Thoughts on META Conference 2018

On the 10th May, I (along with 300 others) headed to Kingsgate conference centre to attend META, the BGL Group’s annual tech conference. First hosted in 2016, this years event was on a much larger scale than the previous ones; with around forty different talks, workshops and demonstrations taking place throughout the day. I missed the first event due to family commitments but had been impressed with last year’s hosting, and this time out I’d decided that I wanted to submit a talk as well as visit as an attendee.

The day started at 8 in the morning, and we were welcomed with coffee and bacon rolls. As we mingled and talked over the fall out from pre event dinner the night before, the invited external speakers we setting up their stalls. Whilst predominately an event for internal speakers, representatives from Sabio, Godel, AWS, IBM and Splunk we all invited to present about their respective fields of expertise.

At 8.30 we all made our way to the central hall to be welcomed by BGL’s CIO Stuart Walters, and to hear from keynote speaker Simon Moores. Simon spoke at length about the future of both technology and the workplace, and how in his view the advancement and the enhanced use of algorithms would shape industrial advances in the near future. I enjoyed the opportunity to hear the views of someone who has been a real influence in the digital age, and found myself nodding along in agreement at most of the things he spoke about — indeed it’s hard to argue with this view of the future, albeit openly caveated by accepting that technology moves so fast it’s not possible to accurately predict what the world will look like even five years in the future.

After Simon’s keynote talk, we then had the options of seven talks to go and choose from. I chose to skip IBM’s hour long talk on Watson and Machine Learning to go and see Don’t Forget the P in Quality, a talk about the journey the Business Technology team at BGL have been on to create and build a quality first approach to delivery. Hosted by Steve Isbell and Tom Evans, the talk covered challenges of trying to change the way things were done, the different ways of helping personalities within the teams buy in to the changes and to see their value, and using retros and a closer feedback loop to enable continuous improvement. I may be slightly biased as it was a talk by and about the team I work in, but I enjoyed hearing the reaffirming message about putting quality first in our development practices.

Next up was a slightly different tone; a talk from Graham Fearn and three of our technology graduates about their experiences attending Microsoft’s Decoded conference. Graham spoke about Machine Learning and the example of how algorithms could be used for example for identifying photos of a boat; the complexities of identifying it from any of 360 degree perspectives, the different varieties of boat, whether it was a drawing/painting etc. Continuing from Simon’s earlier keynote talk, he spoke about how when dealing with machine learning the search should not be to find one solitary ‘perfect’ algorithm, but instead to find the one best suited to solving your problem. He then handed over to Johnson Boateng who talked about big data and the differing varieties that can be used during analysis, and how structured data, semi-structured data and unstructured data could all be identified and how they were useful. Next Mala Aboidje spoke about chatbots and Microsoft’s Bot Framework, with examples of how they can be connected to everyday services such as Slack and Skype. Of particular interest was a demonstration of automatic language translation; as someone with greek speaking relatives and no greek language skills myself, this would be useful!

Salman Fatmi then spoke about quantum computing and why it was going to be the next big thing — as this is a subject I’ve found too heavy to get into previously, I appreciated that it was delivered in a nice simple fashion that was easy to understand. Discussing how a Qubit differs from a Bit, how quantum computing is able to try every approach to solving a problem at once rather than ‘one at a time’ as in regular computing, and the new field of ‘quantum-crypto’, I have to say that whilst I struggled to immediately think of any day job applications, as a few days have gone by I can see more and more ways its going to change the world. Exciting stuff!

After a bit of a coffee break the next talk I went to was Stephen Ramsey and The Joy of Mistakes. I’m a passionate self-learner and I’m particularly interested in the psychology of HOW we learn, so I recognised and appreciated the points on how we use mental schemas to construct our understanding of the world around us, and how they can at times lead us to false-positives.

By now we were all getting a bit hungry so it was time to break for lunch, and once we’d sat and had something to eat there were a few breakout activities to enjoy — there was the chance to try out some Occulus VR headsets (which made me feel really sick), a live demonstration of facial recognition technology, and an extremely frustrating remote control BB-8 racetrack marked out to keep us busy.

After lunch I went to see a talk on The Changing Role of Testing at CtM; something that was of particular interest to me as I’ve previously spent time with their test teams and, whilst we’re both working to the same goals, I’ve found we have differing (although both valid) views on the best way of achieving them. Hosted by Steve Mattock and Andy Barnet, the talk covered the journey of testing at CtM over the past few years, and then focussed on the now — looking at how they utilise static code analysis tools such as Checkmarx and the visual regression tool Applitest really caught my interest to go and investigate further myself.

Then it was on to hear Oli Wennel talk about mutation testing in his talk A Testing Tool That Tests Tests. The first time I’d heard of mutation testing was actually a year ago at the previous META conference where Oli demonstrated the principles and the value in it as a discipline, so I was keen to hear what he had brought with him to discuss this time. As it turned out, he’s been busy. Having found that he couldn’t find a mutation testing tool for C# code, he’d decided to write one himself. Mutation testing focuses on the robustness of test code — the programme changes the parameters it finds in the tests being run (changing for example the test if x > 5 to if x≥ 5) to see if it changes the result of the test. If not, you are potentially at risk of bugs or ‘mutants’ getting through your tests undiscovered. Whilst an interesting principle in itself, Oli focused on the journey he’d been on developing Fettle; his own mutation testing tool for C# code. It was really interesting to hear how he’d overcome problems such as optimising his code, performance and producing useful results out of it, and at the end of the talk his offer to share the tool for others to use and feed back on really caught the interest of a number of people in the audience.

I had then intended to go to a talk called On Lions and Bullsh*t in Cyberspace, a talk by Charl van der Walt of SecureData. Unfortunately, by this point I was beginning to get a bit stressed about my talk which was up next, so I had to go and chill out in the breakout space and run through my slides one more time just to be on the safe side. I was disappointed to miss this one, and from what I heard from other people who did manage to get to it they took a lot from it.

Then it was me, and my talk about how to protect your team’s quality culture. I wont go into too much detail about it here, but it was focused around how it is the whole team’s responsibility to put quality first, and how the testers in each team should be on the lookout for certain red flags that allow threats to your culture to creep in and affect you teams delivery.

Personally, I had a really great time at META. It was a major step up from an already enjoyable conference last year, and its one of the perks that working for the BGL Group that I really get a lot of value out of. Its a great opportunity to learn from and about what’s going on around the group, to network and meet new people from teams working in the same field as you and, as in my case, to talk about something you’re passionate about with your company colleagues. I’m already planning out what I can submit to next years conference, and its something that I’m really proud to have been part of.

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reader of books, follower of Formula One, eater of pistachios

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Drew Pontikis

Drew Pontikis

reader of books, follower of Formula One, eater of pistachios

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