7 tech conference bloopers and blunders

In a way, tech conferences are like movies: You have loads of expensive gadgets, tons of carefully coiffed people, and crews of producers scrambling to keep everything on schedule. It’s only fitting that amid that mix, you end up with one hell of a gag reel.

Think about it: From presenters to attendees — not to mention all that temperamental technology — there’s no shortage of ways in which things can go wrong. When it comes down to it, it’s a wonder anything ever goes right.

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Today, we celebrate some of the gaffes, goofs, and glitches that have affected folks at tech conferences around the world. Some of the bloopers were technical in nature, while others were, shall we say, a bit more on the personal side.

All of them, however, were unforgettable — for better or for worse.

(Note: Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

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Tech conference blooper No. 1: The colour of embarrassment

It wouldn’t be a tech conference without the vendor booths and their seemingly endless supplies of swag. It’s kind of like Halloween for adults, only the costumes are uncomfortable business suits and the candy is a collection of cheap pens and keychains. But who doesn’t love free stuff?

Samantha McGarry doesn’t — not anymore, at least. McGarry traveled to a trade show in the United Kingdom some years back. She was the image of professionalism, there to network and to make contacts that could further her career. There was just one little problem.

McGarry, like many people at the convention, had gotten her hands full of freebies from various vendors set up around the event. She jammed all of them into a blue plastic bag she’d been given early in the day. Unfortunately, the bag made more of an impression on her than she realized.

“Unbeknownst to me, the blue ink from the bag was transferring to my sweaty palm and from there to my cheeks,” McGarry remembers.

Naturally, hours went by without a mirror in sight, and no one had the decency to tell McGarry — who, coincidentally, now works at a company called Inkhouse — about her face-based faux pas. “I spent hours walking around the event, being all serious and professional, talking to clients and prospects — with blue all over my face,” McGarry says. “Imagine my horror when I went to the ladies room!”

And you thought embarrassment only left your cheeks red.

Tech conference blooper No. 2: A seated stumble

Let’s face it: Speaking at a convention isn’t easy. No matter how many times you’ve done it, there’s always that underlying fear you’ll end up looking like a fool in front of a crowded room.

Just ask Larry Marks, who was was hosting a panel and feeling good about it. He’d done this before, after all, and an audience of 200 was no reason for rattled nerves. Marks’s problem, it turns out, was that he was slightly too comfortable.

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“I was talking away, leaning back in my chair — you know, as my mother always told me not to,” Marks recalls.

Marks probably should have listened to his mother’s advice. While balancing on his chair’s rear legs, Marks toppled over backward — midsentence. You’d better believe every set of eyes in the room was trained right on him.

“As I was falling, I really didn’t know what to do,” he laughs. “It was kind of a world-class embarrassing moment.”

Marks, unscathed from his fall, did the only thing he could think of: He kept right on talking, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “Of course, everybody started laughing,” Marks says. “I finally stopped and said, ‘What’s so funny?'”

Marks clearly recovered from his potentially humiliating mistake. Thankfully for him, no one in the room had a video camera rolling — so the moment lives on only in memory, not on YouTube.

Tech conference blooper No. 3: When romance backfires

Tech conferences may be filled with professional development, but they’re also filled with after-hours socializing. Not surprisingly, given the out-of-town hotel-centric nature of the events, that socializing can sometimes lead to romantic rendezvous — you know, of the single-night variety.

That’s what happened to Sarah, a 30-something IT professional who attended a tech event with a few of her colleagues. Sarah and her coworkers got together for drinks on the first evening of the conference, and she ended up meeting someone at the hotel bar. Sarah, to put it delicately, did not return to her own room that night.

“I’d never done anything like that, but I was in Vegas, was single, and hardly knew anyone there — so I kind of threw caution to the wind, I guess, against my better judgment,” she says.

Sarah didn’t think much of her encounter; the man was from another city, somewhere far away, and they weren’t likely to cross paths again. Or so she thought.

“A day later, I was scheduled to do a discussion panel about virtualization. I get to the room, and guess who else is standing at the front?” she asks. Yep, you guessed it: the romantic stranger himself. Only this time, he was wearing a wedding ring — and a name tag.

“Not only was he married, but he was a pretty well-known exec from another company,” Sarah says. “I’d only gotten his first name before and hadn’t made the connection.”

Save for a few irritated glares, Sarah stayed composed and survived the session. Then she made an awkwardly fast exit from the room. “The whole thing sounds like something from a soap opera,” she admits. “I definitely wouldn’t let something like that happen again.”

Tech conference blooper No. 4: The data-dropping disaster

Robin Raskin knows a thing or two about tech conference slipups. Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times, created the Last Gadget Standing contest at the Consumer Electronics Show. The event showcases the latest and greatest products from the convention and lets audience members vote on their favourites.

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Several years ago, the session almost didn’t happen. Raskin was preparing for the event when one of the contestants asked her to make a last-minute change to her PowerPoint presentation. The guy had decided to tweak the name of his company and wanted the slide to be correct.

Raskin, happy to oblige, pulled out her notebook and set it on her lap. What she didn’t realize was that her shiny pants created a slick surface — and were not particularly secure.

