Tech Conferences : A fun place to be

by Arnav Gupta - on
in  ,  ,  ,  , 


So I have had the good fortune to present at quite a few tech conferences. A large number of them have been at HasGeek events. Quick shoutout to Kiran Jonnalagadda, Zainab Bawa, Karthik Balakrishnan, Sandhya Ramesh, Hari (ഹരി) and everyone else on the HasGeek team for the awesome tech conferences they host. It was also an honour to be on the Editoral board a couple of editions of Droidcon too.

Putting those thanks aside right in the beginning, because here is where I start making fun of conferences. :P The HasGeek events are some of the most sorted conferences in India, but I have been to some other ones too, which are not that . . . well put together.

From right to left: Someone taking notes, someone hurriedly fixing bugs in the release they pushed out yesterday or getting ready for their talk up next, someone probably requisitioning nudes on WhatsApp and Kiran having an existential crisis. (credits: nicked it from here

So a lot of funny things happen at conferences. When you haven’t gone to one yet, or have attended maybe just one before, you have this assumption that this is a place full of serious people, who mean business, accumulated here to gain valuable insights from eminent and knowledgeable speakers.

But what tech conferences are, could be wildly different. There’s strictly two specific motivations for attending them. For speakers — you get to travel to a new city for free (if the organisers have managed to get quite a few sponsors on board, you get lodged into a decent hotel too). And for the attendees — you get free lunch, and your company pays for you to attend it. So for one whole day, you don’t need to dredge through your scrum in your gloomy desk, and instead meet new people, have good food and munch on free donuts.

And you also get to take selfies in front of cool wall art like this

Why do companies send their employees to these conferences you wonder? Well isn’t it obvious ? To learn new about the latest and greatest in the software world (read: participate in the hype cycle).
But that doesn’t always work out. Because you see, other than geeky developers, who else goes to tech conferences ? Greasy startup founders and technical recruiters. Who are always lurking to poach employees. So that bright developer you sent to pick up new skills at #AwesomeConf ? Too bad, just nicked him.

The Talks

The Gartner Hype Cycle. I am perennially on the trough of disillusionment, while the rest of the world seems to be constantly on the peak of inflated expectations

Most conferences will divide their talks into 3 categories, based on their difficulty and/or depth —

  1. Beginner — These are on topics which are in the first slope of the hype cycle. Imagine Kotlin in 2016 or TensorFlow in 2015 or React in 2014. And these talks are nothing but the exact content you’ll find on the ‘Getting Started’ page of the respective technology. It’s slightly worse than the Getting Started page, because that page gets updated in the future. This talk will get recorded and uploaded on Youtube as a permanent record of poor topic selection, if the said technology’s hype cycle bursts.
  2. Intermediate — **These are the opinionated as f* talks. This is the category into which every mediocre conference speaker proposes a “Best Practices for Creating a _ project” talk. This is the category into which every judgemental developer proposes a “What not to do when working with __” talk. This is usually going to be about a technology that the whole world is already using, but the ecosystem is not mature, so everyone is figuring shit out on their own, and there are no ‘best practices’ yet, so everyone thinks their variable names, function names, folder structures and file names are the best. Like everyone Javascript conference will have a talk on Vue, and every speaker will have his/her opinion on whether Axios is better or Vue-resource is. Every Android conference is talking about the pros and cons of RxJava.
  3. Advanced — This is where the fun is. Advanced talks will usually be about a technology that is in use since the advent of computers. But it will be about a particular niche which only 8 developers from Valley and 2 from Bangalore are working on. This category is called ‘advanced’ not because the technologies used are complex, but because it deals with something like — ‘When we were scaling up, our NodeJS codebase was so large the number of require() calls hit the Unix process limit of number of open files’ — i.e. the kind of problems engineers at Facebook or Google scale worry about, or people with a funded research on ‘how to screw your computer’ ponder over.

The Speakers

While those were the types of talks. There are also a handful of types of speakers you get at these conferences. Any speaker can be put into one of these categories.

  • First there will be the geeks with untested demos. These guys do not have slides. They want to give you a tech demo. Of a product that uses the latest, most unstable version of every tool possible, that runs on a prototype kit that they got from their last I/O or WWDC trip. These guys are found fidgeting with their demo 2 minutes before their talk is scheduled in the speakers’ lounge. The demo, will invariably not work. Then they will tell you, in the most unconvincing tone you’ve ever heard, what it would have been like, had the demo worked.
  • Then there will be the product guys, the marketing heroes hidden under the developers’ capes, the sellers, the smart talkers. They will convince the editorial panel in all ways possible it is not a pitch of their product or a blatant marketing of their ‘all new platform that will make developing a breeze’. (I’ve been on the editorial board. When an interview starts with “I don’t want to promote it in anyway but. . .”, I know exactly where it’s headed). These are the guys who tend to use use phrases like ‘and this is where all the magic happens’. You know when to call bullshit now if you hear this right ?
  • Some of us are the regular guys. The usual suspects. The weathered speakers. We have spoken at multiple conferences, and we know the feedback and reviews of the conference will depend more on the quality of lunch, than our slides. We know you’re here for a company-paid day off with free food and some . . *ahem . . *networking. We know you’re not really sitting here to understand how important it is to set objects volatile and functions synchronized for error-free multi-threading. We know the true reason you are here — you are here for the memes, the jokes, and the gotchas. And we follow the footsteps of lord Gary Bernhardt and the supreme leader James Mickens. (The liberal use of **we, **if had not clearly pointed out, then yes, this is the category I belong to).

