KJR at SXSW17

  • Saskia Fairfull
  • 7 June 2017

Half of Downtown Austin is blocked to traffic and branded banners and murals hang on every building.  There’s no mistaking, I’ve made it to the right place - South by South West in Austin Texas.  An annual festival run over 10 days, consisting of three tracks: interactive, film and music. 

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If you haven’t heard of SXSW, now is the time to consider making a trip to the event.  Founded in 1987, it’s been widely known for a long time as the go-to festival for music lovers, bands, solo artists and industry folk.  Event organisers opened it up to film and media as a platform showcasing screenings, feature sessions, launches and exhibitions.  More recently, the interactive track was added.  This was my jam and covered sectors such as: brands & marketing; design; development & code; government; health; intelligent future; style; tech industry; workplace; CLE; experiential storytelling; food; journalism; social impact; sports; startup village; and VR/AR. 

Prior to heading over, I was keen to be as prepared as possible. This included downloading event app – tick, highlight favourite sessions – tick, print map of DT Austin – tick, and attend Melbourne networking events with other SXSW17 attendees - tick.   The networking proved especially useful and was warned to avoid scheduling sessions each day back-to-back.  The only thing to be prepared for is the unexpected. 

Day 1, Airbnb to DT and things felt a bit surreal and strange.  I figured the best thing to settle in to new surroundings was locate coffee.  Turned out hundreds of others had the same idea.  Hilton Starbucks - full and line out the door, Courtyard Marriott Starbucks - full and line out the door, JW Marriott Starbucks, don’t even try.   The only option was to pop by the make-shift coffee cart that Courtyard Marriott setup outside Starbucks to entice people with pre-made instant coffee from a water boiler.  It was a terrible choice, but helped soothe my nerves. I started to find my groove from day 2 and very quickly new where things were and how long it took to get from one venue to another.

The highlight sessions for me throughout the week – Bugs in the System: Mapping the Vulns Market.  A shadowy market for software vulnerabilities.  Expert speakers from Silicon Valley and the White House talked about those who discovers, buys, and sells these “vulns” and the hacking tools that rely on them. 

Nature: The Future of Fashion and Tech presented by Bolt Threads who are ‘using biotechnology to design protein-based materials at the molecular level, starting with spider silk.’

Living Brands: Design with – not for - Customers presented by Accenture.  The panel focused on discussing why ‘brands must get beyond the hype of working with new agencies, technologies and startups, and work on creating meaningful, harmonious relationships that will be better for them, their customers and society.’   It was clear from insights presented that customers expect to be able to relate to a brand and is far more than just a vehicle to purchase from. 

A/B Testing Secrets Revealed: Uber, Etsy & Intuit.  This session was located in one of the largest rooms at JW Marriott, so they were expecting a crowd.  I waited in line 45 minutes and didn’t get in, but there was a chance that if I stuck around I was close enough to the front of the line to get in if enough people left.  That’s exactly what happened, although many of us in line were curious why so many people were leaving the presentation.   I never found out and maybe it was too technical or because it was around the same time Uber was getting super negative press.  The panel speakers discussed how to scale A/B Testing and how ‘it has the potential to help companies determine successful in-product features, assess algorithms, and ultimately scale artificial intelligence in technology.’

The sessions I waited in line and missed to give you an idea of the variety across the different industries – Design in Tech Report 2017; DevOps – A change to cultures, not titles; Designing for Mixed Reality: Focus and Context; New Architects’ Toolkit: Sound, Film & Projection. 

Another part of SX are the brand activations.  These are a must-see by everyone, it’s a fun way to see what companies have been working on and somewhere to play with new tech.  The activations are usually at venues taken over by big co’s for the event duration and sometimes require pre-registration and specific attendance times to manage capacity for example the Mashable House.  Others worth mentioning – IBM, and Dell where I saw Adrian Grenier speak on a panel about tech sustainability.

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The SX Tradeshow and Jobs exhibition were perfect time-fillers for when you need a break from sessions.  Stop and checkout company stands from around the world, hear about their tech, and gadgets or watch others get the pitch.  Put a VR headset on and play those drums like you’re a famous rockstar.

The days were busy, walking from one venue to the next, taking in session content, waiting in line for food and then on to another session.  It doesn’t take long before you get into a routine, however here are some tips if you find yourself registering to attend in 2018.  

Tips for first-time SX attendees

  • Sign up to ride sharing apps ahead of time (there’s no Uber in Austin);
  • Pick up your badge the day before and get first pick of SX merch before it sells out;
  • Go with a group of people.  Even though I knew a handful of people, we were all doing our own thing during the day and I often missed the drinks and dinner invites;
  • Be open to starting conversations with strangers, you never know who you’ll meet; 
  • Keep hydrated and have some snacks in your bag to keep energy levels up throughout the day;
  • There are many ways to experience SX – expect to do the general conference thing but also factor in networking events, parties and dinners with new friends;
  • Register to workshops and mentor sessions early.  If there is a particular mentor you want to schedule a session with, try and get the last session.  It opens up an opportunity to continue the conversation outside the designated 10 minutes;
  • Avoid paying for RSVP services, they’re a waste of money;
  • If you have a Platinum registration, you have access to everything within Interactive, Film and Music so pace yourself over the 10 days. Factor in keynotes, bands, screenings, workshops.
  • Don’t expect to find great coffee around the convention center and it’s more convenient if you get it on your way in to the city.
  • Book accommodation way in advance, prices sky-rocket and many locals will leave town for SX and put their place up on Airbnb.  Be careful of dodgy motels, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 
  • Take a warm jacket because the weather can be unpredictable.
  • It's an unforgettable experience, you have to give it a go!

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Holly Tattersall, Saskia Fairfull & Amanda Dixon

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National Geographic robotic arm sketching faces in code

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Dell Activation - sustainability panel discussion featuring Adrian Grenier (Entourage)

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Trade exhibition - VR/AR 

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