Front-end developer tying to find his way in life. Talk to me about web, design, music, travel, games, chocolate, coffee, life hacks, or almost any other thing. I also grow a beard, most of the time.
I believe we can all agree that conferences are great. When most of our days are spent staring at a screen and pushing buttons on a machine to make things happen, it’s easy to forget about the world that’s outside and all the other people on it. Tech conferences give us a nice, relaxed, friendly environment where we can discuss ideas, get excited about emerging projects & technologies, and even share our problems and frustrations with people that really understand them. We frequently end up with friends for life in there (you have no idea how excited I get when I have the chance to meet, in real life, the great developers & designers I follow on Twitter!).
However, there’s one element of tech conferences that drives me up a wall. It’s the conference swag — the freebies you get when you arrive at a venue and they hand you your ID badge. You know the usual: a tote bag filled with a couple of cables, pens, stickers, notepads, USB sticks, flyers, mugs, bottles…
Please, just… Just stop.
It’s just too much. Too much plastic. Too much paper. Too much waste in a world that is already incredibly wasteful. I don’t need that. We don’t need that. I know, people love free stuff, but please. Stop it. I’ll buy my own tote bags, cables, pens, stickers, notepads, USB sticks, mugs, bottles, and all other things if I need them. Stop littering the world with useless crap. Most of the people won’t keep half of the items. I cringe when I think of all the raw materials that were used to make all of that.
I understand most of these items are provided (or pushed) by conference sponsors, as they believe (I guess?) it will increase their visibility, likability, subscribers, or overall Klout score. Believe me, it doesn’t. You can’t clean a bad rep with freebies. You can’t make me subscribe to your business plan with a free thermos. You will not succeed to impress me with an octopus charger. You know what you can actually do to make me use your service? Give me a free trial. Make the setup process a breeze. Give me the support you would like to have if you were trying out a new tool. Or even better, give tickets and grants to people that need them. Conferences are expensive; not every one can afford them. There are many groups of people who are marginalized in tech — consider offering grants to those folks (it will make your conference better for everyone). I’m pretty sure that you will have a more profound & positive effect helping the community this way than giving free bottle openers with your company’s logo on it.
We have conferences because we want to make things better. We’re trying to make a difference, to build communities, to make positive changes in our own lives (and possibly in the lives of others as well). So why are we suddenly ignoring this mission? Most likely, we’re just too used to our patterns. Broadly speaking, the purpose of conferences is to analyze the way we do things, to help us keep what’s good and beneficial, and to drop what’s wasteful and harmful. So let’s start asking these questions everywhere, not just in tech.
If you share this opinion and believe in organizing more environmentally-friendly conferences, please share this article and add the #StopTheSwag hashtag. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get through to some conference organizers, and prevent a few tons of CO₂ and garbage from being produced.
On failure and asking for help
I never liked to ask for help. Since I was a little kid, it was normal to get messages from the teachers on my evaluation report about it. Small annotations for my parents, like “He should learn to ask for help when he’s struggling with a subject” or “He’s very individualistic, he should work on playing well with others”. However, these messages didn’t really bothered me – on the contrary, I was almost proud for being able to say that I didn’t need anyone.
Eventually, I got slightly better at asking for help… but just on critical, urgent, life-or-death situations. Other than that, I basically grew up the same, mostly under the motto “If all else fails, try brute force”. It had always worked for me, even if sometime it took a
bit lot more time to do/understand/finish things.
‘You reap what you sow.’ In my case, putting it bluntly, my stubbornness and inability to ask for help when in need led me to fail the probation period on my previous company. The long time I was taking to fully grasp the inner workings of our client-side web app was the necessary red flag to label me as not the best fit for the team. When you spend several hours to find and fix a certain bug and end up giving up, but one of your colleagues takes care of it effortlessly in a couple of minutes after you asked for his/her help, you can’t help but wonder What am I doing wrong here? After a few months of joining a project, these things should not happen.
After leaving the company, I decided to take a couple of months off, away from recruiters, job interviews and whatsoever. I thought about what went wrong in my previous job and what I could do to prevent it from happening again. So I focused on learning and building a few side projects, trying to pick up a few of the current tools and libraries for front-end development. Once again, alone, trying to learn by myself… But you can only go so far working alone. And I was investing my time on the wrong problem, I was just learning a new tool or a new syntax; that’s not exactly improving your skills as a developer, which was basically my top goal at this time.
Luckily, as I was reading and closing the numerous open tabs I had, I ran into an open Recurse Center page (formerly known as Hacker School). I remembered I opened while attending 2014’s JSConf EU. One of the speakers was a previous Recurse Center alumna and triggered some curiosity in me at that time, but eventually got buried in the dozens of open tabs I always have. And it stayed forgotten until I really needed it. I noticed they were accepting application for the next batches of students.
I applied immediately. If selected, I would had to leave London and move to New York. I would have to live on the money I’d saved so far. And, at the end, I would have to return to Europe, since I don’t have a working VISA or anything that could allow me to stay for more than 90 days. Nevertheless, I applied.
As I saw it, I could kill two birds with just one stone: I was taking three months to finally build a portfolio and, above all, I was putting my pride aside and asking for help. I had previously decided to take a couple of months to learn more about current front-end development, so I thought “Why not do it together with other enthusiastic people?” And with this school, I would have to do a lot of pair programming. I would have to digest a lot of criticism and scrutiny of my code. I would have to ask for reviews and ways of improving (or even solving) something.
After a couple of Skype interviews and a bit of pair programming, I got the news. I got accepted. I could choose one of the upcoming batches. What I hoped for but also feared was shaping up. This would be an ill time to go back, so I’m embarking on this. I’ll do my best to squeeze every ounce of knowledge and experience I can from this, and I’ll make sure to ask for help every single time I can (without pestering my colleagues, of course).
If there is something I can take from 2014, is to ask for help and to not be afraid of looking ignorant or misplaced. If by any chance, you are working in an environment where you don’t feel at ease about that, maybe you are in the wrong place. Because how can you learn, how can you grow, when asking is not welcome and there is no room for mistakes…?