It's not the booze, it's the noise

Twitter was all aflutter over the “alcohol at programming conferences” kerfuffle, kicked off by Ryan Funduk’s “Our Culture of Exclusion” article. Ignoring Ryan’s first couple of paragraphs, his main point is apparently:

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.

I disagree with this paragraph in its entirety. I, myself, am a non-drinker. I’ve been to a fair number of conferences over the years, including the first three (missed this year’s, unfortunately!) and one I’ve been to PyCon, CodeMash, various Mozilla events and smaller regional conferences.

Chris and Laura Williams and the other JSConf organizers have done a fantastic job putting together a great volunteer-run technical conference. The topics covered at JSConf and the hallway track conversations are first rate. Why do you think the tickets sell out in seconds?

Even if you skip the parties, the daytime part of the conference program is worth the trip.

Now, about those parties. I think the intent of the organizers is simple: they want people to have some fun with other people that they generally only communicate with through a screen. JSConf has had a mechanical bull (which I missed, alas), an arcade and a cruise, among other activities.

I’ve been to many of these sorts of events and never once felt excluded because I don’t drink. Chris actually asked me once about my non-drinking. If I recall correctly, it was at Union Station at the first JSConf. I could have chosen to interpret the mere asking of the question as an attempt to exclude. But why would I? Chris’ behavior toward me never changed. He has always been a gracious host.

Perhaps there are some people who would look down at me or shun me because I don’t drink… I haven’t encountered them at a tech conference, though!

Now, to my point

Repeating this from Ryan’s article:

you may as well give up trying to have insightful conversations after the first hour, because everyone else is wasted.

I disagree because you have to give up having insightful conversations even during the first hour because of the noise/music level. Either that or you give up your voice. It’s possible that “everyone else is wasted” as time goes on, because the people who want to talk have either gone elsewhere or lost their voices.

I enjoy having some fun events, but I often wish there were more evening hack sessions and times to talk about stuff without yelling. At 2010, there was a room off to the side that was shielded a little from the music in the main bar area. It was busy with people trying to talk. I had a conversation about TinyMCE and in-browser editing techniques there, and it wasn’t easy.

The people I meet at conferences are people that I seldom see in person. We get to talk some in the hallway track, at the cost of possibly missing some good sessions. More time in the evening to take advantage of the really scarce face-to-face time I get with these people would be a big improvement.

tl;dr: I’m a non-drinker and I don’t feel excluded at tech conferences. I do, however, think that the music and atmosphere of evening parties somewhat reduces what I can get out of tech conferences. Even with no changes at all, I would continue to attend JSConf and the like because they are terrific events even as they stand.