by andre briggs

Thoughts From SXSW Interactive 2012 ✈

This was my first SXSW experience. Without reading all the text below I can say that I recommend the interactive portion for people who want to expand their network and experience “nerd” spring break.

My purpose was to see what’s going on outside the Microsoft bubble. All companies have bubbles. My most optimistic thoughts were that I could find strong developers to recruit or be inspired by novel business ideas.

I’ll start with some general advice for future SXSW events:

  • Take advantage the free bottled water.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. Your schedule may be from 9am to 2am.
  • If you must carry a computer, an iPad or Macbook Air weight would be preferable.
  • Wearing a backpack will allow you to balance weight more than an over the shoulder Jack Bauer bag.
  • Network! There are many like minded people. When coming back to the real world you’ll realize how harsh it is.
  • After sessions ask random people what they thought of it. Let them talk.
  • Invite people to parties/sessions.
  • Eat breakfast.
  • “Always be charging”™ (your phone).
  • Ask people to walkthrough scenarios of how their product works. It will become clear if they know their shit or not.

Session Highlights

Data Visualization and the Future of Research

Probably the most interesting to me personally since it dealt with data and it’s uses. My mantra has always been to empower people with knowledge. Structured data is the currency to realize this knowledge. Adding visuals on top of that reduces barriers and abstracts away problems. Humans are always evolving towards abstractions.

Screening of “Ctrl+Alt+Compete” Documentary

I look forward to seeing this film have broader distribution. Produced by Microsoft but was not about Microsoft at all really. The focus was the mindset and experiences it takes to be an entrepreneur in the tech start-up world. Apparently many versions of this film have been screen since last year. Cameos from Simon Sinek, Tim O’Reilly, & a disgruntled Tony Hsieh to name a few. After the screening I got a chance to talk with a few of the top heads from Mashable and the film’s producers.

Coding The Next Chapter of American History

If you’ve heard of Teach for America, think of the same thing but with software developers who quit their jobs (if they have one) and get paid a stipend to tackle some local government scenarios. That is Code For America. Jennifer Pahlka lead a didactic and convincing talk. Taking a year off for a fellowship program isn’t feasible for everyone but the point was made.

Government software interfaces suck. Many local government employees are approaching retirement age. We are about to enter a whole new gold rush for platform plays in civic software. For instance, need an app that predicts where traffic spots will be? Cities have already sunk the cost for traffic cams, mine the data! Adopt a road version 2.0! Want to easily give your opinion on the local public school curriculum to the city? Create a Yelp-like app for that. The city just needs an API to accept that info. Again data is a key role here. Cities sit on data and either don’t realize how to use it or don’t have an API to allow the private sector to monetize.

The spirit of Code For America is to cultivate open source implementations. Once politicians catch a whiff of money that is being made off of the government I’m sure they will whet their palate with salty taxes. Or not, the future is ours to shape. The US has a newly appointed CTO, why shouldn’t each state or county? I disagreed with Pahlka’s assertion that Government does not equal Politics. Individuals in societies have been vying for power since the beginning of time. In the future if you want to be powerful you will have to know how to connect the dots with technology.

…And a crap session: Sex in the Digital Age

This was just a terrible talk. This panel just about inspired me to submit next year to be a panelist. Several people were walking out as I showed out halfway through the session. Lena Chen (of attention whore fame) and Maureen O’Connor (of Gawker) appeared self-absorbed as they dominated the panel conversation. During Q & A an audience member asked why did Gawker publish photos of men in the infamous “Duke List”, O’Connor and Chen gave responses utterly inconsistent with the views they gave minutes earlier. It reminded me of a really bad episode of Real Time with Bill Maher when he has incompetent guests on the show. This is where SXSW could improve panelist quality.

Branding, Apple to Microsoft to Nike

I have to say that the most prominent brand at SXSWi was Apple. They had no official presence (I heard a pop-up store was launched during SXSW Music) but just about everyone had an iPhone, iPad, or Macbook variation. It’s not a fluke. These aren’t “fanbois” or “Fruit phone diehards” (as put by some people in Microsoft). Just people who want well designed software & hardware that works. I took so many pictures on my iPhone 4. So many people demoed there apps on iPads and iPhones. iCloud and iMessaging worked as advertised. I got my notifications from the SXSW Go app. Most of the time I didn’t need a laptop.

Despite the massive Apple product presence I got sense that Microsoft is still respected and admired by entrepreneurs for what is represents. That was gratifying to hear. The truth of the matter is that large companies like Microsoft exist because they provide real value, to real customers. Pipe dreams with no users don’t survive.

I felt a bit of dread knowing that the only Windows Phones I saw were from other Microsoft employees. Taking a random sample, many SXSW goers had never even seen a WP7. Didn’t even know the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is available or that a new version of Windows is approaching. Developers I talked to had no plans to make Windows Phone 7 or Windows 8 apps. If it wasn’t already obvious WP7 has a long way to go. I have my own opinions on that but there is no reason to stir the pot right now.

As put to me by a fellow participant at the closing Miike Snow show: “SXSW is where the mainstream is at. Grassroots movements get started here.”

