an interview with Alexandra Schladebeck - CEO, Head of Quality, International Tech Influencer & Conference Keynote Speaker
I (Uwe Gelfert in the Name of AgileTD) had the wonderful chance to interview Alexandra (Alex) Schladebeck, one of today's thought leaders in the area of Agile, Software Testing, Software Quality, Leadership and People Management. In the beginning of 2020, Alex became the CEO of the BREDEX GmbH, a software and IT solution company with its origins in Braunschweig, Germany.
In her 15 years long professional tech career she already achieved many milestones quite fast and early. She became a CEO, is a well known and booked Keynote Speaker and Award Winner, just to name a few.
Her success was the reason for this interview and it was planned to inspire anyone who wants to get off with a flying start of their own tech or speaking career. Alex will explain to us how she became a conference speaker, what it means to be a conference speaker and how she became an award winning international keynote speaker. If you haven’t submitted for the Agile Testing Days 2021 Call for Papers, check out this interview first and then submit!
[EDIT] This interview was originally planned to be published in spring 2020, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic it got postponed. In 2020 it was planned to be the first blog post interview of a series of similar ones, but now it will be the only one in written form. The next one will be a podcast interview via our new podcast channel: AgileTD Unplugged! Stay tuned for the first episode.
Before we start with the first question I am going to share some stats and interesting background details about Alex.
Alex was born and raised in Liverpool (UK) and currently lives in Braunschweig. During her studies she moved to Germany and decided to stay. She has a BA in French and German (Language and Linguistics) and a MA in Phonetics and Phonology. In her spare time Alex likes to do: sports (running, hiking, aerial acrobatics, yoga), music (plays the violin), baking and traveling. Her first conference talk ever was back in 2006 and since then she gave more than 100 talks and workshops at international conferences. Mainly she has been booked for European events, but for her 17 keynote appearances she has been all around the world to spread her wisdom. Alex is not only active on the stage she is also very active behind the scenes by being a conference organizer, being part of the program committees for several conferences and being a mentor for other speakers. She reviewed around 1000 speaking proposals and helped around 20 Speakers to make their first stage experiences.
Now let us find out more about Alex’s speaking career and what kind of takeaways are there for you!
AgileTD: Alex, can you still remember your very first public speech or speeches? What was your motivation and how did you feel?
Alex: It was in 2006 at a testing conference in Düsseldorf, and I was presenting a tool overview and demonstration of our automated testing solution - including good practices for UI automation. The crowd was about 15 people and I remember being nervous. At the time I didn’t consider myself very knowledgeable about what I was talking about, so I was terrified that I’d make a mistake. Also, the talk was in German, which isn’t my native language!
It was a sponsored talk and the motivation here was to promote the solution.
But my first real submissions were inspired by what I was learning and wanting to share that with others and learn from them. I’m very driven by learning and sharing that with others, so it was natural for me to want to speak. I love the feeling of having helped people. I love learning. I love sharing my experiences. At a conference, I am totally in the flow of being able to do all these things. It’s the best workout (in a good way) for my brain and soul.
AgileTD: When was the moment when you got asked to speak for conferences, instead of you asking or applying to speak and how do you decide for which events you want to speak?
Alex: Getting invited and asked was pretty awesome! It was in about 2017 I guess, when I’d done a few keynotes and was more well known. It is hugely flattering to be asked to speak, and it’s lovely to work with conference organisers on what topics and messages I can deliver. I don’t really have a formula to select events I want to speak for. It’s a mix of things like - how far away is it (i.e. how long will I be out of the office/how likely am I to meet people I or we can do consulting for), what do I expect to bring to the conference and also take away from it, will I meet people in my community that help me on my path, will I be able to reach and inspire people about my topics. I also look for a code of conduct and a good track record of being ethically sound. It’s important to me that a conference is looking to improve the status quo. For some conferences, that means that they are gradually moving away from pay-to-speak. For others that already do that, it might mean that they are actively pursuing diversity in other ways. I don’t have a hard and fast rulebook for speaking engagements. I highly respect people who for example, only speak at non pay-to-speak events, or events with a certain diversity. For me, I can and do choose whether to speak somewhere even if it’s not up to those standards. After all, sometimes it can be worth me using my privilege to represent women speakers at the conference.
Generally though, the criteria are very pragmatic: does it fit in with my schedule and energy, how much travel and time away does it mean, and how many people can I reach or connect with through it.
AgileTD: Where do you get all the ideas and inspiration from, for all the constantly new talks, new workshops and keynotes?
Alex: I try to always stay on top of what’s going on, and to keep active within our projects and in the community. Like I said, I love learning, so I spend a lot of time just learning about new things. Then I usually want to try them out, so I find a way to do that or to enable someone else to do it. And since I love to tell stories, I often can “see” how an experience can be made into a story with a message for others - and then I tell it!
