CASTing About

Last week found me at CAST thanks to Jeff Atwood on behalf of Stack Exchange (now with a tester-centric site!). Thanks, Jeff!

You might remember I went to CAST last year and came back way impressed; this year's CAST managed to actually surpass my expectations! And it failed to meet them as well.

Location. CAST 2011 was up in Lynnwood, WA, just up the road from Seattle. In my mind this is starting to get into the boonies, but really it's still well in civilization. Plenty of four star (according to Bing) restaurants of all makes and models (including, apparently, a preponderance of Really Good Korean), its very own conference center, and hotels across a range of price points and amenities.

The conference hotels were fine, nothing fancy, not horrid either. The biggest problem here was that plural: there were *two* conference hotels, a 20-minute walk from each other. Not a horrible distance (I walk way more than that everyday), but far enough apart that it took coordination to decide when to meet who where. Just one hotel - or multiple in closer proximity - would have been nice. (CAST 2012, please take note!)

Food. I was impressed by the conference center's food: much better than I've come to expect from conference center fare. This would be a solid "Awesome!" were it not for the distinct lack of protein in *some* of the meals. Like about half of them. While (I guess) some people get by fine eating mostly carbs, I need pretty much a 50/50 mix between carbs and protein. Sandwiches had plenty of protein, nothing else did. (CAST 2012, please take note!)

Program. The program this year was created rather autocratically, with presentations being by invitation of the program chair rather than the typical call for papers. This resulted in a bit of an uproar, so an Emerging Topics track was added: shorter, 20-minute talks (as opposed to the 60+ minutes of standard sessions), suggested by and voted on by the CAST community. The shorter length resulted in a somewhat lower barrier to entry - while the community input on the speakers may have actually resulted in a higher barrier to entry. This was a great idea I hope is continued in the future! (CAST 2012, please take note!)

Sessions. The sessions were uniformly great - which is not to say every speaker was incredibly polished, which is exactly as it should be. CAST isn't so much about "Come hear me wow you with my awesome speaker skills (that don't give you a chance to get a question in edgewise)" as "Come hear me talk about this thing, and then let's have a facilitated discussion that's as much about your thoughts as mine". So while more polish from some of the presenters might have been nice (like, the microphone's there to be spoken *into*, not to hold by your waist), the discussions more than made up for any lack of polish. And - in my ultimate test of a talk - I came away from every talk with at least one new idea or question. So awesome!

Tutorials. I attended Michael Bolton's tutorial on Test Framing, so I can't speak to the others. In a fractal of the conference, I think this tutorial both met and failed my expectations: I finally understand what Michael means when he talks about framing tests, and every encounter I have with Michael ends up making my brain hurt in a really good way; yet it also felt like a partial rehash of Rapid Software Testing, and I spent about a third of the tutorial puzzled how it had anything to do with test framing. Overall, though, a good use of my time.

Questions. The questions I most remember - and am still pondering - are:

Quotes. Oh the surfeit of fantastic quotes :) My favorites:

  • Pretty much everyone, at one point of another: "All models are wrong, some models are useful"
  • Michael Bolton, in his keynote: "A tester's job isn't to confirm that a product works as expected, but to discover how it actually works"
  • James Bach, in his keynote: "Doing something just because you're told to isn't being an engineer"
  • Ajay Balamurugadas relating how a company asked Weekend Testers to test its product, they did and replied with a plethora of bug reports - and then never heard from said company again
  • Pete Whalen, in his Emerging Topics talk, suggesting doing integration testing "like your system's a character in Pulp Fiction, because all those 'unrelated' systems actually are"
  • Paul Holland quoting Paul Gerrard's modification of a quote from Michael Bolton: "Why didn't I find that bug? Because the developers hid it so well even *they* couldn't find it!"
  • Nancy Kelln amazing list of ("truly awful", to again quote Paul Holland) testing-related metrics
  • Sherry Heinze's understated "It's hard to test if you don't think"

Am I glad I went? Definitely! Even with inexperienced speakers, protein-light meals, and half of CAST being in a different hotel, this was the most fun - and learning - I've had all year. The keynotes, Emerging Topics, and (I think) Lightning Talks will soon be posted at CAST's archive; I encourage you to check them out and get a taste of what could be yours next summer when CAST 2012 comes to Silicon Valley - hope to see you there!