Saturday, April 14, 2012

Of Booze and Brogrammers

There's been a little bit of noise about the culture of "hard partying" at programmer conferences.   Ryan complains about binge drinking, and Kevin complains about parties so loud you can't talk.  While I think both of these things are undesirable, I don't see that either is on any dramatic increase overall, actually, and certainly not more than it's on the increase in American society in general (you wanna see real binge drinking?  Watch Mad Men or the Food Network).  However, I do agree that there is too much emphasis on high-decibel boozing at many current tech conferences, and that it should be changed.

Since I'm often a conference organizer, I wanted to approach this issue from a conference organizer's perspective.  Prepare yourself for a long, rambling post about drunken parties, brogrammers, conference organizing, teetotallers, pgCon, SCALE, and middle age.


Why Limit Drunken Partying at Conferences?

I drink.  I like beer and wine, a lot.  I enjoy going to parties, and have been known to attend parties at tech conferences where I got more than a little buzzed.  More than once I missed Friday morning sessions at OSCON entirely.  The fact that I don't do this anymore is almost entirely due to changes in my life: I'm now 41, married, and CEO of a company.

So, Ryan's feelings aside, what's wrong with loud, drunken parties at conferences?  Ryan doesn't have to attend them if he doesn't want to.

Well, first, Ryan isn't alone.  The career of programming in general appeals to people who don't like parties, and I think if you did a survey of any large, general developer conference you'd find that 25% to 50% of the attendees either didn't drink, didn't like parties, or both.  So if boozy parties are the only form of evening entertainment at your conference, you're deliberately excluding a quarter to half of your attendees.  You're encouraging them to go home in the evening, and if they do, they're liable not to come back to the conference the next day.

Speaking of the next day, large numbers of hung-over conferencegoers make for very poor attendance at morning sessions at the conference, which makes scheduling hell.  Do you schedule unpopular talks first thing Sunday morning and basically write them off?  Or do you schedule popular talks in hopes that it'll get people out of bed, and risk offending an important speaker?

Secondly, the parties have taken the place of the BOFs we used to have.  Many conferences used to have great Birds-Of-a-Feather informal sessions in the evenings.  These offered a great opportunity for projects and vendors who couldn't get on the regular session schedule to reach their users, and for group discussions as a follow-on for the sessions during the day.  However, I've generally given up on trying to hold PostgreSQL BOFs at most conferences now, since I'm always head-to-head against some party with free food and beer.  The last time I had a BOF at OSCON, for example, eight people attended.

Finally, there's the liability.  Whether or not your conference is officially sponsoring or hosting the party, if you put it on your schedule and announce it, you are liable in the eyes of the court for bad things which happen there: property damage, alcohol poisoning, accidental injury, and sexual assault.  Frankly, I'm surprised that there hasn't been an alcohol-related death or felony arrest at a major tech conference yet; it's only a matter of time.


Why Have Boozy Bashes?

Of course, there's quite a few reasons why we have loud parties at conferences.  Among them:
  • Unmarried 25-Year-Olds are a large minority of the conference population, and do a lot of partying.  It's part of being 25 years old.
  • The Brogrammers are desperately trying to prove to themselves that, while they may be programmers, they're not geeks.  Drunken parties are part of this self-deception.
  • People Want To Blow Off Steam after having their brains crammed full all day.  Many/most don't want to extend 9 hours of hacking into 14.
  • Some Vendors/Sponsors Prefer Parties as their way of reaching your attendees, and are willing to pay for it. 
  • It's Easier For Overworked Conference Organizers to arrange a party than other evening activities which actually require planning.
For the first four reasons, hard partying at conferences is not going away.  If there isn't something officially scheduled with the conference, someone will create something unofficial.  So you should make the assumption that any large conference will have at least one or two parties with booze and music.  With moderation, this does not have to be a bad thing.

Where this becomes a problem, though, is when the high-octane parties are the only things to do in the evening, or when they are emphasized as the main point of going to the conference.  This is where the last reason above is important.

It's certainly easier, as a conference organizer, to get a vendor to sponsor a bash near the conference center than it is to plan other activities.  All you have to do is connect the vendor's PR person with a nearby restaurant or hotel, and your work is done.  Sometimes you don't even have to do that much.  However, that's really not good enough; if you're too overworked to plan the conference activities after 5:30pm, then recruit a new volunteer who likes planning social things.   You'll be pleasantly surprised to discover that your community does, indeed, have such people, and that they're thrilled to be able to contribute something meaningful.


Some Alternatives to Loud Parties

Not all conferences are selling Party-Only tickets like JSConf is.  In fact, some conferences have done a very good job of providing interesting alternatives to loud, hard-drinking parties for evening activities.  Let me provide a few as examples you can emulate:


Bring Back The BOFs

Unlike the O'Reilly conferences, Usenix LISA has kept their BOFs, going all evening each evening of the conference.  Rather than help vendors sponsor parties, they encourage vendors to sponsor BOFs with refreshments.  As a result, the BOFs at LISA are very well attended; I'd estimate that 2/3 of the conference attendees stay all evening for the BOFs.

Due to my lack of academic credentials, I usually can't get a PostgreSQL talk into the main program at LISA, but this doesn't bother me because the BOFs are so awesome.  Last year there were more than 60 people in the PostgreSQL BOF, and I was able to present all about 9.1.


Parties Don't Need to Be All About Drinking

LinuxCon 2011 decided to have a big "20th Anniversary of Linux" party.  So they rented a dance hall and had a 1920's-themed party with a swing band.  Further, they encouraged attendees to bring period party clothes, and had a costumer on hand for those who didn't own any.  The party had ersatz gambling, a photo booth, a raffle, and dance lessons.  It was terrific, and I don't say that just because I won the raffle.   For the first two hours, the music was low enough you could easily talk.

