator and as already mentioned I thought the whole event a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
    As my first time taking part in an event of this type I can't really offer a valuable opinion as to whether more or less formalization would be more or less effective, but I can state that for someone like myself starting out in this environment, I found this format, with this level of formality, a successful method of generating healthy debate and encouraging participation.

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris. I'm happy that, as a first time attendee, you enjoyed the experience and interpreted the exchanges in the way that they were intended.