A very different conference experience

My Twitter feed has been busy in recent weeks with testing conference season in full swing.

First on my radar after some time away in Europe on holidays was TestBash Australia, followed soon afterwards by their New Zealand and San Francisco incarnations. Next up was the German version of the massive Agile Testing Days and another mega-conference in the shape of European stalwart EuroSTAR is in progress as I write.

It’s one of the joys of social media that we can share in the goings on of these conferences even if we can’t attend in person. The only testing conference I’ve attended in 2019 has been TiCCA19 in Melbourne (an event I co-organized with Paul Seaman and the Association for Software Testing) but I hope to get to an event or two in 2020.

I did attend a very different kind of conference at the Melbourne Town Hall in October, though, in the shape of the full weekend Animal Activists Forum. There was a great range of talks across several tracks on both days and I saw inspiring presentations from passionate activists. Organizations like Voiceless, Animals Australia, Aussie Farms, The Vegan Society, and the Animal Justice Party – as well as many individuals – are doing so much good work for this movement.

There were some marked differences between this conference and the testing/IT conferences I generally attend. Firstly, the cost for the two full days of this event (including refreshments but not lunches) was just AU$80 (early bird), representing remarkable value given the location and range of great talks on offer.

Another obvious difference was the prevalence of female speakers on the programme, probably due to the fact that the vegan community is believed to be around 70-80% female. It was good to see more passion and positivity emanating from the stage too, all the more remarkable when considering the atrocities and realities of the animal exploitation industries that many of us are regularly exposed to within this movement.

The focus of most of the talks I attended was on actionable content, things we could do to help advance the movement. While there was some discussion of theory, history and philosophy, it was for the most part discussed with a view to providing ideas for what we can do now to advance animal rights. Many IT conference talks would do well to similarly focus on actionable takeaways.

While there were many differences compared to tech conferences, there was also evidence of common themes. One of the areas of commonality was how difficult it is to persuade people to change, even in the face of facts and evidence in support of the positive impacts of the change, such as going vegan (with the focus being squarely on going vegan for the animals in this audience, while also considering the environmental and health benefits). It was good to hear the different ideas and approaches from different speakers and activist groups. We need many different styles of advocacy when it comes to context-driven testing too – different people are going to be reached in different ways (it’s almost as though context matters!).

It’s interesting to me how easy it sometimes seems to be to change people’s minds or opinions, though. An example I’ve seen unfolding is the introduction of dairy products into China. I’ve been working with testing teams there for seven years and, for the first few years, I rarely saw or heard any mention of dairy products. This situation has changed very rapidly, thanks to massive marketing efforts by the dairy industry (most notably – and sadly – from Australia and New Zealand dairy companies). Even though almost all Chinese people are lactose intolerant and have little idea about how to use products like dairy milk and cheese, the consumption of these products has become very mainstream. From infant formula (a very lucrative business) to milk on supermarket shelves (with some very familiar Australian brands on show) to Starbucks, the dairy offerings are now ubiquitous. The fact that these products are normalized in the West enables an easier sell to the Chinese and their marketing has been heavily contextualized, for example some of the advertising claims that drinking cow’s milk will help children grow taller. These nutritional falsehoods have worked in the West and are now working in China. The dairy mythology has been successfully sold to this enormous market and the unbelievable levels of cruelty that will result from this, as well as the inevitable negative human health implications, are tragic. Such large industries, of course, have dollars on their side to mount huge marketing campaigns and are driven by profit above the abuse of animals or the health of their consumers . But maybe there are lessons to be learned from their approaches to messaging that can be beneficial in selling good approaches to testing (without the blatant untruths, of course)?

(By the way, does anyone reading this post know if the ISQTB is having a marketing push in China right now? A couple of my colleagues there have talked to me about ISTQB certification just in the last week, while no-one has mentioned it before in the seven years I’ve been working with testers in China…)

If you found this post interesting, I humbly recommend that you also read this one, What becoming vegan taught me about software testing

5 thoughts on “A very different conference experience

  1. robertday154

    There are lots of different formats for conferences but they can all teach us useful lessons. When I first attended the Brighton TestBash, a couple of years ago, I was struck by how much it felt like a science fiction convention (not to be confused with events like ComicCon, which is essentially a commercial sales opportunity). In the sort of SF conventions I’m familiar with, people who are enthusiastic about their subject organise multi-stream conferences for the fun of it, and people who are enthusiastic about that subject attend with the intention of engaging with other enthusiasts and practitioners in the field – scientists, authors, editors and publishers. People may be on panels who are professionals, or they may be amateurs who have specialised in their subject, be that “19th Century depictions of space travel” or “Alternate Apollos – how might the US space program have turned out differently?”.

    The other sort of conference I’ve attended – sometimes in the same venues as the SF conventions, just a few weeks apart! – are traditional, British trade union conferences, where there are formal debate sessions, voting on motions, Standing Orders and a set etiquette for the conduct of debate. There may well be fringe events, training seminars and exhibitions attached to the Conference, and there are nearly always hangers-on, fellow travellers and people you may not have seen since the last conference. Although these events have a very different look and feel to testing conferences or SF conventions, nonetheless there are useful takeaways, such as getting experience in speaking to large audiences, sometimes even (if you are making an intervention or impromptu response to a point raised in debate) without notes!

    (I wrote about my Brighton conference experiences in an earlier blog post: https://robertday154.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/return-to-the-forbidden-city/. For an account of a recent international SF convention, see https://robertday154.wordpress.com/2019/09/14/fantastic-voyage/)

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