Here you go, meme-ified, on your face facts, about how your Digital money isn’t all that safe

  • Finally there will be the visionaries. The legends. The torch bearers of technology. The keynote speakers. These will be guys like Ryan Dahl, showcasing his summer project — that eventually turned into NodeJS. Or Phillip Roberts casually telling you about the Event Loop. Or it could be the creator of Wordpress, Socket.IO and Mongoose — Guillermo Rauch (trivia: caught up with him smoking a desi joint an hour before this talk) describing the future of chat. These guys are the reason the handful of serious attendees who have come, are here for. These guys don’t talk code, or 10% performance bumps. These guys talk ideas. But never mind, because you won’t get it now. And when you’ll get it, it’d have been too late to jump onto the hype train.
  • There is also this one last type of speaker, for whom there is a** special place in hell. The guys who propose “Building for the billions” talks. And there is going to be at least half a dozen such proposals. “*User Experience for the next billion”, “Design for the next billion internet users” *and what not. Here’s the thing — there are only a handful of apps on the play store with more than a billion downloads: **Gmail, Google **Search (because they’re bundled in every Android phone), **Whatsapp **(because it’s the new SMS), **Messenger **(because Mark effin Zuckerberg forced everyone to download it), **Twitter **and **Facebook **(because 1 billion adults are shitposting cat pics on the internet everyday). If you’re not Facebook, Twitter or Google, you need to get your ducks in order and figure out how to **GET AT LEAST 1 BILLION USERS before you can *design better for the next billion. *You know who needs to build for the next billion ? This guy. Your app that solves NP-hard problem ? No one cares.

The Networking

.. or huddling around that one Google employee there, wagging your tails hoping to . . . idk what ? Get a job ?

So networking at tech conference is downright favour currying. You are either recruiting talent for your next ‘1 billion user’ idea (if you’re a CTO). Or you’re trying to appear deeply interested in the conversation one speaker is having with another about a language you first heard 1 hour ago. Or you’re trying to ask intriguing follow up questions to that big-company developer who just spoke in the pre-lunch session, and are only managing to ask the most obvious google-searchable questions.

Then there’s going to be that one huddle of undergrad open source developers (who are on sponsored tickets), gorging on all the available chicken and ice cream, and discussing about the best gaming laptop and having a dick-measuring contest about their Github commit-streak. THAT IS NETWORKING. At least they are having fun doing it.

There’ll be also be some horny fellows in a corner trying to make a pass on one of thinly spread female attendees. Geez. Please don’t. Like everything else in a shitty conference is still fine. But this isn’t. Wondering why there aren’t enough women in tech, this could be one of the reasons </serious note>

The Sponsor Kiosks

The most important part of the pilgrimage to a tech conference, is to visit the shrine of every sponsor. Because the offerings from the the divine sponsors are what keeps us going from one conference to another. Like literally, all 4 years of college, I did not buy a single T-shirt. Whenever I would run out of shirts, I’d turn up at hackathons and tech conferences and grab a dozen new ones.

Some of the upright ones, like Digital Ocean and Facebook would be having an open table of stickers, pens, notepads **and other corporate-marketing-enwrapped **swags. Then there’ll be snide data collectors who’d be like, fill up this form and get a T-Shirt. Like seriously ? You think I’d give up some of my real data for a free T-Shirt ?
Then, there are some who try to gamify the heck out of it. Udacity was making us answer a quiz to give us a mug. I just cheezeballed my way with the lady on the counter to get mine. I am sure so did others. Quiz my ass.

Here’s a golden rule about sponsor kiosks. Don’t go asking about open roles and asking about technology. Like just think it over. These companies, who’d love to make you work on Sundays too, have sent these folks for 3 whole days to stand at kiosks and take selfies with attendees. Guess who these folks are ? Yep the temps, interns and the most dispensable ones. They ain’t giving you any jobs. The know nothing about the next SDK release. Get back to the lunch, or the next talk about the next billion users please.

The best part about a tech conference is that they give you this black side-carry bag, which has this one recyclable pen made of paper pulp, which breaks apart the moment you put some pressure on it to write. There would be a notepad — they’re actually expecting you to take notes. And there’ll be a bunch of marketing material. Now the sponsors are charged extra for their marketing brochures to be put into this bag. The best use, personally, I had of these brochures, was to fan myself when sitting outside the auditorium in of the conferences I attended in hot and humid Chennai. And the cherry on the cake would be that conference T-Shirt, which if you wore, would look like a Formula-1 driver, because of the number of sponsor logs printed on it’s back. It’ll never be a size that fits you. And you cannot give away a T-Shirt with that many sponsor logos to anyone but your younger brother.

Tech conferences are really nice places to pick up new trends, and meet great people. This is a piece of comedy, and mostly everything after the 2nd paragraph is the worst of all conferences I have attended cherry-picked into a single story. Do keep attending conferences. Especially the ones hosted by HasGeek in India are some of the best ones. HasGeek has conferences on Javascript, React and Mobile lined up from 12th to16th September. If you’re coming to any one of them, hit me up on twitter, and we can ‘network’ and go ‘sponsor kiosk’ pilgrimage together ;)

P.S. Thanks to Sahil Dua for pointing out a couple of corrections in this.