We live in interesting times.

As we near the end of 2020, inevitably as humans we start to reflect on the past year and start thinking of the next.

Covid-19 has dominated everything this year – work life, home life, social life, how we shop, where we can exercise, who we can see, where we can or cannot travel to. No-one could have predicted that we would all spend so much time working from home, which is pretty ironic as so many organisations have been reticent to allow people to do much of this for fear that people would be less productive and company culture would suffer.

As I look back over the past 9 months, its not just the changes to working habits that have changed for me, as I’ve been lucky to have had an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn new skills.

At the beginning of 2020, as a Senior Test Manager, I had 10 direct reports. The testers worked within the 5 product teams, so it was a form of matrix management which I know many managers will be familiar with. The testers reported to me, but other team members reported to the Team Leads, which of course can cause confusion. One of the concerns was making sure that Team leads and I were in alignment with whatever needed to be done from a testing perspective, as I never wanted to put anyone in the position of being pulled in two different directions. I think we managed this pretty well, but it was not always easy, so in July the testers started reporting to the Team leads as it made more sense, and my role became Head of Quality Engineering a title I suggested as it reflects the different focus of the role. As Head of QE, this is more of a coaching role, looking at testing standards, our automation approach, tools etc, and additionally I also assess how teams follow the SDLC to cover all areas of delivery.

I was just getting into this when I was asked to step in and become an interim Team Lead. As a role, its quite broad, working with Product Managers to plan the delivery of stories in each sprint, so we deliver against the roadmap. When I was asked, I realised it was a stretch for me – I have had no formal scrum master training, and am not that technical, so managing developers was a concern. But I said yes, without over-thinking it and with no major concerns. The younger me would have worried, as I had a very bad experience 20 years ago when asked to step in a look after a team temporarily whilst a manager went on sabbatical – they knew he was not coming back and I was left to flounder with no support, managing testers on unfamiliar products. Since that time I’ve been suspicious of stepping in to help in case of being stitched-up, but not here, as that’s not the way we work.

The first day I came back from annual leave in August, I had a call with the Senior developer and my manager, and we shaped out how to cover the role. All the tech questions would sit with the senior dev, and I would cover the delivery side. From then on, I went into ‘Steve’ mode – wanting and needing to know everything all at once, and trying to run before I walked. Although I was under no external pressure, I didn’t want to let anyone down, and felt I had to know everything, which of course takes time. We were halfway through a sprint, so I needed to get to grips with the ceremonies, processes, what the status of the tasks were, who was working on what, meet each of the team 1-2-1 to get to know them properly, and start thinking of the next sprint. It was hard to start with – I made lots of notes, skim read the Essential Scrum book by Kenneth S. Rubin, and just dived in.

Looking back at the first few weeks, I felt like I was drowning at times. The role is big, there are a lot of things to co-ordinate, and with no formal scrum master training, I ended up using common sense to work out what to do. But, it got easier and quite quickly. With great support from the senior developer, tech lead and product manager, I was able to suggest and make some changes:

  • I had noticed that the team didn’t always have stand-ups over Teams or Zoom, and often had text based updates instead. So the first change was to have daily calls with all attending, and only making a text based update if we had company meetings that took precedence.
  • The next challenge was the backlog and ensuring we had stories ready to work on in the next sprint, so I introduced grooming meetings a week before the new sprint, to review candidates and select stories that were important to the product owner that had full description and acceptance criteria.

Immediately as a team we saw that this has a positive impact. Stories could be worked on without the devs or testers needing to seek clarification from the product owner. They were also easier to break down and estimate.

From that point on, life became easier, we got into the 2 week sprint cycles and to be honest I don’t know where the time has gone. We delivered some big pieces of work, one of which I am particularly proud of, but for commercial reasons will not be sharing details. The point is, I was making a difference, the work I was doing benefitted others, and as someone who like helping other people, it was a win-win.

Fast forward 4 months, and the new team lead has been in place for 4 weeks, and I’ve completed the handover piece. My next chapter is going to expand on the Head of QE role – coaching the testers, looking at improvements for 2021 and delving into monitoring.

I’m so glad that I was asked to step in, and that I had the confidence to go for it. Too much of my career has been in areas I am comfortable in, following the bad experience of 2001. But what I have learned from this over the last 10 years is that we all need to be stretched. I did this back in 2013 to 2016 in a previous role, taking on other tasks and responsibilities, and I have always come away from it with new skills, more resilience and the knowledge that I can do even more than I thought.

If I were to give one piece of advice, I’d say to go for any new experience you can, whether you are asked to do it, or whether you offer to take something on. You will find it hard, you will have doubts, you will make mistakes, but you will learn a lot about yourself, and you’ll be more resilient because of it.

Have a great Christmas and a happy new year for 2021.

Quality? Who Cares?

