At StarEast 2014, I presented a Lightning Talk as part of their “Lightning Strikes the Keynotes”
I make quite a lot of notes and prep for my talks before I present them, and so in this post I will walk you through some of the notes, and the process I used to get ready for the talk.
And I’ll use the medium of the blog to expand on the topic a little with additional lessons learned from pulp authors, relating to test planning and preparation.
I think a lightning talk is ‘as hard’ as a full talk, in some ways it is harder. For those people who present a lightning talk as their ‘first talk’ because they think it will be easier. The only ‘easy’ part is that you are on and off the stage faster. I find I have to work much harder to condense my message into such a small time frame.
I made notes on a few different topics, but eventually decided upon the theme:
- “Are you ready to start testing tomorrow?”
with the title
- “A sense of urgency”? or “A sense of readiness”?
Because… “Are you ready to start testing tomorrow?” was a question I use when evaluating my strategy and planning process as a test manager, and when I’m a tester. I always want to know that I am ready to test tomorrow (or now) if I have to. And because I don’t think everyone else adopts this frame of mind, I wanted to explore it a little.
My first step when preparing a talk is…
- to just talk
Given the title, I talk to the wall, record it, and make notes.
For me, this is a purely temporary measure, and I delete these artifacts afterwards.
Then I collate my notes into a small first person script like essay.
Which in this instance came out as a single thread below. By single thread I mean, one topic, one path through, no ‘asides’ or references to analogous material.
Over the years, I’ve been on site and people have been talking about a “sense of urgency”, ‘people’ generally means management. And “sense of urgency” generally means “why aren’t these people working harder to meet the deadlines that we have arbitrarily imposed upon them.
When I get involved, I don’t usually try and solve that problem. What I like to focus on is a sense of readiness.
Because I often see testers - not ready to test the software. They are writing the strategy and the approach and everything else they are asked to, but they aren’t getting ready.
This is really basic but I ask people “could you start testing the software tomorrow”? If you could then you’re in a pretty good place. If you’re not ready, then you’re in a pretty good place because you have your todo list to get ready, by asking ‘what do we need in order to be ready’. Everything else - strategy, policy, approach, etc. is a bonus. Because if you’re ready - you can communicate your readiness, and your ‘documentation’ is a result of taking the time to write it down.
And you need to be ready to test at different levels. functionality, requirements, domain, technology. But all of that is for nothing if you don’t yet have the attitude that you could test this thing at the drop of a hat. Mentally building that ‘testing’ sense of readiness so that you could test it now, if you had to.
So I encourage you all. Build a sense of readiness. Are you ready to test a week from now, tomorrow, an hour from now, can you test it now? If not - work out why not and and stick that on your preparation list. and get ready.
This had the basics of what I wanted to cover. And I left it to sit for a while. Because really, I wanted to try multi-threading the talk. Adding in some analogous threads, creating and closing open loops as I talked. I hadn’t tried this approach for a short talk before, but since this wasn’t a ‘Lightning Talk’, it was supposed to be a ‘Lightning Keynote’, I wanted to add more texture to the presentation.
And during the ‘sitting’ period I read a Novel called “Silvertip’s Search” by Max Brand.
You can see my copy above. The London, Hodder and Stoughton edition, first published in 1948. (Max Brand died in 1944)
And in here, I found a passage that I thought fit my topic. A conversation between the head bad guy and one of his minions.
Throughout the book, both the head bad guy, and the hero, are ‘ready for anything’ and ‘at any time’. And In this paragraph, the head bad guy explains his secret.
“Are you laughing at me, chief?” he asked. “You know that nobody in the world can stand up to you.”
“Nobody? Ah, ah, the world is larger than we are,” said the criminal. “I should never pretend that nobody can stand up against me. All I know is that I keep myself in practice, patiently, every day, working away my hours.” He sighed. “A little natural talent, and constant preparation. That’s all it needs. You fellows are my equals, every one of you. Taking a little pains is all the difference between us…”
This is on page 70 of the edition I own.
Given this, I thought I could weave into the presentation: the text of the book, and additionally, Max Brand and his writing strategies.
That would then give me at least three threads. One personal, one fictional, and one cross domain.
So my next set of notes looked like this.
Some managers like to talk about a “Sense of Urgency”, which in management speak means - why are my staff not working hard enough to meet these arbitrary deadlines we’ve set.
I read a lot of pulp novels. Most written to very tight deadlines. Generally filled with life and death decisions, made quickly, based on minimal information and minimal planning. Urgency in a pulp novel gets you killed, or lets the villain get away. Readiness defines the best heroes.
