Navigating Conferences as an Unusual Attendee

I’ve been working in technology for eight years but I didn’t start going to conferences with any regularity until a year or two ago. For a while it was a question of opportunity, as I didn’t always have the kind of job that was willing to provide the time off or the funding to attend them (especially the bigger, pricier ones). And after a couple negative experiences at local tech meetups, I didn’t have any desire to go to any bigger events.

Why not? It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in the material - especially when I was less experienced I wanted to absorb all the knowledge I could from the experts in the field. But I felt like I stood out horribly, that everyone was looking at me and wondering what I was doing there. At many of these early events, I was the *only* woman. Not one of two or three, but the only one. Nothing exceptionally bad happened, but an unwelcoming environment can turn attendees away almost as easily as an outright hostile one. It’s hard enough to find talented sysadmins these days without driving out anyone who’s a little different. So what should we do?

The things that bothered me the most were the questions or statements implying that I didn’t belong at these sorts of events. “Are you here with someone?” Or, “You don’t look like an engineer/sysadmin/whatever.” People pointing out my uniqueness didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. One time I had someone say to me, “Wow, you’re a girl in the data center,” as if I had failed to notice both my gender and the rows of server cabinets around me - not a great way to try and strike up a conversation. While that wasn’t at a meetup, these kinds of comments can be heard anywhere in the industry, and they’re just as off-putting at a conference as they are in a data center.

When I go to tech conferences, I want to learn and talk about technology. I’d really rather not have repeated conversations about the fact that I’m a minority - it’s not interesting, it’s not why I’m there, and it doesn’t make me feel like I belong. If you’re wondering how to talk to someone to make them feel welcome, start with simply asking them questions about how they’re liking the conference. “What did you think of $TALK?” “Are you looking forward to hearing $SPEAKER speak?” Bridget Kromhout wrote an excellent post recently on dos and dont’s for talking to women at conferences - it’s full of practical advice that can be applied to talking to any member of an underrepresented group.

Don’t be afraid to approach people! Not everyone has been going to conferences long enough to have built up a social circle there, and neither does everyone have the luxury of traveling with coworkers. Feeling out of place at a big conference is tough as it is. Being ignored or shut out can really compound that, so if you see someone by herself, maybe missing out on some of the great hallway track, introduce yourself and say hi! But of course, if after that she doesn’t seem like she wants to continue the conversation, please respect that - and while you’re at it, check out the USENIX event Code of Conduct.

Approaching new people is sound advice for new or minority conference goers as well. It can be intimidating to join someone else’s conversation when you don’t feel a part of their group, but the connections you can make are well worth it. You never know who might have a great job opportunity, the answer to some annoying problem you’ve been working on, or just a really funny story to tell. Even if you’re an introvert like me, who would much rather hide in her hotel room than talk to a bunch of strangers, you don’t want to miss out on these kinds of networking opportunities. I find it easier to look for smaller groups or other lone attendees, and as I’m walking around I try to keep an ear out for topics I like and feel comfortable talking about. The Women in Advanced Computing BoF session or the LISA Lab are a good place to start talking with people as well. And as you meet people and get to know them, you’ll start to feel like you’re a part of the community - who wouldn’t want that?

Once I’d made a few friends, I started wanting to go to more conferences. The community feels more accepting and more safe. I don’t just mean in terms of having a code of conduct, though that’s so important I won’t go to any event that doesn’t have one. I also feel safe enough to express my opinions and ask questions without being judged - despite what I worried about at first, nobody has ever laughed at me for not knowing something. It’s good to remember that even if you’re an old hand at this now, you weren’t born knowing how to be a sysadmin - we all have to start somewhere!

Making the community a more diverse and inclusive one is important to the health of our industry as a whole and the wellbeing of the people in it. Just being aware of the people around you, and how your words and actions (or lack thereof) might affect them, is the first step towards the positive change the tech industry needs. I’d like to encourage everyone attending LISA14 to do their part to make it a safe and welcoming environment. And to any aspiring sysadmins who might be on the fence about going, check out the USENIX Student Grant Program and the LISA14 Grants for Women - the deadlines are only a couple weeks away!