AgileTD: Next to talks you also regularly give tutorials or workshops. How did you come to that? I imagine giving a 30-min talk, or even creating an idea for a talk and delivering it, is a completely different thing in comparison to create a 6 hour, hands-on workshop.
Alex: Oh it’s definitely different! In a talk, you’re there to share your ideas and experiences, whereas in a workshop you have a lot of variables and your experience might not be the most important thing. Obviously, it’s good to be able to tell stories and add to the participants’ discussions, but a workshop is much more about creating a space for participants to learn. Technical workshops are, in my view, the hardest. Because so much can go wrong! I once gave a technical tutorial to over 80 people. It went well, but it was exhausting!
AgileTD: Are you excited before you go on stage? And what do you do before you go on stage to calm down?
Alex: I am a mix of excited and nervous. I love being on stage, so I definitely have excitement. And I always want to do my best, so you will often find me reading notes shortly before I go on. I’ve never been dizzy or sick, but I do think my voice shakes at the beginning. And I unfortunately go red on my neck when I’m excited or nervous, so everyone can see it!
One trick that usually helps me to calm down is that - however it goes, it will be over soon!
I think I’ve always just loved talking and being on stage. Maybe it helps that I’ve played violin solos and in concerts with my band, I was a lead chorister in our church choir for about 4 years, and I also did karate gradings and competitions. I guess being in focus is something you can practise.
AgileTD: What are your hints for other speakers to be less excited and more relaxed before and during the speech?
Alex: Remember that everyone wants you to succeed and that no one can deny your lived experiences! It’s also ok to say that you don’t know the answer to something.
AgileTD: What kind of hints can you give a speaking newbee? And what is your favorite advice, which you would love to have known before your first speech?
Alex: For a newbie - make sure you get a reviewer! It doesn’t have to be for a whole written abstract, it can simply be to help you formulate your idea. I always ask people I mentor “what’s the message, and how does your story get you there”. In terms of advice for myself, I honestly don’t have any. Speaking is just one of those things I went and did.
AgileTD: Do you have a mentor for yourself in speaking and writing abstracts?
Alex: When I started out, not at all. Now I often ask people I know in the community or colleagues to either read something or listen to my thoughts about it. I process thoughts a lot better by talking, so sometimes my review process isn’t a written one but an oral one. Whatever works!
AgileTD: What is your rough step by step process from finding an idea for a topic till writing and submitting and until you actually give the presentation?
Alex: My first idea is usually either a cool title or a message I really want to get across. Based on that, I do a written mindmap on a whiteboard / tablet / piece of paper and add all the things I think might go into that talk. From there, I put together an abstract that consists of the problem / my story about the solutions (or not!) and the message.
Once it comes to create the talk, I usually do a skeleton in powerpoint with the titles of the slides being the main points along the way. Then I add notes about what the slide will be about, then I start to get creative with images and art.
I usually go over my story multiple times, but I very rarely practise speaking out loud. I also add anecdotes and change small things right up until I go on stage.
AgileTD: Which speaker did (or still does) inspire you the most? And which person in general (doesn’t have to be a speaker) does or did inspire you the most to come to your current stadium of being a leading Tech-Influencer?
Alex: I will almost certainly miss people out on this list! Elizabeth Hendrickson, Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory are the first people I remember talking about quality. They showed me that testing is something worth being passionate about, and they showed me that I could also belong on a stage. Their representation has absolutely made me more confident in feeling like I belong on stage.
A big shout out has to go to Huib Schoots, because it was through working with him that I got to do my first keynote. He inspires me to ask for things and to break implicit rules.
The people within the testing community, and specifically my niche of it, inspire and encourage and support me quite literally on a daily basis. Gitte Klitgaard, Elizabeth Zagroba, Ashley Hunsberger, Maaret Pyhäjärvi, Abby Bangser, Angie Jones, Anne-Marie Charrett, Ash Hynie, Lisi Hocke, Thomas Rinke, Richard Bradshaw, Mark Winteringham, Vera Gehlen-Baum, Marcel Gehlen, Michael Mlynarski, Melissa Eaden, Sven Schirmer, Marit van Dijk, Lena Wiberg, Dorothy Graham, Kristoffer Nordstrom, Rosie Sherry, Gwen Diagram, Tobias Geyer, Cassandra Leung, Andrei Contan, ...
And then there are my wonderful colleagues (testers and developers) at work. They see me when I’m not on stage, listen to my latest wild idea, and see me when I’m not in conference-flow. They are the daily inspiration to be the best I can be.
AgileTD: You mentioned your first keynote. Tell us the story of how you came to your first keynote?
Alex: That is a special Agile Testing Days story (laughs). I had been speaking for a few years and had given myself the goal of giving a keynote. I had no idea how to go about it - and I also remember one person telling me that “keynotes are for important people with something to say”. I get the feeling they didn’t think that applied to me!
