I wasn’t expecting to go to South-By-Southwest (SXSW) this year. I haven’t been with Buckeye Interactive very long, they’ve already sent me to CodeMash, and I’ve been absolutely buried under client work since I came on-board. When Brad pulled me aside and asked “would you like to come to SXSW with us this year?” I was rather pleased. When I looked out the window and saw the harsh Ohio winter that I would be escaping the feeling turned to elation.
Friends, former co-workers, and industry connections have all raved about SXSW in the past, but most of their tales have revolved around some awesome hardware demo or some brilliant design demonstration. I questioned “what could I, as a software developer, stand to gain professionally from a week in Texas?”
I decided that I would attempt to tailor my SXSW experience around three focal points:
- Education – If I’m going on the company’s dime my goal should be first and foremost professional development
- Experience – One of the benefits of a huge conference like this is that you’re exposed to a lot of people doing cool and interesting things in fields you know nothing about. What better opportunity to learn something new?
- Leisure – Before leaving for SXSW I was working 50-60+ hour weeks. Why not have some fun while I’m in sunny Austin?
In an effort to get the full SXSW experience I picked talks across several disciplines. There were a number of technical software talks (OAuth 2 for Identity & Data Access, Maintaining Responsive Integrity in WordPress), some legal/strategy discussions (Negotiating Open Source, Work Sucks, but Your RFP Doesn’t Have To), and some generally interesting talks (Arrogance & Confidence in Design). I heard Matt Cutts and Duane Forrester, (a Senior Engineer at Google and Senior Product Manager at Bing, respectively) answer questions about SEO and listened to a talk by Tim Berners-Lee on the open web.
Many of the “preparing for SXSWi”-type articles I read recommended earmarking anything that sounded interesting but trying to pick just a couple of events a day to block out on your calendar. SXSW is rather dynamic with it’s scheduling – it’s not uncommon to find out about an unofficial event or party an hour ahead of time via Twitter nor will you get to attend every event you want to (we were turned away from several interesting events due to certain venues being over capacity). In total, I was only able to attend 10% of the sessions I had optimistically hoped to attend but never once did I miss a session and not find something as, if not more, interesting just around the corner.
SXSW has three major components: Interactive (which we attended), Music (which would have been a lot of fun, I’m sure), and Film (which appears to run the duration of the conference). Once you have a badge for one or more of those conferences the city of Austin opens up to you. Local restaurants become branded lounges, pedicabs fill the streets, and streets are closed down throughout downtown to handle all the pedestrian traffic.
SXSW has a strong educational component but it’s also a great place for brands to promote themselves (assuming the brand can stand out in a crowd). IFC had a strong showing and brought a number of comedians to the festival (I don’t mean to brag but Reggie Watts walked right past me). Samsung would respond to tweets with deliveries of fresh batteries for Galaxy S3 phones. AT&T had lockable charging stations scattered across the city. Mashable had lines around the block of people waiting to meet Grumpy Cat, the Lil’ Sebastian of the internet.
SXSW can’t be all work and the conference has no shortage of things to keep you busy. Austin is filled with great food, shopping, and entertainment. We had great BBQ, found awesome stores like men’s store Dandy’s, and took in some great live music and stand-up.
The parties at SXSW are all fighting for your attention and only got better as the conference wore on. Some of the highlights included a Ra Ra Riot concert with Youngblood Hawke, a week-long party with nacho bar hosted by Rackspace, a rooftop party overlooking the Austin skyline, and the Say Media party where I first heard Kopecky Family Band, one of my new favorite groups.
SXSW was a wonderful experience and I’d implore anyone who has the opportunity to attend to book your tickets and hotel room for 2014 as soon as they become available. Go into it with an open mind and willingness to learn and you’ll have a good time.