Our Culture of Exclusion April 2nd, 2012
Or, why I'm not going to
Lately there have been a lot of great articles being written and discussion happening around sexism in the tech industry. And the flames are being fanned by several high profile incidents of people saying and doing just plain stupid things.
It reminded me of this draft post just sitting here, uncommitted. For quite a while I've been collecting links, tweets and other stuff to illustrate another problem that's been affecting me (and other people, surely). I thought it was finally time to write the post and bring this up because, honestly, I feel excluded too.
The Alcohol Clique
It's the booze. You can't go anywhere, do anything or talk to anyone in the tech industry these days without a drink in your hand. If you try to fake it with a soda water you may as well give up trying to have insightful conversations after the first hour, because everyone else is wasted.
Bubs thinks you should just go out with the bingers and act like a crazy person right along with them – they won't know the difference! Fair enough, but I'm not interested in 'partying hard', I want to talk with like-minded people about subjects I don't necessarily get to talk about at the office. For example, we don't use Node.js at work – so I go to JSConf to chat and learn about it in a casual atmosphere. Except I don't get to do that. It's always the same: talks, then binge time.
In this post I hope to put a bunch of unfortunate examples of this in writing, back to back, to demonstrate the severity of the issue.
But, before I go any further, I'd like to catch some obvious backlash points early.
I'm the last person who will tell anyone else what they should do with their time or their body. This article isn't supposed to call out anyone specific and say they are the problem, and I'm not trying to tell people their events suck, or that they shouldn't be having fun at the drunken parties.
Also, please allow me to be blunt for a moment and say that I'm
in no way trying to say that this situation compares with the sexism
problems mentioned earlier. I'm not being oppressed or feel unsafe
or objectified or anything serious like that. This is very
#firstworldproblems, indeed. However, I think that this situation
I'm about to get into does play a part in the various other
kinds of exclusion going on – or at least it can't be helping.
I'm posting this to try and show another perspective, another side – one that might be relevant or contributing to other issues we already know we have.
Formalities out of the way, it's rant time.
It's possible you don't even realize what a big deal this is. Practically every single event, and a huge percentage of the online discussion about these events revolves around binge drinking.
Here's some examples:
Graham Lee says that, as a speaker, he doesn't want to be in some private 'speaker room', he wants to be in the 'attendee room'. He qualifies what he means by 'attendee room': the bar. Sounds about right.
Update: Roy from 80beans and I had a great chat, and he pointed out to me that these beers were drunk over several weeks and by many people. I think it's fair to say that not all 80beans events (or the company in general) are just about drinking. Still, I think this tweet illustrates that alcohol is a pervasive and often glorified aspect of our culture.
Zach Holman at the beginning of a recent (great, btw) talk points out that he works for GitHub, "you know, the ones who paid for the drinks last night". At that the crowd erupts with cheers and clapping. He goes on to say:
There were some of you who I saw, last night, there were some of you who really took advantage of that... Which is awesome.
I don't think it's awesome at all.
Gary Bernhardt explains the 'alcohol situation' to his girlfriend:
Girlfriend's response to an explanation of the alcohol situation at @rbonales: "What the hell is with you programmers?! Crazy culture."— Gary Bernhardt (@garybernhardt) March 2, 2012
Ruby on Ales has the focus on booze in the name. Here's another great one for good measure:
Alcoholics go to meetings, drunks go to @rbonales.— Colton Fent (@FittyFent) March 1, 2012
Everyone else stays home? :/
Throne of JS decides what to do about 'space for hacking':
Q: Is there space set up for hacking?
A: We have done this for previous conferences, but to be honest people were having too much social fun to really take advantage of the space.
Translation: Y U NO DRINKING!?
Nursing a hangover? Aren't we all...
Good thing there's a timeslot specifically dedicated to something called 'Hangover Cafe' from 9am to 1pm. That's some hangover.
Second on the list is making sure everyone gets mangled:
Drinks are always free for all which certainly helps in making the parties great.
For me, it helps in making the parties a nightmare.
I could go on...
...but you get the poi– actually, I will go on... It's for your own good, you need to hear this. It's not only conferences and events, it's everywhere!
While on the subject of JSConf, Chris Williams was on Herding Code a while ago to discuss various topics including his End to Negativity talk from JSConf 2010 and, in the process, made the following generalization:
[You should say] "hey, I see that you have an issue... You wanna go get a beer? ...and we'll chat about it." And that always works. Nobody's ever been offered a beer and said grumbling "No, I don't want a beer." ...I would contend that's the way to fight back, is just to offer a beer.
