I had some reservations going into it, but it was in my neighborhood and only 3 hours so I thought "why not".
It was disappointing, but the thing is, I've been to 40-50 practice events for programming. I've hosted quite a few of them myself. So why was this different?
This blog is an exploration into that question...
The EventThe event had about 20 to 30 people. I believe all of them were at the conference anyways (meaning I was the only local). The had dinner and did some questions, that were stated to be ice breakers but didn't include things like actually talking to other people. There was some interesting trivia questions though.
After that we broke into teams of 2 and where given a Test Target (a government website) and a Bug Tracking system (from the company that sponsored the event). This was a contest, so the points went to the most bugs submitted (this is an simplification, but basically true).
We used a mindmap to log as we went and only entered the results into the tracking system in the last 15 minutes.
We tested for around 90 minutes. Then it was over and I went home.
What was wrong
One very possible reason I didn't enjoy this very much is that it was just exploratory testing. While I admire exploratory testing, it doesn't bring me the joy that programming does. While I do not believe this to be the reason, I think it's important to acknowledge this bias in me as it could color my impressions.
Conversely, I do think it is this bias that is allowing me to see the issues in this event more clearly. It was lacking the "spoonful of sugar" making the distasteful parts more salient.
Contest considered Harmful
The single most harmful thing about this event to me was that it was a contest. The reason I enjoy, attend and participate in hands-on practice sessions is the learning. That's always where the value and focus is. The contest changes that focus and obscures the focus.
For example, there was the option to work alone. I think some of the other teams or even most of the other teams worked separately. This is much worse for learning, but it is understandable that people would prioritise that when "the goal" is number of bugs in 2 hours.
Let's imagine working alone. It's rather hard to see what you would learn if you don't have anyone to learn from. But even with just 2 people there is less chances to learn tricks you can use later. Also, there weren't constraints which are usually helpful when learning. Forcing you to work in a new way and discover new techniques.
It's obvious that some of the motivation for the hosts was to get people to try out their software. This isn't inherently bad, learning new tools is often useful. However, because contest was drawing attention away from learning we used the tool but without really learning it. I didn't come away with ways the tool could help me to test. This is something that could be addressed better if the focus was solely on learning.
So another downside of the contest is there isn't much sharing between teams. There was sharing of the score, but this didn't pass along learning just increased focus on the scoring and task. The competitive aspect tends to prevent sharing and reflection . The goal being "to win" instead of 'to learn" also means that when it the work is over you are tempted to leave because it feels like the event is over. You don't stick around to learn because that wasn't the point.
No Space for Stretching
"Hard in training, easy in combat"
Another element that was missing was the space to try new things. Humans tend to either be in a state of practicing or preforming. Part of fitting into the time limit was prioritizing for getting everything done in the time limit. This left little space for actual practice.
The reason I enjoyed the other practice sessions is the hands on learning. I hadn't realized the amount of effort that was put into making sure this was happening.