Web Summit: The Unofficial Guide

So I just got back from my first Web Summit that took place in Lisbon last week. Before going, as a novice, I had some misconceptions as well as some expectations that turned out to be true. Sure, Web Summit is known as the biggest, greatest tech conference in Europe but there are things that it is and isn’t. It’s important to know why you’re going and what you expect to get out of it before you spend your precious time and money on immersing yourself in the all-consuming experience.

Why Go?

  1. The Content: If the numerous conferences, talks and panels are what you’re after, then I have some disappointing news for you: they are shallow at best and bet on rather general discussions of global tech trends as well as celebrities than providing you with any actual know-how, knowledge or skills. They aren’t practical whatsoever and for someone who works in tech, the topics and conclusions are mostly common sense so don’t expect any Eureka! moments. Besides, the conference venue is so spread out, it literally takes you 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other. And, videos of all the talks are published throughout and shortly after the summit on the Web Summit Facebook page, for free, and you can watch them at your leisure during the post-summit months.
  2. The Expo: Some not so exciting news here too, I’m afraid. The big tech giants are all there to show off and the rest are startups that haven’t yet gained much fraction and for whom every bit of publicity helps. Plus, you can find all the exhibitors, along with their Crunchbase info and website addresses on Crunchbase and contact them, should you have enough LinkedIn InMail credits or be really good at web scraping. Practically, there’s not enough time to meet any meaningful numbers of them in 3 days and you end up distracted by stands displaying self-driving cars, talking robots, 4D printers, revolutionary coffee makers and the likes. 
  3. The Connections: Bingo, this is the most valuable asset of Web Summit and the reason to go if you go at all. Despite what I said in #2 above, you can and you will meet very interesting people but most of those encounters won’t be planned. As much as you try and schedule meetings with people, you will either have something else to do, end up rescheduling endlessly or you just won’t have the time to meet all the attendees who look interesting (you can search and find their names in the Summit app). What I did was organise a tour for myself and three other conference goers before the conference started and this way we all met some pretty cool and adventurous folks while enjoying the coastal area around Lisbon. Later on, I made a connection that will be useful to me in the future while waiting in line for coffee and in a similar random fashion connected with a guy at the lunch tables, who initially offered me tips on how to eat my leaking hummus taco, then ended up talking about marketing tech. All very inspiring and completely random! The only other scheduled appointments I had were with the ladies from Imaginify as well as a cool Lisboa podcaster named Paula Cordeiro of Urbanista, both of whom interviewed me about what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated tech world. A missed opportunity was an interview I wanted to give to intimate, who contacted me for my opinion on the way tech has affected the sex industry.
  4. The Parties: If you’re simply going to WS to blow off some steam, who am I to judge? There are plenty of opportunities to network in a less formal setting, every night before, during and after the summit: breakfasts and brunches, sunset summit, night summit, with women only, men only,  both men and women, your friends or colleagues or with friendly Lisbon locals, which of course will be hard to find in touristy joints especially during Summit week when the conference takes over the entire city. The connection opportunities are certainly plentiful, whether you’re looking to connect with new friends, new lovers or new clients/business partners: there is the official mobile app, there are meetups, events on Eventbrite, Facebook, numerous Whatsapp and Slack groups on every subject (e.g. Women in Tech, Digital Nomads, Designers, General, etc.) Some attendees also end up working at co-working spaces throughout the city so that’s another opportunity to meet them while checking out a cool new working spot. Everyone’s open to meeting up for coffee/food, networking, sightseeing, clubbing, or… pick your poison.
  5. The Weather and The City: I’ll give you that, Lisbon is gorgeous and it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been there, I’m happy to return time and again for some more vinho verde, pasteis de nata and bacalhao. Don’t even get me started on all the cool rooftop bars, miradouros, cool cafés and hipster places. LX Factory, Bairro Alto, Largo di Carmo, Miradouro do Pilar, Jardim Botanico … don’t forget Lisbon’s surroundings: sunny Cascais, inspiring Sintra, wavy Azenhas do Mar, surfer’s paradise Peniche – the West Coast of Portugal might be windy but man, it’s beautiful! If and when Web Summit returns to Dublin, which is a rumour that’s going around, you’d have to not only offer me discounted tickets, Paddy Cosgrove, but actually pay me to be in dreary Ireland in November.

Why Not to Go?