Let's be clear, I will turn down a beer any day of the week!
He also said in that podcast that the community we're in has an epidemic problem (with negativity) – which I think is fair to say, except I'd argue we have more than just the one.
MyEnergy is hiring. Perks for working for them include dental coverage, and 'weekly happy hour'. Those who don't want to participate in getting sloshed regularly... need not apply?
NPM goes down...
#npm is down. Let's drink.— Veselin (@vesln) February 29, 2012
We also serve free beer and red wine on Fridays.
Why? Because it can be healthy!? The linked article cites that alcohol consumption in moderation (read: average of 1 drink per day) can lead to increased HDL levels. Wow! Have we finally found a miracle cure for heart disease? Right under our noses this whole time?
Wait, I wonder what else can contribute to increased HDL levels.
- Soluble fiber in your diet
- Stop smoking
- Removal of trans fatty acids from your diet
- Aerobic exercise
...and other such unobtrusive methods which don't involve getting inebriated and all rosy-cheeked at the office. Sign me up for those.
Come on, should we also have complimentary joints available? You know marijuana use can be linked to reduced stress and studies suggest it can be useful in treating depression! Please. This doesn't belong in the workplace!
Lastly, I love GitHub, I think it's one of the best things to happen to developers in a long time and I use it every day. Naturally I follow their blog, and I notice a lot of posts about these 'drinkup' events. How many? Surely only here and there, right?...
Well, I wrote a script to crawl the blog and figure out the percentage of blog posts that mention beer or these events.
Turns out that the first blog post mentioning these things was #163, not a bad run, talking about new features and so on. All in all approximately 10% of all blog posts on the GitHub blog passed my script's test. One in ten posts is saying "just a reminder, you need to be drinking basically all the time".
As much as I love GitHub and think I'd love to do the kind of work they do. I can't imagine actually going into that office every day, confronted with people drinking out of kegs. GitHub people, this is not healthy – physically or mentally!
I'm lucky enough to work for an awesome company that doesn't perpetuate nonsense like insisting everyone go out to get hammered with new candidates before offering them the job, or perform head tilts with "are you a weirdo?" looks when someone 'inexplicably' turns down an offer to go sit in a loud dark bar for a few hours after work.
I'm also lucky enough to have my own company where I will definitely never have to stay on the pointy-haired boss' good side by making an ass of myself drunkenly singing karaoke once a month.
So, why do I care about this?
Some Personal Experience
Back in 2008 I decided to leave my boring cube job at Research in Motion and move to Toronto to work for a startup. I remember thinking to myself: "Self, don't just stay home and stare at your laptop! Get out there to events and stuff and meet people. It's not what you know, it's who you know!" Hey I was just out of school gimme a break.
I figured it couldn't be too hard. Toronto is big, pick an event and just go. Lucky for me RubyFringe was right around the corner. Perfect timing as I prepare to move, so off I go to the party on opening night at Amsterdam Brewery.
The music is absolutely blasting. It's practically pitch black. What have I gotten myself into...
The next day, there are some killer talks. Then another boozefest. More awesome talks. And a last rooftop party which I decide to just skip.
Funnily enough, this is almost exactly the same formula as JSConf 2009 about a year later:
Awesome talks rudely interrupted by an 'epic' drunken party in some kind of underground plane-turned-bar where I attempt to have a top-of-my-lungs conversation with a guy who had interesting things to say (I think?) about Clojure. I lasted about 15 minutes at the party on the next day and instead walked around DC, sober, talking and enjoying the great weather with my beautiful wife.
Over the next 2 years or so I'd go to a meetup here or there with mostly the same experience, except of course usually without the high caliber talks. Needless to say, I stopped going to these things.
Recently I was intrigued by Throne of JS – oh boy am I ever into client side frameworks right now! The website makes it sound innocent enough:
...we run you and the rest of your warrior class through the all-inclusive fun gamut each and every evening.
Oh no no, wait a minute, I'm not falling for that again. I know what 'fun gamut' means. It means everyone gets shitfaced!
How can I justify spending $650 on something like that? It must be a huge portion of my ticket that goes into these elaborate parties. Can I buy a ticket that only includes entry into... you know... the conference?
The organizers can have the best intentions, and I'm absolutely sure that most do (from Throne of JS' FAQ: "We really bend over backwards to make sure that everyone is comfortable and having a good time."), but this is bigger than that – as Chris Williams might put it – it's systemic. You can't just say "we'll make sure you have a good time". How are you going to do that?
The simple truth is all you can do is just opt out of going to these parties... or put another way, you can opt to exclude yourself.