Max Brand knew a lot about deadlines. His official biography lists over 500 novels. and 400 short stories He was so prolific, that new books based on his outlines continue to be written and published after his death.
I see a lot of testers on site being busy, writing stuff like policies, strategies, plans, approaches etc. They think they are getting ‘ready’, most often they are complying with a ‘sense of urgency’ that says we need a strategy, or we need a plan. They are getting ready. They’re getting ready for their next meeting. But they are not getting ready for their testing.
And if you ask them. Are you ready? They’ll typically tell you about all the things they are waiting for, and they are in a holding pattern.
And that’s not what I mean by readiness.
Readiness works at different levels. Could you test an application that you don’t know anything about about? But you understand the technology it is built on? Or you understand the domain it sits in. There are lots of models around readiness: skills, domain, the app requirements, techniques, technology, and these models all overlap.
And if you were ready, you could test the app from the point of view of any of these models and add value. And gain enough time to develop one of the other models and test from another perspective. Your strategies, and plans and policies become a communication and explanation of your readiness.
A Sense of Readiness leads to a confidence and flexibility that you could test something if it was delivered to you tomorrow, or now.
So back to Max Brand, and specifically his novel “Silvertip’s Search”.
One of the bad guys has betrayed his gang, and he’s up before the head bad guy trying to convince them not to kill him.
And I’ll paraphrase, here. Max Brand is a better writer than I’m making him sound like here.
The bad guy persuading for is life says “I wouldn’t betray you boss, nobody can stand up to you”
And the boss disagrees, and Max Brand, or Faust, then has the lead bad guy describe his approach to writing. and it is “Nope, I don’t promise no-one is better than me. I just keep myself in practice, a little every day, constant preparation. We’re the same. Taking pains is all the difference between us”
Max Brand describes his prolific approach to writing. And how we go about developing a sense of readiness, because we don’t know what is going to come at us. All we can do is work on ourselves so that we have the confidence to tackle it if it comes in next week, or tomorrow, or today, or ten minutes from now.
I emboldened the first part of the sentence because that becomes the outline that I commit to memory to inform my talk.
So I decided to download the novel to my Kindle and wrap the hardback cover around the Kindle as a ‘prop’ for the talk. Since I didn’t want slides, and I was talking about the novel, having a physical representation of it seemed like a useful stage device.
And I could possibly build some tension by ‘teasing’ a reveal early in the talk, then reading from the novel at the end of the talk.
And I added the following lines into the outline.
I brought along a pulp novel for you. This is Silvertip’s Search. A western published in 1945, based on his pulp story published in 1933, written by Max Brand. Or Frederick Faust - his real name. He created the character of Destry, and probably most famously Dr Kildare.
And hidden In this novel, Max Brand describes the secret of his writing success.
You can watch the talk and see how closely it matches the outline above. I think I missed out some stuff and I think I added a little more.
And now, in this blog, I can expand a little further - with information I wouldn’t include in a lightning talk.
If I was using this in a longer talk then I might well include the information I’m about to give you below.
Additional reasons I like pulp as an example of readiness…
The pulp authors worked from small outlines:
- A Title
- A Paragraph
- A Blurb
- A short plot outline
They did this for a number of reasons:
- They wrote for money.
- So they had to pitch the story, and didn’t want to spend the time writing a full treatment, so they pitched outlines. Sometimes they pitched titles, to see what grabbed attention.
- They could expand them, quickly, when needed.
- Sometimes they would be asked to contribute a story to a magazine with only a few days notice because some other author had let the editor down. And out would come, either an earlier story that hadn’t sold, or an expanded form from the outline.
“Silvertip’s Search” is a good example of this process. The novel, was an expanded version of one of Max Brand’s short stories. So a published (and previously paid for) work, was expanded into a novel, which was then sold again.
And because pulp authors worked like this, they often left behind lots of outlines, scraps of ideas, blurbs etc. Which hadn’t been sold, or used, or expanded. Which is how pulp authors continue to publish work long after they are dead. Someone manages to take their fast preparation and turn it into something else.
And so, to relate this back to testing…
A lot of the time in testing we see promoted the idea that you have to prep in advance, and that your advanced prep has to have copious detail.
I don’t think you have to. My experience of testing tells me otherwise.
I work to be ‘ready’ as fast as I can. I know there will be gaps in my readiness. But I know I could start, and add value, fast. And with each passing moment that allows me more time to prepare I increase my readiness, until at some point, I test.
And one external source of validation I use for this, is the work, and approach, of pulp authors.
Pulp authors used “a sense of readiness” to help them. We can too.