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Farewell AST

After four years, three of them as Vice President, I'm standing down from the board of the Association for Software Testing.

Let me say up front that I am an unapologetic romantic about my craft. (And, yeah, I called it a craft. Sue me.) I believe in what AST stands for, its mission, and in context-driven testing, so it's been an absolute privilege to be involved in running the organisation. It's also been fun, and full of difficult situations and choices, and hard work on top of family life and a day job.

There also was the small matter of the global Covid pandemic to deal with. The immediate impact was on CAST, our annual conference, and in some ways the beating heart of the AST. We had to variously cancel, reschedule, and move CAST online and we are still experiencing the after-effects as we organise the 2023 in-person event.

So why am I leaving? Well, first, I'm not leaving the organisation, only the board. I am a life member and I hope to remain an active one. But, second, I have decided not to stand for re-election because I'm tired and my family situation has become more complicated recently. I can't commit the kind of time and energy that I would like to, to do the kind of job I want to do.

And what kind of job would that be? I reflected on the question while making my decision and also a couple of years ago when I wondering whether to stand for a second term.

When I joined the board I saw that we needed to strengthen our operations in some key areas to remain functional: membership management, internal operations, and value proposition. These are fundamental to any member organisation, particularly one staffed by volunteers. 

Given that, I have focussed on foundational changes; things that I hope will help AST to operate with reduced friction, and to demonstrate who we are, what we do, and why, to existing and potential members. 

I've listed some of that work at the end here and in retrospect it looks like a lot. Frankly, it is a lot and I'm very proud of my contributions. But it's also not just my work. I definitely brought energy and the skills to analyse, advocate for, plan, co-ordinate, and implement some projects, but my colleagues on the board and volunteer members also have those kinds of skills and provided all kinds of input, feedback, assistance, and support along the way too.

Not only that, but the AST board is run on a consensus basis. We talk about what we're trying to do and why, and what our options are, and come to a group decision. My sense is that this gives the group greater cohesion and helps us all to feel involved despite the physical distances between us. 

There are also significant areas I didn't touch directly, such as CAST and BBST training, that others were taking care of in parallel. And I don't want to give the impression that AST is a basket case. It's not, but it does have a legacy orgbase with all of the things-are-the-way-they-are-because-they-got-that-way quirks that you'd expect.

I'm not so vain as to think that the work I did is done done. I reckon AST has a more stable, workable, underpinning than before I joined, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the testers who take the organisation forward can reinforce, replace, extend, and build on top of it.

I wish good luck to all the continuing board members, and to the candidates in the current elections. I hope the next board has the same level of enjoyment and satisfaction that I've had doing this job.

Oh yeah, there's one other thing I got from AST that I'm exceptionally grateful for: being introduced to tater tots at a Tex-Mex joint in Atlanta during CAST. Man, I adore those crunchy potato love bombs and, after I've had a break, if anyone is interested in forming the Association for Scarfing Tots give me a shout.

--00--

This is a list of stuff I've done at AST that I made while I was thinking about this post.

Membership Management

It may seem obvious to say that members are the lifeblood of a membership organisation. It bears repeating, though, and it motivated a lot of my work. When I joined the board we didn't have much visibility of our who our members were and who they had been. I built and incrementally improved semi-automated regular reports that have helped us to understand that better.

This lead to the revision of our membership offering, from a one-price-fits-all approach to pay-what-you-can-afford with multiple price points for the same member benefits. Significant effort on this project was trying to first model, and then later monitor, the kinds of benefits we hoped for, such as increased membership from countries with lower average incomes or testers with less-senior role titles.

It's hard enough proposing potential approaches, trying to understand how they might work relative to one another and the existing system, and negotiating agreement from the board. Add on top of that the problems of migrating to the chosen system and keeping all relevant parties informed along the way and you'll see that this was a big undertaking.

To make things worse, the software we were using for membership management had been ancient for a long time and wasn't serving us well, but the mammoth task of researching alternatives, choosing one, and then migrating to it had been postponed repeatedly. I took it on, and now we have a functional and more modern system for managing membership, subscriptions, and events.

