Monday, May 14, 2012

Let's Test Raises the Bar for CONFERences

If you follow me regularly, you know that I speak at, participate in, help to organize, facilitate, sponsor, etc. a *lot* of conferences, you know I do my best to give praise where praise is due -- and Let's Test 2012, Stockholm Sweden, held May 7-9 is due plenty of praise for raising the bar for Testing CONFERences.

Lest I offend anyone inadvertently or unnecessarily, allow me to share with you how I categorize conferences.
  1. Academic Conference: Summary presentations of detailed papers... frequently research based, infrequently directly applicable to industry. Papers are vetted in detail and peer reviewed (theoretically leading to high quality content, but that is a debatable matter of opinion)
  2. Peer Conference: A 20ish participant, invitation only, pay your own expenses and no one turns a profit, intense 2-3day, tightly themed, facilitated, deep exploration of participants 1st hand experiences related to the theme.
  3. Vendor Conference: I broadly think of this as any conference put on by a for-profit organization for the purpose of earning money, winning new clients, and/or keeping existing clients happy. I make no distinction between vendors of tools, services, training, or publications. This is what most people think of when they hear "conference"
  4. CONFERence: A hybrid of Peer and Vendor conferences, focused on content and community, organized by non-profit or volunteer groups with no established financial goal beyond "break-even" designed specifically to encourage attendees to CONFER (i.e. self-manage discussions and interactions related to, extending, and/or debating presented materials, as well as simply taking the opportunity to get to network and build relationships w/in their professional community.
Personally, I find it somewhere between difficult and pointless to compare or contrast "goodness" of one category of conference with another. Each category has a purpose, a value proposition, representative instances of "good" and "not-so-good", and I've had both positive and negative experiences with conferences in each category. So do me a favor, and don't misquote this post as making "cross-category comparisons". Cool? Cool.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Ladies & Gentlemen, this CONFERence ROCKED! I simply can't say enough good things about it from beginning to end, but let me try to give you a summary of what's got me amped & making the "bar-raising claim":

  • This whole thing was organized and delivered by 5 guys with zero, let me say that again, ZERO, experience with event or conference planning. They did it as volunteers, with no funding, while holding down their "day jobs", with no intent to make any money (though admittedly the strong desire to not end up having to dip into their personal accounts to cover a loss), over a span of about 16 months... and they both started and ended the process as good friends (and are already talking about doing it again!)
  • Even with the eye of not only an experienced conference organizer, some "insider knowledge" as the Let's Tests first official sponsor & a periodic sounding board for some of the organizers, and (arguably) the single person with the most experience organizing the specific events that inspired Let's Test, I must say, without fear of any defensible argument, that the organization, logistics, planning, implementation, facilities coordination, and all of the other "back-office" stuff was *at least* on par with the best I've ever seen from volunteers!
  • The facility was unbelievable! It was perfectly suited for sessions, keynotes, tutorials, a test lab, lots and lots of places for impromptu small group gatherings (on comfy chairs, with tables & free internet, close enough to "feel" all the action, yet secluded enough to hear your new friend's story). It was "remote" but didn't make you feel "secluded", everything you needed was onsite. Rooms were "across the courtyard" from the "conference hall", there were nature trails, art galleries, libraries, and, and, and -- and that's before I factor in the price of the participant package, which was downright cheap for the quality of the all-inclusive (once you made your way to the facility, of course) services! For example, I lost count of how many people commented on Let's Test having "The best food they have ever had at a conference of any sort!" (Ok, so I guess I just made a cross-category comparison... oops ). It's possible that I lost count as a result of the fact that I slept all of about 4 hrs a night while there, or the frequency with which I took advantage of the extended open bar hours... or maybe those are actually the same reason... regardless, lots of people commented on the food alone
  • The content was fantastic. It was progressive, relevant, experiential, thought-provoking and actionable. Presenters were all top notch (I was just plain impressed with several presenters *before* they told me I had just witnessed their very first time presenting outside of their own project team!). And I say that discounting the "internationally known quantity" speakers like myself, Michael Bolton, Rob Sabourin, Julian Harty, Anne-Marie Charret, Fiona Charles, Dawn Haynes, James Lindsay, and whomever else belongs on that list that I'm not thinking of at the moment.
  • Here's the almost unbelievable part -- all of that was second to the atmosphere, interactions, passion, respect, inquisitiveness, openness, and mutual trust of all the participants! The only thing I can equate the Let's Test atmosphere to would be something like a Sci-Fi Convention or ComiCon (for any of you who have ever attended one of those in your, ahem, younger years) except where the brilliantly deep exploration was related to topics relevant to our career -- if that doesn't inspire a "Wow, I'm so sad I missed it!" response, how 'bout this... It was kinda like a 150 person class reunion, except that all of those "annoying classmates that you didn't want to see" either matured into someone cool, or didn't attend. Or how about this one. Ya'know how you go to conferences, talk to people and you always say you're going to follow up after the conference, but almost no one ever does? Well, my inbox is FULL, yes FULL of desired follow-up emails from folks I talked to at Let's Test! Never, and I mean never, have I had so much positive and continuing engagement with so many wonderful, thoughtful and friendly people during a single event of any kind in my life. 
Folks, I could go on, but I won't. I'll simply conclude with this. There is a new high water mark for CONFERences (and it's pretty darn high). If I were you, I'd be on the lookout for announcements about future installments of Let's Test and plan to submit papers, lock in sponsorship, and/or register your seat *immediately*. If you really care about testing, like CONFERing with your peers, enjoy a good time, and have some room in your life for new friends you'll end up kicking yourself for a long time if you miss the next Let's Test.

Oh, one last thing. In the US, there's a burger chain (a good one, I might add) called "Five Guys Burgers and Fries" that's often referred to simply as "Five Guys", but from now on, when *I* refer to "5 Guys", I'll be talking about the 5 Bar Raising CONFERence Organizer Guys my friends and hopefully my future CONFERence organizer mentors: Henrik Andersson, Henrik Emilsson, Ola Hyltén, Johan Jonasson, and Torbjörn Ryber

Scott Barber
Chief Technologist, PerfTestPlus, Inc.
Director, Computer Measurement Group

Co-Author, Performance Testing Guidance for Web Applications
Author, Web Load Testing for Dummies
Contributing Author, Beautiful Testing, and How To Reduce the Cost of Testing

"If you can see it in your mind...
     you will find it in your life."
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