South by Southwest 2009: Surviving a Week of Geekery

I landed back in the UK two days ago, and I can already feel the most vivid memories of the week slipping away. Before any more memories disappear, better put pen to paper (figuratively, you know I rarely use paper) and note the salient points of South by Southwest 2009.

I arrived a day early to Austin on Wednesday night after a reasonably uneventful flight – just how I like them. The city was preparing for two weeks where everything changed; First, a week where geeks descend upon the city, then a week of musicians taking over every club, bar and hole in the wall.

On Thursday, once settled in, I met with the lovely Kara, an Austin local I met last year, who drove David, Rebecca & myself down to San Antonio for the day. We visited the Alamo and walked along the river, stopping by for our first Tex Mex lunch of the week (certainly not the last).

Friday, panels started slowly, but there was truly only one I wanted to see – Clearleft‘s Paul Annett’s presentation entitled “Oooh that’s Clever! Unnatural Web Design” focused on the small delights designers can add when creating a site. He bravely invited volunteers onto the stage to reenact the Silverback App site’s parallax effect alongside a gorilla costume-clad Elliot Jay Stocks. A surreal start to what was going to be a surreal week.

The evening was just as memorable; The Boiling Pot on 6th is rather unique, in the sense that the crab, sea bugs & meat gets unceremoniously dumped on the table, everyone gets a bib and a hammer and the fun begins.

Sophie and Steve eating at the Boiling Pot, Austin

Saturday, panel topics ranged from “Tips for Making Ideas Happen” with Scott Belsky, “First year as a freelancer” with Thomas Myer to “Mobilizing your Online Community” (the worst panel I attended all week, I left promptly) and “Building your Brand with Web 2.0 Tools”. The latter had an excellent panel composed of Saul Colt (Freshbooks), Chris Brogan, Loic LeMeur (Seesmic), CC Chapman & Dave Delaney, but the excitement of SXSW caused them to behave like fratboys rather than an intelligent, knowledgeable panel for a good part of the hour. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Brogan!)

The evening was a whirlwind of events: Brief visit by the Diggnation party where Alex Albrecht was seen throwing (Adidas-sponsored) shoes at the audience, followed by a few hours at the Frog Design Party, ending up at the Belmont Lounge for a cocktail before bed.

Sunday morning started well with “Ditch the Valley, Run for the Hills”, moderated by the lovely John Erik Metcalf, on running a successful business outside of the San Francisco area. Opinions were divided, with Scoble suggesting a strong link with the Valley is essential to get a business off the ground, and others proving otherwise. (Louis Gray’s notes)

Next session was “Making Whuffie: Raising Social Capital in Online Communities” by Tara Hunt, which realistically I should have skipped on. It’s a great presentation, but one I had seen twice already.

In the afternoon, the “From Flickr and Beyond: Lessons in Community Management” and “Are PR Agencies a Dying Breed?” panels were enlightening, with more detailed notes to be blogged soon.

Monday‘s first panel was “Beyond Aggregation — Finding the Web’s Best Content” with ReadWriteWeb ‘s Marshall Kirkpatrick, Louis Gray, Gabe Rivera (TechMeme), Melanie Baker (AideRSS) & Micah Baldwin (Lijit) I’ll be blogging this one in more details too but here are Louis’ notes for an early look.

“Enough To Be Dangerous: Managing ‘Expert’ Clients” looked promising but somewhere along the way, I got bored by the duh-that’s-obvious statements and the misinformed observations about the use of Flash in business sites, and walked out to get some Austin sunshine onto my pasty skin and spend some time with new and old friends.

Tuesday, last day of the event, I went to the Great British Breakfast to shmooze a little with the Digital Mission brits. Returning to the Convention Centre, I’d had enough of the fluffy community and social media panels (How many of them? Simon counted) and thought I’d dive into a few topics I knew nothing about; Get Satisfaction’s Thor Muller’s “Welcome to Your Posthuman Future” provided just that. It was like jumping head first into Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” book.

After lunch, I attempted to get in the Kawasaki & Anderson keynote, but it was so crowded that I gave up and wandered the halls one last time. Hoping to finish the week on another unexpected-and-interesting note, I headed to the “DRM: The Fight Isn’t Over Yet” Core Conversation by Fred Benenson of Creative Commons, but Core Conversations are always very hit-or-miss and again, it wasn’t worth staying for.

