Conferences are for the Elite

I was recently helping John Sellens out at the SAGE booth at Real World Linux in Toronto, and it was nice to be out promoting SAGE and USENIX. As I said to some booth visitors, I’ve been a member of another technical society who I won’t name directly (but whose acronym is composed entirely of vowels) and was less than impressed. That particular organization seemed to be geared to alpha-geeks and academics; reading their monthly periodical and wading through conference proceedings was about as time-consuming and unpleasant as swimming through raw sewage. As a graduate of an engineering program, I’ve already endured four years of lectures by professors who, though intelligent, felt that the only way to demonstrate that intellect was to show off their mastery of LATeX and the art of acronym creation. So I was pleasantly surprised to find USENIX and SAGE to be organizations that are actually dedicated to the day-to-day problems that software developers, system administrators and others in the IT field actually encounter.

One thing that John apologized for, on a number of occasions, to booth visitors was the fact that USENIX membership fees are fairly expensive, particularly since they are expressed in US dollars. For us Canadians, the US$200 in fees annually that we must fork out for USENIX and SAGE membership is fairly steep. But, as I said, compared to (lack of) value I got from The Acronym and Vowel Institute, I’m happy to pay it.

What I do have issue with are the steep conference fees. While looking at the brochure for the 2003 USENIX Annual Technical Conference, I did the arithmetic and realized that it would cost me several thousand dollars out of my own pocket to attend this conference, including plane tickets and accommodation. I have no doubt, of course, that were I to attend the conference, I would learn a lot at the conference– but I’m not willing to do that tango to the tune of several thousand dollars of my own money.

At this point some of you might think, why don’t you get your company to pay for it? If you’re saying this, you probably work for a massive firm like IBM who has enough cash to blow to send upwards of twenty employees to a trade show like Real World Linux. Unfortunately I work for a very small Internet security firm, and with less than 40 employees, we have a hard enough time buying new computers, never mind sending employees on any kind of training.

I started thinking about why the conference fees were so expensive, and sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that these conferences are put on by the elite for the elite. If you’re able to attend one, you likely fall into one of the following categories:

  1. You work for a large multinational like IBM whose training budget is several thousand dollars per year, per employee.
  2. You attend graduate school at a prestigious technical institution like MIT or Princeton, and are presenting a paper. Since you are doing graduate studies, you also are paying a great deal of money, through your tuition, to attend the conference.
  3. You are a senior developer in one of the areas of research at the technical conference, and are being sponsored by someone to attend the conference. For example, one of my former colleagues is Jake Burkholder, who works on the FreeBSD/sparc64 port and has been sponsored by DARPA to attend BSDCon.
  4. You play a major role in USENIX; you are, for example, like John Sellens, the SAGE Secretary, and USENIX is paying for part of your expenses. (In essence, this means that USENIX or SAGE members like myself are indirectly sponsoring you to go to the conference out of our membership fees.)
  5. You run your own company and are able to take the time off, plus write off part of the conference expenses, on your tax return.
  6. You are one of the minority who made a bundle during the dot-bomb era, and are spending some of that windfall.

From this list I think I am reasonably correct in drawing the following conclusions:

  1. Of the conference attendees, the majority are attending the conference on some kind of subsidy or affiliation which allows them to pay less than full price;
  2. Everyone else who is paying full price is either being directly subsidized by their employer, or they are just suckers.

I have a real problem with this. Think about what kind of people compose the group described by (ii). That’s right, it’s going to be a bunch of grizzled old computer veterans trying to one-up each other with stories of the first PDP-9 they ever hacked on. Throw into that mix a bunch of current alpha-geeks, who, ten or twenty years from now, are going to be the same grizzled veterans. Behold, you have the USENIX elite.

Since the path of least resistance into these conferences — without selling the shirt off your back — is to gain admission to the elite, the conference fees are a great way for USENIX to keep the base of power concentrated within a few, carefully chosen people. If you don’t belong to that club, you can pay full price, and become one of the suckers helping to subsidize the elite.

Lest any readers think that I’m bitter, I’m not. I certainly don’t see myself as a typical UNIX hacker, nor do I foresee myself morphing into one in the future. So I don’t mind being excluded from these conferences by the high fees, because hell, if the price I have to pay to learn things is to become an alpha-geek, then thanks, but I can just do that on my own. I just want USENIX members to see the prohibitive conference fees for what they are: a way for the USENIX elite to exclude regular generic hackers like myself from the “coalition of the chosen”.

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