Does it always have to be about the drink?
This year, I've been immersing myself in the testing community, attending meetups and events across the UK and Europe. Along the way, a nagging question has been weighing on my mind. I wanted to save this until the end of the conferencing year, to be clear that this doesn't refer to any one event in particular.
Can we please consider more alternatives to alcohol for our evening conference/meetup activities?
It's perhaps inevitable, particularly during multi-day events, that participants will gravitate towards a bar at the end of the day. I don't have a problem with this, despite being an introvert, but I can't help but think of other ways that we can spend our time as a group of testers, without getting a sore head night after night.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't go to pubs - if you're a group of people who want to sit and chat during the evening, it's as good a venue as you're likely to find. It's also a sociable environment which encourages conversation and inter-mingling; though if there's a loud DJ or jukebox, it's often at the expense of your vocal chords the next morning!
And I'm not saying we shouldn't drink - I like a beer as much as the next guy, and a free bar is a great sponsorship opportunity to cover costs - though it does create awkwardness when one finds themselves asking for "just" a Coke. (This is a topic which was well covered by Kara Sowles, in her recent article Alcohol and Inclusivity: Planning Tech Events with Non-Alcoholic Options.)
However, I'm reminded of the Friends episode "The One Where Rachel Smokes", where Rachel discovers that all of the important business decisions are being made in the smoking room, and so she feels compelled to start smoking. I've been in situations where I've gone to pubs solely because they feel like the best environment available for some quality testing chat, which created an awkward situation with my wife when she didn't necessarily equate "in the pub" with "maximising networking opportunities"!
What are the alternatives to drinking? Well, here's where I'm happy to cite some examples; there's a whole host of other things that you could be doing, and I'd like to mention a few that I've seen on my travels:
- Lean Coffee: The Lean Coffee format is now well-established; ideal for smaller gatherings, though a large group can split into smaller groups and each hold their own session. I've seen these work really well each month in Cambridge, and on an epic scale at TestBash (see Chris George's report about TestBash Lean Coffee). They're typically run in the morning, which suits me as an early-riser, but there's no reason not to run them in the evening. The focus is on the conversation, not the beverage!
- Tourist Activities: If you're taking a pack of delegates to a new city, don't coop them up indoors at day and night. EuroSTAR did well here with the Literary Pub Crawl - though you might not know from the name! It involved a pair of Dublin actors, leading a tour group around the lesser-known establishments of the city, and although each was a bar, drinks weren't included, so those who wanted them were responsible for buying them. I know another group at EuroSTAR who rode the city tour buses on their day off, just so that they could see some of the city's sights while they were having their testing conversations.
- Testing Activities: I've seen a lot of missed opportunities this year; if you're putting large groups of testers into a room, why not actually give them something to test? Conferences focus on "talking the talk", but give people a chance to "walk the walk" too! The Test Labs at Let's Test and EuroSTAR were both great this year: a permanent place where attendees can pit their brains against a range of testing challenges. I also discovered testing katas, and I'm heavily involved in running one such initiative in Weekend Testing; I'd love to see similar opportunities on offer during evening event breaks.
- Games: If not actual testing, then why not give people the chance to flex their cognitive muscles while also having a great time? From Michael Bolton's dice game to late-night games of SET, Fluxx and Spaceteam, Let's Test won this round again. Once more, these are activities which can be accompanied by drinks, but it's not important whether you're seen to be drinking or not - in fact, the sober participants are a boon to have on your team!
- Restaurants: If not a bar, then why not a restaurant? Granted, it's harder to meet everybody's dietary needs, but this tends to result in smaller groups and more quality conversation. The best conversations that I've had at conferences this year have been the often-unexpected moments when four or five people decide to break bread together - in fact, this year I've been thrown out of more restaurants at closing time than bars!
- Pizzas: A special mention for NottsTest, which focuses on free (sponsored) pizzas for attendees. That way, everybody can partake in appreciating the hospitality, without it mattering whether or not they're having a drink at the same time.
Event organisers - if you're hosting events in a pub, or are otherwise looking for evening activities, why not try one of the above? Or ask your attendees whether they might prefer something like this? (I saw a great example of this at EuroSTAR - the Community Hub area contained chalkboards where people could propose/join others for some impromptu post-conference activities.)
If your event(s) are already offering some of these activities, then I applaud you, and I hope you'll encourage others to take up the proverbial baton too. With your help, maybe we can stop "Pub?" from being the de facto question at the end of every day!