Tech Conferences for Dummies

This post is aimed at providing a usable summary of conduct to which one should adhere when attending a conference. This applies to most industries, but as I am a programmer, I presume to speak only from my experience attending various technology-related conferences.


What

The first portion of this post is a guide, in the format of a FAQ or how-to section. It aims to provide a reference to those that may be experiencing problems at conferences and like events (such as meetups), due to one or more factors of their personality or behavior. Common problems include inappropriate or predatory sexual behavior, violence, or belligerence.

There are also references provided for less-commonly severe problems, such as egotism, rudeness, and other conversational semantics, including tips on detecting if you may be perceived in such a manner, as well as how to manage those that might be practicing these behaviors on you.


Why

It needs to stop. As more people enter the technology industry every year, this is seemingly impossible in any short-order. But it’s not. It can stop. In the conclusion of this post, ideas are offered on this topic.

Most immediately, maybe someone new to conferences will be sent this post by their colleague. Maybe it will convince this person to modify their behavior.


Who

In the context of this post, I am an average programmer. I work at a distributed company, where we provide development services for a wide variety of clients. I attend or speak at twenty or so conferences per year, and am an organizer of a regional technology conference.

While I’ve never been the recipient of criticism for my conduct at any conference, I have nonetheless attempted a pragmatic approach to addressing persons that engage in negative behavior when at technology conferences and related events.


More importantly, however, I am a person that has zero tolerance for negative behavior. While I embrace and enforce the below recommendations in my own life, it is my hope that one or more people will use this brief, snarky guide to adjust their behavior, or share with others until it reaches someone that could benefit.

Let’s get started! There’s no table of contents. There’s a question, followed by an answer.


Tech Conferences for Dummies

So, you’ve been getting into trouble at conferences. Perhaps you got fired for something; you made a sexual advance at someone, or became violent with another attendee. Maybe you just want to know why, despite your programming/design talents, no one will engage with you in person.

Before the Q & A, let’s take a look at the bigger picture.

The bigger picture

Have a look at this checklist below. If you’re comfortably assured that none of these issues are relevant to you, then please read on! If you’re not sure about any of these, make sure to investigate it first, as it may be contibuting to your conduct.

  1. Am I reasonably sure that I’m free from mental illness?
    If not, see a medical professional.
  2. Have I recently experienced a tragedy or other significant trauma?
    It’s likely best if you attend to the emotional pain you’re experiencing from this. Let the conference go, there will be others. Give yourself time to heal.
  3. Do I potentially have a physiological issue, such as a chemical imbalance?
    Much like the mental-health checklist item above, it’s best to address this before anything else. Handle your health.

The questions are divided into the following sections:

  • Sex and gender*
  • Violence and belligerence*
  • Conversation
  • Miscellaneous

*I have specifically avoided noting situations which would result in a person receiving a felony from law enforcement, such as sexual assault. It’s my hope that anyone who’d bother reading this is either seeking help, or is already like-minded.

If you’re engaging in any sexual assault – that is, subjecting another person to sexual behavior and advances against their will, I have no words for you. It is one of the very few instances in which I will immediately become violent in defence of the victim – and there are many like me. I implore you to seek help if possible


Sex and gender

I’m single. is it ok to hit on people?

Here’s the thing: if any of your primary reasons for attending a conference are to find a mate or sexual partner, you’re in for a very long wait – if you find any willing partners at all. And for good reason; a technology conference is entirely irrelevant to mating, reproduction, or casual sex.

Look, we’re all people here. It’s not about denying our humanity. Everyone loves fucking. It’s about self-control.

A conference is a place of learning; a place to make new contacts, new friends.

The core issue – provided you’re not suffering from the “bigger picture” checklist above, and are not a sexual predator unable to control their behavior, is lack of self-control.

Example:
You attend a session given by someone you deeply admire for their technical chops. You’ve been using their code for a long time, and as you attend the session, you notice they’re also physically strikingly beautiful.

Perhaps you even inquire with a colleague of theirs, about their relationship status, to which they reply with an uncomfortable “uhhhh – I think he/she is single”. You think to yourself “I’m single, they’re single. I should ask them out”.

What’s wrong with that?

So far, nothing too bad. It’s extremely bad form to engage in any sexual behavior during a conference unless it’s quite clearly mutual, from the very first moment.

