South By Reflections
Even though I walked around SXSW the last four years picking up Gowalla shirts and free tacos (breakfast and otherwise), 2014 was the first SXSW I went to as an attendee. There are countless people bemoaning that it has lost its spark (though I think most people are recycling their articles from last year... or the year before... or the year before...). Not only did I attend, I also had the pleasure to give my first presentation at a conference. Here are a few observations and things I appreciated about SXSW.
The fact the organizers can maintain order across three full festivals and so many smaller ones simultaneously amazes me. "Maintaining order" actually undervalues it greatly because schedules are kept, sessions begin promptly, and the various venues remain in sync. The volunteers and organizers deserve an amazing amount of credit for that.
There was one hiccup during the prep for the first day of workshops where the online sign up list was not working properly. But the organizers worked off printouts and the delay was negligible.
Presenting at SXSW
Leading up to my session I was, to be honest, regretting submitting the talk. The only comments I saw on Twitter about the session were snark filled... unavoidable I suppose, especially when the word "Windows" gets tossed around. And as someone who has thirty followers and does not get involved heavily on Twitter, I'm not used to seeing the public negative thoughts of something I put a lot of effort in to create. Ultimately this was just something that caught me off guard a bit. In fact, this might be the one topic I encountered not yet discussed on the excellent Ladies in Tech podcast about speaking at conferences.
SXSW at Large
Yes. There is a lot of marketing to be found. That may or may not have been the case ten years ago. To someone just walking around that might be all they see. To someone who doesn't understand the session titles talking about some really cool technology or idea that might be all they see. There are two main points though about the marketing I noted: You can avoid it... and some of it is done well.
First of all, just avoid it if you don't want to see it. Stay in the convention center or the other venues and watch Neil deGrasse Tyson... or check out Josh Clark's fantastic ideas on connecting devices through the web... or learn how companies like Sparkbox are using (the rather forgotten practice of) apprenticeships in the world of the web. Or you can even stumble upon something that has nothing to do with your day job or normal interests... like I did when I happened upon Travis Swicegood's talk about how the Texas Tribune is using public data records to create their great visualizations and more. It might seem hard to maneuver, but it's also really easy to know what to avoid when you see a ton of signs and bright colors.
Secondly, not all marketing is bad. Sure, we're humans and being told how to think is not our favorite. But what I appreciate is seeing large national brands supporting and getting the name our of smaller local/Texas companies. Nest served GoodPop popsicles. Yahoo! had Austin Amber from Independence Brewing. AT&T (and I think eighteen other companies) had Chi'lantro tacos. How great is that? Everybody is going to see them, and of all their options they chose (I assume?) to go with local companies for their giveaways.
The Ultimate Takeaway
I had fun, learned a lot, missed a lot, and simply became too tired to really enjoy any of the free shows for the Music festival. But that's okay as I completed one of my goals for the year (present at a conference). It was a great place to start that journey as well, with this festival that could have easily outgrown itself years ago but continues to flourish as it grows bigger and bigger.