The Media Temple Closing Party provided a great opportunity to meet new people, where I couldn’t help wondering where they/I’d been all week! It’s always that way,

Wednesday, the long trek home began, flying at 11am from Austin, spending a few hours around Charlotte airport and meeting Glenn Jones for a beer, followed by an overnight flight.

And now, I’m home. The South By Lurgy’s hit me and is holding one of my lungs ransom. But I’ve had a great week, I already miss many of the great people I’ve met and I’m ready to do it again next year.

If I were to make three recommendations to SXSW organisers for next year:

1. Identify the level of the panel more clearly:

Mark panels as Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced on the pocket schedule and ask speakers to stick to that level. The vast majority of panels I attended were far too Beginner level, which sometimes felt like a waste of time. The panelists aren’t necessarily to blame, as they aimed to be as inclusive as possible, but when every panel is lowest-common-denominator, it can be tricky to learn new things.

When I did find a slightly more advanced panel, I reacted just as Simon Willison did “For the record, the asychronous scaling panel is exactly the kind of meaty technical content I want to see more of at #sxsw” When I did find those panels, however, they made my day.

2. Don’t get greedy:

This year, there was a rumoured 12,000 attendees at the Interactive festival. To put it simply, that’s too many. Being refused from entering panels or made to watch a keynote from a second or third re-broadcast room is disappointing, having made the 9,000 miles round-trip to Austin. Having to trek over to the Hilton in the short break between panels was also less than convenient.

It’s great to see the event get more popular and I certainly don’t want it to be reserved for some sort of technical/social elite of the web, but the Convention Centre was creaking at the seams this year.

3. Keep the team in charge of wifi:

I must tip my hat to the team in charge of the wifi at the event. While it wasn’t completely flawless, it was a marked improvement on last year. I hear the AT&T network was a bit more spotty (my roaming mobile picked T-Mobile) and that mobile AT&T vans were brought into the area to boost the service levels for everyone. Someone clearly went out of their way to keep the wifi running smoothly – my bank account will thank you greatly when my data roaming bill comes through.

Finally, to all the wonderful geeks I met for the first time, or had the pleasure of seeing again: See you all next year!

17 Travel Tips to Make Your Trip More Enjoyable

Recently, I wrote about making use of your travel time to arrive to your destination feeling smarter. As a self-employed consultant, every moment matters; every hour spent smartly while commuting means one free hour later to work on something else or an opportunity to finish work an hour earlier.

Optimising your trip planning is another way to make travel less stressful and more enjoyable. Since I need to practice what I preach, here are some of the travel tips I’m putting into action before heading off to SXSW later this week.

Got any tips to contribute? Leave a comment and I’ll update the post to reflect your suggestions.

Before you travel

Call your bank to let them know you’ll be away: There are few things more embarrassing than your credit card being declined. Banks are very twitchy these days and a flag can be raised for a single “out of the ordinary” transaction. If you’re not a frequent traveller, your first purchase abroad is likely to do exactly that so pre-empt that by telling them the dates and location of your trip.

While you’re speaking to them, find out whether you’ll be charged for using ATMs abroad. If you are, try to get them waived ahead of time.

Check that you’re on the best tariff for your mobile: If you intend to use your phone will abroad, call your mobile operator to find out if you’re on the best tariff. Sometimes it’s free to upgrade to an international tariff, you just need to ask. In other cases, there’ll be a small fee but may be worthwhile if it’ll save you a significant amount.

Get some currency ahead of time: Airports have the least favourable exchange rate, so try to get a handful of bills in the currency you need ahead of time. You don’t need to take out a fortune (and it’s best not to carry too much at once in case you lose your wallet) but it’s worth having enough for a sandwich, a train ticket or a taxi in case you need it.

Give family and work colleagues a copy of your travel itinerary: Leave printed copies of your flight, hotel and passport details with at least one friend/family member, and with the office manager if you’re travelling on business. They’ll know where to find you in case of emergency, and you’ll be grateful that they have a copy of your passport details if yours gets lost/stolen.

Use a good quality suitcase: Don’t underestimate the importance of a solid, well-built and manoeuvrable suitcase. It’ll get battered by the careless airline luggage staff, get wheeled through a city (don’t even think about having a suitcase without wheels!) and give you a backache if it isn’t easy to manage.