A few weeks ago I was really fortunate enough to be involved in delivering a Unicom talk on Quality, followed a week later by a round table talk which I hosted, and was set up by Billy Senior.

The topic of Quality is something that intrigues me in the context of software engineering. Most of my career has been dedicated to checking whether the work of someone else does what it is meant to do, and doesn’t do something that it shouldn’t. It sounds bizarre when you think of testing as just that – we are validating that a software engineer has written code that meets the requirements and expectations of an individual or group of individuals. 

But quality is not just about testing to see if something works as it should – plenty of things ‘work’, but the experience is awful, or it takes a long time to do. Quality isnt just about testing to see if something unexpected happens that causes a problem of some sort. Quality is many things to many people, as I found when I did some research for my Unicom talk – and its all subjective!

The essence of my talk was that as testers it is so difficult for us to know whether something we test can be of ‘good quality’ or not. The problem is that we have to make judgements on behalf of others, the end users. As everyone has a different perception as to what quality means to them, the only way that we can do this is by understanding what our end users want from the software we are developing for them. 

  • What is the problem that needs solving?
  • How will our software help?
  • What do they actually need to do?
  • Are there any constraints (e.g. time) that affect whatever it is?
  • What does success look like for them?
  • And so on

Only by asking questions and understanding the end user, can we as testers make any sort of recommendations. Our role is to highlight any risks that we see, and to give information to our stakeholders in order for them to make an informed decision. We may think that something is not good quality but it isnt our role to judge, its to give the right information. Why do we think that? What is the impact on the end user? do we have any suggestions?

Whilst I was writing up the slides for the talk, I still felt that this was too big a topic to do justice to in a 20 minute slot. It was also a monologue, and after doing the research, I really wanted others involved, and this is where Billy came in.

I saw a Quality Advocates post on LinkedIn, and contacted Billy to say that I’d like to get involved with a round table discussion on quality. He called me and within 20 minutes, I was going to be hosting a session 🙂  

He went away and came back with a fantastic group of professionals to join the discussion – Nicola Martin, Marie Drake, Seema PrabhuSufyan Farooqi, Oana Rusu and Rafaela Azevedo. Sadly Stuart Day couldn’t join us on the evening.
We had spoken about how diverse the group should be, not because its a buzz word, or that we need to be ‘seen’ to do it, but I don’t want to hear just from people with my background. I learn less that way, so I genuinely wanted to hear from people that came to testing from different backgrounds, worked in other industries, and in other countries. 

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We had a Slack group and had a group chat to get to know each other – I liked the fact that this gave me the chance to make new friends and contacts – and we did gel as a group.

On the evening, we allocated an hour – and we used it well. The discussion was really free flowing, and it was interesting to hear people disagreeing about what quality is – its fantastic when that happens, and a really healthy thing. We need to disagree and challenge each other at times, and I’m thankful to the group for that.

I havent posted about what we said – and that is because if you are interested in this (and assuming you have read this far, I guess you are), you can watch the recording here.

Please do watch it and add a comment here, as I’d love to know what you think about quality – what is it, who cares about it, who’s job is it to be responsible for it etc.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Get the balance right…

Those of you old enough to remember the 80’s may recall a song by Depeche Mode called ‘Get The Balance Right’ – nothing to do with testing or tech, but just a great song, and as I was thinking about this post, that’s the title that came to mind, and thus my musical memory.

I’ve been reflecting this morning on Diversity. It’s a word thrown around a lot to basically mean ‘not only white men’. It’s not saying that my views, opinions and participation in things are no longer wanted, but that everyone’s views and opinions are wanted, not just people like me.

In a few weeks, I will be taking part in something (online of course) and only saw the list of other participants over the weekend. We are all male, from different countries, so we are diversified in that we are not all British and white, but not in terms of gender balance. And this is what we forget – diversification isnt just one thing – its not just about skin colour or just about gender, or just about nationality, or just about background – its all of those things. Lisa Crispin posted a Tweet which started off with the line ‘There’s no excuse at all for not having plenty of women speakers at DevOps / CD / SRE conferences…’ and its a good one to call out. I had assumed there would be a better mix as this is 2020 after all, and all organisers should be aware by now – but this isnt always the case. And hence this post.

Equality doesnt have to mean that every workplace, every conference etc has to have an exact 50% male/female ratio – it can flex either way, but should never be 100/0 either as that doesnt represent the testing profession (which actually has a higher ratio of women – certainly in the teams I have managed!). There are professions with a higher female ratio – e.g. nursery and primary school teachers – is it a problem or just a reality? Does it matter? Is anyone disadvantaged? Does it mean that boys grow up thinking teaching jobs for men are only in secondary schools? Answers on a postcard (as they used to say on TV).

