James Mayes

Over There: A look at SXSW Interactive from the UK

In Personal Development, Recruitment, Social Media, Start-ups, SXSWi, Twitter on August 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm

This was first published on Mike VanDervort‘s page, The Human Race Horses.  It’s here now as a matter of personal record but please, take the time to check out Mike’s site.

I was lucky enough to attend SXSW Interactive earlier this year.  My first visit to a major US conference, my first visit to a more southerly part of the US, my first experience of what happens when 20,000 geeks hit town.  It was a massive event for me and one I feel privileged to have had. I was lucky enough to make some great connections and when this guest post opportunity was presented, I thought perhaps it would be a good chance to reflect back on the experience. After all, it’s primarily a tech conference and I was coming at it as someone with a recruiter’s background and a new business in the social media world. Interesting combination!

The preparation

First and foremost, I wanted to consider the kind of event I was heading to. All the blogs from previous SXSW attendees led me to believe the scale would be unprecedented and a plan of attack would be essential.  First port of call – check out my network for previous attendees and have a chat.  Result: nil.  No-one I knew at the time had attended before, though many wanted to.  Throwing the request out wider proved much more satisfying.  Through some generous souls on Twitter, I was introduced not only to some who’d been before, but also a number of Texans who knew the area, had been before AND planned on going again.  This was superb – insider experience, local knowledge, allies when I got into town. Couldn’t have asked for more. Twitter played a huge part in this and I offer a special hat-tip to @BillBoorman for his part.

First impressions

Huge. Beyond expectation or imagination. My first, my last, my over-riding impression.  I think it’ll blow me away again if I get back there!

I was glad I’d spent time planning – but it was also quickly apparent that no amount of regular “pre-conference homework” would ever be able to cover everything.  Mental adjustment to the environment was going to be an important factor.  Firstly, I simply had to accept that sleep wasn’t going to happen.  The first day made it clear that while the sessions during the working day were superb, they were evenly matched in value by the evening social/networking events.  Bearing in mind the time difference with the UK, I knew I’d be waking up at c.5am most days – and with most of the vendor events running till 2am…. well, you do the math!

I also needed to drop every bit of “baggage” I had. This wasn’t a place to discuss web-now, this was web-future. This was about trying to visualise what could be, supported by technology that didn’t exist, based on ideas about data insights no-one could yet offer.  It’s difficult to do (not sure I completely succeeded), but a completely open mind is certainly needed.

One bit of planning I put some real effort into proved inclusive. The schedules. There are literally hundreds of sessions being run and you won’t get to all.  I tried to identify those most relevant to my professional interests as a first step, then for a second pass, tried to identify those where there’d be a specific individual I was interested in listening to. Certainly, it was time well spent in research mode – but when you actually get into it, you’ll get caught up in the buzz for another panel, or something you’ve planned won’t be as hot as you’d hoped… whatever the reason, if you hit 50% of your planned schedule, you should be pleased!

Key moments

The organisational technology… Twitter started to go mainstream at a previous SXSW event and evidence of this was everywhere. No bad thing, I’d appreciated this in advance and was up to speed. What I hadn’t done was the research on other technologies that were making good ground at that time and thus really getting some attention. Location-based tools have been hot all year, and those who had a good handle on FourSquare or Gowalla certainly found SXSW easier to navigate.

Getting the bar map and party guide was a result.  Not done beforehand as I was focussed on the events during the day, but as clarity struck, I knew I’d need to take a slightly more structured approach to the evenings too!

As per a note earlier, acclimatise quickly to the fluidity and freedom of the workshops – if you can roll with it, you’ll enjoy it far more.  You’ll also take in a few workshops that might not have normally caught your eye, then realise they might actually have something for you after all. Discover something that has NOTHING to do with you – it’s worth it.

My favourite moment though, was the discovery of the Rackspace stand. They were noisy, they had an annoying gimmick to draw people in, it was all very irritating. But it didn’t matter.  Everyone there in a Rackspace t-shirt knew what the firm did. Where the firm wanted to be. They all shared the same passion and conviction and they were all genuine and engaging. If every firm could be represented in that way at events, conferences would be a much brighter place.

In conclusion….

Do it.  If you’re about technology, if you attend events, if you ever run panels or workshops. If you’re interested in hiring the best people in technology, or learning what makes them tick. You might not need to ever go again – but do it once. You’ll be glad you did.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SocRecFeed, James Mayes. James Mayes said: Over There: A look at SXSW Interactive from the UK: http://wp.me/pPmPM-2m […]

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