  1. Registration Lines: I am not sure why anyone in the right state of mind would wait for hours in front of the venue to register on pre-day or on the first day of the summit when just a metro away there was airport registration, accessible to anyone whether they were flying in at that time or coming in at a later time. Nevertheless, this wasn’t well communicated or emphasised enough by the summit crew and if you didn’t catch those news alerts on all the groups, you might have wasted a few hours of previous Lisbon time in lines. Next year, go to the airport and register there – it took me 5 minutes in total on pre-day and there were no lines whatsoever.
  2. Opening Night: The much hyped opening night isn’t worth going to or waiting for hours to get into the Altice arena. I suspect the whole reason it’s such a hype is because places are limited and attendance is determined by a lottery principle. If  you must see the opening statements it’s best to enjoy it from the comfort of a rooftop bar or your AirBnB, where you can watch it live on Facebook.
  3. The Conference Food: It’s basically food trucks with long lines in front of them any time between 11h – 15h when the summit’s 60,000 attendees all need to graze on some chow. It’s annoying to say the least, when you have better ways of spending your time than waiting in lines. Many of them also didn’t take cards so bring enough cash to survive. Alcohol is plentiful, at least, and so are the food choices, including vegan and gluten-free options.
  4. The Bathrooms: If you’re a woman, you might as well don a pair of adult diapers, as the lines in front of the bathrooms can take up to 15 minutes before it’s your turn. On day 3 a fellow woman in tech clued me in on the existence of a ‘secret toilet’ near the general ladies’ bathrooms, which I suspect was reserved for staff and thus, not advertised. Not cool, Web Summit! As usual, no lines at the men’s and I often contemplated braving it and perusing said men’s bathrooms at the risk of being ostracised by both genders in a jiffy.
  5. The Coffee: No other way to say this but it’s shite! Sure, it’s free but it comes out of these dispenser machines and it’s as bad as it is plentiful. Luckily for all women in tech (reportedly ~40% of all attendees), Booking.com provided free drinkable (barista-made) java in the WIT lounge they sponsored. Lines for the good stuff were understandably humongous as well and some MIT (Men in Tech) were frequently spotted free-loading on the coffee paid for by the gap in women’s wages since… ehh, pretty much the beginning of tech. I didn’t mind as much until some ‘’gentleman’’ cut in line as we were about to be served Portuguese sparkling wine.
  6. The Swag: The basics were there: plastic cheapo sunglasses with zero UV protection in four different colours, pens, pencils, notepads, stress balls, stickers, t-shirts (including Web Summit-branded ones you could get in any size or logo colour), USB sticks, etc., yet nothing overly creative. The coolest gadgets I snagged were a camera privacy shutter slider thingy from a Polish company called Bitcraft, phone case rings from Cisco and a marijuana grinder from a cool startup called Budsy (only operational in the U.S. unfortunately). Someone apparently won an iWatch playing some game that I couldn’t even get around to doing, due to… you guessed right, the huge lines.

A Word About the 40%: Women in Tech

The way Web Summit is trying to address the gender gap in tech has been a much discussed and highly controversial topic among the female community. Throughout numerous online and offline conversations with WIT attendees, a few, highly polarised camps emerged:

  1. The Feminists: There were women who said in the Whatsapp and in the Facebook WIT groups that Booking.com owed them the free coffee that was offered for all the years they’ve been using the platform. Those same ladies also complained about the men crashing the WIT dedicated lounge and generally being unfriendly and bumping into everyone. Truth is, men and women alike are walking around the venue like zombies, phone in hand, trying to figure out where to go next and who to message or meet. Are women underrepresented and underpaid in tech? No doubt but this isn’t a Web Summit-specific problem, it’s an industry and a global trend.
  2. The Grateful Ones: Other ladies were happy to have received discounted (85 euros a pop), or even free tickets (some did get very lucky!) as well as free coffee and a lounge where they could rest their heels in between running after talks. Some even breastfed in the lounge and were happy they were accommodated as new mothers. They also commented that Web Summit had included many more women panelists in their talks and had tried to bring light to the problem by asking the right questions during interviews, on wall panels and throughout sessions.
  3. The Mediators: This is where I fall in, I suppose; I do recognise the efforts of Web Summit to try to put more women at the table and to offer resources, such as the Mentorship programme sponsored by Booking.com but this alone won’t solve the gender inequality, discrimination or under-representation issues and neither can we expect this of one conference, albeit a significant one. In fact, we can’t expect anyone, let alone men to solve this issue for us. We need to unite in our vision and figure out ways to work together, inspire, empower and support other women first before seeking the respect we’re due.

I think that, as a community, women have much work to do on this front and until there are competitive, cut-throat corporate ladder climbers in heels who seek to intimidate, undermine or outdo others in their gender just to further their own agenda, we won’t be able to reach the levels of inclusion, meritocracy and representation we expect. I believe change begins with educating and transforming ourselves first, then expecting a shift in the behaviour of others, and I applaud all the journalists, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters or other content creators who asked the right questions of us women at the summit, thoughtfully and constructively brought up the topics we all ought to think about long and hard, and took the time to publisise them during and after the conference.

What was your experience at Web Summit as an attendee or as a woman? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @inadanova

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