Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Conferences, and Travel

I just got back from a conference (I was traveling this time last week, which explains why there was no post, not that you care, I’m sure (and, if you do, you aren’t paying attention to the title of the blog—wake up, people!)).  Now, I understand that there are some business folks who attend conferences regularly: salespeople, or marketing reps, or ... well, salespeople, I suppose.  Anyone whose business revolves around networking (in the social sense, not the technical sense) has a very valid reason to travel long distances to hang out with people they don’t really know, I suppose.  Us technogeeks are a slightly different story though.

On the one hand, we more than anyone have a need to stay current with what’s going on in our industry.  The tech world changes at lightning speed, and it’s hard enough to keep up with either hardware or software, much less both.  This is one reason techies are news freaks (see Slashdot) and gossip mongers: it’s not just idle curiosity—sometimes the latest news from Microsoft or Google or Oracle changes our entire job function.  A conference is excellent for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of logistical issues.  Tech areas can be radically different and radically arcane, so it can be difficult to put together a set of presentations that will have mass appeal.  People at different levels of experience have radically different needs as well, so that complicates matters even further.  Often people chosen to speak are not well known, and often the people who might be well known are not great speakers.

On the other other hand—which turns out to be the biggest hand in this case—technogeeks don’t generally like meeting people.  Hell, most of us got into this business because computers were much easier to talk to than humans.  I’m sure many of my colleagues look at the prospect of being alone in a room full of strangers in roughly the same light that you might look at being alone in a cage full of tigers.  It’s not quite that bad for me, but I freely admit that there’s a fairly long list of things I’d rather do than sit in an uncomfortable airplane seat for six hours (each way) in order to spend four nights in an uncomfortable hotel bed in between long sessions of uncomfortable mingling.  On the scale of introvert to extrovert, I’m a little of both.  I’m very extroverted around people I know; once you get to know me, you’ll probably find that you can’t shut me up.  But I’m not that guy who brazenly walks up to people and introduces himself.  When it comes to hanging out with crowds of strangers—even crowds of people just as geeky as me—I relapse into introversion.

And at the convention I just returned from, I was quite comfortably in the middle of the geek scale.

It’s YAPC::NA, which is the North American version of the “Yet Another Perl Conference,” which trades on the Linux tradition of “yet another"s (such as yacc and YAML), even though it’s more accurate to say that YAPC is the Perl conference, and any other such conferences are “yet another"s themselves.  YAPC::NA is, in fact, the original YAPC, so it really is a bit of a misnomer.

It was quite a good conference for all my whining above, and I’m glad I went.  This was my first time going, even though I’ve been using Perl for many years now (since ‘96, approximately).  Partially my delay has been financial (even though the conference itself is cheap, the airfare and hotel stay can be prohibitive, depending on which city is hosting), and partially just reluctance to wander off and hang out with a bunch of people I don’t know (as previously mentioned).  But this year the company I work for is footing the bill, so most of my excuse is gone.  I was hoping to present a talk, even, but my submission wasn’t accepted.  No worries; that saved me the hassle of standing up in front of a bunch of strangers and pretending I was more interesting than the next guy.

I got to meet many of the Perl luminaries, which is nice.  Among those I actually got a chance to speak to were Matt Trout, Piers Cawley, and Ingy, as well as others I saw from afar, including Stevan Little, and, the progenitor of Perl himself, Larry Wall, who was there with his wife and two of his children.  During Larry’s talk (which opened the conference, naturally enough), he said “I’ve always taught my children that it’s okay to be weird, so of course now I have weird children,” which is definitely something I could relate to.

So I chatted a bit, and learned some things there, and I attended some talks, and learned some things there, and I went to both of the “bad movie night” after-hours gatherings, where I had the pleasure of seeing the MST3K version of It Conquered the World (even though it didn’t) and the live action Aeon Flux with the RiffTrax commentary (which was far more enjoyable than the first time I watched it, when I had to actually listen to the characters speaking).  Overall it wasn’t a bad outing, and I think I got my company’s money’s worth out of it.

I am glad to be home though.  When I travel for business, I often try to arrange to take my family, but it wasn’t economically feasible this time.  You’d think I’d enjoy some time away from the family, and I admit I often think that I will, particularly when they’re all yelling at each other and expecting me to play referee.  I might say to myself, well, at least I have that week off coming up, and I’ll get some peace and quiet for a change.  But then I go off and a funny thing happens: I wish they were there.  As annoying as it is to be packed into a small room with all of them, and as even more annoying as it is to be packed into a small vehicle with them for travel purposes, I generally find that I wish they were around when they aren’t.  I suppose it helps that I don’t think of them as obligations, but more as pals.  I like hanging around with them ... well, most of the time, anyway.  When I’m on my own, I think how nifty it would be if they were there with me, and I could chat with them about all the things going on.  I’ve never actually cared much for being by myself ... in fact, I’ve never lived alone.  (In fact, the last time I counted roommates I’ve had over the years, I got to 30 without even trying very hard, not even including anyone who could be considered “family,” and, if you don’t think your family counts as roommates, you should rethink your perspective.) Now, I did share a hotel room with a coworker (who I can’t say I know well enough yet to call a friend, but I suspect that one day I will), and that definitely made it bearable a lot of the time, but I still missed having the family around.  I’m very comfortable around them.  I’m much more relaxed, and my introverted side is a bit more muted, and I think that helps me open up to people.  Perhaps next year it’ll be possible to bring them along.  I wonder how much different the trip would be with them.

Still, I’m glad I went.  If nothing else, I got to be part of Piers’ human theremin.  (The YAPC videos aren’t up yet, but you can check out the Bobby McFerrin experiment that Piers was cribbing off of.  Admittedly, Piers wasn’t able to add the melodic counterpoint that you see in that video, but then McFerrin didn’t tell me about cool ways to introduce my kids to programming either.)

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