Thinking about conferences etc, there are arguments around whether we are making them ‘women friendly’ enough and whether thats the issue – and I struggle with that a bit. If we say that women are finding it difficult to put themselves forward, are we recognising that there are barriers or just generalising all women in the same way? Generalising is lazy, and makes it seem as though women have the problem – and I dont agree with that. There are many amazing women speakers out there, but a lot still haven’t been heard. Why is that? Has the work been done to properly understand the reasons?

And its not just that we are only missing women’s voices – we are missing so many testers who are not involved in speaking, for any number of reasons. I wonder how many conference organisers in their feedback sheets have questions asking ‘Is there anything that prevents you from putting yourself forward as a speaker?’ and ‘If so, how could we help you?’. Even anonymous answers would give some key pointers as to what is holding people back for any reason – could be shyness, language barrier, timing etc.

Of course the thing to remember is that we should not force people to do jobs or tasks they dont want to do – whether male or female. I think we miss the point that as humans, we have the right to choose what we want to do ourselves.

Diversity is about giving everyone the opportunity to do something if they want to, and not just to fill a quota, whether that’s in terms of a job role or speaking at a conference.

As testers what can we do to help each other?

If invited to speak at a conference, or accepted to speak at one, ask who else is involved. Is there a good balance? Call it out if not.

Work with an awesome tester you know who could be good at speaking, and help them plan out a topic, guide them with preparation, and encourage them to tell their story. Coach them!

Offer to pair talk – I have done this a couple of times with first time speakers and it worked really well. It can be a good stepping stone for a new speaker to build confidence and go on to do a solo talk afterwards.

If they are not ready to speak, encourage them to write a blog. Help them to get their voice out there and get noticed in some way that build their confidence.

Share their posts and when they are ready to speak, recommend them.

And as conference organisers, what can you do?

Stop being lazy and just asking me who I know! Get out there on social media, look on Twitter and start following testers there, see what they post, get a sense of who they are and approach good people to involve them.

Plan who you want to involve – and if that means declining me because you have already got more testers like me and want to have a better mix of people, please be open and tell me. I’m ok to hear that as a message.

Just because you invite 10 testers from different backgrounds to speak, it doesnt mean they will all say yes – they may just not want to, and thats ok. But leaving it there is not ok. Persevere. Create a wide pool of testers who you can pick from and dont just rely on the same group each time. Keep going until you have a good mix of people who really represent the make up of our industry.

Thanks for reading – please let me know your thoughts, especially if you face barriers to getting more involved – message me privately if that would help.

A very different world

This may be a little rambling, so I apologise. I have literally brain dumped things that have been going around in my brain for the past few days.

I guess when we look back at the Spring of 2020, those of us who are living through it might find it hard to explain to others exactly just what has happened to our global society in such a relatively short period of time.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has literally swept away everything that we knew about how society worked. Workplaces and shops are closed, severe restrictions are in place and around 25% of the world’s population are in lock-down. If anyone had said this could happen, we would have thought they were mad.

Yet it has happened, and already I have had 9 days working from home, and have got used to it quite quickly. We are using tools to keep in touch and there are some really inventive ways of doing virtual team activities, so it doesnt feel too bad for me. I am introverted so am quite happy to be on my own, but I imagine extroverts are straining at the leash to see people! On the plus side, saving nearly £400 in train fares is a win 🙂

We are now 3 days into a initial 3 week lockdown here in the UK (we can only go out for limited purposes), and our usual working pattern has gone – getting up, commuting to work, spending time in the office, walking up to people, meeting with them, grabbing lunch, travelling home at the end of the day, having dinner, watching TV or going out, then going to bed and doing it all again. Now we get up, maybe dress, have some breakfast, work somewhere at home – jump on various Zoom calls, stop for lunch, have a walk/run, work some more – with more Zoom calls, finish and then have dinner and watch TV as there isnt much else to do. Then we do it all again.

I will add at this point that it feels weird not to just pop out to the shops or the pub or to get a coffee, go to work, the cinema, to be able to see friends and family, go to Church etc, but we do seem to adapt to changes pretty quickly – and if this goes on for a while, it wont feel so weird, it will feel almost ‘normal’. That will be odd!!

The lack of travelling somewhere else means I need to find a way to separate work from home, and that is to work in a bedroom at a desk. I have a morning routine and start working around 8.30 – it grounds me and gets my brain into thinking that I need to focus on work tasks. The struggle is that we now spend virtually all day looking at a screen, whereas before we would get up and wander away to speak to someone or sit in a meeting. It means a lot less walking and exercise. I hadnt realised this until someone said it to me today, so we have to take care of out physical well-being. Doing exercises in the house every now and then (or garden if you are lucky) will help with that. I have an exercise bike thankfully.

