Technical Conferences and (In)Appropriate Behavior

This past week there have been two major technical conferences in Las Vegas – EMCWorld and Interop. Both of these conferences have provided enormous highs for me in the form of technical whiz-bangery (I think I coined a word) and some incredible feedback from attendees to my presentations. (I’m truly humbled and grateful for the enthusiasm and feedback – thank you!)

Unfortunately, the week also showed some of the most disappointing behavior I’ve ever observed as well. While I did not personally attend Interop, there was a lot of crossover between the conferences and I found similar tales of horror over there.

If you’ll bear with me a moment, I have a few things I’d like to say about some of this.

The Social Contract

There is no question that conferences are well-attended for social reasons as well as educational ones. This is one of the few times during the year that people from different geographic regions can come together, and there is a strong element of social connectivity that runs through every conversation, even technical white-boarding and napkin-drawing.

Social media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, have made that element even stronger and more prominent. It is virtually impossible (heh! See what I did there? It was a tech conference after all!) to not have a “mixed media” identity when meeting people – especially ones that you have only read about.

Thing is, while this social aspect is a huge part of the show, we are still here to work.

For many people this is difficult to comprehend. Conversations between friends could also be conversations between colleagues. Or partners. Or vendors/customers. Or even competitors. In fact, because of the fluidity of these discussions it is possible to weave in and out of personal and business items within seconds.

What I observed was a general assumption that all conversations were social in nature. I had (and saw) people barge into conversations with unfiltered opinions about subjects for which they had no context. Sometimes conversations – with politically delicate backstories – were interjected with potentially damaging effect.

You’re probably wondering, “like what?”

Well, for instance, like stating that a product or technology “sucks” without knowing that the people who are talking happen to be closely involved in that product or technology. Or jumping into a conversation stating that something is “useless” when the nature of the conversational relationship is unknown. Or making rude or inappropriate comments (or gestures, or touching – more on this later) without realizing that your friend happens to be talking to a major customer.

For instance, early in the conference I was well on my way to improving a tenuous relationship with a partner, encouraged at the fact that we both wanted to help the other succeed. In other words, it made sense to remain positive and work towards building something rather than just giving up or allowing things to remain in the status quo.

I became livid when someone I knew (but he didn’t know the partner, or the relationship) decided to tell us both that the partner’s product line was going to completely disappear in 2-3 years. Suddenly a positive conversation based upon mutual goals became one of damage control. The off-handed comment – which wasn’t solicited – created a great deal more work for me that I would not have otherwise had to do.

(Note: the conversation was salvaged, fortunately, but mostly because the partner came to the conclusion that the interloper was clueless, poorly informed, and had no idea what he was talking about.)

How did this happen? It happened because the person I knew thought we were just “hanging out,” that it was some sort of discussion about the future of technology where all opinions were fair game, welcome, and to be offered freely. It happened because he came into the middle of the conversation and didn’t know (or care to know) the situation.

It happened because he thought this was a social conversation, not a business one.

In other words, if you happen to be at a conference and are enjoying the social element, remind yourself (on a regular basis!) that we are here for work, first. While you may want to ‘hang out,’ make sure that the person you want to hang out with isn’t in the middle of doing something before doing something stupid.

Do yourself (and your friends) a favor – make sure that it is okay to interrupt or simply sit down next to an ongoing conversation. Or, perhaps, even ask if the conversation is private if you are unsure. Yes, it’s a bit awkward if the answer is, “yes,” but it’s definitely better than the sour taste left in the mouths of the people who just got derailed.

Of course, if there is something of value to discuss, there’s nothing wrong with simply saying, “When you have a moment, can I have a word?” Then give people their space, but by all means don’t hover. Generally if someone is hanging around at a conference I’m expecting them to ask me a question or make a work-related comment. If you’re just hovering (or stalking) in order to “hang out,” it’s just creepy and unwanted.

Women and Technology

And this brings us to a very touchy subject. Again, I mean that in a dual fashion.

Earlier this week Stephen Foskett wrote a blistering article on misogyny in tech conferences, focusing on the usage and promotion of “booth babes.” Whether you agree with him or not, he does raise a very important point: women in technology are being treated poorly, especially at conferences.