This is where self-control comes in. If you don’t get an affirmative reply from the person which clearly indicates their mutual interest, what do you do?

Stop. Do not engage the person again. Give them their own space.

They didn’t say no – but they didn’t say yes, either. They’re just playing hard-to-get!

Have you considered that you may be making them uncomfortable? It can be difficult to determine facial and behavioral cues from others, especially if you’re intoxicated.

You’re not in a fucking romance novel. You’re not in a soap-opera. Consider the most likely reason this person is attending a technology conference. In most cases, it’s something to do with the conference itself, and not pursuits of mating or intercourse.

The safest bet is a rule I’d like you to try the next time you attend a conference.

Safe bet: Leave your libido at home. Never engage someone in sexual behavior or conversation unless they explicitly do so first.

When I see someone that’s pretty/handsome/hot, I tell them. That’s just me! I love beauty, and love letting people know I appreciate theirs.

A technology conference is an entirely inappropriate place in which to call attention to ones’ physical appearance, be it pleasant or otherwise. People attend for concerns of the mind, not the body.

By calling attention to their appearance, you’ve taken that away from them.

With permission, here’s an example which happened to a friend of mine a few months ago:

Let’s call her BeyoncĂ© (althugh she indicated it was ok, I’ve chosen not to disclose her actual name). She is, by all accounts, beautiful. A degree to which others in the room are made uncomfortable, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

She’s also a talented software engineer.

Because of her appearance, she’s never spoken in person at a conference other than once several years ago. Most people assumed she was an intern, or a marketing person reading a development session prepared for her by someone else.

But she tried again this year. Now she was assertive, older. She was able to articulately defend herself on matters no person every should.

Everything went well at first. Sufficiently-technical questions were asked by a few people. Then, after the talk, in the hall, a guy said “That talk was great. You’re a unicorn – smart AND gorgeous. Let me take you out to dinner?“.

What did the guy do wrong? Am I attacking men here? Imagine yourself in place of her:

You’ve spent a month of your life preparing a talk at a conference. You’re passionate about it.
You give the talk, and during Q & A, one person raises their hand to say “You’re adorable“.

You’re deflated, saddened.

He stole her moment.

Safe bet: Leave your libido at home. Never engage someone in sexual behavior or conversation unless they explicitly do so first.

Once, I said “You’re the most talented woman developer I know!” and some people got upset. What did I do? I just meant to compliment the woman.

Because of the history of subjugation, torture, and discrimination against women in many countries, most technical industries have suffered from having far less women than men.

While many countries have certainly made great progress in correcting this, there are numerable contemporary issues which still happen every day.

One such issue – which is one more subtle than overt harrassment or behavioral discrimination – is the mere inclusion of ones’ gender in an irrelevant context.

Consider this: A person’s gender is completely irrelevant in pursuits of the mind. Technology conferences are completely concerned only with pursuits of the mind. Well, the good ones at least. I’m sure there’s a sketchy conference somewhere with a wet t-shirt contest.

There is only one context in which it’s alright to make note of gender: awareness and corrective measures. At a conference I’m attending this weekend for which I’m the WP Foundation mentor, there’s a panel called “Women of WordPress“.

That’s hypocritical! If equality is what we’re all after, a “Women of WordPress” panel is wrong, as it promotes one gender over another. What gives?

Just because a law is passed, it doesn’t mean an issue magically goes away in a society. That’s why many laws are passed; the majority determines the course of action, and demands that other must comply, or be punished.

Murder: illegal. You kill someone, you get punished.

When women were given the right to vote in the United States (1920), every man in the country didn’t magically become ok with it.

If a husband prevented his wife from voting, however, she could go to a police station and tell them. Provided the entire police station wasn’t filled with sexist people whom looked the other way, they’d have to enforce this law, and charge the husband, thus protecting the rights of the female citizen.

Many such rights movements occurred since then – and still occur today. Our society contains a great number of persons that, for any number of reasons, do not treat women equally.

As noted in the above question: because of the history of subjugation, torture, and discrimination against women in many countries, most technical industries have suffered from having far less women than men.

Events such as the above-noted panel are ways society can encourage women to pursue their goals, and let them know they’re not alone.

I asked this person to dance, and they said no. Why go to the party if they don’t want to dance?

See first question of this section.

Violence and belligerence

If someone bumps into me and knocks over my drink, that dude is getting knocked out – that’s just how I was raised!

While this behavior is rare (in a conference setting), it’s worth noting first. If your response to someone accidentally touching you is anything like this, you need serious help. I encourage you to seek professional help with anger management, and any other disorders you may be experiencing.

Well, I’m not physically violent like that, but I do get very opinionated. Once, when someone told me they love .NET, I called them a “dumb fuck“. It’s just that I care a lot about my profession, and can’t stand someone else being wrong.

There are many like you in the technology industry. Some have very serious anger problems, which can be addressed with the recommendations from the above questions.

Others feel that anger and a strong contrarian demeanor lends weight to their reputation; this is a topic discussed in the proceeding section, but it’s something I’ve seen in far too many colleagues.

I get really loud when I drink, but I’m a nice person. It seems to annoy people. What should I do?

Drink less, or shut the fuck up for once in your life. I digress.

Look, I know how it can be. When sufficiently intoxicated, I’ll write Objective-C, or play Beethoven. Others may hit on people, get loud, get physical, and so on.

They key is knowing your limit, and stopping before any of that happens.

Safe bet: Make a friend early on in the conference. Someone visible, whom you feel is responsible and honest. Ask them the favor of telling you if they see you do anything in appropriate.

Conversation

No one talks to me. I get five or ten minutes into a conversation, and they leave. What the hell is going on?

If it’s a high number of people that have behaved this way toward you, it is very possible that you’re what many refer to as an “asshole“.

If it’s a pretty low number, or only the same people treating you this way, it’s entirely possible that they’re the assholes.

Asshole is a highly-subjective term, however, which posits a problem in using it as a behavioral descriptor, so let’s break it down into its’ common components:

Read official definitions of each primary term if you’re unfamiliar with the behavior it encompasses.

  • Egotism
    • Is someone writing bad or inefficient code? If you know a better way, that’s not a license to be an asshole. Get over yourself, especially if you want to go anywhere. There’s one caveat to this – if you’re a genius. If you’re a genius, go for it, be a shitty person if you’d like. You’ll still get paid.
    • Proud of a project, and want to tell others about it? Talk about the facts, not about how brilliant you are. Try your best to have some measure some humility.
    • Don’t self-describe as an expert. That’s not a title you get to give yourself. Others give it to you. After others refer to you as an expert, then put it on your business card. For fucks sake, never verbally say “I’m an expert so and so.”
    • Elitism and snobbery is ineffectual if you want anything from a person/community. Perhaps you use an IDE, and think those that use syntax editors are idiots? Nothing gets you on a shit-list faster than telling a colleague their workflow is stupid. We get that you’re passionate about it; write an article instead of making everyone dislike you. It’ll be easier to get what you want, as well. This is a tough behavior to correct if you’re much older, but it’s not impossible.
  • Rudeness
    • Don’t interrupt people. Ever.
    • Don’t dismiss ideas from others too readily if you think it’s a stupid idea. Acknowldege it, and offer a conjecture or rebuttal.
    • One-uppers: We get it. Everything you do is at least 50% cooler than what everyone else is doing. You’re likely lonely, or have an undeveloped sense of self-worth. Conversation is as much about listening and selectively contributing, as it is about blindly talking.
  • Ignorance
    • There are times where you’ll find yourself in a conversation over your head. Don’t bullshit. Tell the person(s).
    • Similarly, there are times where you’ll find yourself in conversation with someone that’s just nodding in a blind compliance, or saying things which are incorrect – even lying to impress you. Resist the urge to destroy them immediately. What’s your goal? Embarrassing, or educating them? Leave yourself a note, and send them an email later, eg “Hey, recalled you mentioned using the PerformanceTiming API in Safari. Can you tell me how? I noticed the spec is unsupported in Safari entirely, so wondering if you used a library?”. See? Super simple stuff.
    • Safe bet: Resist the urge to let someone know how stupid they are. Let it go. If you’re talking with someone that you’ve realized is more experienced than you, try to hold your own if they’re not an asshole. But remember the first item from this list.
  • Meanness
    • Don’t be mean, unless you know the person(s) to a degree you know it’s alright to take jabs at one another, either verbally, or physically.
    • Safe bet: Don’t be mean. Ever.

      I have a hard time talking with people. At conferences, I just keep to myself.

