Bright Lights, Software City

Doing the awards circuit isn't all it's cracked up to be.
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SAN DIEGO -- You're like a fish out of water here. And it's not like you don't know the pond, the

Sheraton Harbor Island

, located a stone's throw from the airport. Each fall, financial analysts gather here for the

American Electronics Association's

"classic" conference.

Those

are your people: sell-side analysts thrust together on neutral ground, investment bankers wooing would-be clients, just-under-the-radar-screen publicly traded technology companies hoping to become bigger blips.

But it's March and there's not a familiar face in sight. You've jetted down from San Francisco for the most fundamental reason anyone gets on an airplane and eats undercooked beef at an event where you won't know anybody: Your boss asked you to. Your company is up for a

Codie

award -- as best product for an online financial-news service. The awarding organization is the

Software & Information Industry Association

, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. Someone has to carry the banner. You have been chosen.

Every industry has its trade group. But they all seem the same. This one provokes memories of similar events hosted by the

Society of the Plastics Industry

when you were a young beat reporter for a trade publication in Washington, D.C. They make jokes you don't understand. They honor revered association leaders with whom you're not familiar.

And yet, last year your organization won its category and how would it look if you are twice blessed and nobody's there? Besides, your marching orders are to stay only for dinner. At 10:18 p.m. you'll be on a flight to New York, a trip to the home office you'd planned before this obligation appeared.

Things start badly. Because the dinner is formal, you've schlepped your tuxedo along and now you're dressed for cocktail hour. But, wait, your cufflinks and studs are missing. They're not in the tux coat, where you normally keep them. What would

Cory Johnson

,

TheStreet.com

's always nattily dressed editor-at-large, do? You gamble that if you sit up straight to avoid the dread starched-shirt gap, no one will notice. These are software developers. If my undershirt is showing, no one notices (or at least no one says so).

Now it's cocktail time, but you want to lay off the sauce so as not to get dehydrated on the red-eye flight back east. You stand around searching for someone with whom to make eye contact. This is how it used to feel at tech-investing conferences, before you met so many of the folks you know now. What would

James J. Cramer

, a man who can talk to anybody, anytime, do? Can you pick up even a sliver of information that will help

TSC

readers make money?

You finally chat with a nice fellow who makes educational software in Salt Lake City. His firm hopes to go public later this year, but he didn't have any business cards so you can't recall his name. The chit-chat was brief and now dinner is beginning.

Turns out that the only familiar face you'll see in San Diego is the guy you ran into when you were getting off the plane. He's one of your most astute sources -- an East Coast buy-side analyst (the kind who works for an investment fund and advises managers on what stocks to buy, as opposed to sell-side analysts, who sell their research).

He was just coming from the

Ariba

(ARBA)

user-group conference, which he said drew 2,500 people. Ariba supplies software that's helping run many of the online business "exchanges" that are sprouting like weeds. "Everyone wants to know when this exchange bubble will burst," he said as he gleefully boarded the plane you just exited so he can attend a

Credit Suisse First Boston

e-commerce conference at the

Stanford Park Hotel

in Menlo Park, Calif. Now that's where you'd feel comfortable swimming among the high-tech investment sharks.

But instead you're at the SIIA dinner, where the trade group's poo-bahs are pretending they're hosting the

Academy Awards

. It's easier to talk to strangers at dinner -- you're stuck with them for the meal. On one side is a guy helping some Turkish portals make connections in the U.S. On the other is an executive vice president of a Bay Area software company that's up for an award.

A highlight is an improvisation act by the

Second City

comedy troupe from Chicago, your home town. "Can your Palm Vee (sic) sync with mine?" reads a nontechy comic from a one-liner supplied by the audience. Ah, fellow travelers.

A third of the awards are handed out before dinner. Immediately after the meal -- and about five minutes before you have to leave for the airport -- they get to your category. You think about what you'll say. "I'd like to thank the Academy ... " No matter, some other news organization wins the vaunted

Codie and you're outta there licketysplit. Cab to the airport, settle into your seat, fast asleep for the flight to New York.

You didn't win, but you represented your team -- even if you did forget to bring the proper accessories. Now you're on Wall Street. You're like a fish mercifully thrown back into the right tank.

Adam Lashinsky's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Lashinsky writes a column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. He welcomes your feedback at

alashinsky@thestreet.com.