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A few years ago I did a developer conference with some coworkers, my manager included, and my manager and a senior developer decided not to attend any of the talks and just goof off instead. I, however, was looking forward to the conference and went ahead and attended the talks. In so doing, however, I was told I wasn't being a team player and that I should have been hanging out with the team.

Personally, I think what the manager did was unethical. I just kinda brushed the criticism off but now they're talking about doing another conference later this year (assuming COVID doesn't change things) and I'm just dreading being in that same situation.

I don't want my manager to say I'm not being a team player (and indeed, I fear that that could have unforeseen consequences) but neither do I want to do something that I think is unethical. I could go up the chain of command and express my concerns to my managers manager but my expectation is that that wouldn't go over well. Maybe my manager gets a stern talking to but, in all likelihood, that won't deter him from skipping out on the conference and if I were to report that he skipped out on the upcoming one as well I suspect nothing would happen. Maybe that's just me being self defeatist but I believe my immediate manager is probably one of the most well insulated employees at the company.

Any ideas as to how this situation should best be handled?

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Any ideas as to how this situation should best be handled?

If you are genuinely interested in the material at the conference and want to listen to all the talks then by all means take full advantage of the conference experience. If your manager or other coworkers decide to skip, you should feel no pressure to join them. If asked why you attended the talks, you let them know that they interest you and help your professional development.

If your manager continues to accuse you of not being a team player and is as well insulated as you think then maybe it is time to look for a new company to work for.

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    I don't even know how accusation of "not being a team player" at the conference can even go on record. If pressed for detail, the manager is dunking his own face in a nice big pile of fecal matter. You don't need to tell on them, but you have every right to defend yourself. – Nelson Mar 24 at 2:01
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    You could also prelude with a "Just to be sure, feel free to roam but I intend to attend a few talks. Escpecially the one about X seems interesting" – Martijn Mar 24 at 9:39
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    @Onyz Actually not. Assuming OP listens to the talks, he can actually explain what he listened to and suggest the accusers report about the talks they visited. Having a notebook (which I always find useful) will give additional credence for OP's participation. It would be quite unwise by the manager to pull one of these which is easily disproved. – Captain Emacs Mar 24 at 11:35
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    Skipping one talk to hang out with the others would go a long way toward "teamplay" without being too unethical – Jeffrey Mar 24 at 17:36
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    @Nelson it's not on record as in written down... but it is recorded in the manager mind... and they have the power in this relationship and will be making future decisions – Michael Durrant Mar 24 at 18:11
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I have gone to plenty of developer conferences and not attended sessions. They aren't all interesting, believe me! I don't think it is that unusual to miss some for various reasons. To skip ALL the sessions definitely sounds unethical to me, assuming your coworkers truly did goof off instead. (I've done that, too!)

Consider the possibility that your boss and coworkers went to the conference specifically to meet in person with other developers who they knew would be there, to discuss something of importance to the company. That's a perfectly legitimate reason to go to a conference. It might look like goofing off (and might actually be), but there could be a higher purpose involved. How many business deals are made on golf courses?

A developer conference is not just about going to talks. You should have two goals when you go to a conference: to learn something new and to meet people. So, attend the talks, but also do some networking. Meet new people, get into discussions outside the talks, talk about your projects, find some new technology that interests you, etc. Don't be afraid to skip a talk to go grab a drink with some new friends. It's all good for your career. Also, make sure you hang out with your team. Going off site with your team members can often be a good bonding experience, and they may know some interesting people at the conference that you otherwise would not have a chance to meet.

If the talks are really important for you, then for the next conference, choose a few talks you really want to attend and tell your boss beforehand how excited you are to attend those talks. Then find a slot or two where the talks aren't so interesting and make it known you are less excited about those. Essentially, state your intentions up front about the talks you won't miss, but also let it be known that you are not seeking perfect attendance. When the time comes, skip one of those less interesting talks and hang out with your team.

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    I've been to developer conferences where the important activities were happening outside of the talks. For example, at one, a senior VP of the vendor caught me on the stairs and wanted my opinion of how much the company would be purchasing in the next year and what could he do to help that. As a junior programmer at that time, I felt that a manager would have been the better person to talk to. – David R Mar 23 at 22:39
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    Yeah, I think the OP is making a big assumption in considering it "ethical" to attend talks and "unethical" to do other things instead. That might be correct but it's not axiomatic. – catfood Mar 24 at 13:01
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    I do agree. There was a conference I went to last time and for one session they had nothing that would interest me and I decided to skip it and go grab lunch. I don't think that is unusual behavior at all unless, as you say they're doing it for the entire event. – Dan Mar 24 at 14:08
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Do you know as a fact that they goofed off?

Many attendees at these conferences, especially at the management level, use conferences not for the talks, but for networking. What might seem as "goofing off" to you may be creating new connections or refreshing existing contacts.

If they actually just went to the bar by themselves, the other answers are right. Ignore any pressure to join, attend the talks you want, and if questioned why you went to the talks, put on a puzzled face and answer with "But that's the whole purpose of a conference, isn't it?" - there is no negative answer to this that doesn't dig a hole for the one giving it.

If they maybe used the conference for networking, then talk to your manager about the right balance between knowledge acquisition (talks) and networking.


