There’s a lot of talk within the testing community at the moment about conferences, and in particular the idea of “pay to talk”. This takes two forms. One is where conference organisers offer potential sponsors a conference slot in return for financial support. The other – which is what I’m more concerned with in this post, is the practice of not meeting conference speakers’ legitimate expenses, either for travel, subsistence and accommodation, or indeed any reimbursement for their time and effort in putting together a presentation in the first place.
This phenonomen is not unknown elsewhere. Creatives – writers, artists, photographers and musicians – have gotten used to various people trying to get them to do work for no financial return – “it’ll be good exposure” is the usual excuse, or “We have no budget for this”. The funniest iteration of this happened to me, when I was working out my redundancy notice in my last company. The company was moving to a new office, and I was asked if I would be prepared to work a weekend on testing the server migration. “We have no budget, so we can’t actually pay you for this,” said my line manager, “but we can offer you time off in lieu.” I pointed out, surprisingly politely, that the company was about to give me more time off than I could comfortably cope with, and so I declined their generous offer. Apparantly a colleague later said to my manager “That was courageous of you”, using the Civil Service meaning of the word ‘courageous’; to be fair, that manager was under a three-line whip from the senior management. This was the same management who omitted to have anyone test the links in their social media announcement when the new office was opened, so their exhortation to “Click HERE for a virtual tour of our fabulous new office!” came to nothing when the link didn’t work. I have to say that I took perverse pleasure in posting “You’d think someone would have tested this before posting. Oh, no, I forgot – you SACKED all your testers!”
It’s one thing when it’s some promoter or client trying to get something for nothing; and there’s a lively discussion online about creatives pushing back against this (the wonderful Clients from Hell website is just the tip of this particular iceberg). But when the Government decides it wants something for nothing, that elevates the whole argument to a completely new level.
At the end of May, a new post appeared on the Ministry of Testing website*. It started:
The Home Office is hosting up to 200 people for TESTCON’18, a conference for UK Government Software Engineers engaged in testing and QA. This year in central London we’re looking for individuals and companies to come and host a session on Wednesday 10th of October 2018.
The theme of this year’s conference is Insight and Innovation and we’re looking for engaging sessions to bring in new ideas and best practice into our sector.
Slots can be anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour and we can be flexible with the session format. Unfortunately we aren’t able to offer monetary incentives but it is a great opportunity to present to an engaged audience in a building not open to the public….
There was some immediate pushback against the OP; I got some retaliation in to defend the OP immediately, because the OP wasn’t going to be the person responsible, it wasn’t their fault, and equally as a civil servant he wouldn’t be able to respond in public as robustly as I could or even respond to criticism. I posted:
Within the UK Government sector, you are looking here at a mindset where attendees from other Government Departments will have their expenses covered by their home department, and any political attendees will be operating within the “Westminster bubble” and so not incurring expenses anyway.
Sadly, speaking expenses have been something of a political issue over the past few years, mainly because of past indiscretions by some high-profile speakers. This makes Government departments reluctant to be seen to be offering “jollies”. The people who suffer are the independent and SME speakers, who cannot justify giving HMG a freebie, and HMG itself, of course, who do not get the benefit of the experience of people who have something helpful to say. In the end, it only serves to reinforce groupthink amongst managers in Government computing as they will ultimately only be listening to opinions from either within the Government estate or from big consultancies with an eye to getting or retaining high-profile contracts (no names, no pack drill, but I’m sure you can fill in the likely names as well as I can).
In my experience (30 years in the Civil Service, albeit at a minor level), testing is not prioritised by many managers with responsibility for IT – which is not the same as saying “IT managers”. Ultimate responsibility for IT will, in so many Government departments, rest with a senior administrator and not an IT person.
The decision to make this a “no budget” event will have been taken at a higher level than (the OP’s) pay grade, so don’t shoot the messenger.
However, I was as irritated by this as a lot of other people, so I did the only thing possible; I wrote to my Member of Parliament.
For those unfamiliar with UK Parliamentary protocol, the best way to challenge something that a UK Government department does, especially if it’s on a general point of policy or principle, is to ask your MP to write to the Minister concerned. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get action, or a change in a policy; but it does usually mean that your query will be answered by someone rather higher up in the organisation than if you wrote directly. If it so happens that your MP knows a Minister personally, then your query may be discussed – informally – on a one-to-one basis. Again, there is no correlation between the level of contact and any action.
My MP is Edward Argar, a fairly low-profile Conservative back-bencher who failed to be selected for the candidacy of a number of seats before being parachuted into my constituency, which is a safe Tory seat. He was appointed as a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice in June of this year.
Dear Mr. Argar,
I have recently seen a call for attendees to a conference organised by the Home Office, Testcon ’18, described as “…a conference for UK Government Software Engineers engaged in testing and QA.” It is due to be held on 10thOctober this year.
I am a professional software tester with over 20 years’ experience in both the Government and private sectors. Software testing is a growing area, but amongst some IT professionals and managers responsible for IT, it struggles against a perception of being either “merely checking”, a process that acts as a “gateway” to product release or something that is tacked onto the end of a software development process, inevitably resulting in limited time for testing. Testers may get blamed for bugs getting released into the final releases of software, even though no tester will ever suggest that they can guarantee 100% bug-free software; and they are not responsible for bugs being in the software in the first place. The results of poor testing and the lack of a more involved role for testers in the whole business process of creating, designing, developing and releasing software can be seen regularly in news stories about computer failures in both public and private sectors.
