You've probably already read 28 different recaps of SXSW 2009, but one more isn't going to hurt you…
This was my first year at South by Southwest. Not only was an opportunity to connect up with new people both socially and professionally, but it was finally a chance to get people off my back for not going last year. Now, off to my standard conference review format:
Wow, the people. How many places can you meet Jonathan Coulton along with Paul and Storm at a local bar, leading people from the organizations and groups you admire and respect, and that old friend that you haven't seen in 7 years. I missed many of the stars, but the people I met were great. Even people like the random pair I invited to join our group for breakfast. I look forward to keeping in touch with a number of them and was glad to renew contact with quite a few people.
Next, some of the sessions were excellent. For a conference session, I keep the simple metric of "did I learn something here that makes me think/act differently?" In one of the sessions – titled "Quality: The Next Online Video Opportunity" from Eric Feng of Hulu – one of the things he said really struck me. The quote was simple:
Innovation should be like doorknobs and light switches. They make the room more functional but you don't notice them – quoted by me at the time
Normally, when we think of innovation, we think of the big things that completely change the landscape – the iPhone, GPS, etc – and we forget the small things like anti-lock breaks, contact lenses, and numerous other things that just make life better, easier, safer. Honestly, I'm already rethinking my own projects a bit… how can I make them better, faster, smarter to make users' lives easier?
Phillip Kaplan (of F*d Company and Adbrite) and Rick Marini led a session called "How Start-Ups Can Take Advantage of the Recession". While the topic itself was interesting, their handling of it made the discussion shine. They spent the first few minutes introducing themselves, giving their own background, and then started the discussion rolling. The bounced around the room taking questions, moderating responses from the attendees, and occasionally sharing their own perspective. If either/both of these guys are running a panel next year, I'll be there regardless of the topic.
Finally, the volunteer staff was fantastic. If you tried to find the 3rd floor, you probably talked to the staff… yes, it was that much of a pain to find. Every one of the volunteers I spoke with were polite, helpful, pointed me in the right direction, and generally seemed to be enjoying themselves. Whatever the organizers did to recruit and filter volunteers, they should keep it up.
Some of the sessions were horrible. Personally, I understand that a discussion can drift off topic depending on the audience, but a "discussion" that doesn't even involve the audience isn't very useful. It's even worse when the presenters are unprepared which 2-3 were. I'll spare their names here, but I did rate them accordingly.
Cell coverage on AT&T was dismal at best. The sheer number of iPhones caused so many problems for AT&T that it got national attention. Data access over 3G and EDGE was minimal at best and it took days for Twitter to clear the Direct Message backlog. I was still getting messages almost 18 hours after leaving the festival.
Finally, power distribution was terrible. This seems to be an ongoing theme with most conferences and I think I note it almost every time. Hundreds (if not thousands) of geeks with laptops and cell phones and only 3-4 outlets in the entire room. Can anyone else say "bad idea"!? I've shared some ideas with people in positions to solve this problem at certain conferences… hopefully we'll see some solutions.
My hotel pick was bad. The hotel itself was fine, but it was easily 15 blocks from the Convention Center. It was a $6 cab ride or a 20 minute walk each way. While many crashed in their rooms for brief power naps or could drop things off, we couldn't do either. I hope to fix that for next year.
Sometime during the first evening of the fun, I lost my cell charger. I was one of a handful of people – 3 by my count – that owns an N95 instead of an iPhone. While I love the phone, it's a battery-hog when I'm using the built-in 5 mega-pixel camera to record Jonathan Coulton performing Code Monkey live. 😉 Luckily, my friend Shashi B – the Social Media
Swami Cowboy of Network Solutions – was kind and generous and let me borrow his charger throughout the festival.
Finally, soda prices were terrible. Let me get this straight… Mountain Dew is a super-duper-headline sponsor and a 20oz Diet Pepsi is $3.75 (normal price: $1.20-1.50)? Are you kidding me!?
I had a blast. I met and re-connected with great people, learned some good things, and many of the negatives are out of the hands of the SXSW stff. Next year I'm going to get a closer hotel and make sure to keep my cell charger safe. If you're working in technology and want to meet smart people from across the spectrum of industries, this is the place to do it. Throughout the week, I spent time with people from large companies like Dell and Intel to design firms to social media guys to artists to filmmakers to food drive organizers to video game designers to comic book artists to high school teachers. But what brought us together was a common interest in technology and the goal of learning new ideas.
Yes, I'm going next year.