The Empty Hall Of Smiling Assassins

This year, I've attended my first two large tech conferences. One was hosted by a trendy database vendor, and the other was a general tech conference in a non-hub that no one should know about. Despite some highlights, I would describe both experiences as "grotesque", "troubling", and "oily". Or, to quote a friend upon reporting in:

Conferences are an empty hall of smiling assassins.

At some point I should unpack the terrible life choices that have led me to a place where I have opinions on the relative trendiness of databases, but for now, let's talk about the miserable state of our industry, babyyyyy!

I. Ten Thousand Snakes In A Suit

Let's start with the trendy database conference - one of the keynote speakers runs a major customer loyalty program, which as a non-specialist I believe is code for "we sell all your purchasing data in the hopes that people who can't do math don't realize our rewards are worth like $200 over your entire lifespan". If you are a specialist, I will accept corrections but also, I dunno, fuck you on principle I guess. You might not deserve that, but it's a Monday and I just had to go through standup.

This person breathlessly took the stage and spoke happily about how they've had almost 10% year-on-year growth because of the crippling increases in rent and groceries driving the working class to seek savings wherever they could.

Very cool and normal, and also fuck you on principle, even if it isn't a Monday.

They then continued to talk about the thrill of seeing that family finally purchase that vacuum cleaner that was always aspirational.

Again, fuck you, and also I hope you fall down a flight of stairs. I swear to God, I can't even imagine what kind of defective software you have to be running in your brain to be that tone-deaf, but I was deeply concerned to see this is what our bajillionaire class is doing. It's a super concerning blend of being a complete sellout and too goddamn stupid to even hide it well. How hard is it to get on a stage without sounding like a Disney villain?

This is the CEO of a company with millions of users and they've got their head so far up their ass that they don't realize how fucking demented they sound when they say that they're ecstatic over their great growth caused by people needing help to afford basic cleaning appliances. I think the worst part was realizing that this didn't flag for some people in the audience, even techies. Some part of their brain just turned off and went "10% year-on-year growth? That's money. And look how important that person on the stage is! I wish I got attention!"

But most importantly, can't we like, get better sociopaths in here? What kind of idiots are we pulling into the C-suite? The obviously correct play is to sadly discuss your massive growth as indicative of sadder trends in society, and then even more sadly say that you hope to see things turn around. And you're so happy to be able to help, even just a little bit, in the meantime, and you're providing tons of feedback to the government on how to ease spending pressure.

Again, fuck you for being evil, and double fuck you for being incompetently evil. Take some pride in your malice, you craven snake-dog. Society needs craftspeople, and you're letting your whole fucked team down.

II. Logging


The last time I spoke to someone in the C-suite that wasn't a sane friend or family member, they asked my whole team "What they thought about logging?", asked if we should buy a product they had read about on LinkedIn that does some logging, then said "Why don't people take pride in their work anymore? I probably spend an hour every day on LinkedIn study."

Remember this the next time someone tells you that executives must deserve to be where they are, or why would they be there?

III. A Tragedy In Three Parts

Let's get to the good stuff. I fly to the smaller non-hub conference. Madness ensues.

Act 1: Fintech

I am attending with a close friend who I haven't seen in years - I hop off the plane, zoom straight to the first part of the conference which is fintech related. He's someone that I would like to go into business with, and we're hoping to network a little bit and find out about what the rest of the industry is like, especially the more competent parts. Fintech is going to be competent for sure, there's all that money at stake, we think.

Firstly, I am not sure how to describe this rationally so I'm not going to try, but the air felt like someone had been operating some grease-filled humidifier, and I think this hit me because I walked in and immediately saw the event was sponsored by some dipshit crypto application. The funny thing is that rather than having blind hatred, I read Mastering Ethereum for a bit because it would have been so convenient if I could actually just print money by finding some crypto use case that I'd be morally okay with, and I just couldn't. So rather than blind hatred, my hatred has intense visual acuity.

Secondly, these people were fucking crazy. One of the speakers, a man clearly into his 50s, talked about how he left his cushy job at a bank to... make his own bank... which seemed identical to the previous bank, except he owned it and their apps were better. He then spoke at length about the nights he slept at the hotel they had their only branch in - not like, in a hotel room but in the bank's physical branch.