Here, though, I’m not talking about objectification in the same sense Stephen is. I’m talking about inappropriate touching and comments that are made to people’s wives, spouses, or girlfriends – or even the female attendees of conferences.

Allow me to be blunt. You may know someone – or think you know them – because you have exchanged emails, or DM’d someone on Twitter, or friended them on Facebook. Hell, you may have joked around during a conference with them. Even if that is true (which, believe it or not, is not as true as people think it is most of the time), this does not give people carte blanche to be overly familiar with significant others.

I saw – personally – conference attendees make rude sexual comments to wives of attendees that they had just met. I heard about other instances where someone unexpectedly touched a woman’s breasts (from the woman herself). In another instance someone touched the knee of a woman and made a suggestive comment, under the auspices of attempting to be humorous.

Personally, I was mortified to hear and see these things.

This is unacceptable behavior. Do not EVER do this. Never!

All during the week I had friends ask where my fiancée was, and whether or not she would be in town. As much as I would have loved for her to be here with me there is no way in hell I would have wanted her at this conference this year!

She, like the significant others of many attendees, has something of a wicked sense of humor and has been known to join into conversations with her own double-entendres and suggestive quips. It’s one of the reasons why she and I get along so well! After all, these kinds of conversations happen when people in high-stress environments let off steam. I get that, and as it happens I like to hang around cool people who are not uptight all the time.

That does not, however, give anyone the right (or permission!) to say things that would be cause for HR violations in a cubicle farm. And God help the man who loses his mind enough to actually touch her inappropriately.

Believe me, you do not want to be on the business end of my hissy fit if that were to happen.

Take the Hint

There are people who are probably thinking, “Well, if it’s private conversation, it didn’t look like it.” Or maybe, “If they didn’t want me around, why didn’t they just say so?” Or even, “how can they expect to have a private conversation at a conference?”

The answer is very simple. Because this is where business gets done. Moreover, conversations often have to be done at less-than-ideal conditions because that’s all the timing you are going to be able to have. You take the moments when they come available, even if it means that you’re not in a conference room to do it. You prepare yourself in advance to be ‘on stage’ all the time in order to be able to capitalize on moments that may come out of the blue.

Sometimes timing is bizarre: There is a cadence to conversations at a conference that you wouldn’t have in any other setting. One second you could be chatting about how wild it was the night before and the next find yourself suddenly segueing into a direct proposal for a working partnership.

Conference attendees are at a work event, even if they, themselves, are not working. They should be tuned in enough to realize that much of this behavior is inappropriate and absolutely unacceptable. They should have learned this before they hit puberty.

And these people should be ashamed of themselves.

Preparing for Next Year

There are consequences to actions.

At least one person has done such damage to his reputation that it is highly unlikely that he will ever recover from it. The term ‘pariah’ has been used on more than one occasion.

Friendships have been irrevocably and irreparably damaged – including with me.

Business may have been lost. Corporate relationships may have been set back months, if not years, because of stupid and insulting comments that were casually dismissed away with, “I’m just saying…”

More than one person barely missed being the subject of HR escalations – and, quite frankly, probably should have been.

More than one person nearly got the snot beat out of him for ‘bad touching.’

Ultimately, there will be more conferences and more events and more crossover between mediated friendships (i.e., people whose online interactions are the bulk of their relationships) and work-related engagements. People have a duty to both their own personal reputation and that of the company which they represent to ensure that these kinds of lines are not crossed.

As tempting as it is to consider these types events as socially constructed, they are not. There are boundaries and limits. If you are unable to restrain your behavior to being within those contextual norms, you not only risk being ostracized but maybe even fired as your company finds you too much of a liability to represent them.

Personally, I don’t wish ill will on anyone who made a mistake or stepped over the line on occasion. I don’t wish anyone to be fired; all I want is for people to recognize that the next time they are tempted to behave in a way that may be questionable that they, well, don’t do it.

After all, is it really too much to ask that people behave like adults and show some respect? Shouldn’t that question be rhetorical?

Come to think of it, should the question even need to be asked?

2014.08.05 Update: Apparently so.