A festival for geeks - SXSW in Texas

How much can you learn from attending a conference that has nothing to do with your core business? The answer is - a lot!

South by Southwest (better known on Twitter and elsewhere as SXSW) takes place in Texas, USA.  The event combines elements of conference and festival and focuses on emerging technologies and the creative industries.  I run a digital media recruitment agency in London - SXSW is certainly not an industry-specific event for me.  However, having attended this year, I now understand the value of meeting and hearing from people with completely different life and work experiences.

About SXSW

  • SXSW is 20 years old
  • In 1994 it had 36 speakers in total; this year there were hundreds
  • In 2005 Malcolm Gladwell keynoted. (I love that guy - he says you have to do something for 50,000 hours to be an expert - he makes you sit up and think!)
  • In 2008 an interview with Mark Zuckerberg's made headines 
  • 2010 Daniel Ek talked about the disruption to the music industry with Spotify

Big, big stuff happens at SXSW it seems. This year there were lots of talks about crowdsourcing, 'social', education, game development, careers and interactive design.  Plus Tim Berners Lee keynoted.

Don't go to anything you know loads about

I had originally planned to go to lots of events about UI and UX.  Instead I went to 'loftier thinking' sessions and keynotes which really stretched my brain and challenged me.  Here are some of my highlights:

Tina Roth Eisenberg @swissmiss spoke about running an ethical business and her 11 values.  She rocks and this was perhaps my favourite talk of the entire event.

Julie Uhrman @Juhrman spoke about gaming.  There is an audio recap available here.  

Brian Chesky @bchesky is the brains behind AirBnB.  He spoke about having just 100 users in 2009 to having 630 employees internationally.   AirBnB is now worth $250bn according to Bloomberg.  If you have a good idea, don't sleep on it!

Bruce Sterling @bruces is an award winning science fiction author.  He lives in Texas and appears to be committed to keeping it weird. This is the best video I could find of his talk, it's a bit wobbly but from 9.27 the content is all there.

Bre Pettis @Bre (Makerbot) spoke about the 3D printing of anything from an ancient bust to lost Lego pieces.  3D printing is a total game changer on how stuff is manufactured and by whom. Truly Disruptive Design.

Elder care I went to a talk on technology for people with Alzheimer's (see #eldercare #sxsw). Virginia Ingram become primary care giver to her Aunt Ginny and made the most of the technology available to help share information. She set up Googledocs between her and her Aunt's doctors plus a twitter stream and webcam to monitor safety for her and family. It was about being sustainable with what technology was already available - not designing new stuff.  Pragmatic and real.

Al Gore (@Algore) was interviewed by Walter Mossberg (tech columnist on the Wall Street Journal @WalterMossberg) about his new book The Future.  In a wide ranging conversation, the following points stood out:

  • 93% of the wealth generated in the States has gone to the top 1% of the population in USA
  • We live in a stalker economy, everyone's movements are tracked by digital
  • Congressmen have to spend 5% of the day begging rich people for money
  • Our democracy has been hacked
  • Why can't the US government negotiate better rates for medication for civilians?
  • What is growth? Don't mix it up with GDP - define growth by upward mobility, pollution and equality

Lessons learned

  • Tweet, blog, talk, party - get involved and make some friends. Many people are travelling solo or in small groups and welcome a friendly face to talk to.
  • Give yourself some 'me-time' at the beginning or end of each day to reflect
  • Take notes for yourself and share them with your team
  • There are inspirational people working in all kinds of businesses, or simply focusing on making life better for themselves or others. Be open to their stories.

Be Kaler is Director and Owner of recruitment specialists Futureheads.  You can follow Futureheads on Twitter @futurebanter.