SXSW let’s you know what the spirit of the times is. Although this was my first time going, I know that the “social” trend in it’s current form somehow emerged from the morass here. The past year you’ve seen the early and late majority of the enterprise embracing social as some sort of game-changer. It’s like “business” focused software is 2 to 3 years behind the curve.

Nike, Inc set up a pop-up store to solely promote the new Nike+ Fuel Band product. I have to say that I was quite impressed with the setup. It looked like an Apple Store but with the colors inverted. Instead of white all around Nike choose a black atmosphere with many LED lights. Instead of Geniuses there were Nike retail employees from different parts of the country who were flown in and trained to know the Nike+ Fuel Band inside out. 20 mins before entering the store I didn’t even know what a Fuel Band was. I was sucked into the marketing of the supremely well trained saleswoman. My friends was buying his Fuel Band and I decided to impulsively purchase a Fuel Band as well. So far it works pretty well.

I really like the direction Nike took here. In the middle of the SXSW pandemonium, Nike created an isolated and ephemeral retail experience that was uniquely Nike.

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

All that matters in the end is execution. Whether you’re in elementary school, taking a penalty kick in the World Cup finals, or creating the next Facebook. It doesn’t matter how many people you have if the focus is there. I met several times with the two of the three members of a company that launched their app PeopleHunt at SXSW. They have 2 developers in NY and 1 developer in Ireland. A true transatlantic company. It’s eye opening to see how much people can accomplish with small teams.

Every start-up person claims to be a “disruptor”, but you have to have a skill, if not many. The flip side was that I saw some ideas that were just bad to begin with. Companies started by people who don’t know what’s already out there, how to differentiate themselves, or don’t have visions of what the landscape will look like in 10 years. Who would want to invest in such a company? People need to be invested in your success. That comes down to an emotional level.

The demise of the business card has been greatly exaggerated. I didn’t bring any business cards thinking that it was old school, but everyone else did. It got to the point where I had to start lying to people by saying I ran out of them. In the end I left SXSW with about the height of a red brick of other people’s business cards. There has to be a better way to trade and organize contact info. Then you have the problem of deciding who to contact, will they remember you? Does the collaboration you thought of at the time not make sense anymore? Work or personal email address? I don’t necessary like LinkedIn and no one wants to be bombarded with Twitter feed activities from someone you met once. There almost needs to be social network where saying I met you once for 45 seconds a year ago is okay.

From being a fly on the wall in many conversations between entrepreneurs I would sum up their mentality as “every day I’m hustling”. I attended the SXSW Accelerator and it reminded me of what I’ve heard of art design sessions are like. Brutal feedback that is meant to be constructive, but for good reason. Sometimes you need a reality check.

The Feeling Of Being In The Crowd

My mind was like a sponge to all this new stimulus. I realize I’ve been ignoring social apps as something that only the supremely self-absorbed participated in. SXSW was is the perfect setting to get the must use out of these apps. The business model of Foursquare makes complete sense to me now. I understand the appeal of Instagram.

On a whole there was a lack of ethnic and gender diversity for SXSW goers in technical fields compared to what I see at Microsoft. Admittedly that there isn’t that much gender diversity in the industry to begin with. Perhaps certain ethnic groups are overrepresented at companies like Microsoft, Google, & Amazon? I don’t know what to make of that quite yet, but can anyone really? I would love to see some statistics on this.

Trends From Interactive

There weren’t really any rapid mutations of tech I witnessed. Just a natural evolution. APIs are becoming more pervasive. ESPN is consistently at the forefront of sports reporting and technology. They announced APIs to access athlete, standings, scores & schedules data to name a few. Definitely the right direction for a company that already leads in their space. On the other hand struggling YellowPages promoted their APIs to help attract local business data. They seem pretty late with this. I guess that’s an indicator of where their business is right now. When all else fails, leverage your crown jewel for a platform play to attract people.

There were many redundant social apps that “launched” at SXSW. Many of them leveraged Facebook for identity services. The common problem with these type of apps is that users join a social community but don’t participate. They are not invested in the community. They should be kicked out if that’s the case. Unfortunately the prospect of collecting targeting data, contact information and location is too good for these small firms to pass up. Instead of creating a better product they re-hash old ideas.


It’s not an exaggeration to say that SXSW was a life changing experience for me. It confirmed some of what I assumed, and has pivoted my line of thinking towards products and execution. As a developer I didn’t approach SXSW Interactive with the intention of discovering some new technical trick. I can do that on my own time. It’s more about learning how to put ideas together and how to withstand scrutiny of your idea.

As I mentioned before humans want to evolve towards abstractions. So does software. When all you need to do is connect the building blocks you become truly powerful. In a way that’s what some of these start-ups are doing. By getting to market faster they can fail faster if necessary. In the end that is the same thing large software company want their teams to be able to do. There is much to be learned of how to focus on the business needs in the product you a creating.

A final metaphor: When you’re around people who are motivated to see their ideas get executed it reminds me of NBA players playing in the AllStar game…they begin to wonder what it would be like to play with these guys all the time. Then they get slightly envious.

“It doesn’t matter how many advertisements or campaigns you have, there is so much value to be gained at SXSW. You get right to the people.”