Monday, April 13, 2009


(Way back in 2004, I ambitiously started a blog called Telecommedy with the intention of writing on it every day. I stopped writing there in 2005. C'est la guerre. In the interest of posterity and hubris, I am slowly moving those posts over here so that all of this inanity can be concentrated in a single forum and not pollute the intenets any more than necessary.)

Once in a while the telecomm gophers come out of their holes and gather for a huge shindig in some dingy convention center, typically near some sort of entertainment venue like Disney World, Buckhead, Bourbon Street, or ... something in Chicago (I'm sure it's a lovely place to spend a weekend - perhaps at the old slaughter pens). It's very similar to a major salmon migration with very little opportunity for spawning. One of the largest of these conventions - Supercomm - was for many years held in Atlanta, often at the same time as a huge influx of black college students for a Spring Break party known as Freaknik. Both groups were generaly very friendly to each other, and the interaction between the two groups was often quite amusing (imagine portly, bearded engineers getting down to the latest hip-hop rhythms, if you have a vivid enough imagination and strong enough stomach). The Atlanta media created the name Geeknik for Supercomm as a counterweight for Freaknik, and it has stuck - at least with my lovely wife who still likes to bring it up once or twice a day. Therefore, all telecomm tradeshows have now been christened "Geeknik" by those in the know (about three of us now, I believe, although I think the dog is catching on).

Geekniks are the only reason for the existence of many telecomm employees, especially the more attractive ones. Months before each show are spent working on overwrought graphics, cheesy give-aways, invitations to customers who aren't planning to attend anyway, and demonstrations of equipment that's not quite ready for the light of day yet. The week before the show is a frenzy of activity akin to cutting the heads from a flock of chickens right after feeding them all a cocktail of methamphetamine and Starbucks' cappuccinos. Nothing pertaining to the peripheral business of selling and installing products gets done during this time, and many spouses begin to re-consider their decision to marry into the industry. Then the show happens, and for that week or so, the only business to be done is shmoozing and building on the expense account. And, of course, the months following are filled with the usual returning to normalcy, evaluations of performance, planning for improvements, and forestalling divorce proceedings. That comes to at least one full-time job in a small company and an entire department's worth of full-time jobs at less organized companies (not that I'm going to mention any names like Lucent, as that would be patently wrong of me).

Vendor Vittles
At most shows, the network owners and operators are treated as walking gods by the equipment and service vendors. True story - one network provider does not allow their employees to expense ANY meals during Geeknik. They are expected to find a vendor to pay for every one. The policy is called "Vendor Vittles". Truly, I am not erudite enough to make this stuff up. At some of the really big shows, content providers (companies like ESPN, ABC, HBO, FOX, and *ahem* Hustler) lavish the network guys with even more elaborate giveaways. It is not surprising to see low-level employees from a telephone or cable company walking around with two or three duffel bags stuffed with give-aways like cups, hats, T-shirts, stuffed animals, videos, children's toys, CDs, pens, electronic gizmos, oddly-shaped chocolates, bottles of liquid, shiny objects, bouncy balls, phone numbers, hotel keys, and much, much more. At some of the smaller Geekniks, the local mom-and-pop network operators show up with their families. The families don't even make a pretense of asking about the products for sale. Like a shark on the prowl for baby seals, they stalk the floor collecting junk that will become Christmas and Hannukah/Channuhak/Chewbakkah gifts for obscure relatives for the entire next year.

