A Conference Without All the Self-Promotion

I’ve been spending the weekend at a 40,000-person oncology conference in Orlando and finally wandered into a Saturday-night session on using the body’s immune system to fight melanoma. It’s the first time I’ve ever been to a conference outside of tech, and it struck me as immediately different and in some ways better:

  1.  It was so scientific. Speakers presented data from studies that supported and contradicted their conclusion. They presented data that they couldn’t explain. They hardly talked about anything except results, and they never talked about results without using data. I hadn’t realized how much mental energy it takes at most conferences to defend yourself from self-promotional hoo-ha until I walked into a room that seemed free of it. It was like Hawaii must have been before the mosquitoes showed up. How much further could we advance the state of the art if software conferences were more like this?
  2. Speakers disclosed their conflicts of interest at the beginning of every talk, quickly and matter-of-factly. 
  3. Nobody used the word revolutionary. The gains a lot of oncologists fight for are measured in an extra month of life for 2% or 3% of patients. Instead of big eureka moments and public offerings, the state of the art advances by a thousand little increments. I wonder if that’s where we’re headed.
  4. No celebrities: Big names are recognized, but nobody knows what they look like. There was no Mark Zuckerberg, and no Michael Arrington to interview him either, so a little zing was missing.
  5. These people have no idea how to have a good time. It’s Saturday night, and the melanoma symposium was packed. Everyone was drinking iced tea. Almost everyone was wearing suits. I’ve never seen a software conference that wasn’t at least a little boozy by now.

I felt like a Yahoo visiting the land of Houyhnhnms, intrigued and a little awe-struck, but also glad after an hour to hit the pool, and still glad to be in software too… I’m not sure which type of conference is better, but I learned a lot from seeing this one.


  • Ian McAllister

    I miss data at tech conferences also and get most of the benefit from lunch/hallway/evening meetups, rather than sessions (especially sponsored ones).

    I’m curious, what were you doing at an oncology conference?

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Agreed Ian! My wife is an oncology fellow, here on a “young investigators” grant, which sounds like a boys’ adventure book.

  • Bob G

    Was their data “crazy good”, “fanatical” or “way better” than the other guy’s? :)

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Yes, on one hand, I promote Redfin as being better than many other real estate search sites while on the other I like attending conferences free of self-promotion. At conferences and in interviews and blog posts, I try to address the topic at hand as directly as possible. Usually the best answer is factual:

    But when asked by a journalist why I joined Redfin, the most direct and truthful answer was emotional rather than factual: I am in love with Redfin’s web technology, which I still believe is best in its class. I feel the same way about our commitment to customer service, which I believe sets us apart in a sales-driven industry. Aspirational, emotional statements are essential to a company’s belief in itself, and essential to my conception of a leader. There’s a time and a place for just the facts, and a time too to speak from the heart.

    What I hate is when somebody stands up to explain how to scale a website or acquire traffic from Google, and instead spends 20 minutes talking about how great his company his. I’m not opposed to marketing, especially if it’s sincere, just to marketing where folks have paid to hear something else.