The South by Southwest Experience
I was down in Austin this year for South by Southwest Interactive, a rapidly growing conference specializing in entrepreneurship, emerging technology, communication, social media, and design, among other things. I attended with the goals of meeting people, seeing Austin's famous tech culture, and getting inspired. I accomplished all of these and more.
It's obvious that the people running SXSW have some experience in the area. By and the large, the event is organized extremely well, and this is an impressive feat considering the many thousands of attendees.
When first planning out my time at SXSW, I was a little worried when I saw that talks were spread across the Austin Convention Center, and the local Hilton and Marriott hotels. Would there be time to make my way from building to another between sessions? Well, as it turns out, easily. The hotels are right across the street from the convention center. It even gets better, all the session venues are just a stone's throw from Austin's most popular street for parties and dining (6th Street). Taking a break to grab a quick drink or bite is no problem at all (but there is so much of both for free that paying for either isn't really advisable).
The only piece that disappointed me were the badges themselves, which were both cheaply designed and cheaply printed. My major complains were that my picture was cut off, and that I couldn't opt to have any alternate information on it (Twitter handle for example) without adding it myself with a marker. A decent designer would've had a great opportunity to make these badges into real works of art: big names readable from across the room, a high quality photo, company logos, and so on. I'd probably add a fun/interactive component if I built them: personalized QR-esque codes that could be scanned with the SXSW mobile apps.
The most important aspect of any conference are the attendees, and the ones at SXSW were phenomenal. Everyone I spoke to had a story to tell, and one that I was interested to hear. There's no question that the people at SXSW interactive are geeks, but even if that's the case, they're the coolest of the bunch. Almost everyone was social and an able conversationalist.
If you're attending alone like I was, it really pays to be assertive. Everyone's cool, but a lot of people still have a mental barrier that prevents them from introducing themselves to strangers. I regret missing a few conversations that might have been really cool with Simon Willison and Leah Culver, because I hesitated to introduce myself.
There was a great gender mix, which seemed almost 50/50 by my unscientific estimate. This is a huge improvement over many similar conferences, and SXSW's success here is probably attributable to the wide range of subject matter covered.
The sessions at SXSW were by far the most disappointing part, but that didn't affect my experience much. Some presentations were astounding, and I think that I saw the best talk of my life here, but unfortunately most covered only very general subject matter. One girl I spoke to after a session on fixing government put it best: "interesting, but not really actionable".
For example, I went to one presentation titled something like "emerging patterns in iPad user interface design", expecting some sort of discussion on new ideas around iPad UI design. What I got instead was a gallery of screenshots from existing iPad apps, along with a cliche video of a 3-year old intuitively learning to use an iPad.
The advice I'd give to people going to SXSW next year is that if it looks like a session might not be as high quality as you were hoping, just cut your losses and leave (there are dozens of better things that you could be doing at SXSW).
As noted above, there were some really great presentations to be seen. For example, Gary Vaynerchuck delivered an astounding one on his new book, The Thank-you Economy. The development team at Etsy held their own conference alongside SXSW at Venue 222, and went into some of the very interesting techniques that they've been using internally to produce a high-quality product.
Provided that you kept an eye on your party schedule, the parties at SXSW were plentiful, fun and free. The only free drinks you could get at most bars were "wells"; mixed drinks using the cheapest possible house brand liquor as a base, but even so, they did the trick. It was a shock coming back to Calgary and having to pay money for booze again.
The best part about the parties wasn't the free liquor, it was the people. I could walk into any SXSW party, start talking to any random person, and it was almost guaranteed that they'd be an interesting conversationalist (because they were fellow attendees of SXSW). I don't know if this could be said about any other party settings in the world.
Many of bars where the parties were taking place were along 6th Street. Even though the SXSW parties were exclusive to attendees, the Austinites who weren't involved in the festival still had no qualms about participating in the rest of Austin's nightlife. 6th Street after midnight is certainly one of the busiest party scenes that I've ever seen.
Of course an important aspect of any tech festival is Internet access for foreign attendees. Luckily, finding a wifi hotspot was never a major problem. The convention center and hotels were equipped with wifi of course, and almost any restaurant or club I went to had working wifi as well. Some of the latter would be secured, but I was never once turned down after asking staff for a password.
To wrap it up, SXSW was a great experience, and I'll certainly be there next year.