More importantly, the party was fun even if you didn't drink.  Compare that with the common conference party, which has a bad DJ in a big barren hotel ballroom with all the free booze you can manage.   At parties like that there's nothing to do but drink; it's too loud to talk and there's nothing else to do.  Even as a drinker, that fits my definition of a sucky party and I'll go elsewhere.


Shall We Play A Game?

The most incredibly awesome party alternative of the year was provided by SCALE10x, who booked a Saturday night "games night" after the Weakest Geek and the end of the BOFs.  This included head-to-head hackable FPS games (for the hackers), vintage arcade games, board games and RPGs, including a brand-new board game there for beta testing, Nerf weapons, and a Lazertag arena.  Local attendees brought their whole families, including kids to the event.  It was the best time I've had after dark at a conference in years.

Sure, there was alcohol at the event.   But since it was a no-host bar and there were so many distractions, nobody drank very much.  I had one beer; any more would have gotten me creamed by the 12-year-olds in the Lazertag arena.  And even the 25-year-olds and the brogrammers had a good time.

SCALE has, if anything, led the way in party alternatives.  Friday night they have Ignite talks, and Saturday they've always had The Weakest Geek, a pseudo-game show on stage.   While their Games Night may be a bit elaborate for smaller conferences, you can reasonably plan fun entertainment which doesn't require getting soused.


Learning Moderation

So this is my call to conference organizers: the professional world of programming is not a frat house.  We can provide evening activities at conferences which are either an alternative to alcohol and loud music, or which are still fun even if you don't drink.  Yes, it's a bit more work, but it's worth it.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have loud parties.  Parties are fun, and in demand by a large portion of your attendees.  Just that we shouldn't only have boozy bashes to the exclusion of all other evening activities.  It's called "moderation", and a good thing to practice in all portions of life.

And then we'll all have more fun.


  1. I have noticed a bit of frat-iness to some of the parties, too.
    Socializing is a fun aspect of conferences as long it is in some context of being able to converse with people, sans shouting.
    I think you make a lot of good points and my take-away is that the presentations shouldn't be the only thing that conference organizers should put effort into.
    We will keep this in mind for our next PGDay.


  2. The urge to drink at conferences isn't just brogrammers who want to party. It's people who have social anxiety who want to leverage alcohol's age old use as a social lubricant.

    One of the most interesting conference-sponsored events I've attended was the wrap-up party at Erlang Factory SF 2009. Every conference attendee's badge contained 3 tickets, and at the wrap-up party we were told what they were for.

    Each ticket could be used to purchase a beer, but the (honor system) idea was that you should use each ticket to buy someone *else* a beer, preferably someone you didn't know who you wanted to meet. It was a great idea and a lot of fun.

    1. Tony,

      The "get a beer for someone else" thing is a cool idea. Mind you, you'd want to have something else for the nondrinkers, but I think that wouldn't be that hard to manage.

      However, I've seen the social lubricant excuse too many times to buy into it. First, there's not much point in social lubricants if the music is loud to introduce yourself. Second, you only need *one beer* for a social lubricant; if you need to be inebriated to meet anyone, that argues for a different kind of social problem.

      Also, I'll point out that games, comedy, and dancing work equally well as social lubricants, and yet you see a lot less of those at conferences than you see alcohol.

  3. Thanks for this Josh. My post admittedly included a lot of hyperbole and drama... really I was trying to get some attention on a subject no one wanted to talk about. I'm glad people _are_ talking about it now, and this post sits just right with me.

  4. You're doing it wrong. Being 41, married and the CEO of a company is precisely why I still drink at least as much as I did 20 years ago!

  5. Everything in moderation, including moderation!

  6. You need to have options that cover the crowd at any conference. In the same way you might have vegetarian/vegan meal alternatives, you should have BoFs, coffee meetups, or hacking sessions in parallel with the parties. It doesn't make sense to rant about how everyone eats steak.

    RailsConf is one of the largest conferences I've been too, flush with sponsor cash for booze and parties. The majority of people spent their nights in circumstances Ryan and Kevin would hate. However, there were also a lot of alternatives - BoF talks, quiet hack-sessions in the lobbies of the hotels, and more.

    You should always be able to find or create the atmosphere you want in a conference without having to cancel parties or drinking because you don't enjoy them.

  7. Thank you for this!

  8. I'm the dork who wants to sit around and extend 9 hours of hacking to 14. But then, you've been to conferences with me, so you already knew that.

  9. Offer alternatives by all means but you cant stop people from partying after hours nor should you.

    Ive been there and done that and Im not going to be a hypocrite and condone those younger who want to do the same (with limits of course on drunkeness or behaviour).
    But if Im going to Germany for a conference you can be darned sure I will stop by for an hour for a quick beer or two. Its like going to Belgium: of course youre going to eat chocolate.
    Except nowadays, one hour is the most I can handle with noise and alcohol.
    Chocolate I can love forever.
    And I honestly prefer to light up a nice joint in the evening to relax nowadays, the morning afters are much, much easier than the morning after alcohol. Hence, my love of Belgium, Holland and a few other europeans countries...

    heck, ORGANIZE those alternatives yourselves if you feel so strongly about it.
    With social media, its very easy to pick out a place close tothe conf and let people know that youve got an option.
    I went to a conference a while back and someone posted to bring short and running shoes because theyd try to organize a footie game... we had to organize two games because we had so many people. (of course, out of shape developers running hard is a recipe for heart attacks so maybe volleyball might be better since I figure about 99% coudlnt jump high enough to spikea ball over a regulation net)