Have you been alone with your computer in your cubicle for so long you wonder if other life even exists at your company? Feeling a bit isolated? Maybe you should just bag it—or should I say, brown bag it?
About two years ago, I began a series of brown bag discussions for testers, developers, and managers throughout my company. Now, I no longer have to wonder who is out there. On brown bag days, a group of us meet in a conference room, sharing ideas while munching on chips and cookies. We make contact with colleagues we don't encounter every day, and we find new inspiration and sometimes even a mentor. Though we started out as a group of testers spread across several departments, we have expanded the brown bags to include developers, managers, and others with a stake in quality. Starting these brown bags required a great deal of effort, but they have provided a much-needed opportunity for sharing knowledge and experience.
The idea for these discussions struck when I noticed that there were more software testers in the company than just was hoping to create a forum in which all of the testers could come together to talk about their skills, learn more about testing, and bring individual experiences into a group setting. After a lot of trial and error, I have accomplished my goal. This article describes ways to get started and some lessons I've learned along the way.
The first step is to let people know what you have in mind. Present an outline to your management team of the intentions, goals, and expected outcome of the brown bags. I informally discussed my intent to introduce a software testing brown bag program with my manager and a few co-workers. Management needs to know that, though you want to dedicate some of your efforts to planning brown bags, organizing the sessions will not conflict with your priority workload. Your managers can also assist you in your quest to establish the brown bag forum as the sessions expand and you need advice or buy-in.
The next step is deciding who will participate. If you are starting up tester brown bags, you most certainly want to invite testers. I introduced the idea of the sessions by word of mouth and by compiling an email list which included all of the known testers. (You might set up an email list or Web site, and/or post messages in the break room or on the company intranet news site to target your audience.) Several months into the sessions, someone made a brilliant suggestion—why not include more employees than just testers in the brown bags? With that, the meeting notices were incorporated into the company intranet site. Soon managers, developers, and others interested in software testing were participating. With each new discussion, an entirely new and diverse crowd of participants from all levels of experience and interest were attending.
GDecide Where, When, and How Often
You must also think about location and frequency of the brown bags. Keep in mind that quality always overrides quantity. The number of sessions you choose to have each week, month, or year isn't as important as the content of the sessions and meeting the overall objectives of the program. We currently have biweekly sessions that we begin organizing one to two weeks prior to the session. Sessions are sometimes canceled due to a majority of testers being involved with large-scale projects, but we mostly maintain a regular schedule.
There are many topic possibilities for brown bag sessions. For the first sessions, maybe you will want to jump right in to burning test issues or give accolades to popular testing tools. Maybe you will use the first meeting to get testers acquainted. Some of our first topics included processes, test documentation, and software testing certifications. Whatever you choose, get as much input as possible before selecting topics at random. The occasional top-of-your-head topic might be interesting, but putting structure behind the sessions gives attendees something to think about prior to each session.
Keeping Up the Momentum
So how do the brown bags act as a mainstay when everything around us in the software testing industry is moving and shifting at such a fast pace?
Vary the Presentation Styles
First, try to keep the brown bag flow different from the rhythm people are in when they are working. An essential and exciting aspect of the brown bag forum is that it doesn’t always have to be in the form of formal presentations or dry conversation. Just as there are a myriad of testing-related topics that can be used as a springboard for a brown bag, there are also many styles of brown bags. Brown bag discussions at our company have ranged from casual talks around the table to presentations with a question and-answer session at the end. We have worked on brain teasers and puzzles, and we have featured brainstorming sessions in which testers explain how they would test everyday items such as an ink pen, a piece of gum, or a paper clip. We have covered a broad range of topics, including automation, the history of testing at the company, metrics, and the certification environment. Plan ahead and present topics that are relevant to the industry and to the company to keep the brown bags on-track.
As long as the sessions are optional, brown bags will be unpredictable in terms of turnout. Depending on the topic (and everyone’s schedule), our brown bag attendance has ranged from a few testers to a standing-room-only crowd. I have found that demonstrations have drawn the largest audiences and feedback, while the smaller, focused discussions have allowed some new testers and those who are not usually comfortable speaking out feel at ease participating.
To keep things fresh, I send out requests for topics and suggestions for improvement (this is especially important at the beginning of the brown bags). I also solicit requests for certain testers to speak about specific testing processes. To keep everyone informed, we have posted notes from the meetings on an internal Web site. A fellow tester also added a mechanism to the site that allowed testers to vote on brown bag topics; the votes were tabulated and helped us to generate ideas for upcoming sessions. The message is, in order to ensure relevant, timely sessions, get as much feedback as you can from as many places as possible.
Get Others Involved
At the end of the first year of brown bags, I re-evaluated the sessions, keeping in mind the topics and formats that seemed most successful during the first run. Realizing I needed help to keep the sessions worthwhile, I formed a committee to organize each brown bag session. Now there are three members of the committee who take turns planning meetings. Each of us spends time querying our fellow testers for stimulating and appropriate topics, and we try to bring our peers' visions to fruition in the form of a brown bag session. We are finding that although the nature of our brown bags is ever changing, we are satisfied with the continued results.
The most valuable feature of our brown bags, for some, is the food. For each session, the committee members take turns bringing in snacks to accompany everyone’s brown bag lunch. Providing snacks is a nice way to thank attendees for spending their lunch hour participating in the program.
Take care not to be too elaborate in your planning. In the beginning, I would often send out detailed agendas with many areas on them, but we only had time to cover one or two in the meeting (time really does fly). Each session should consist of the partially planned and the partially unanticipated. Our brown bags now focus more on a few major areas of a given topic, as opposed to long lists of areas we would like to cover, but realistically can't in an hour’s time.
As I have found in almost two years of organizing brown bag discussions, people actually enjoy getting out of their cubicles for an hour and interacting. Particularly with testing, many of us spend a great deal of time very focused on a given task: actually certifying projects and uncovering bugs. Often, we do not have the time to sit back and reflect on how certain aspects of our work have affected us. The brown bag is a place not only to talk about our general experiences, but also to share the highs and lows, the ups and downs, and the moments in our work that make us feel pretty darned proud of ourselves.