It's Attracting the Brogrammers
Are we really shocked about this brogrammer trend?
If you buy crap like this to 'erase the night before', find yourself discussing hangover cures (here's a tip from my past self, avoid caffeine) with other conference attendees or suffer acute liver failure... you might be a brogrammer, and it just might be time to 'detox'.
I for one do not like this one bit, and no one wants to talk about it. Here's what I hoped might be the start of a conversation with Chris Eppstein about his tweet:
@chriseppstein And so many conferences that seem to revolve around 'epic' drunken parties...— Ryan Funduk (@rfunduk) March 9, 2012
And there's nothing but dead air. No reply, and not a single rewteet or anything. Well, not for my tweet anyway. 50+ retweets of Chris' presumably by people who think some entirely fluffy, meaningless term like 'ninja' (remind anyone of 'guru'?) is a problem, and that's why there are brogrammers. For crying out loud, this has to be a joke right?
Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home
I've stopped going to 'community events', and I've made a personal decision to leave the city – where I thought I needed to be to grow my career. Also you can often watch the talks from conferences later (via Confreaks for example). So I've mostly made my peace with the whole situation at this point.
But with all the talk of people being excluded, maybe it's time we look at the overall attitude pervasive at these events. Maybe it's not just subtle, passive, even unintentional sexist and racist comments. Maybe it's not just treating PHP programmers and Windows users like they're inferior.
Maybe we should take a step back and realize that lots of people are probably feeling excluded from this cliquey club of bar crawls.
Perhaps it would be easier to educate people on appropriate conduct (you may have noticed the 'fine print' approach isn't really working...) when you don't turn around and encourage them to drink their inhibitions away in what should be a professional setting... Don't you think it would be easier for under-represented groups to participate when they can be comfortable attending meetups and events?
I don't want to speak for any group I'm not a part of, since I
don't know what they go through or how they feel. But I know that I feel
extremely uncomfortable at these drinking parties, and
I fit the profile for the average attendee
(let's not beat around the bush, that means:
young + white + male).
It's not hard to imagine how many who don't fit the profile would
feel like they don't fit in. And I think the reason is obvious:
because everything has been specifically constructed and tailored
for that single group.
To An Outsider
In writing this post I asked my wife to do some proof-reading (she can pick out an 'and and' from 10,000ft!) and give me some suggestions.
During her review she said to me:
Wow I'm so glad I'm not a programmer. Seems like soon 'programmer' will be considered just as douchey a profession as being a banker on Wall Street.
Harsh. We look like a bunch of assholes.
I'll Say It Straight
It's sort of like high school is repeating itself. We have an isolated population, and within it we've got the cool kids making life (real life, this time) difficult, frustrating and miserable for people who don't deserve to be walked all over.
Consider for a moment that while you might love binge drinking – and listen, I've done my share in the past... so I know it can be a blast – not everyone is into it, and it has nothing to do with code.
These planned binges sound as strange to some as the conference organizer going up on stage and saying "Ok everyone, off to church for evening prayer!" or "We've spared no expense on our skinny dipping venue for tonight!"
Leave the lifestyle choice stuff out of the official programme.
Ruby conferences about Ruby,
* conferences about
So it's time for some concrete suggestions for what to do about this... The way I see it, it would be pretty simple to make a positive impact:
Meetups: host these in co-working spaces or coffee shops (you can get tea or water at a coffee shop and no one will think it's weird). Added bonus to this is that you'll actually be able to talk to people, and then the next day you'll remember everything.
For conferences: don't plan elaborate drinking parties and put them on the itinerary. Some people who want to go out to the club can still do so, they don't need you to schedule it for them. Yes this means you'll probably need to come up with something else to do in the evenings... maybe real hacknights? Coding competitions/contests or maybe a 'DemoCamp' style thing – but not at a bar.
If you absolutely must plan an open bar type event, offer a ticket type that is just for the conference track. JSConf 2012 has it backwards, you can buy party only tickets! WTF!? (And at a price no doubt subsidized by the sold out conference tickets.)
Every day at the office: No company provided alcohol (no piles of meat, bongs or lube either – none of this belongs in a place of business).
Online: If your project refers to drinking in a way more forceful than, say, homebrew does – you can help by just toning it down a bit. Your project doesn't actually have anything to do with booze. Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.
What do you think?
Have you also experienced this? Or maybe I should lighten up?
I don't have comments on my blog but I'd love to hear from you if you feel the same way (or not). Tweet at me, discuss on HN/etc, or pick some other method and I'd be happy to chat about it, just not over a beer :)
Some social stuff: