Looking at SXSWi with distance and fresh eyes

2012 was my first time. So I can’t write a piece about how SXSW has changed, reminisce about the good old days, bemoan (or applaud) its changes in scale, breadth, or focus. I also wanted to step back and give myself a bit of time to properly unpack the experience before writing about it. In years past I had always stayed behind to keep my company running, while some of my partners made the trip, hosted the party, and magically came back with new business leads and strengthened relationships, along with a list of potential new hires. So I had many notions of what SXSW would be based on their recounts and the staggering amount of social media activity surrounding the event. But all that aside, what I can write about is how almost all of my preconceptions around SXSW, turned out to be wrong.

First off, I understand that the conference is gigantic, and everyone’s experiences are varied. The following details the three biggest misconceptions I had about SXSW, and what I took away from the conference as a first-timer:

1. The conference badge was just the beginning

After picking up my badge at the Austin Convention Center, I thought I was all set from there. I had the “Platinum” badge that was supposed to grant me access to everything. There was also the great #badgeless2012 movement, where people appeared to be navigating the conference quite well without any credentials at all. But, on my second night in town, I met up with an old friend for a drink. He was wearing a collection of lanyards two-inches thick, containing badges, cards and trinkets. It basically looked like the Hawaiian tiki idol that brought bad luck to The Brady Bunch. Later in the week, a few other friends showed me their rolled-up sleeves with arrays of technicolour VIP wristbands up to their elbows. Perhaps the break-out startup next year will be a wristband and badge-making company?

Now, not having the VIP lanyard, or extra special VVIP wristband really didn’t prevent me from doing and seeing most of what I wanted. The problem was more that many times I couldn’t join friends and contacts who were more badged-up orVIP’d-up than I was. On the flip side, by not being decorated with wristbands or different lanyards, I ended up meeting a lot of interesting new people by heading out on my own.

Next year, and yes all you bloggers tried to warn me for this year, I plan to do three things differently. First, I’m going to get out the schedule and my calendar side-by-side and put together a best-guess itinerary, and seek out any extra credentials I might need. Then, I plan to do a better job of making proper plans to meet everyone I want to meet up with. And third, I plan to let serendipity take over when it may, using my calendar not as a regimen, but as a loose guideline.

2. Work took on a different form

For me, going to conferences is part of my job. Ordinarily, I go to learn about new technology or techniques, to get inspired by great work being done on the internet and to meet people. At SXSW, there are tons of clients and potential clients present, which is quite unlike most other industry conferences (FITC or WWDC, for example, but those are also changing). Armed with that knowledge, I was expecting to spend a chunk of my day in meetings around our current projects. In-person, with clients.

While I did have a good amount of conference calls during SXSW, meeting up with clients took on a very different tone to what I was expecting. Something about the conference inspires people to think differently, to think more about the future. Within that five day timeframe, I found myself spending very little time discussing current project work and instead spent a lot of time listening to what people found interesting, or what the future might be for any given technology, marketing platform, or concept.

It was almost as though the traditional client/vendor relationships vanished for a week and we all just took a step back to learn from each other. Invaluable.

I also was really inspired by the GE Garage exhibit (full disclosure: GE is a client of ours). Particularly because in a former life I worked doing injection molding and vacuum form molding of plastics. I dream of a future where we have 3D printers in our houses just like we have microwave ovens today. I also enjoyed seeing the Nike area (picked up a FuelBand to check it out), complete with an enormous video wall which I later learned was built with some Barbarian Group tech, Cinder. It’s inspiring just to see that kind of thing in the wild.

3. It wasn't a tech conference

This may have more to do with how I scheduled myself (and the hotel I chose), more than anything, but there were a couple days where I tried to find the “tech conference”, and well, I couldn’t. I did, however, find the, “how to get your startup funded” conference, and the, “social media conference”, and the, “marketing conference”, and of course, the “internet culture conference”. But I never found the tech conference. The session where people go to learn how to do new stuff (design, code, or otherwise) and then sit on the floor in the hallway and try to make something. On the day of The Barbarian Group party, I spent the morning and afternoon with one of our developers, helping to finish work on the visuals that were set to be projected during the concert. Somehow, it felt like we were the only two people in the world actually writing code.

I hope next year I can find the places where more things are being made. That isn’t to say that I hope for more hackathons and that sort of thing. Hackathons are a great thing for the dev community culturally, but I don’t think that much useable work comes out of them. My dream would be to see some sessions show up on the list of people doing things like making an interactive installation on stage in real time, or a session where technologists demonstrate the limitations, possibilities and the future of things like computer vision or natural language processing. Maybe. I guess for me, it would have been nice to pull back a bit on all the “thought leadership” stuff, and balance it out with more hard information and knowledge sharing.

But throughout the conference, I was open to anything, and actually, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for one of the best talks I’ve seen. It also had nothing to do with the internet, technology, marketing, or anything else I thought I was supposed to be in Austin for. The talk was given by Frank Abagnale (the guy that the notorious ‘Catch Me If You Can’ book and film was based on). After a fascinating recount of his too-crazy-to-be-real life story, he changed his tone and spoke about the things that he valued most in life: his wife, his family, his father.

Days afterwards, I realised how strangely appropriate Abagnale’s talk was for an audience who, for the most part, are living their most productive years in the fast-paced world of the internet, the advertising industry and startup culture. All of which are areas where things move so quickly that it’s difficult to pause, take a breath and analyse what we’re doing with our lives.

Mr Abagnale concluded his talk with the message that, “Life is not short. Life is long. And, we live with the consequences of our decisions all the days of our lives”.

Not the wisdom that I had expected to take away from SXSW Interactive at all, but still, wisdom.

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