We also have to look after our mental health. Keeping in touch with others is fundamental to our humanness. People genuinely struggle without human interaction, and in my organisation we are deliberately over-communicating to ensure that no-one is isolated. I check-in with my team members each day and many teams are doing ad-hoc get-togethers. Outside of the workplace people are doing virtual parties, pub quizzes, dinners etc just to keep sociable.

I find that taking breaks is important for both mental and physical health, and I am making sure to walk each day at lunchtime. I’ve noticed how quiet things are outside. I can hear birds singing, there is hardly any traffic and therefore 90% less background noise – and it struck me that it must have been like this 150 years ago, and tells me just how noisy we humans are. The impact we have on our environment is immense – yet look after a few weeks in other places just how much cleaner the air is. I feel much more relaxed and then more willing and ready to get back to work again.

Around all this, it’s been interesting to see how people are coming together in ways that we couldnt have imagined before. And within just a few days. We cannot visit people or have visitors, and we must remain 2 metres away from others, but people are really looking out for each other and doing what they can to help. We just stood at our front door and clapped to say thank you to our NHS workers, and saw people down the road who I’ve never spoken to (we have lived here for 13 years) doing the same. Community spirit is an amazing thing – when we give it time to surface. Sadly there are those who seek to turn things like this to their own advantage, but thankfully these are a small minority, a stain on society, but inconsequential when you look at how seriously people are taking the warnings and wanting to stay safe but also help the vulnerable. Over half a million volunteers signed up to help the NHS within just a few days (and the tester in me did wonder how they found time to stress test the site!).

Events like this which have such a far reaching impact into our whole existence must make us take a step back, stop, think and reflect whether we really want to go back to the frenetic pace again once this has finished.

It would be incredibly sad if all we did was revert to how we behaved up until 2 weeks ago, in our own world, rushing here and there, not having time to think of others, missing the world around us, and for many people, missing valuable family time once they are no longer working from home again.

I’m sure there are those who cant wait to get back to normal, for a variety of reasons, but I really hope that as human beings, we can take the time to think how we can change the way we live for the better. Imagine if 10% of us said ‘no’ – not going to do a long commute any more. Imagine the impact on traffic, noise and pollution. Now imagine if it was 20% who said that and the global impact.

We dont know how long this will go on for, but it gives me hope to think that some good may yet come out of this awful virus for us and our planet.

What is quality?

It’s an interesting question, and one I am going to be discussing at my next conference talk at Test Expo in London on 3rd April. Without giving too much away right now, it might be something that you could help with as the aim of this post is to do a little research.

I’ve asked a number of people what quality means to them as I am interested in knowing what different people see as quality. It could be in terms of an item you buy, a service you receive, software you use, or anything you want to use as an example.

Quality guarantee

Thinking about my role in testing, I find it interesting that even in 2020, testers are still being seen as guardians of quality, as though you can build crap software, but the testers will miraculously do something magical which results in a ‘quality’ product. (It’s like believing in Unicorns.)
In terms of software development and delivery, it seems that we have a long way to progress in how we view what quality is, and who is responsible for quality (spoiler alert – it’s the whole team, not just the poor tester!!).

After I do the talk, I will do a bigger post, but in the meantime, I would really appreciate any thoughts you have about what quality means to you, or what the word means when someone else uses it.

I am looking forward to your replies 🙂

Many thanks.

Housekeeping…

I’ve been meaning to write something for a while, but struggling to think what to say so have been putting it off, until I set myself a deadline of posting something before year end.

It was a surprise to see its nearly 4 months (!) since I last posted about job adverts and how they need to change. Maybe you had a chance to read it, maybe not, but it was something I really felt I wanted to highlight – and then once I had done so, I ran out of ideas, until today.

My focus this week has turned to housekeeping, as the approaching Christmas holidays and start of a new year tends to focus the mind. We look at our objectives, assess whether we met them, and start to plan for 2020. What do we want to achieve, add in some stretch objectives, think about how we can improve what we do personally (can I make better use of my time, go to less meetings, and have a sense of achievement), and within our teams (how do we do our testing, what can we stop doing, what can we do differently, where are the gaps in our testing).

I’ve been tidying up some old wiki pages (these have not been updated since 2016, some 2-3 years before I joined the company), and thinking about what we need to achieve as a team. There are some bigger challenges that will take time and resource to do, but there are also smaller things that can make a difference too.

It’s also a good time to reflect on the progress that has been made over the year – sometimes its really easy to forget some of the positive things that have happened. I started my role at the end of January and have a list of achievements – introducing test team meetings, thought leadership, lunch and learn sessions, automation guidelines and roadmaps, training sessions etc. These have all had a positive impact on the team, in the way that we work, learning new skills, sharing with each other, and becoming even better testers.

There are many things I would have liked to have implemented, but there is a tendency to start a new job with a list of things as long as your arm. And then reality hits and you find that the pace of change is dictated by other factors that you have no control over. Am I disappointed? No, I am a realist.