Organisation

Being nearly 20 years old, AST has had time to accumulate a lot of cruft anywhere that we store stuff. We've all seen this kind of thing, probably on a wiki or file share at work or searching for docs for some tool online. It's kind of bearable until it reaches a critical mass where it's hard to find what you need, where multiple approaches to the same task have been used in different places, and where it's clear that whoever was here before you didn't try to clean up. I cleaned up our Google drive.

Our web site had similar problems and I worked on that too. I used what analytics we had to try to optimise pages that were being hit most frequently and some basic SEO to try to promote the pages we'd prefer to be hit more often. 

I ran a volunteer project to remove the worst of the mess as well. We deleted over half of the pages, rationalised the site structure, standardised the layout of related pages, and made some templates for pages that we create on a regular basis. We discovered a bunch of unexpected problems along the way, such as broken spam filtering plug-ins on our contact forms, which we fixed as well.

As a remote-first organisation, and one in which the personnel changes regularly, and one in which some tasks only happen annually, it can be hard to find opportunities to share knowledge about how we do things. This is one of the causes of the cruft problem. 

To help overcome that, I wrote a lot of runbooks. I was very mindful that maintaining the runbooks shouldn't become a heavy maintenance burden in itself, so I tried hard to keep them to necessary and sufficient information, presented clearly. I also organised the runbooks for discoverability, using Google Drive symlinks to place them in a central location and in relevant folders for their task.

I've demonstrated and encouraged more use of the data we have for decision-making. Over the last two or three years we have developed a very rich financial model of our CAST conferences which is helping us to make more informed choices when it comes to costs and ticket pricing. Building this model and tuning it for sustainability is part of our one and three year goals, a simple planning and prioritisation framework we introduced at my suggestion. 

One of the perennial problems of volunteer organisations is the discrepancy between the number of good ideas and the time, energy, and resources to implement them. Having a process that explicitly nominates staggered goals, and reviewing our activities against them regularly, has helped to keep our focus on what we consider important.

Value Proposition

To help AST explain its value to potential members I researched the kinds of things that other, similar, membership organisations claim. This lead to a wide-ranging analysis of what we felt AST could claim and to what extent, what we felt that we couldn't claim and didn't want to, and what we couldn't currently claim but would like to. We were able to plan initiatives, such as initially writing a clearer set of membership benefits, based on the outcome of that work.

A pipeline of incoming members are one concern, but we also need to find ways to show existing members that we are here and doing worthwhile things. I think AST suffers from not making the most of the good work that it does. For example, running an interesting webinar but advertising it minimally or late, not telling members that it happened and what the key take-aways were, and not making it available on our YouTube channel despite having the recording. 

I tried to help change that culture by writing material for our monthly newsletter and prompting for it to be used, showing how Hootsuite could be invoked relatively easily to improve publicity reach, fixing permissions issues with our YouTube channel, and documenting how to add videos with minimal effort.

We also don't share or get the most from what we've done in the past. I implemented automation with Zapier to fetch an item from our archives and post it on social media every day. I also kicked off a volunteer project, which is still running, to create a GitHub repo and retrospectively collect presentations from CAST conferences and AST webinars in it.

I've attempted to set up some ways in which long-term value can be created too. I wrote an e-book, Peers Exchanging Ideas, about running peer conferences, publised on AST's GitHub repo. We used it for, and updated it after, a joint peer conference with BCS SIG which also produced a paper, Should the Public Care About Software Testing.

I came up with the idea for a crowd-sourced book, Navigating the World as a Context-Driven Tester, and collaborated with a long-term AST member, Lee Hawkins, to work out the details about how we'd like it to run. Lee's done a tremendous job over the last two years, and we've had contributions from over 60 testers from within and outside AST.

I set up and ran Steel Yourselves, an innovative webinar format in which testers challenge themselves to argue for a case they disagree with. I experimented with publicity materials and promotion too, introducing Canva for flyers and some simple configuration for emails to attendees before and after.
Image: https://flic.kr/p/kyG3nr

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