“The computer just slid off my lap,” Raskin says. “The screen didn’t break, but the laptop was dead as a doorknob.”

This was before the advent of the USB flash drive — and certainly before the ubiquity of cloud-based storage services — so Raskin didn’t have a simple backup on hand. The only accessible copy of her Last Gadget Standing data was on the hard drive, inside that now-bricked PC.

“I call a tech guy and he says he can’t imagine what to do. The audience is getting raucous out there — I can hear them,” she remembers.

A friend came to the rescue. He suggested finding someone with the same Compaq computer and swapping out the hard drives, thereby putting her data into a functioning machine. He set off to roam the halls of the convention centre on a wild goose chase and, against all odds, found someone with the same model system. Even more amazing, the guy happened to work for Compaq — the maker of the PC — and was happy to help out.

“At this point, I’m laying on the floor begging God that if he just makes this work, I’ll be good forever,” Raskin laughs.

The switch went off without a hitch, and Raskin was able to load her presentation and get on with the show. The event, after all, is called Last Gadget Standing — and she wasn’t about to let a broken computer keep her down.

Tech conference blooper No. 5: Wild Web woes

Internet access is a vital — and extremely volatile — component of any tech conference. Between Web-connected product demos and Web-dependent attendees, a sudden drop in connectivity can wreak all sorts of havoc.

David Schreiber learned that the hard way. Schreiber recently helped organize a tech-centric event for his IT company. The event was designed to show off the company’s new and improved content management software and encourage clients to make the upgrade. One key piece of the puzzle, therefore, was a fully functioning demo lab where visitors could try out the system for themselves.

“We spent months organizing it and making on-site visits to be sure the hotel’s bandwidth would be adequate,” Schreiber says. “The hotel folks assured us it’d be fine.”

So much for assurances: As soon as Schreiber’s colleagues started their first demo, the Internet access evaporated. Apparently, the numerous Wi-Fi-connected laptops and tablets in the audience zapped up more bandwidth than the hotel had anticipated.

“The worst thing was having my boss come up to me, red-faced and ready to explode,” Schreiber recalls. “I mean, we’re a software company. People may intuitively understand that these things can happen, but it still makes us look silly.”

Schreiber sprang into action. He tracked down a hotel engineer who, with a little prodding, was able to connect the room to an alternate router. As if a magic switch had been flipped, everything came back online — and the event surged forward glitch-free. Schreiber says his company has already committed to doing more advanced load-emulating tests in the future, but he knows even that can’t create a foolproof guarantee.

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“The same thing happened to Steve Jobs,” Schreiber laughs, referring to Apple’s WWDC 2010 event in which a network meltdown prevented the Apple CEO from conducting an iPhone 4 demo. “I feel a little better, at least, knowing that.”

Tech conference blooper No. 6: The job hunt surprise

For many people, tech conferences are as much about networking as they are about the presentations. That was the case for John, an IT pro who was looking for a new and more lucrative job early last year.

John knew industry events were teeming with managers from competing companies, so he scheduled vacation time to coincide with an event a few hours away. He packed his bags and headed out, résumés in hand and career change in mind.

As prepared as he was for the adventure, though, there was one element John didn’t anticipate. “I get to the convention hotel, check in, and start mingling — and then I run into my current boss,” he says.

The boss clearly knew what was up, though he spared John the embarrassment of a direct encounter. Still, his presence didn’t exactly help John’s mission of meeting prospective new employers.

“It was weird — really weird,” John says. “I felt like I had to look over my shoulder the entire time.”

John hasn’t found a new job yet, but he isn’t giving up hope. He is, however, rethinking his plan of attack. “I’m already planning to go to a conference later this spring,” he chuckles. “But this time, I’m going to bring a wig and fake moustache to be safe.”

Tech conference blooper No. 7: The case of the sliding slacks

Sometimes, the smallest things can create the biggest problems.

Weldon Vlasak traveled with his wife to a technical conference where he was scheduled to speak. As he started getting ready in their hotel room, he realized he’d forgotten one thing — one very important thing.

“When I put on my suit, I was horrified to find that I had not packed a belt,” Vlasak confesses. “This was a new suit and a bit large around the waist. My pants would slowly drop down unless I held them up.”

Vlasak’s wife had a solution: She pinned the pants up, ensuring they’d stay in their proper place for the presentation — in theory.

“At the presentation, I was standing at the podium and delivering my paper when the pin gave way,” Vlasak says.

Vlasak managed to catch his drawers and keep them from dropping, but his troubles didn’t end there. He had to lean up against a lectern to hold the pants in place. Every time he tried to use his laser pointer, which required him to step away, he had to pull off an odd one-handed waist-holding maneuver in order to avoid flashing the crowd.

“My wife sensed what was happening,” Vlasak says. “I could see her smiling in the audience.”

The second the session ended, Vlasak bolted from the room. He remembers noticing one audience member on his way out: his wife, sitting in the crowd, laughing uncontrollably.

This story, “Tech conference bloopers: 7 stories of snafus and slipups,” was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in IT careers at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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