I Can’t Drink, and Neither Should You

Just kidding.

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
–Oscar Wilde

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.

  • I don’t really get the attraction to drinking to excess at conferences. Why would you get around so many smart people and then piss it all away? Can’t you do that… anywhere and anytime when there’s less opportunities for growth to lose?

    But yeah, as someone who’s not really into that scene, I’m not discriminated against, I’m just the oddball one by choice. Although, being the DD is nice.

    Just tell me what hotel you’re at and give me your rental keys now and let’s save everyone a lot of trouble. =)

  • Hey Wes!

    I’m with you in regards to the “why do people drink so much”. I have been guilty of it at a conference, but it’s been a relatively rare kind of thing.

    It’s not every day that you get people of that caliber together, so I agree that getting sloppy drunk isn’t doing anyone any favors. With that in mind, alcohol is the “social lubricant” of choice, and I’m sure you saw the recent study showing that modest alcohol intake increases creative problem solving.

    Alcohol isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, but I do encourage moderation, just because you’re less smart when you’re good and drunk, and being less smart is no fun.

  • I’ve never attended any conferences before, so I can’t really comment on that as much, but I’ve never felt left out or excluded for not drinking. On the contrary, I’ve actually felt more included at times just because I don’t drink. Not everyone views me as a cheap, safe ride home. Sometimes not drinking is actually a conversation starter.

    If you ever feel like you’re being excluded because you don’t drink, chances are it’s because you’re excluding yourself, as Matt has pointed out. Never once have I felt excluded because people were getting sloppy drunk. In fact, I’ve proudly excused myself to get away from the stupidity.

    If you think the only way to learn something is by being sober, then that’s your choice to not attend talks or conferences where alcohol may be consumed. I will continue to learn new things from drunk people, and I mean more than “I have to unzip my pants or I’ll pee all over myself.”

  • Lu

    Great post Matt. I agree everyone respects the choice not to drink. I make that choice myself often also. People understand you have your reasons. We are lucky – it is not as true in asia. Very hard to be alcohol free in business there. The BoFs are harder to fix. No good answers. Get the sponsors to buy beer and let the people choose the venue. What would happen?

  • I’ve gone to some of the BOFs that go up against the vendor BOFs. In a way it’s nice because the people who are there, really want to talk about the topic. Those technical BOFs do sometimes have beer, but sometimes they have good stuff like ice cream (love those). I guess you could say that you are excluded from the ice cream BOFs if you are dairy-allergic.

    I think the idea of having an after-hours party (from the conference perspective–not the vendor’s) is to say “Ok, you guys have spent the day cramming your heads with facts and information, now lets just relax and socialize” along with “some geeks may need social grease to allow them to be social.” That seems to works for a percentage of the 400 attending the vendor BOF out of 1000+ that attend LISA. If there are 400 people at the vendor BOF, where are the other 600+? Well, not at the vendor BOF. I’ve never had a problem finding someone to hang with who wasn’t sloppy drunk. Sure, there will always be some who go for the booze a bit hard but let’s not generalize about the entire attendee list because of a percentage who know no other way to let down their hair.

  • Chris

    Thank you. The Internets needed some moderation, and this is it. Telling a hotel full of 1200 introverts that they can’t drink sounds like a great way to either have a lame conference or start a Shaker revival.

    I’d buy you a brew to thank you, but, well…. So I’ll buy _me_ one instead, and hoist in your general direction. :)

  • The last conf I went to was SXSWi. I still had pneumonia (thought it was getting better, they hadn’t made a proper dx, long story), so I didn’t feel like drinking. One of the points Ryan makes is pretty valid – about one hour into the parties people are WASTED. You can’t really have a conversation if you are not in the same mindset. Combine that with the dark/noisy/smokey atmosphere…it sorta sucks not being blitzed when everyone around you is. Its not about feel peer pressure from people to drink, its just that it sucks to be sober when everyone else is not. Because they start acting differently, and its something you don’t notice if you are drinking with them. I know its bad when my son – who is 22 and working in the tech industry for his first job – says how much the drinking bothers him (and that boy had a normal American college experience if you know what I mean..).

    As someone who works at a vendor I also really liked the suggestions Ryan had as well. Chewing on those ideas now for DSF Boston.

    Also – hope you are feeling better! Will you be at STFD?

  • Danielle

    I have every confidence that no one is going to give me a second thought over it.

    This is the key difference. For a significant portion of my life, beginning in my late teens and extending into my early 30s, if I went to an event where alcohol was present, the quoted sentence above did not describe my experience. I lost count of how may times someone decided to make an issue of the fact that I was not drinking, and I’ve probably heard every sham justification for them doing so; he most common was an insistence that, by not also drinking alcohol, I was ruining their enjoyment of the event. The claim became self-fulfilling, and not just for them, because their refusal to drop the matter and, instead, persistently attempt to make an issue of my choice of drink had an effect on them, me, and those around us – a needless unpleasantness was introduced to what was to be an enjoyable event. Most present didn’t care but anyone present finds such a conversation to be negative.

    To make sure there is no question here; I never made their drinking an issue, because I didn’t care. What caused them to begin questioning me about drinking was typically an innocuous action such as them overhearing me placing my order for a non-alcoholic drink. It’s also not that this happens once or twice, but that it is persistent. In my case, for nearly two decades I ran into it at least once per week.

    The result was a the message “we don’t want you here because you don’t drink.” While I never described it as being excluded, it’s easy for me to see how another person would see it in that light.

    Several years ago, when I moved to a different state, this issue in my life ended. I moved to a location where I wasn’t around people who saw social events with alcohol in that light. I definitely agree with the point of this post now, even though just a few years ago I’d have been in Ryan’s corner, and it was all because of the far greater volume of other experiences – those in our day-to-day lives rather than special occasions like conferences – that these views are formed.

  • attendee

    I have been to a few conferences and drinking socially is the norm. Of the conferences I’ve been to I have met many an over worked attendee that views the conference as a way to escape the toils of daily work, learn some thing new, socialize with like minded people and finally; cut loose after the vendors sessions are done for the day. And that is normally how the after session sessions are labeled.

    You will get rid of the booze when the attendees 24/7 work schedule is required at the conference.

  • Matt, I don’t drink at any of these events, and although I’ve gotten a raised eyebrow or two, it’s never been a big deal. I usually hang out with folks no matter, and it’s not been much of a problem to date. Yes, some people have their “obnoxious gene” liberated by consuming too much alcohol, and if that happens, I check out pretty quickly. I can turn on the TV anytime I feel compelled to witness people acting foolish or churlish. I don’t need to spend time at a technical conference doing so. That’s not why I personally attend such events, although I understand that many others really look forward to the booze aspect of the conference.