Fast forward to Agile Testing Days 2014:
It’s late. I’m in the bar. I’ve been drinking gin. And I’m chatting to Huib Schoots and discovering that we don’t only share a passion for agile and testing, but also for music. We start to get some wild ideas about comparing agile testing and music. Somewhere in the conversation I mention that it’s on my bucket list to do a keynote but that I don’t feel ready for it yet. Huib, in the first of many lessons he’s taught me, decides that he’s going to pitch our joint idea to Pepe the next morning. And he actually did! I wanted to sink into the ground. You can’t just ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT?!? Well apparently you can! In 2015 we gave that keynote at ATD Netherlands and then in Germany. It (and other ATD experiences) remain a highlight of my career. I still get goosebumps when I remember sharing the story of my violin during our “Storytelling” keynote at Agile Testing Days. I’m proud of myself for sharing it, and I’m pleased that so many people got to hear about my dad through it.
AgileTD: Do you have a favorite speaking buddy - with whom do you enjoy sharing the stage the most? And what are the differences between presenting alone and presenting with a co-speaker? Are there any pros and cons?
Alex: I think I’ve done the most talks with Huib Schoots. I love not only sharing the stage with him but also preparing with him. I always learn a lot, and the atmosphere with him on stage is fantastic because we know each other so well.
But when you’re alone you’re in control! You’re the only one who will speak and you can plan a bit better. On the other hand, with a co-speaker you can add so much more because they bring a different perspective and different stories - and sometimes even different opinions. I think that makes for a good dialog which is useful for the audience.
AgileTD: Do you like to recycle your talks/sessions - or do you prefer to always give a new speech/session?
Alex: I do recycle - although it’s rarely exactly the same talk. I enjoy presenting new material, but I don’t force myself to always have something new. Actually, I usually just check with the conference what they prefer. Sometimes communication helps.
AgileTD: Do you think anybody can become a conference speaker, even if the person is shy & introverted? Or do you think that a certain set of skills or characteristics are god given and should be already part of your DNA? In other words is speaking something you can learn or do you have to be made/born for that?
Alex: I think some people gravitate to it naturally (like me). That makes it easier to practise and improve. I’ve seen great speakers who are introverts - I think those people need to make sure they can regain energy after the speaking engagement. For me, the engagement *gives* me energy. But regardless of what you’re born with or what kind of character you have - I believe in a growth mindset. We can all learn and improve.
AgileTD: What’s next? What are your future goals as a speaker and in your career? You already achieved and unlocked some huge milestones that only a few people in this business unlock. What drives you? Do you have any open goals or dreams in your career as a speaker and CEO?
Alex: I think what drives me is a constant desire to learn, share, and improve myself and my surroundings. I was always a teacher’s pet at school and that has never really left me! I am definitely ambitious and often take on challenges. For me, life is about learning and experiences and so I’m always searching for that. At the same time, I don’t necessarily do “3 year plans” (they never work anyway!). My natural desire to learn and grow usually provides opportunities that I can take when they come up. I think I might like to do a TED talk at one point, and one day I’d love to do something that has a direct positive impact on society. For now, I’m very happy learning to be a CEO and creating awesome opportunities within my company.
AgileTD: Creating all the content for talks and workshops is a lot of brain work, but to spread the knowledge your voice is the strongest tool to distribute your messages. What would you do, if you lost your voice?
Alex: That really is a nightmare for me! I think if I did that, I’d move to writing, but when I’ve lost my voice due to illness in the past, it’s been so hard. I really hope that doesn’t happen!
AgileTD: That connects perfectly with my next question. With the amount of keynotes and speaking bookings you have you are “playing” in the league of successful tech book authors, who are getting booked a lot to speak at conferences. You earned your stage fame without having written a book so far. Is writing a book something you could imagine to do?
Alex: I think I would love to! I even have some ideas! It’s mostly a question of time at the moment, so I cristallise my ideas through talks and articles and blogs. Maybe the book will come later :)
AgileTD: If your speaking career would end from one day to the next, what would you miss the most? And what would you do instead?
Alex: I’d miss the feeling of joy when I come off stage, and the great feeling of having helped people in that context. I’d definitely miss my friends, peers and network at conferences if I couldn’t go to so many. I think in this case, I’d find some way of helping people without it being via speaking.
AgileTD: Alex, it was a great interview. We wish you all the best for your future journeys and adventures around the sun. Let us end this interview with a thoughtful, but also a bit cheesy question. Describe our world, if no one would be brave enough to go on a stage to share knowledge.
Alex: There’s a lovely quote from a show of hands song: “without our stories or our songs, how will we know where we come from?”. For me, giving talks is telling stories. And stories are important.
Find below the video of Alex's & Huib's first Keynote, which was mentioned above in the interview:
Where Words Fail, Music Speaks - Alex Schladebeck & Huib Schoots ( Agile Testing Days 2015)
Please also check out their other keynotes:
Once Upon a Time... (Keynote from 2016)
Get off the Hamster Wheel and Start Adding Value! (Keynote from 2018)