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ACCU: A tester ventures into a programmers' conference

Agile test expert and SSQ contributor Lisa Crispin was a presenter at the Association of C and C++ Users (ACCU) conference held in Oxford, England, in April. Read more about her experience in this story.

If you think conferences catering to programmers are only for programmers, think again. I had the good fortune to participate in ACCU 2011 in Oxford, England, this past April. ACCU is a non-profit organization of software professionals. Originally, the acronym stood for “Association of C and C++ Users,” but they are now language-agnostic and welcome programmers working in other languages, as well as testers, project managers and people in other roles.

Programmers learning about testing

I taught a full-day tutorial on “Covering Your Testing Bases with the Agile Test Quadrants.” Of the 24 participants, only two were testers. Two were project managers, and the rest were programmers. This isn’t my usual audience! The participants were eager to learn, and dove into the hands-on exercises and group discussions. I enjoyed working with a group of people who actively take responsibility for their own learning. It was gratifying, though not surprising, to see passion about testing and quality from a group that wasn’t primarily testers.

My track session on “Limbo Lower Now: An Agile Approach to Managing Defects” produced a similar reaction. I was surprised that the room filled up, with people standing up or sitting when seats were all occupied. We enjoyed a lively discussion throughout the session. Despite the limited space, most participants enthusiastically participated in an experimental “drawing game” session. Everyone paired up, one assuming the tester role, one assuming the programmer role. In the first round, the tester described a picture to the programmer (actually, it was the diagram of the vendor booth locations in the expo room), but the programmer couldn’t ask questions, and the tester couldn’t look at the picture until it was done. In the second round, testers could watch the programmer draw, and give feedback continually, while the programmer asked questions. The advantages of tester-programmer collaboration quickly became obvious.

A conference community

One of the many ways in which ACCU seems unique to me is that the same participants come back year after year. I met some people who have been to every ACCU conference since way back in the 1990s. They’re a real community, even if they only see each other once a year. Yet they aren’t cliquish; they make everyone feel welcome -- including us testers. People gathered in the hotel bar at the end of the day, or went out together to the local pubs.

I was afraid that at such a technical conference, most sessions would be over my head, but I was pleasantly surprised. For example, Tom Preston-Warner, a co-founder of GitHub, gave a wonderful keynote about  “optimizing for happiness.” He outlined research on what motivates people. He gave many examples of how his company creates a happy workplace, and the return they reap on this investment.

Make no mistake, I encountered plenty of people who registered high on my geek-o-meter. For example, in one of the “lightning keynotes” (15 minutes each), Kevin Henney showed examples of early JUnit, bugs in Apollo 11’s landing software, a regular expression that finds prime numbers and a quine. I have to admit those were all fun, so perhaps I’m geekier than I thought.

The conference dinner

Several participants who’ve attended ACCU for several years advised me to not miss the conference dinner. The organizers kindly allowed my husband to attend as well. They told all the speakers and spouses to go into the banquet hall first and sit wherever we liked. Then they let in the rest of the participants. After each course, the non-speaker participants had to get up and change tables, while we speakers got to remain in our places. This turned out to be so much fun! You’d expect a crowd of programmers to be pretty introverted, but these people came armed with questions and ready to pick my brain. One of my temporary dinner partners, from the Czech Republic, was so excited about being at his very first conference, and that enthusiasm was infectious. It helped me appreciate this opportunity even more.

Bletchley Park

What I loved best of all about the ACCU delegates was their support of Bletchley Park. If you aren’t familiar with BP, you should be. It is the birthplace of modern computing, the beginning of our profession. Bletchley Park was “Station X” in WWII, the top-secret center of the British code-breaking operations. The work of the code-breakers shortened the war by at least two years, and saved Britain from probable starvation by allowing supply convoys to avoid the German U-boats. However, it was so secret that for 30 years after the war was over, nobody who worked at Bletchley Park could talk about what they did there -- even to their own families. As a result, the facility was almost bulldozed and forgotten. It was saved by caring citizens, and keeps going only by private donations.

There was a donation bucket for BP at the registration desk, and a booth in the expo room selling books about its history, first-day covers of historical stamps from the BP post office, and other memorabilia to raise money for its support. At the conference dinner, several items including unique original paintings of the first programmable computers at BP were auctioned off. I tried to bid on some first-day covers but was quickly outbid. This crowd paid real money to help maintain this historical treasure. I’ve seen charity efforts at other conferences, but not this level of passion.  I enjoyed this group that treasures its history at the same time it’s making bold strides into the future of software development.

It’s exciting that there are unique software conferences such as ACCU. Renew your passion for software development by attending a conference like this. You’ll make useful connections and get lots of new ideas to improve the quality of your software product.

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