What I am concerned about with regards to the Testcon ’18 conference is that the call for e_xpressions of interest states that “Unfortunately we aren’t able to offer monetary incentives but it is a great opportunity to present to an engaged audience”. This is extremely concerning, both to me and to very many software testing practitioners. The industry as a whole is pushing back against a phenomenon which has been identified as “pay to speak”; situations where speakers attend conferences at their own (or more often, their companies’) expense is seen as seriously restricting the diversity of voices heard in testing conferences. Diversity in testing is not just a good idea; when applications are being rolled out into use in the Real World, they are going to be used by any number of potential customers, potentially world-wide. It follows from that, that applications need to be tested by a wide range of different testers with different life experiences. We have all come across applications where the systems work perfectly well in terms of the computer code properly executing its instructions, but the layout, workflow and assumptions that the designer made about the likely user have rendered the system, in some cases, unusable. I have personally experienced “the computer says no” moments that have made me write to CEOs of major companies in despair.
The reputation of Government IT systems is such that a major Department seeking the participation of speakers should be opening itself to the widest possible range of ideas. Instead, by not offering to meet even the most basic of expenses, the Home Office (as sponsoring Department for this conference) is excluding a wide range of individual practitioners and SMEs who are doing the most innovative work in developing both test techniques and innovative thinking on testing and its place in software development. Instead, the conference is most likely to be packed with attendees from other Government Departments (which is good) and from the big consultancy firms who can cover attendees’ expenses (not so good), treating the exercise as one of keeping their names in the frame for future contracting work. These are likely to be the same four consultancies who have been implicated in a range of recent bad news stories about accountancy, business and the existence of what outwardly seems like a cartel divvying up major private and public sector contracts between them whilst not actually doing a very good job, or who have been the key partners in past Government IT systems that have failed embarrassingly.
Your colleague, the new Home Secretary, has considerable experience in business and commerce, and indeed as a former Business Secretary will, one assumes, recognise the importance of SMEs in the economy. The SME sector in IT is one of the great repositories of knowledge and innovation in the British economy; but by taking a policy decision to not offer expenses for attendees and participants in this conference, the Home Office is cutting itself off from fresh and innovative thinking in the field of testing, and setting itself up to succumb to the same old groupthink that has plagued Government for too long.
I would appreciate it if you would raise this matter with Mr. Javid; I should be very interested to know his thoughts on the matter. I shall look forward to hearing from you and would be happy to meet to discuss this matter further.
I heard nothing for two months – this is rather longer a time than usual, but MPs do have some other issue occupying their time at the moment (!). However, just when I was beginning to consider writing again, I received this:
Dear Mr Day,
Thank you for your email below – my apologies for omitting to respond, which I hope you will forgive. As you may be aware, I am no longer in the Home Office, so cannot speak for their approach to Conferences and speakers, however I did take the opportunity to highlight your concerns to a Home Office Minister.
The Home Office has considerable internal testing/ software expertise which it draws on to ensure systems are robust and secure and, of course, this is augmented by external perspectives and input. My understanding is that, while such external contributions to conferences and other forums are both welcome and valuable to all concerned, including those speaking, it is not possible to pay for such appearances at all conferences, and I am afraid that I understand that the Home Office has no plans to pay all attendees who speak at their conferences.
I appreciate that this response may be disappointing, but hope that it may nonetheless be helpful.
Kind regards, Edward.
Edward Argar MP
Member of Parliament for Charnwood
After a little consideration, I replied again:
Dear Mr Argar,
Thank you for your response.
As a professional tester, of course I am disappointed with the Home Office’s response. I am equally concerned as a taxpayer that the response shows no sign that the Home Office is fully committed to opening itself to a wide range of external perspectives, or realises quite what reaction its decision not to pay attending external speakers will provoke. I repeat that by not paying external speakers, the Home Office will almost certainly only hear perspectives from large companies or partnerships who are prepared to subsidise their personnel to speak as a means of keeping their names in consideration for future projects. Meanwhile, innovative speakers from the SME and freelance sectors, who cannot afford to give “freebies”, will not be heard. This will have a long-term effect on the quality of applications procured or developed.
I first became aware of the Home Office conference through a Brighton-based company, Ministry of Testing (which styles itself after the well-known nightclub rather than any other Government department!). MoT (as it is invariably known) is a training provider and conference organiser, and also promotes the wider testing community. I write as a satisfied member of that community and attendee at MoT-organised conferences, but I have no other direct connection with MoT. Nonetheless, they have played a key role in facilitating community discussion on paying to speak at conferences, and I copy my response to their forum.
If this subject interests you, I would be happy to meet and discuss the implications for government and industry on software testing generally and the role of Government-level conferences in particular.
So what am I trying to achieve here? Well, a change in policy by one of the major departments of State would be nice, but I don’t see that happening under the present Government very much. A Government that expects people to work for nothing and has no shame in asking for that is frankly not fit for office; but saying so too loudly to an MP who you are trying to influence isn’t the best plan. (At least, not just yet.).
More specifically, though, I suppose I’m trying to raise the profile of testing as a whole, to get people in High Places to think a little bit more about testing and the role it plays in our lives. And perhaps if I could achieve that (though I’m not holding my breath), then the idea that testing as a professional discipline that should be taken notice of might just spread a bit wider than it does at the moment outside of the community. Someone has to try, and it might as well be me.
*For the benefit of anyone coming to this blog for the first time, “Ministry of Testing” is not a UK Government ministry. Rather, it is a software testing training provider and conference organiser, who just happen to style themselves after the famous London nightclub, Ministry of Sound.