Fucking go home dude, what the fuck are you on about? Why is everyone impressed by this? This man has a family and kids, why is he out here sleeping in a bank branch? This is not aspirational, this is the part of the Twilight Zone where LinkedIn posts are real.

The rest of it was equally stupid and uncomfortable. My favourite moment was the panel conversation, where we had one VC person (who seemed human) sandwiched on either side by four men who were running banking startups. Most of the panel consisted of them saying "hire well" and then making incredibly uncomfortable jokes about how some of them had received more VC money than the others.

The important note is that we were then approached by a guy, who we will call Henry, that immediately blasted us with totally unsolicited advice on how to get our own business off the ground. I have received a lot of good unsolicited and solicited advice from readers of this blog (I like to think we all have impeccable taste and huge brains here), but this guy's advice was both terrible and patronizing, though his technical chops seemed decent. In any case, he makes sure that we have his cards as we spend twenty minutes trying to extricate ourselves.

He seems like he learned his social skills from Dale Carnegie, which is forgivable, but he thinks he's better than us, which is possibly but true but not forgivable.

Act 2: The Industry Is In Shambles

The second day starts with a phenomenal talk on free speech. It is absolutely fucking wasting on this audience, because this audience consists mostly of people that think a philosophy book needs to have the word 'Hope' somewhere in the title and all the text is in a size 24 font, as if the author is screaming affirmation directly into your mind. The rest of the opening speech is like, absolute bullshit. They keep talking about how 'quantum' is going to revolutionize everything without going into any specifics, and half the vendors here literally provide training on how to use ChatGPT. You chat with it, you clowns, it's in the name. And I'm pretty sure the main application of quantum anything in your industry is fucking all your encryption up, I don't know but neither do you and I'm not running a massive company.

It is at this point that I realize that, as silly as most of my employers typically are, we are somehow still better than the average place. That is fucking wild to me because operationally we are like toddlers - the only IDE we can be trusted with is a sheet of A4 and some crayons - but apparently there are people out here straight up finger painting.

Somewhere around the halfway point of this day, we are despairing. We haven't met a single person that is remotely intelligent. We're in a standing-room-only talk where a man is breathlessly explaining that you can improve productivity in your workplace by:

  1. Unsubscribe from excessive newsletters! They're distracting you.
  2. Put your phone away, it's distracting you!
  3. Block out some no meeting time, it's distracting you!

These are packaged as Tasty Tips, and you need to always remember to do things that Move Your Boat Forward.

Inspiration strikes me. I pull my friend out of the room and we look for people in the lounge outside that look like they're texting their friends furiously about how fucking dumb that talk was. We approach the closest person, we all vent together, and I now talk to that guy every day. We spend the rest of the conference doing this, and it works every goddamn time. There's a lesson here about operationalizing unorthodox strategies, but for now it's just funny.

On our way out, Henry is there again. He tries to flag us down for conversation, but my friendly deftly says that we have somewhere to be. We then walk into a random room, but not before Henry makes sure we have his card again.

That evening we attend post-event drinks. It ends up being us in a corner, with the cool, angry dude we met, and the keynote speakers on the human rights topics. Everyone here that isn't a total grifter has migrated to this one table and is hanging on for dear life. Henry, from his empty table that people can't seem to leave quickly enough, watches us with narrowed eyes. His entire demeanor reads as "Those upstarts that don't even run their own successful company - unlike me - actually have people that want to talk to them. How dare they?"

III. Leaving

The third day is less cursed as we adopt our "avoid the talks and finding angry people" strategy. Highlights include meeting a delightful pair of marketers that actually wanted to learn how machine learning can help their business, but it turns out that people have convinced them that the Venn diagram of machine learning and ChatGPT is a perfect circle. This is the state the non-tech world lives in. But we help them out, and one of them approaches me later with a variant of "I heard you're studying psychology and this corporate world is soulless and vaguely pathetic - should I get into psychology too like I've been thinking?"

Finally, it is time to leave. We are in high spirits, and looking forward to two days at the beach. The event was extremely funny, killed a lot of the self-doubt we both carried with us, and we managed to come out of it with some close friends despite how fucked it all was.

As we leave the venue, a piece of paper on the ground catches my eye.

Someone has dropped Henry's business card, and it has been trampled underfoot by a dozen people.