Now is the time to celebrate the wins and achievements that I have been able to make, and to try to make a more realistic plan for 2020.

I hope that you can also take some time to stop and reflect on your journey this year:

  • Where were you back in January?
  • What hopes and dreams did you have for 2019?
  • Did things pan out as expected, and if so, are you pleased?
  • If not, what changed, and did they turn out even better perhaps?
  • What can you learn from this year?
  • Have you grown as a person in your soft skills as well as your technical skills?
  • Are you happy?

I hope that you have had a fruitful year, whatever life has thrown at you, and wish you all the best with your life, career and plans for 2020.

Thanks for reading, do feel free to leave a comment on your 2019 journey.

Tester job ad’s need to change

It has been a while since my last post, due to holiday and other general busyness, plus a struggle with what to blog about, after completing the 4 part series on preparing for a conference talk.

Ironically, it was the preparation for my next talk on 17th October at Test Expo in London (https://conference.unicom.co.uk/testexpo/2019/london/) that has led me to this post. Funny how things work out.

My talk is about how testers can cultivate their careers, by investing time in 3 skill areas, rather than just on technical skills which seems to be what happens. We woefully under-invest in other areas and it really concerns me that we churn our people with tech skills but no analytical or soft skills, and that isn’t right.

I did some research into the types of skills in job ads, those HR departments are looking for and skills that testers believe are important. I’ll share more details on here after the conference talk, but the essence is that there is a disconnect between all 3.

What I want to cover here though is just one of those areas – job adverts.

I dont know whether it would come as a surprise if I said that ITJobswatch.com stats for Tester, Test Analyst and Test Engineer job ads over a 6 month period, showed that NO soft skills or analytical skills were listed.

Everything in the top 30 is either technical, educational (ISTQB) or a type of test experience needed.


A few days ago I met up with Tom McNama from www.teksystems.com for a chat, and it was fair to say that he was gobsmacked when I shared this with him.
We make assumptions that candidates come with certain things as standard – a bit like when buying a car, we dont ask for seats and a steering wheel – but with humans, we cannot take anything for granted.
Assuming that a candidate with great technical skills also possesses analytical and soft skills is a mistake.

  • How good are their communication skills?
  • Will they be able to speak to colleagues in a respectful way, and be able to articulate themselves well?
  • Could they speak to customers and represent your company?
  • How good are their analytical skills?
  • Will they be able to pick up a user story and review the acceptance criteria, and ask sensible questions that help to uncover potential risk areas?
  • Can they think about other scenarios?
  • Will they be able to learn the business well enough to know if something that is proposed might not work for the end user/customer?

To exclude these things from job ad’s is short-sighted, and can give hiring managers a headache. As a hiring manager myself, I do not want to wait until a candidate is put in front of me before I find out if they are lacking in these areas – it wastes time all round. I’d like a recruiter or internal HR partner to be able to do a good phone screen to assess these skills themselves and then put good candidates forward, but if we dont specify what we need, how can they do this effectively?
There is a difference between someone who is a little shy and needs some help and encouragement to speak to others more openly, and someone who is brusque or rude who may not so easily change, and could cause friction within the team.

On the flip side, if job ad’s only ever display the tech skills needed, this tells the candidate that they are the only skills that matter – whether that is true or not. It doesn’t encourage them to invest any time in other areas as they are not outwardly shown to be important. Would you want to work for an organisation that only values you for your tech skills and doesn’t care how you treat other people? Because that also means they don’t care how others would treat you.

Tom was very open about the fact that it is so easy to take one job ad and use that as a template for the next job. So if a template is flawed, it’ll always be flawed, unless we change and improve it, and that is where you come in as a recruiter, hiring manager or someone with any influence over what skills your next team member needs to have.

Of course you need to list the tech skills, but also think about the company culture. What type of person would fit it? How do people communicate – is it more by Slack/Email or face to face? Do you work with offshore colleagues? If so, how good does the communication need to be? What is the expectation that you have.

Think about the job of a tester – hint, it’s NOT about just writing some Selenium code! A tester should be able to analyse requirements, ask questions, highlight gaps and risks etc, so you need someone with good analytical skills, unless you really just want a code monkey who bangs out C# code all day without thinking about what they need to test!.
I believe testers should be critical thinkers, so how important are analytical skills to you?

Make sure that the job ad is well balanced. Giving an idea of the types of tasks that the candidate would be involved in will really help as it underlines the need to have a good mix of skills, and shows that the company values all of them, and this will encourage continuous learning.

Once one recruiter starts to make their job ad’s stand out in this way, others will follow. I’m going to check in on the Teksystems job ads in a few weeks, as I know Tom is keen to start addressing this if he can, and it’ll be a great start.

I will ensure that for any openings in my team, I will better emphasise the mix of tech and non-tech skills needed. What change can you make to help?