Exhibiting companies, of course, are glad to support the habits of the network operators, and compete to see who can get the largest number to actually enter their booth. In the heady days of the telecomm bubble, when money was freely available to anyone who understood how to draw colorful pictures in PowerPoint, the hustles were impressively audacious. The minimum requirement was to staff the booth with "booth babes" - typically young, attractive women that may or may not actually know anything about the products in the booth. (As an aside, I am not referring to anyone at Movaz Networks as a booth babe, so no suing me for my accumulated wealth.) For more flashy companies with less actual information available to attract customers, more impressive techniques were used to attract "customers". These schemes included raffles of large electronics (TVs, Bose radios, CD players, lightsabres, etc.), performances by dancing girls in company-colored outfits slightly larger than handkerchiefs, games and activities (golf, video games, skeet shooting, etc.), and the super grande indulgence of the time - performances by major musicians, comics, and aquatic mammals. In a single day, Geeknik attendees could go to a free performance by Ray Charles, Martin Short, and Shamu the Killer Whale. Not all at the same time, although I'd certainly pay to see Ray play the piano while Shamu eats Martin. Of course, these expenses had absolutely nothing to do with the money that you lost in your 401k, so don't even try to follow that bouncing ball.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
Geekniks can be a powerful incentive to get products working on a strict deadline. Alternatively, they inspire great creativity among those whose equipment does not cooperate within the strict deadline. Non-working equipment is sometimes hollowed out and 9-volt batteries attached to LEDs to make the equipment appear functional. Demonstrations that purport to show signals traveling through a compex array of equipment are actually bypassed by a single wire and some duct tape. True story: one of the more obnoxious employees of an potential purchaser of telecomm equipment was known for walking up to equipment during the show and kicking it to see if it was actually working (after which the delicately balanced equipment often stopped working - you're really not supposed to kick these things). Equipment vendors put up with him since he was viewed as a player at a potential customer. Now that the bubble has burst, he is rumored to be driving a cab and receiving very small tips when he carries vendors to and from the convention centers during Geekniks.

If a company dares to show "static" displays of products not actually working at a Geeknik, they are ridiculed as either incompetent or unimaginative. This can lead to crying and slap-fights, so smaller companies that are worried about being humiliated on the playground often use the "private suite" strategy. That's when a company rents out a suite at a nearby hotel and sets up a grand display, then sends out "private invitations" to their best friends in the industry. Since the whole point of putting a lot of product vendors in the same convention center is to allow customers to quickly get from one to another, it can be very tough to convince a customer to leave the confines of the center and venture into the unknowns of a hotel room. (Coincidentally, that is also one reason that there is very little "spawning" at Geeknik. The other reasons are that men outnumber women by about 1489 to 1 and the attractiveness quotient of nearly all attendees doesn't register on most accepted scales.) In order to convince a customer to come to a private suite, therefore, companies must offer enticements, usually catering and sometimes an open bar (there can be nothing more entertaining than drunken engineers out on the town). Not coincidentally, customers often schedule visits to private suites around meals. I've personally watched customers walk into a private suite, snub the provided food, and ask the company representative to order them a sandwich. The private suite is alive and well since the bubble burst, as it allows companies to spend less money and still justify a trip to someplace far away where entertainment is cheap and the giveaways are plentiful.

The most hideous incarnation of the private suite is the private suite in the booth. Usually there are rules in place to force anyone who puts up an exhibition to make the exhibit open to the public. At least a significant portion of the booth should be viewable by anyone who shows interest. In some cases, it is understandable to put some of the latest secrets in a special section available only to VIPs (Violet, Interesting Penguins), but the occasional company takes this idea to the far extreme. Companies have been known to build walls completely around their booth and put a bouncer at the only door. When trade show operators objected and changed the rules so that over 50% of the booth area had to be publicly accessible, they bought a bigger booth space and built their walls in the center. The outside part, with absolutely nothing in it, was publicly accessible. I believe that most people wandering by used it as a convenient garbage disposal area in recognition of the ingenuity of the booth designer.

The Big Show
Supercomm, one of the biggest of the Geekniks, is scheduled for June 2004 in Chicago. For the last 5 years it's been in Atlanta, and finally the powers that be are going to allow the telecomm world out of the Southeast to inflict their particular brand of mayhem on the Midwest. People of Chicago, board up your doors and lock the livestock in the barns. (Not that Geeknik will impact you personally, it's just that we've started to notice the holes in your homes and the cow keeps getting into our vegetable patch, so we'd appreciate more diligence on your part.) All over the telecomm world, people are getting ready for the big show. Shoes are being polished, hideous "trade show shirts" are being handed out, equipment is being whacked with hammers in frustration, and the local bars are stocking up on cheap domestic beers.

Let the games begin, and have a great show everyone! I'll be the one hiding under the table in the corner, taking notes, and trying to avoid the cows.


Brian said...

I devised the word geeknik back in 1999 when I registered I suppose I will have to get some lawyers in on this action as I didn't give anyone else permission to use this word to describe their events. :)

Scott said...


I didn't get anything from The Wilkinsons when their country music success resulted in thousands of emails in my inbox pledging their undying love to me and calling me "Amanda", so I feel your pain. Sometimes there are crosses that we domain holders must bear.