Tradeshow Culture, Part 2: The Silent Street

The busy street out front
The busy street out front

There’s a new trend at trade shows, and it really creeps me out. I call it The Silent Street: a long stretch of pre-fabricated meeting rooms, parallel to the main aisle of booths. It’s just like the back alley: so close in space to the fancy street out front, but so far in look and feel.

The pre-fab meeting room has become a popular trade show booth option. The really big vendors will often incorporate a meeting room into the main booth structure, but smaller booths can rent a pre-fab: all you have to do is walk around the corner to the Silent Street to use it. The rooms are roofless, carpeted not just wall-to-wall but also floor-to-ceiling, and have only one tiny window on the locked door. The carpeted wall panels muffle the hubbub from the main aisle so that you feel much farther away from the action than you really are.

The silent street, just a few yards away
The silent street, just a few yards away

No one walks down the Silent Street except to go into a meeting room, so it’s both quiet and deserted. Obviously the rooms are useful—for some even necessary—but the marketing department must hate them: you’re taking customers away from the carefully crafted buzz of a show floor and walking them into a quiet, undecorated locked room.

To me, the Street was  strange enough that I remembered a passage from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, where astronauts explore an alien spaceship and walk through silent “cities” consisting of featureless cubical buildings.

Where the Girls Aren’t

Hi-tech has always been male-dominated. It is no longer Caucasian-dominated, I’m happy to say: I work with people from all sorts of ethnic persuasions. But there are still far too few women in the field. I just returned from a business trip where my ten customer meetings included a total of just two women. For many years I was a Unix systems administrator, and I regularly attended the Usenix LISA conference. Over a twenty-year span, the number of women attendees slowly grew from a tiny fraction to about 10%, but of course it should be 50%.

Today the San Francisco Chronicle ran this article about Black Girls Code, a San Francisco non-profit. Founder Kimberly Bryant writes:

By launching Black Girls Code, I hope to provide young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills to at a time when they are naturally thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. That, really, is the Black Girls Code mission: to introduce programming and technology to a new generation of coders, coders who will become builders of technological innovation and of their own futures.

Bryant was a community college EE student, but had no role models: she was one of few women, and often the only person of color in the room. Her own daughter Kai grew up a heavy-duty gamer, but Bryant wanted her to learn workplace skills as well. And so she started Black Girls Code. She received a grant from Google and has mentored over 300 girls to date.

Much has been written about why so few women, and particularly minority women, pursue careers in math, science and engineering. I agree with those who believe it stems from both implicit and explicit social pressures that steer women into “traditional” women’s fields, or away from a career altogether. This can change if enough of us work to make it so. As Bryant says, “Imagine the impact that these curious, creative minds could have on the world with the guidance and encouragement others take for granted.”


Tech Fandom, The Power of Influence

So, when we last looked at this, we explored the power of positive experience, and then I kind of left you hanging. Well, guess what? I’m going to finish a thought.

IMO, the second largest factor that determines the tech a person chooses is the influences that push them in that direction. Those influences come from two sources: advertising and community.

Many of us ignore or dismiss the influence of advertising, but it totally exists. If it didn’t work, companies wouldn’t spend truckloads of money in it. But, for some reason, we pretend it doesn’t.  We scoff at the cheesy ads that adorn the right-hand side of our facebook experience. Honestly, we often act like we are “above it all.” Especially us gadget head/tech freaks. We set up these walls around ourselves, like we are the last hope for the race of men, and we behave just like Lord Denethor (without the descent into madness, I hope). But those ads work on us, too. We are part of demographics that get studied, and the people doing the studying are pretty smart. For example: I used a personal install of Splunk at my last job for log aggregation. Why? No one else at my company was using it, and no one that I trusted was using it, either. But they had this shirt that said, “Taking the SH out of IT.” It was irreverent and funny, and it struck a chord. So I installed and used their product. I liked their product, too. I still do, even though I haven’t used it in ages. They knew exactly how to market to a guy like me. Their ad campaign totally worked.

The same thing happens in the consumer electronics world, too. The Motorola Droid ads are a little weird, but they are also pretty successful. The Apple “I’m a Mac” ads were snarky and elitist, and they totally worked. Sometimes the ads don’t work directly(, for example), but they are successful in planting a concept or idea in your brain that creates a positive association with the product that is being offered (If I get my hosting there, I get immediate access to fast cars and pretty girls). And, truly, in the game of advertising, all publicity is good publicity.