How to prepare your first conference talk – 4. Taking on board the feedback.

This is the final part of the series aimed at helping you prepare for your first conference talk.

After the talk – self reflection.

Once the talk is over, and you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, you may have another talk to go to at the same conference, but I’d advise taking some time for yourself, especially if you have just delivered your first talk.

Whether the talk was 20 minutes or 60 minutes, you will have used up a lot of emotional energy. You may feel on a high (if you thought it went well), or you may feel low and drained (if you had technical issues or felt it wasnt that well received).

It’s important to grab a drink and find a place to gather your thoughts, even before you ask for feedback. People may come up to you and tell you it was good (which is a boost), but focus on sitting quietly and jotting down some notes. Think about things such as:

  • Did the time go quickly or slowly
  • Did you lose track of time, and did you have to rush
  • Were you able to cover all the points
  • Did the talk flow or did you lose your place and struggle
  • Did you feel as though you spoke at the right volume, and engaged the audience
  • Did people seem to understand what your message – was the audience with you
  • Were you rooted to the spot or able to move around
  • Were there some good questions at the end
  • If you were going to deliver the talk tomorrow, what would you do or say differently
  • Did the slides work for you or would you change them.

There will be other things that come to mind but I think these will be the main considerations.

Your own sense of satisfaction will come from how you thought you performed plus the feedback from others, so it’s important to get your thoughts in order first, before your view is clouded.

After the talk – feedback on the day.

If you have friends or colleagues who are attending, they would be a good first port of call to ask for their honest feedback. It will be difficult for anyone to tell you if they think something didn’t work that well, so you need to prepare yourself to take onboard constructive feedback, and also give them permission to tell you as it is.

You need feedback to help you prepare for your next talk, so don’t short-circuit this loop, as you will be the one who loses out.

There will be feedback from attendees – people are usually quick to come up and say if they enjoyed a talk, and why. I have never had anyone tell me that a talk sucked (thankfully) – that feedback tends to go to the organisers, but even so, it’s good to know which parts of the talk resonated with others – ‘what went well’ – so you can replicate that next time.

After the talk – feedback from the organisers.

Hopefully you have been to enough conferences to know that there are usually feedback forms, asking what you think of the facilities, calibre of the speakers, the topics, and then the delivery of each talk itself, with some sort of scoring system.

These will be collected, collated and then distributed to the speakers a few weeks after the event, and it’s certainly something I eagerly await, as I want to know if the talk was pitched correctly, or whether I got it wrong and need to rethink some aspect of my topic or delivery.

With any luck the score will be a good one, indicating that the talk was well received – but even if not, there should be some comments to help understand why specific individuals did not feel that the talk met their expectations. Feedback is not always right – it is subjective. One person will dislike a talk whilst their neighbour will love it, as we each attend a talk and receive the information based on our own perspectives and circumstances. It’s important to note that you cannot please everyone, so take the feedback with a little pinch of salt.

As an example – if someone did not like the topic, then that’s not your fault. You could recheck the bio that you sent to make sure that what you covered matched what you said you were going to do. If it did, then there isn’t much you can do.

However, if someone felt that the talk was too slow/too quick/missed key points etc, this is far more useful, as you can think about how you delivered the talk and how you would improve it to ensure the message was given and received as intended.

Constructive feedback has much more value, so your job is to sift through and select which comments are most appropriate to helping you to plan your next talk.

Conclusion.

So, we reach the end of this mini-series on how to prepare for your first talk.

We’ve covered the initial ideas stage & submitting to conferences, preparing the talk slides, content & delivery structure, delivering the talk on the day, and now wrapping up with self-reflection & feedback.

I hope that you have found it helpful, and I would certainly value YOUR feedback on this, especially if you are preparing for a first talk, or have just finished one. Is there anything that I could add which would help others?

Lastly, if you have any specific questions about speaking and preparing to do a talk and you would like my advice, or to use me as a sounding board for any ideas, please do get in touch.

Thanks for your time.

How to prepare your first conference talk – 3. Delivering the talk.

This is part 3 in a 4 part series aimed at helping you prepare for your first conference talk.

**Updated with some additional thoughts**

A few days beforehand.

Yes, I am going to start the Delivery stage before the actual day, and there’s a good reason for this.

By this time you’ll have created the slides, rehearsed what you want to say and sent off the slides (possibly) to the organisers, and now its time to do that final checking in order to remain calm and relaxed on the day.

