On Introverts and Conferences November 11, 2015

Conferences.

As web and/or app developers, they’re just something we do. It’s part of the job. The goal, of course, is to learn from industry experts about new tools and new ways to build cool things. We fill our brains with knowledge over a few days and head back to the office pumped and ready to change the world. And of course, there’s free food and booze.

Here we go again.

Here we go again.

For many, this is also a time to network, meet new colleagues and catch up with old ones. I’ve heard several devs express the feeling that even if the conference talks are so-so, the trip is worth it just to see everyone. For many of us, however, that’s not how it goes.

I’m lucky enough to work someplace that allows everyone to attend one company-paid conference of their choosing, once a year. My primary function is that of frontend developer, so for the last three years, I’ve chosen to go to a CSS-focused conference. In fact, I’ve gone to the same conference three years in a row. The organizers are great, they line up fabulous speakers and the venue is always somewhere unique. I should have a blast at this every year, right? In reality, I end up being fairly miserable the entire trip. Let me explain.

Like many of my fellow nerds, I’ve been an introvert all my life. It’s not that I don’t like people. I’m just extremely uncomfortable trying to “network” with strangers, and everything I say below can also be applied to things like local meet-ups.

The Arrival

This bird may have been having more fun than me.

This bird may have been having more fun than me.

As I arrive at a conference, I’m usually fairly excited. And why not? I’ve been given an all-expense-paid trip to learn cool stuff from people I respect. After I check into my room, the anxiousness starts to set in as I make my way to the first night’s registration mixer. Here, everyone picks up their badges and swag and gets their tickets for free drinks. I immediately redeem one.

Other attendees have started showing up and mingling about in loose groups. It’s the usual chit-chat:

“Where are you from?” “Who do you work for?” “What kind of things are you building?”

I’m already uncomfortable, as I’m just not good at walking up to a stranger and starting a conversation. And I’m really uncomfortable with insinuating myself into a conversation in-progress. The internal monologue in my head is usually something along the lines of: “This person doesn’t care who you are. They’re way more interesting than you, making really important things. You’re a nobody.”

This voice gets louder and louder as the evening, and the conference, goes on. After a couple drinks and trying with mixed success to act like a normal human being, I end up sneaking out a side door and heading back to my room, feeling terrible that I’ve let this happen yet again. This time was supposed to be different.

Breakfast: Coffee With A Side of Awkward

The next couple days of the actual conference are very similar. At breakfast, I try to sit down at a table with one or two people already seated. If they’re already talking to one another, I try to add to the conversation, but usually I just stay focused on my yogurt and granola. Every so often I’ll get something going with someone, but it’s short-lived. And heaven forbid someone I respect sits down. That’s when my imposter syndrome goes into overdrive.

The Talks

Once the talks start up, the day is fairly repetitive. I make my way to each session and find a seat off to myself. Once the speaker is finished, I make my way to the next one, not bothering to stay and talk to the speaker or other attendees. Again, that voice. “He doesn’t care what you have to say. He’s a real developer, kid. Beat it.” Repeat this for every other session.

Party Times

A couple nights into the conference, there’s usually a big party. This year, as the venue was a converted luxury liner from the 30’s, the party was nautical-themed. There were folks in costume as pirates, a giant octopus made of balloons and a yacht-rock band playing songs by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Let that marinate in your brain for a minute. At the best of times, I’m not a party person. I’m also the kind of dork that sits quietly at a concert, just trying to enjoy the music. Needless to say, conference parties are the worst for me. I’m so uncomfortable I feel about to jump out of my skin. I usually only stay long enough to redeem some drink tickets (see a pattern here?) and swipe some free food. Then I slink out the back door and head to my room feeling worse than ever.

I’m Apparently Doing It Wrong

I know this isn’t the experience the organizers intended. And I’m certain most of the attendees have a blast. No doubt many make connections and long-lasting friendships at these things. Again, this is a well-run conference put together by lovely people. But for some reason, I just can’t enjoy it the way I’m supposed to. This happens so often that I’m now giving serious thought about whether I should even spend the company’s money again next year. I’ve proven to be a terrible ambassador.

How could you not enjoy this?

How could you not enjoy this?

I hadn’t intended to write this. But after having a few conversations online and in person, I realized maybe I’m not the only one struggling with this. Conferences seem to be a nightmare scenario for introverts. To be clear, I’m not a total recluse, afraid to leave my home or interact with other humans. I’m actually a fairly personable and articulate guy, really I am. But a conference is a very different environment. You’re in a huge room of strangers that all do what you do, all wanting to hear from the “experts” in our field. In the introvert’s mind, they’re not there for you, nor do they care what you have to say.

What Can Be Done?

So what can be done about this? Few of us can just force ourselves to become someone we’re not, even at a conference, where we have nothing to lose and nobody to impress. Is there anything the organizers can do? Maybe.

I’ve thought about this a lot and there may be ways for the conference to make it easier for the shy, introverted and neurotic among us to still interact. One idea would be to have an open Slack channel, limited to registered attendees. Maybe there could even be separate channels for each session. These can act as virtual ice-breakers for those that can’t cold-start conversations in person. Once people get a sense of community through that vehicle, it might be easier to then meet up in person. I for one think it could’ve helped, and kept me from turning in ridiculously early each night.

I also think organizers should consider adding more diverse events. I’ve loved the walking tours I’ve been on, and there is a sort of shared camaraderie when you’re all experiencing something like that for the first time together. Or what about something like a “quiet room” where folks not attending parties can come and chill? Maybe play a board game or watch a nerd-themed movie?

On the other hand, events that require people to be in a spotlight, like karaoke or drink-n-draws, are not so great for introverts. I’m not saying parties shouldn’t be thrown, but some wallflower alternatives would be nice.

Let’s Start Talking

I’d like to throw this to the community for discussion. I’d really like to hear from other folks that struggle with this. As an introvert, what would you be comfortable participating in? Have you attended conferences that have implemented unique activities for the shy? I’d love to hear some ideas for what organizers could do to make their events a bit more introvert-friendly.

Feel free to post in the comments below, or send me a direct note. Maybe I’ll compile the responses and post a follow-up.