Even though ads are powerful, they pale in comparison to the power of community. I experienced this first hand in 1998 with the explosive popularity of Linux among IT geeks. Sites like and were driving this popularity globally. It was anti-establishment, tech-elitist, and intelligent. And the people that were involved were (and still are) totally cool. I wanted to hang out with these people (and I did, some). I wanted to BE these people. They were innovative and part of a circle of influence that impacted me greatly. I spent all kinds of time tweaking my MDL laptop to make it Linux-only, flying directly in the face of the corporate IT standards that I was supposed to be supporting. I went to tradeshows; hung out at the slashdot booth and watched Wrath of Khan; played pool with Linus Torvalds. All of this made me feel like I could be somebody in this community. And it cemented a connection in my head that associates Linux users with good, cool people. That connection still exists.

That’s my experience, but we all have similar experiences around the tech that we have chosen to be part of our lives. Maybe not that overt. Maybe it’s an art thing, or a style thing, or a geek thing. But it’s there. I dare you to say different and not lie at the same time. I triple-dog dare you.

I agree that community is the most important thing, but that’s true of life itself, not just technology. Humans form groups; the group becomes “us” and everyone else is “them”. Heaps of Ph.D. dissertations have been written about this.

However, I personally have never been convinced about the power of advertising. Sure, I enjoy a well-done ad campaign (I have about six Splunk shirts in my t-shirt drawer). But I didn’t buy my Subaru because of Subaru ads, I bought it because I shopped around and this was the best car for me at the time. I don’t buy Chevron gasoline because of those incessant Techron ads, I buy it because it’s the closest gas station to my house. I patronize the local independent hardware store and endure Home Depot only when necessary. I always hit the mute button during commercials.

Au revoir, Minitel

On Saturday, France will turn off Minitel. Unknown to most Americans, Minitel was ubiquitous in France. Launched in 1982 and based on Videotex, Minitel was end-user information system provided to almost every home and business in the country. From its beginning, Minitel users could send email, buy merchandise, make train reservations, trade stocks, search the white pages: in short, do everything that people use the Internet for today. The article quotes Valerie Schafer, co-author of a book on Minitel: “People forget that many of the ideas that helped form the internet were first of all tried out on Minitel. Think of the payment system, not so different from the Apple app-store. Think of the forums, the user-generated content. Many of today’s web entrepreneurs and thinkers cut their teeth on Minitel. The world did not begin with the internet.”

I first saw Minitel in 1991 while visiting a friend in Paris; she showed us all the things it could do. I remember exclaiming “You’ve had this for ten years already, and there’s one in every home in France?” Back in America, .edu domains still outnumbered .com, and home computers still used modems to dial into bulletin board systems. And what was on those BBSs? Mostly chat rooms, email and Usenet. We certainly couldn’t trade stocks or make plane reservations. Minitel was way ahead of its time.

The Anatomy of Tech Fandom

This has been ruminating inside my head for a while, so I thought I’d post about it. That’s what this is for, right?

I am not the first to write about this, nor will I be the last. And it isn’t just tech, but fandom at large. However, this is prevalent inside of the tech industry, both on the consumer and business level.

What we are talking about here is…why? Why do we choose sides? Why do we align ourselves with companies and their products? What are the triggers?

It’s obvious that companies want to produce fans. With fans, you can withstand bad product cycles, because fans forgive. With fans, you can build hype around releases, because fans will buy and will influence their circles to buy as well. But why do we take part in this? Are we really doing ourselves any favors by being fans?

Case in point: The Apple iPhone 4s. What about this phone makes it worth the price of admission? Especially when you consider the technology you likely already had, which is the iPhone 4. It did not have what everyone really wanted in their new iPhone which was support for faster data (there is no 4G yet. It’s marketing. 4G will be MUCH faster than what we have now, but i’ll take 4G “lite” over 3G any day of the week, and twice on Sunday). It did have a dual core processor that no one cares about, and a slightly better crappy camera (there are no good mobile phone cameras. the sensors are too small. SIZE MATTERS). But I saw all the people line up to buy it, as did you. I saw and read the hype, as did you. The EXPECTATION was that this would finally catch up, speed-wise, to other phones on the market. The community expressed disappointment, surely, but they still bought the stupid thing. Because they are fans. And Apple KNEW they would buy it. And every other gadget/tech company in the consumer space is desperately trying to figure out how to build the same kind of fandom.

Look, I’m a fan of things too, so I’m not the dispassionate observer that you think I am making myself out to be. I’m just trying to figure this thing out myself.

Apple isn’t the only company with fans. Some companies have fans of only one product (Microsoft XBox) and some companies have fans only among IT sectors (Cisco).

So, back to the “why.” I think there are two main driving factors that build product/company fandom, and I think they work in tandem (see what I did there?). First is the positive personal experience. Every fan, at the very beginning, took a flyer on the product. They hadn’t experienced it before and they felt that they needed to. So, there is an initial risk, a very personal one. This is an exposure of vulnerability in order to fulfill a desire (that we often classify as need). This is non-trivial because it almost always involves more than just financial outlay. With phones, there are usually contractual obligations that tie us in for an extended time. Another risk is that, by choosing one, we automatically eliminate the alternatives. If that risk gets rewarded positively, then it triggers an association. We associate the positive personal experience directly to the company/product that provided the tech we chose. And companies LOVE it when this happens.