  1. Check you know exactly where you need to be. If its somewhere you need to travel to, I hope that travel tickets and any accommodation will have been sorted out well in advance, but this is thinking about the actual venue – have you had any instructions from the organisers?
  2. Do you know the timings? Some organisers like you to be there early to try out microphones, or to check if your laptop works, or that the slides work from their own laptop.
  3. What kit do you need to take? Laptop, charger, HDMI cable, adaptor, memory stick etc. Will you need one of the clickers for the presentation? Is it all working?
  4. Have you seen a schedule to know what time your slot is?
  5. Have you had a look online at the venue? Its useful to see if there are any photos of the rooms to get an idea what its like if you haven’t been there before.
  6. Do you know what you will wear? Some people choose business casual, others jeans and t-shirt. Its up to you – perhaps look for photos from last years event to see what the format was, but plan carefully. You don’t want to add pressure by feeling over or under dressed.

The day before

Make sure that you set your Out of Office on Outlook, set Slack to Do not disturb, and remind people that you will not be contactable.

The last thing you need before delivering your first talk is getting dragged into work emails, calls etc. Your aim for tomorrow is to remain totally focused!

Above all, keep calm. Run over the slides one last time, and do a talk through to yourself, just to remind yourself of the running order.

You may be travelling the day before, or early the next morning, but either way, try to get a good rest. Delivering a talk whilst yawning might not give off the right impression!

THE BIG DAY

Well, this is it.

The day has finally arrived, you’ve made it.

My first piece of advice is to arrive in plenty of time. Remove any possible stresses that you can from the day. Chat to the organisers, you may see other friends there that you know, have a coffee and try relaxing the nerves.

If you need to take some quiet time before your talk, then do it. Although a benefit to speaking is that you get to stay at the conference and attend all the other talks, put yourself first. If you need some space, then take it, but don’t isolate yourself for too long.

When you walk into the room to deliver the talk, you will have some time (5-10 minutes usually) to set-up. With any luck there will be no problems, but be prepared for issues if swapping over laptops – they happen 50% of the time in my experience, and people are used to waiting.

You will be introduced (I hope) by someone, and then its over to you!

Delivery

Click to the first slide, take a deep breath, and start with your own welcome. Smile.

Remember to look around at all areas of the room, try not to stand behind a lectern with arms folded or by your sides – step out, pace a little if you can so that you engage everyone. Seeing someone move around a little, and show some expression will help maintain interest, whereas a monologue delivered from one place will send people to sleep. Don’t forget to smile.

Change your voice pitch, and ask questions of the audience. “Raise your hand if you have ever experienced xyz” is a great question – you raise your hand and others follow. Leave your hand down, and so will they – even if it’s true. People follow others and mimic behaviours. It also engages them, and then they are now part of the talk.

Smile when appropriate – you will look friendly.

When you have the slides up, it’s ok to glance at the laptop screen to see where you are but avoid putting your head down and talking at the screen too much.

In the same way, avoid turning your head and talking to a screen. Although you may have a microphone, it still looks a little odd – try always to look at your audience to keep them engaged.

Look around at the audience as you speak (unless like my last talk there are spotlights in your face as it does make it awkward), as you need to know if they are coming along the journey with you. If you see people nodding with you, then they are onboard, but if they are looking elsewhere, you may be using them. It can seem as though people on phones are doing other things – but it could also be that they are tweeting about your talk, so don’t be too phased by that.

If you do see people fidgeting or looking sleepy, think about skipping ahead a little. If the depth of the subject isnt winning the audience, don’t be afraid to say  something like ‘I won’t go into too much depth, but happy to chat with anyone afterwards if you are interested’. It shows that you recognise that people have different needs from your talk, and will gain you brownie points.

If you lose your thought process, take a few seconds, glance at the slides, and continue from a point you are happy with. It may be a little disjointed, but it’ll soon be forgotten.

Likewise if the slides go wrong or there is a technical issue, don’t panic. It happens more often than you would think. Calmly try to recover the situation. Rest assured that if it’s a technical problem, help will be on its way. Once fixed, make a joke about working in technology – you’ll get a sympathetic laugh and it will relax you and the audience.

Finally, when you wrap up, recap your points, thank the audience and then ask for questions. Look happy.

You will get a round of applause, and hopefully people will ask some sensible ones. Answer as honestly as you can. If it s not something you can respond to, don’t be afraid to answer truthfully that it isn’t something you have experienced, but you could offer to chat later if it would help.

After the questions, thank them again, and exit stage left.

Congratulations! You have just delivered your first talk 🙂

Take a deep breath, grab a coffee and relax.

Part 4 is all about feedback, where you’ll gather your thoughts and take on board participants feedback.

 

How to prepare your first conference talk – 2. Planning.

This is part 2 of a 4 part series aimed at helping you prepare for your first conference talk.

Planning the detail.

After the initial euphoria of being accepted has worn off, you can reach the ‘oh bugger’ moment quite quickly (I know I did!) where the realisation hits you that you have just committed to giving a 25/45/75 minute talk on a subject, and now you have to deliver!

Hopefully you have some time to get into the detail before the conference. No organisers are going to give you really tight deadlines, so you can afford to take some time to step back and take a deep breath.