      I empathize with you – it took several years for me to be ok with engaging with others at conferences, and even longer to speak. What helped me was going with a friend. You’ll be more confident. Eventually, you’ll make new friends, and you’ll find one another. Then you’ll meet more. One day, you’ll be a snarky, pleasant, and obnoxious attendee, like me.

      The purpose of conferences is to meet people.

      Is it ok to ask someone if they have a partner (husband/wife/bf/gf/etc)?

      At a conference? What does that have to do with anything? Is it contextual to the conversation? Here are a couple examples.

      Appropriate:

      A: I work at home, too. It can be tough to stay focused with the kids running around.

      B: Yeah it can. Are you married? Does you partner work from home, or stay home at all during the day?

      A: I am, but it’s just me from 10-6 during the week.

      Inappropriate:

      A: This venue is great! Such a nice selection of wine.

      B: Yeah. Hey, do you have a boyfriend?

      I have a hard time following the flows of conversation, and conversational cues are lost on me. Sometimes I monologue for a long time, and people get annoyed. How do I learn to talk to people?

      So, the short answer is: there may be something going on. Check out the “bigger picture” checklist above before anything. It’s worth noting that I have a friend with Asperger’s Syndrome who says this social-skills improvement site helped him a great deal.

      Miscellaneous

      Can I hit on people? Make a pass at someone? Grab a butt? Lick a face? Sit on someone’s lap?

      Right, so I’m including a paraphrased version of an earlier section down here, just so we’re clear.
      Do not hit on people. Assume everyone is married, in a relationship, or is uninterested in having sexual intercourse with you.

      Do something about your self-control. It’s something that will be interpreted as creepy above anything else.

      Can I drink alcohol during the day?

      In my opinion – totally, but know your limits. Go with other people. Nice brewery around the corner, and no conference talks that interest you? Do it. But keep it light. There are many that find the consumption of alcohol – especially to the degree it’s done at conferences – to be a negative. Both sides contain merit; they key is being a reasonable human being, and not over-doing it.

      I don’t bathe; are conferences holistic-lifestyle friendly?

      Grow up.

      I want to take my children to a conference. Is that typically ok?

      This varies per conference. Some have specific activity areas for children. Others ask that children do not attend, to reduce liability, or to reduce the risk of interruption during sessions. Ask the conference directly; there’s no general rule.

      Why should I listen to you? I have way different opinions on this stuff.

      How has that worked out for you? I find the conclusions noted here to be implicit, so am really curious where and how I’m off the mark.

      This is weird. I find everything here very implicit. Are people really like this, to the degree that a post like this is even relevant?

      Yes.

      Conclusion

      I have a snarky and vaguely-arrogant manner of writing, I realize. But all of the information contained in the guide above is entirely factual, and based on experience from myself, and peers. Do message me if you’re unclear about anything at all, or feel I should clarify any points.

      For many years, I was ignorant of how these issues are at an epidemic scale. As they occurred more in my own life, I began asking others. Then I read about it at-large. For women in particular, their lives are a daily struggle for many, and a life of fear and worry for others.

      I have some thoughts on where to go from here, but they’ll take work. This depends on severity of course, but generally the idea is to send the message that people if you’re found to be doing this, you’re professionally fucked.

      1. Anything criminal that’s done is immediately deferred to law enforcement. Immediately. Every item below thus assumes a non-criminal action, or an action that would not be pursued by law enforcement, such as some degrees of sexual harrassment.
      2. Problems must be met with immediate consequences for an offender.
      3. The first offense, depending on severity, is met with a one-year ban of that person from that event (and any related events which may occur on a regional basis), provided they agree not to approach, in any manner, the victim.
      4. The second offense, depending on severity, is met with a permanent ban from the event, as well as notifying all industry-related events the person may attend in the future.
      5. A registry similar to that of the national sex-offender registry should be maintained for repeat offenders and those committing criminal offenses.

      As conference organizers, we have the chance to send a very strong, very real message – but my list of ideas above has some fundamental issues:

      Does not prevent against the possibility of using this procedure as a means of “professional assassination”. It’s entirely possible one or more people could lie, to harm the public image of another. Conference organizers are not police officers. We have no authority beyond the event concerns themselves, and no resources to confirm whether or not something did occur.

      A more middle-of-the-road approach – perhaps just education, and more open communication between disparate conference organizers – may be sufficient.

      This procedure – if implemented as noted above – would also be cited by many as controlling, and too-harsh.

      I believe education really is the key here.

      Author: Rami

      janitor

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