CAST 2019: Event Review and Main Takeaways

Eloisa Tovee 4th September 2019

CAST is one of North America’s best-known software testing conferences. Organised by the Association for Software Testing (AST), this year’s event took place at the Hilton Oceanfront hotel in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

The conference took place from 12th-15th August 2019 and it was a truly exceptional event. It is one I would recommend to all software testers, or to those with even the slightest interest in learning more about the testing craft.

Speaking Experience and Culture

I was excited to learn that my talk ‘Coaching Your Team To Test’ was accepted as part of CAST 2019’s agenda! As you can see below, I presented my talk on Wednesday 14th August, but I’ll write a separate blog covering what I shared during my session.

What makes CAST unique is the promotion of discussion after the events. Speaker slots are around 40 minutes, but 20 minutes are kept aside for a facilitated debate or discussion, using K-Cards. These cards allow you to signal to the facilitator that you have a question to ask the speaker, or a point to raise. The system is explained at the bottom of this page.

This set-up is refreshing. One of the main complaints that people have with conferences is the lack of time to discuss the ideas presented by speakers. By having trained facilitators and a Code of Conduct in place, it felt like a great space to discuss and challenge some of the ideas being presented. It ended up with me, as a speaker, learning a lot from other attendees’ experiences during my own session.

CAST’s culture is also unlike any I’ve experienced before. There were yoga and Lean Coffee sessions in the morning, and board game nights and a reception at Kennedy Space Center in the evenings. This really helped to create a community feel. Breaks were also longer, which allowed for more hallway discussions to take place.

Charity Majors was our Wednesday morning keynote and her description of CAST as the “sweetest and most disturbingly, disgustingly welcoming community ever” echoed my experience too!

My top five takeaways from the show:

Visual Validation is something we all need to learn

My cast experience began with a tutorial hosted by the amazing Angie Jones on Visual Validation for Test Automation. Visual Validation wasn’t something I had explored before as I wasn’t entirely sure of the value it could offer. This workshop showed me that it is definitely something worth having in your Test Automation toolbox.

We spent the full day testing a web app using Applitools Eyes. It was great to see how Eyes compared screenshots in the Applitools dashboard and allowed us to identify whether a test had passed or failed. Eyes is different to other Visual Validation tools as it doesn’t compare pixel by pixel, leading to less flaky tests. It only cares about differences that the human eye can spot.

I now see Visual Validation tools such as Applitools Eyes as something I need to explore further. Rather than replacing your existing Selenium tests, Eyes would add another layer to your testing.

Becoming a quality coach is a difficult, but extremely worthwhile experience

My second day tutorial was hosted by Anne-Marie Charrett, someone whose work I have followed for quite some time. This session focused on ‘Becoming a Quality Coach.’

We started the session by discussing exactly what was involved in being a coach and how it may differ from being a mentor. I learned that coaching is about observing and asking your team the right questions. Rather than providing the team with the answer, you are assisting them in learning the answer themselves.

My main takeaway was that coaching isn’t easy! You need to balance different personalities, show vulnerability and fully understand the dynamics of the team you’re coaching and work to build trust with them. However, by continuing to practice your coaching skills, it is a very rewarding experience.

Observability is something all engineers should be talking about

I was delighted to see that Charity Majors, CTO of Honeycomb was our opening keynote for the Wednesday conference day, focusing on the subject of observability during her talk. This was particularly exciting as observability is something I’ve seen spoken about quite a bit on Twitter and LinkedIn, but not anything I’ve ever spent time looking into.

Charity summarised observability as: “the ability to understand what’s happening inside your system, by asking questions from the outside.”

I came away from the presentation with a desire to learn more. Observability is something that all engineers should be aware of and be actively exploring. From a testers’ perspective, we should be able to test by observing data in our real-life production environment.

Perhaps controversially, Charity also stated that we rely too much on Staging environments. She asked the audience how many times something has worked in Staging, only for it to fail in Production? I know my answer was ‘too many times!’

Humans should be at the centre of everything we do

This takeaway was largely inspired by Ash Coleman’s keynote on the Thursday morning about how testers are testing every day. Ash stated that we use our own real-life experiences to shape how we test. We should be testing with your friends, family and other people in mind.

This theme transcended across a lot of the CAST 2019 track talks and workshops. We work with technology, but in order for us to be successful and work well as a team, we need to focus on empathising with our teammates, stakeholders and customers. It is only then that we can truly focus on delivering something valuable for our customers.

Experiencing different roles can enhance your impact in your current role

My last takeaway came from João Proença’s talk about how all of the different roles he has performed has shaped his skills as a tester. Moving from research (where he learned how to fail), to development (where he learned how to empathise) and so on, taught him a lot of skills he would not have picked up from staying in the same role.

My biggest takeaway from João’s talk was the value of having quality conversations with customers. He learned this whilst in a Customer Support role. Only through having these conversations and spending time with your customers can you understand their contexts. As a consultant, this message really struck a chord with me.

Concluding Thoughts

Attending and speaking at CAST 2019 was a really great experience. I came away with a lot of new ideas, as well as friends and connections who I will continue to explore these ideas with.

Here’s hoping I will return for next year’s iteration in Austin, Texas!

CAST 2019

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