Task list.

Firstly, think about the tasks that you need to do. You might think its just writing slides, but it’s not just that – there are other things too, such as the running order, any research that you need to do to support any information or points you want to make, and making brief notes to refer to on the day itself.

When I was starting out, I was given some great advice by Mark Wilmshurst, my CTO at the time. I explained my talk, how I wanted to run through it, and mentioned that I had pages of notes to refer to. He introduced me to mind mapping, not only as a way to plan out the talk, but to use as prompts during the talk. His point was that when speaking, you will not want to be reading from notes (more about the delivery itself in part 3), but it does fall squarely into the planning part. There is no point writing pages of notes that you wont ever refer to, so this can save a lot of effort.

The tasks I follow are as follows:ConfPlanning

Lets tackle them in order.

  1. Writing the first draft slides.
    These will form a basic structure – and you may have a format that the conference organisers ask for, and they may send you an Intro slide to put at the beginning.
    Start with a Welcome slide, perhaps a little info about yourself. Not all conferences do the people introductions to the same standard, so best not to rely on someone doing it for you. Remember, people have picked your talk for a reason, so they want to know who you are!
    Introduce the topic – what are you going to cover today? Just the key themes.
    Then lead into what you want to say. Only you can decide how to make the story flow, and the number of slides.
    Be careful not to overdo the amount of words, otherwise you may just end up reading the slides out loud. Write the key points only, which you will elaborate on, use reasonably big fonts, add images for interest and animations as well if you like – but again, dont overdo it. Too many animations can be distracting – people may then end up watching the slides and stop listening to you!
    For the final slides, have one that wraps up with a summary of the key themes (the 3 take away points) that you have told them, have a Thank You slide and then one asking for any Questions.
    Job done!

  2. Organising into a sensible running order.
    Well. job not quite done then. You may find that you rejig the slides around – I do this a lot when I start walking through them, as sometimes it feels disjointed. Play around until you are happy with the initial flow.

  3. Thinking about the time, and matching content to available time.
    You’ll know how long the slot is that you have – if its 25 minutes, you’ll have a 20 minute talk and 5 minutes for Q&A’s. If 45 minutes, then 35-40 minutes talk and 5-10 minutes Q&A.
    Its difficult to get the balance right first time, so have a go at creating the right amount of content that you believe fits timewise – step 5 will show if its right or not.

  4. Memorising the points and writing a few prompts on cards (as reminders).
    Rather than reading from notes, start to memorise the detail for each slide that you want to explain. The more you do this, the less reliance you will have on needing any notes at all – it comes with practice, and after a few talks you’ll find it easier to do. For the first talk, have cards with mind map notes on to help as reminders, just in case you get lost in thought, or something happens that stops you (e.g. technical glitches).

  5. Delivering to yourself in a room, slowing down the delivery speed and timing it.
    This is the weird part. It feels very strange to speak out loud to yourself, but I recommend that you do so.
    Book a meeting room that is private and out of the way, set a timer on your phone, stand up and actually deliver the talk to an empty room.
    Follow the slides in the right order and feel free to stop/start as necessary. As you do this first run through, you’ll pick up all sorts of things – spelling mistakes, the order may not be right, you missed something etc. Thats fine as its the point of the exercise.
    Make the changes and start again, and aim to do a full run through without stopping.
    When you are done, analyse the timings – did you rush, did you speak clearly, did it flow, did you get lost (if so, what can you do to stay on track?) etc, did you start off slowly and speed up?.
    You will get to a point where you are happy with the content, delivery and timings, so time to be brave!

  6. Delivering to close trusted friends/colleagues and asking for feedback.
    Pick a few trusted colleagues who will be your guinea pigs. Explain that you are planning your first talk, and ask if they would run through it with you.
    Ideally, deliver it in one go, as you will do at a conference. Ask them to take notes that will help you, and also to ask you questions at the end, as you will want to be prepared for that.
    Once you deliver the talk, ask for their feedback: What was the delivery like in terms of speed and clarity? What about slide content? Did the talk flow logically? What could be done better?
    This is all helpful and will allow you to grow in confidence.
    Also do some self analysis – did you notice anyone looking confused at any point? What questions did they ask you? Did you get caught off guard?

  7. Refactoring slides and repeating the run through.
    This is effectively a ‘rinse and repeat’ exercise – making changes and delivering to yourself and others until you are happy. 
    At that point, resist the urge to keep tinkering – stop, save everything and have a break.

Good preparation will make life so much easier, and it will be time consuming, but well worth the time you invest.

At the point where the slides are done, you are confident about the subject and feel you can answer any questions thrown at you, then you are ready to go.

In part 3, I’ll tackle the actual delivery, and offer some advice on keeping calm, and how to enjoy it – yes, it is possible!