The second factor is community influence. This is made up of the fan’s relationships with other people (or advertising) that influence their decision. More on this later.

The May 14th issue of the New Yorker profiles Clayton Christensen, author of the 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen sought to discover why large successful businesses could go from successful to bankrupt so quickly. I won’t retell the story here; please read the article. But there are clear parallels to what’s happened with the iPhone.

The revolution began with the iPod and, more subtly, with iTunes. The iPhone was just a big iPod with a phone and camera slapped on. It wasn’t very good phone service, and it was a lousy camera—but the point is, it was good enough, so people used it anyway. In particular, young people used it anyway, and with fandom it’s young people that matter. Low-end digital cameras have been in trouble for some time because of camera phones: sure real cameras are better, but it doesn’t matter because camera phones are good enough for what most people want (this is one of Christensen’s main points).

I’m one of those who went from a iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 4G. Why? Because my wife and I wanted to switch from AT&T to Verizon. Arlene is a realtor, and she spends all day on the phone; she needed better phone service. I’ve always been a Macintosh enthusiast (I’ve owned one since the very beginning, in 1984) but I’ve never stood in line for anything when it first came out. Not sure whether that makes me a fan.

Tradeshow Culture, Part 1: Attending

Your basic tradeshow floor. This is part of DAC 2012 in San Francisco.

Believe it or not, David and I were chatting about the weird sub-culture of tech tradeshows a few days before this article hit the streets. Not to worry, we’ll get to that.  But we kinda wanted to talk about the whole experience. You see, David and I used to work together, and we have a history of attending tech tradeshows together. Now, though, we work apart (sad face). And also, we are both on the other side of the tradeshow…its seamy underbelly, encrusted with gum wrappers, gaffer’s tape, and half consumed peppermints.

So, tradeshows are kind of weird.  Let’s look at it from the attendee point of view, shall we? As attendees, you basically fall into one of two categories: a grazer or a hunter.

Grazers aren’t sure why they are there, but they are pretty sure it isn’t an official work day (even though they are getting paid), so they take advantage. Grazers are interested in seeing everything, getting every free piece of swag and marketing slick, and buying nothing. Grazers like to say they have decision power in their company, but they don’t. Not really. Grazers, however, are not valueless, nor is it completely pointless to be a grazer. As a grazer, you have a wider opportunity to see more at a tech tradeshow and your ability to be surprised/excited by something new is much higher. Grazers are also, by and large, more “joyful” attendees.  Genuinely happy to be there, usually, and much more likely to smile at, nay, even talk to, another human be(an)ing.  Grazers truly appreciate the spectacle before them, and will laugh and dance with you and your colored lights. Grazers are more likely to have exploratory conversations with those that work the booths, and everybody walks away happy.  Or, at the least, slightly dreamy and mystified by what just occurred.

Hunters know exactly why they are there. Hunters are working on a project or evaluating a specific branch of tech wizardry, and they have no time for the dilly dally. Hunters have no patience for the marketroids and fluff at the booth that is their current target…they only want an engineer. They have five other engineers to talk to that day, and then they have to evaluate what they have learned. Good hunters take notes. Hunters, however, aren’t always the best type of attendee. Hunters tend to have blinders towards the other tech on display, and overestimate their own opinion. Rarely is a hunter open-minded, and hunters engage in the conversation process poorly at times, since they tend to mistrust any claims made by the obvious shysters working the show booth.  After all, if you work as a sales entity for a manufacturer, you must be a soulless demon spawn from the netherworld, right?

I’ve been both in my career as attendee, as has David (probably). I’d like to think I’m more intelligent than all that, but it isn’t true. I’ve been the poorest example of both hunter and grazer, and maybe the best, too. I’ve treated people working in booths poorly simply because I associate a perceived shortcoming in their product to, what must be, an obvious personal flaw for trying to get me to buy it. I’ve also wasted more people’s time than I feel I should have done, but over all, I have enjoyed my time in trade shows. After all, I have all the Splunk t-shirts and branded Rubik’s cubes to show for it. And I have made tech decisions based on the initial introductions to technology I have seen at tradeshows…some good decisions, some not so good. As with anything, it’s a mixed bag.

There’s a third kind of tradeshow attendee: the job seeker. A tradeshow is a tough place to look for a job, because hiring managers are rarely the ones staffing the booth. But occasionally you find a good match; when searching for my current job I landed two interviews with hardware vendors, although they didn’t pan out. We’ll write another post about job seeking soon; watch this space.