April 20, 2012
I've had this blog post sitting in my queue for a week. I really thought this whole thing would blow over, but people keep talking about it, and as an interested conference-goer, it's not outside of the realm of my interests...it's just that I think that this whole "drinking at conferences" thing is pretty overblown.
Work is the curse of the drinking class
A lot of people go to conferences and drink while they're there. A subset of people go to conferences SO that they can drink. Which, speaking economically, makes no sense to me. But whatever, there you have it.
Now, the post that I linked to above, Ryan Funduk's Our Culture of Exclusion begins with two paragraphs about a culture of exclusion (and hey, I think that there really is a small group of individuals who actively try to exclude other people. I wrote Xenophobia and Elitism in the Community two years ago), but then he dives headlong into an accusatory diatribe over the "Alcohol Clique".
Let me confront this label head on.
There isn't an alcohol "clique" at tech conferences. There is a culture of technical people, and one aspect of that culture is alcohol. It isn't the reason that (most) people come together, but it is something that is shared by many members of the community. That isn't a clique, that's mainstream.
Enough of the label, let's actually get to the substance of the problem.
Ryan views drinking as exclusionary because some people don't drink, don't want to frequent the places where alcohol is drunk, and don't want to be around people that have been drinking.
I sympathize with people who don't drink, don't want to frequent the places where alcohol is drunk, and don't want to hang out with people who have been drinking. It has to be frustrating when 95% (99%? I don't know the numbers) of a conference disappears in order to go partake in something you cannot or choose not to partake in.
At the same time, though, the activities of this vast majority are not exclusionary. You are not being excluded, you are excluding yourself if you choose not to be around people who are drinking. This isn't a case of a disability barring you from entering a building - it's a choice that you're making not to be around people.
That being said...I agree with a lot of the observations that Ryan makes. There certainly are people (too many of them) that drink until they're witless. Who are loud and obnoxious...and who frequent places that are loud and obnoxious. I don't like that particular "scene", so I don't go there or hang out with those people.
Some of the things that go on around other conferences (like VMworld) are kind of...off the chart, as far as bad decision-making goes, so I'm going to exclude them and deal with the ones that I have more experience with, such as PICC and LISA...and it's not all sunshine and roses, but it's not all bad, either.
As you probably know, LISA has Birds of a Feather sessions, or BoFs, after normal conference hours. These are "unconference" sessions where people can create a meeting about a particular topic, and then (the theory goes) anyone with interest in that topic shows up and you can have an engaging and informative discussion. The BoFs are scheduled each night, Monday-Thursday until 10pm or so.
That's exactly what happens, too. There are a lot of interesting BoFs on good topics that are all well attended. Until Wednesday, that is. Wednesday is when the actual LISA conference begins, with the previous two days having been training only. On Wednesday, the floodgate of attendees opens and the BoFs change.
Instead of having 6 rooms where each has 4 hours of BoFs full of people, you have 3-4 rooms of poorly-attended BoFs because enterprises grab up big chunk of BoF time...which I'm not complaining about. Vendors have the same right to BoF time as individuals (note that I don't know if a BoF time block is negotiated as part of a sponsorship package or not, but it may be, since a couple of the vendors get 2 hour BoF-space). What I do complain about is that these things are called BoFs in the first place.
Look at the LISA'11 BoF schedule. Take note of everything that says "vendor BoF". My impression, from the majority that I've been to, is that they are far-less BoF and far more marketing and headhunting opportunities, in some cases with a party atmosphere thrown in. There's often very little actual discussion of the company's technologies other than maybe a slideshow or a technical "state of the union"-type address.
If there's so very little signal in all of the noise, why do people go? In a word...beer. At the very least, there are buckets full of beer at the front door of the room when you walk in. The higher-end ones have wine, too, and although I've never seen liquor in an official BoF, there very well could be. I don't know.
The thing with the vendor BoFs is that the vendors see buying beer as either a community service of sorts, or a marketing expense, or maybe as a human-resources endeavor, but whatever the reason, it virtually guarantees that any BoF that runs up against, say Google's, is going to have next to no one attending it.
But what are you going to do? As someone who throws a BoF or two every year, I have a choice to make. I can schedule my BoF before the big vendor BoFs start, or I can schedule it late enough that all of the vendor BoFs are over, or I can schedule it against what I judge to be the weakest vendor BoF in my time frame. I've done all of those. But let me be very clear - I am not being excluded. I am making a choice to not attend a vendor BoF and partake of whatever it is that they're offering, be it alcohol, company, or ambiance. It is my choice.
