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Is everyone at a Meetup really who they say they are?

I'm going to tell you a story. A true story. I have changed the names of the characters and startups in question because I'm not in the business of being a dick. Seems like there's plenty of that going on without me contributing.

My friend Matt wrote a paper in January while he was still Head of Research at a London Startup (we'll call it Startupify.io to avoid circumlocution). It's a pretty good paper in my humble opinion and it spurred some good conversation on Hacker News and stuck around on the front page for a couple of days. At last month's PyData London conference Matt gave a talk based on this paper which he repeated last Wednesday at a Meetup. It's a light hearted talk which pokes fun at a bunch of A/B testing vendors for endorsing some practices which are of dubious statistical credibility.

After the meetup talk he was approached by a guy who introduced himself as a maths student looking to get into big data. Fair enough. But then his line of questioning took a turn for the peculiar. He started asking about why Matt left his previous employer (in truth because he was offered a great opportunity at at another London startup) and asked probing questions about Startupify.io's methodologies.

Turns out that this chap wasn't a student at all. With a bit of sleuthing after the meetup Matt found out who he really was: The CTO of a competitor of Startupify.io.

This really happened, and when Matt shared his discovery with a group of friends we were simultaneously amused and alarmed.

Now I'm sure that this kind of "social engineering" (that's the trendy term for lying to people about who you are and what you're up to) happens all the time. But I think there's a spectrum here from the inquisitive to the dastardly. Signing up to your competitor's service so that you can try it out is reasonable. This isn't.

Lying about who you are to someone who's given up their free time to share their ideas and experience in the hope of tricking them into revealing something about their former employer is despicable.

I've never really entertained the idea that someone at a meetup might not actually be who they say they are.

Sometimes a recruitment consultant has snuck in and is a little coy about what they do but I suspect they've never fabricated an entire persona; in that context it would be rather counter-productive. I truly hope that the characters who think this end of the social engineering spectrum is acceptable are few and far between and not founding startups.

Perhaps I'm being naive. But it is hard to figure out how widespread the problem is, even anecdotally, because cases of busting the perpetrator must be rare. I shall be more wary in the future. Which is a real shame. Because anything that gets in the way of sharing ideas in the blossoming London startup community profoundly sucks.

Bad form, sir. Bad form indeed.