Why I think he might be networking? Because you mention he is well insulated. That is a typical sign of someone with a great network.

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    A few years ago I stopped attending talks at conferences, and focused exclusively on networking instead (which most certainly does not come naturally to me). I did this once I realised that I could watch people talk on YouTube. Building a network is hard, and opportunities do not come often – Rohit Chatterjee Mar 25 at 16:17
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To me this sounds like a threatening comment. Not being a "team player," is usually code for "doesn't get along with others." As for conscientiousness, mentioned in another comment here, don't think your work ethic might not be a threat to some of your co-workers. If you work harder than your colleagues want to, then you may discover pressure being applied to work less, lest they look bad.

The only suggestion I can offer is, before going against your boss, clearly understand this hierarchal system in which you work. Then, protecting yourself as you can, work in small ways to make a difference. You might want to have a look at Part III of this book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives.

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    I think it is great to address the office politics side of the question. There are plenty of hostile work environments out there where both peers and superiors go out of their way to smear reputations, whether or not the facts support it. Getting a better job is best, but not always a quick fix -- especially if better jobs want a good recommendation from your peers and superiors . . . – Mike M Mar 24 at 10:42
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A number of the other answers cover some of these points, but I don't want to repeat comments under a lot of them so here's my take.

Go to your manager and ask about the work purpose of going. Ask if the company wants you to be there to learn from the talks, to be seen, to network with other like developers, as a reward for good work etc. If the company wants you to be learning from the talks then great, if the company purpose is different then you need to take that into account in your approach over the next part.

Then go through with your manager which talks you want to attend and how they are relevant to your work. Now you can negotiate which ones are more important and when spending time with your teammates is of more value - and let your manager know that teambuilding is one of your goals too. Talks that you would like to attend but aren't really relevant to the company can still be flagged up at this time, but a few may have to be missed.

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Give your boss's approach a chance

What your manager is doing is actually quite common and is called the "hallway track". Some of the most interesting things I've learned and some of the most important connections I've gotten were on the hallway track.

In fact, when I go to physical conferences (±15 as a speaker in 2019), I was in maybe 5% of the talks since you can almost always see the good ones online later anyway. Unlike the talks online - the access to all the paritcipants and speakers is limited to the actual conference!

I used that time to instead learn a lot by approaching speakers and:

  • Finding interesting local things to do with speakers while also talking about technology and new stuff going on in the industry.
  • Talking to other participants about new things in my field and discussing pros and cons of different approaches I took.
  • Chatting with people who looked interesting and in particular: participants that are not in the group are great to chat up since they are often alone and willing to engage with a friendly person.

I can name some high profile technologies with millions of weekly downloads (some I help maintain!) that were born this way.

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    I agree, and I've often done similar - though I'm not sure this is quite what's happening here (at least from the description.) I'd happily only attend a handful of talks I find interesting and look to have interesting conversations the rest of the time, but I'm not sure I could justify attending zero talks and spending the entire time hanging out with the team. – berry120 Mar 25 at 11:07
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Any ideas as to how this situation should best be handled?

The same way you did it this time. Your manager may have been joking at the time. It's irrelevant. It's not your responsibility to track their attendance. And nothing untoward eventuated to you, so ignore what they do.

End of the day, if they're not there they don't even know if you attended or not unless you mention it.

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  • But they will definitely know you did not hang out with them, so you're still tagged as not a team player! – Sourav Ghosh Mar 23 at 20:42
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    @SouravGhosh it's not a problem being known as a conscientious worker, they just said that to assuage their own guilt, probably as a joke, it's not like they can take it further. – Kilisi Mar 23 at 21:07
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    True that, however, having a manager who criticizes you for doing your job well is a clear sign to look for another one. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 23 at 21:10
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    Actually, it sounds like this group wanted the OP to be attending the parties that they were part of. It sounds as if the manager was using the conference an excuse for an "off site team building activity". In which case, not being part of the team building will be taken negatively. – David R Mar 23 at 22:33
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    I don't think OP called the manager out, unless I'm missing something in the post. – jcm Mar 24 at 7:11
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You are right, you want your manager to describe you as a team player. So, the basic problem is that your manager is not appreciating how your efforts will benefit the company. Definitely speak up! Otherwise your manager will never respect you.

Keep notes on your business reasons for attending these talks. Socialize it with influential people at your company, and reinforce the value of your contributions.

Bring in this data, in a respectful way, when talking to your manager. This sets a high bar. Then ask your manager to explain why he feels the socialization in the conference setting is helping the team. Explain that you will of course meet with your team mates if he wants that. However, in your humble opinion, attending talks delivers a specific business value to the company, while your manager, to your humble and naive understanding, has not explained the value of the socializing that these other team members are doing (if that is indeed the case, as you suggest it is). So then recap this in email so it's clear to anyone who might later question your team playerness that these socialization decisions, which, it sounds, are interfering with your work, are your manager's decision, not yours. Once your manager understands that his actions actually have consequences, he will improve his behavior.

As for worrying that your manager's opinions might "have unforeseen consequences", that is job 101... just have your friends watching your back, keep good notes, and send recaps of these conversations in email, so you can point back to the reasons for your actions, and how you did the best possible for the company. Never get emotional at work; stay calm and then you win. If anyone gets fired, it won't be you.

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