Yes, the situation sucks from the perspective of someone who feels like they have something to offer people who are busy drinking somewhere else, but that is the situation at hand. Would eliminating vendor BoFs solve the problem? Hell no. LISA is held in the heart of metropolitan areas for a reason - good access to local restaurants, pubs, and other attractions. Enterprises would LOVE it if the LISA staff got rid of vendor BoFs, because hotels charge an astounding amount of money for providing beer, and it would be cheaper to rent an entire pub than it is to supply hotel beer and wine to the probably 400+ people who showed up to Google's BoF last year.
If you eliminate vendor BoFs then you not only continue to keep vendors involved, but you actively draw people away from the conference location. This isn't even "not winning", it's losing worse.
There is no way to win the war on an "anti-alcohol" ticket. Ask the 21st amendment of the United States Constitution.
So instead, winning the war means picking your battles and deciding what you want to fight against.
Here is what I am against, that Ryan referenced in his post. I am against parties that are so dark you can't see the person you're trying to talk to. I am against parties that are so loud that you can't hear the person you're trying to talk to. And I'm against parties that are so crowded that you can't find the person you're trying to talk to. If you've been to conferences, you know the parties that I'm talking about, and at LISA, I can think of at least one that was a "vendor BoF".
So, if I were to take the stance that I was against a party of that sort, my first step would be to identify why people wanted to be at that party.
Is it the ambiance? For a few people, sure, but there's far more ranting against that than praise of it. Since the people who like that "club" feel are going to seek it out, and my goal isn't to be in a place like that, our differences on the subject are irreconcilable, so I've got to move on.
Is it the giveaways? Sure, that has a lot to do with it. If someone is giving away an iPad or an Android, or a pass to LISA next year, but you've got to be present to win, you're going to have a much higher attendance than you would otherwise.
But I think that the big reason is the alcohol, because free beer is a big draw for people who like to drink, and large vendor BoFs have it in spades. It's the biggest draw that I hear about whenever I talk to someone who's going to those BoFs.
So, in a thought-experiment, how could you fix the fact that people are going to vendor BoFs instead of content BoFs? You could eliminate the alcohol and giveaway aspect, but we already established how that turned out. Or you could level the playing field.
If all of the BoFs had the same access to alcohol, snacks, sodas, etc that the vendor BoFs did, then the vendor BoFs would be on equal footing with the guy who wants to hang out with people and talk about shell scripting, or configuration management, or anything else that no vendor would ever sponsor on their own. If there were no incentive to attend a useless BoF, then you wouldn't. And vendors COULD move away from the conference and have unofficial BoFs at local pubs, but they wouldn't, for the same reason they don't now - competition from other more convenient (i.e. on the conference site) BoFs that offer the same or similar levels of desirable features (i.e. alcohol).
Anyway, enough about conference BoFs, and back to the culture of drinking stuff.
Again, yes, our culture does include drinking as one of its hallmarks, but I have never, ever, not even once, been (or seen anyone) put down for deciding not to drink. And I know a lot of people that can't or won't drink. In fact...
I didn't write about this here, because, well, I was "busy", but a few weeks ago, during a Tech Field Day event, I had to go to the hospital because I was experiencing a condition called atrial fibrillation, which is where the top part and bottom part of your heart disagrees about when and how often to pump. It's very uncomfortable, and can be dangerous if left untreated, so I spent a few days in the hospital.
One of the outcomes of that was, because they feel that my having alcohol was a contributing factor, they advised me not to drink to excess. I decided that three days in the hospital was enough, and so I decided that the easiest way not to have a second beer is to not have the first. I haven't had a drink of alcohol since the night I went in to the hospital.
That's a big change for me, because I'm not a heavy or regular drinker, but I really enjoy good beer and good scotch, but I'm making a decision not to have them any more (although I reserve the right to taste new and interesting alcohols, I'm not going to be sitting down and having one).
By the arguments of Ryan and several other people who have weighed in on the topic, I could now consider myself excluded from the events where drinking takes place. Hogwash.
Were I not to be around people who are drinking, it would be my decision. As it is my decision to drink or not, is it not my decision to share company with people or not? If I don't like the place they're hanging out, I can hardly say that I'm being excluded for my own preferences.
No, I'm not going to take this exclusionary view. Instead, I am going to continue to hang out at the BoFs (both with and without alcohol), I'm going to continue to go to the hotel bar after hours. And I'm going to continue to not drink alcohol, and I have every confidence that no one is going to give me a second thought over it. And if the people I'm with drink too much to the point that I, in my sober state, can't stand to be in their company, I'll leave and find someone else, or go sleep. But I'm not being excluded.
So there, that is my very long, very complaint-filled view on this culture of exclusion thing. Let me know how wrong I am in the comments.