Yesterday and today, I attended the RubyNation conference in Silver Spring, Maryland. One of my goals this year was to attend more conferences because I've been trying to meet more people in the community. I attended BohConf last year in Baltimore and it was great, even though it didn't have a Ruby focus.
I suppose I'll get this bit of personal information out of the way because it's very relevant to almost the entire post: I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. I go to great efforts to mask it because I don't want others to have to deal with it, but the idea of being around a lot of people, quite frankly, terrifies me. Thankfully, RubyNation is a small conference (only 250 attendees according to their website), so I figured it'd be a good place to start and asked if my company would buy a ticket for me. They ended up sponsoring the conference, so they shut down the office on Friday and we all went.
I live about halfway between Baltimore and Silver Spring, so I drove down to the conference that morning. I mostly kept to myself or tried to stick with my work posse because being around people I know helps ease the anxiety.
The conference was really great. The presentations were fantastic. Sarah Allen gave a fantastic opening keynote, followed by Eileen Uchitelle talking about ActiveRecord's crazy association logic. A little bit after that, Davy Stevenson gave an awesome talk about the science, art, and craft of programming, which really hit home with me. It was pretty awesome to see three of the first four presentations being given by women.
Everyone was very friendly, but I still felt very nervous about talking to anyone, so I kinda sat and waited for people to approach me or tagged along with my workmates.
We broke for lunch around 1pm, which I'd been dying for because in the scramble to get ready to go I forgot to eat breakfast. My company took about 20 people to Nando's (by the way, excellent food, but overpriced for the quantity and level of service). We couldn't get a bunch of tables together so we broke into groups of 3-4 per table.
I got to sit with Florian Motlik and Russell Osborne. They're really awesome people and I really enjoyed talking with them. Russell actually reminds me a lot of Hampton Catlin, but with a beard. We took a #RubyFriends photo and everything. It was fantastic.
Spoiler alert: anxiety wins
After lunch, we went to a presentation about machine learning with Ruby. During the talk, the presenter mentioned the
sexmachine gem, which claims to be able to tell whether a name is male or female. I'd heard of this gem before, so my first thought was "Oh, right, that gem that thinks I'm a woman".
When from the time I started preschool all the way up until my adult life, I heard "Jamie is a girl's name" a lot. A lot of bullies found it fun to torment me because I had the audacity to be given a "girl's name" at birth.
I tell you this solely because this was the presenter's very next slide:
Notice that the name "Kim" is labeled as "mostly female", but it shows my name as unequivocally "female". Given that it took a lot of effort to manage my anxiety at the conference already, that's all it took to trigger an attack.
I gathered my things as calmly as I could and headed straight to my car. The day was over for me before 2:30pm.
I laid in bed this morning wondering if I should even go back today. What if a similar thing happens? What if I'm just too afraid to talk to anyone? Then I'll have wasted all that time just so I could feel terrible about myself.
I think I felt guilty because my company paid for me to be there. Whatever the reason, I got out of bed, showered and went back. I actually managed a decent mood, too.
I'd talked to my fiancée and my roommate last night about my experience yesterday and they told me to remember to take breaks. I realized I hadn't taken any breaks away from the crowd yesterday, so today I did and it really, really helped. They both texted me to make sure I was okay, too. That's a nice feeling.
Nothing else super eventful happened for the rest of the conference. It was just a pleasant time all the way up until I left. Great talks, great people, hell they even served cheesecake! Okay, so one super eventful thing happened. :-)
Jamie at the Bat
The conference experience was totally worth it. I managed to meet some new friends despite my aversion to actually talking to people. I got beaned on my first at-bat, but I stepped back up to the plate and, though I didn't hit it out of the park, I did at least make it on base. I don't know why I went with a baseball metaphor, but I'm keepin' it.
The Seven Methods of Highly Introverted People
For other programmers who are introverted and/or suffer from social anxiety, I absolutely recommend going to a conference. A small one worked well for me. Maybe something like RailsConf or RubyConf would've been significantly more stressful, I'm not sure, but it's tough to imagine a small conference being worse for social anxiety than a large one.
I was lucky enough to have one so close to my house, but Katrina Owen told me in a Ruby Rogues Parley thread that one thing that helps her at conferences is to get a hotel close to the venue. This way, if you start to get overwhelmed, you have a place you can retreat to. I plan to do exactly this if I go to any conferences that are outside of my backyard.
There are almost certain to be moments you'll struggle with. Take breaks. Take breaks proactively and away from people. It's like dehydration: by the time you realize you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated. The later you realize you need a break, the longer break you'll need to calm down.
You'll likely need to be alone for a while afterward and that's okay. Ever since I got home, I've been in the basement avoiding everyone. It's how I unwind after being around people all day.
And now I'm exhausted, so I'm going to bed.