Also, pack reasonably. Speaking from experience, two large suitcases and a laptop bag is difficult to control singlehandedly. Add the challenge of rush hour public transportation and the post-travel exhaustion and you’ll be swearing like a sailor.

austin_weatherCheck the weather as you pack: This might sound obvious, but check it just before you leave as the weather might change. For example, Austin is 31 degrees Celcius at the beginning of this week, but shoots down to 11 degrees on Thursday. While that’s still balmy when arriving from the  UK, if all I’d packed were flipflops, I’d be rather cold.

If you’re travelling for business, no matter how hot the weather outdoors is, assume that the conference centre or office you’ll be visiting will have air conditioning (especially if you’re going to the US) so bring something warm to cover your shoulders.

Leave plenty of food behind for your significant other: Women, be sure to leave your husbands a generously stacked fridge/freezer. Otherwise you’ll return to find out he’s eaten at KFC every night 😉

[Update: Nearly forgot this important tip…

Set your out of office before you go: If you use Gmail, use the Canned Response and setup messages letting people know you’ll be away. It’ll lessen the stress by telling your clients, colleagues and friends not to expect a response from you until your return. If you can afford the time, occasionally skim your emails during your trip. Remember that your friends & colleagues will most likely survive without you if you do not respond, so only reply to the essential ones.]

During your trip

Dealing with jetlag: There are different schools of thought on this, but here are my views. If you arrive early at your destination, a brief nap in the afternoon is fine, but it’s important to set an alarm, get up and spend the evening being reasonably active in order to adapt to the new timezone. If you arrive any later than 5-6pm, do not let yourself fall asleep early or you’ll be groggy all evening – if you wake up at all – and will take longer to get used to your schedule. Have a shower, do some muscle stretches or do something up

Get basic supplies to your room: If you’re staying at a hotel for a few days, you may want to pop by the nearest shop and get some water bottles and a few handy snacks. It’ll save you a fortune in minibar bill and be a convenient stop-gap if you’re rushed and can’t go eat a full meal before your next engagement. If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, bottled water will also ensure you don’t have a negative reaction to the local water.

If you’re attending SXSW, the nearest location to the Convention Centre and the nearby hotels is CVS Pharmacy at 500 Congress Avenue (at 5th St).

Have a multivitamin every morning: Travel, whether for business or pleasure, usually involves long, busy days and can take its toll on your body. Rich restaurant meals may also not be as vitamin-packed as usual. I’m packing fizzy Berocca to get my vitamins, but also to force me to have a pint of water to start the day.

Drink water. Then drink more water: The problem with holidays and business trips is that everyone wants to buy you a drink. Between all the alcohol and coffee you’re likely to consume, it’s important to rehydrate with water to ensure your body and mind don’t conk out halfway through your trip. From your flight to your nights out, it’s essential.

The pressurised atmosphere within the aircraft causes high levels of dehydration even though you may not feel hot or even feel like you are sweating. The inside of an aircraft at altitude has 5% less humidity than that of a desert. (Source: Travel Rants)

Use the hotel safe: If your hotel room provides a safe, use it for Pete’s sake. If you feel that the hotel can be trusted, leave your passport, house keys and flight tickets in the safe. If it fits, leave your laptop or camera in it as well when you don’t need it. You’ll be happy to travel lighter, and your mind will be at ease. However, if your hotel is slightly shady, you may prefer to keep your passport and other important belongings on your person at all times.

Stay alert when you’re out: Avoid flashing your gear; you love your iPhone, your MacBook Pro and your fancy camera, but don’t get them out in public unless necessary. Pay attention to where your belongings are at all times, and never leave them unattended. Try not to drink so much that you get sleepy while on the commute back from an evening out or you might find yourself travelling lighter by the time you wake up from your alcohol-induced snooze.

Take time to regroup your thoughts: In an entirely new environment, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Take a moment to breathe and remember why you’re on your trip. Remind yourself of your objectives; Are you there to grow your business or party like it’s 1999? (Or both?) Don’t let your goals out of sight and focus your day around them. Be positive and cheerful, everyone will love you. Of course, be sure to also take in the sights and sounds of the city you’re visiting!

When you get home

Download and backup your pictures NOW: If you delay copying photos and video to your computer on your return, you know you’ll never bother. While you’re still buzzing from your trip, put your images on Flickr, your videos on YouTube and send the link to friends and family. If you’re a geek, be sure to tag the photos appropriately so that other attendees to the same event can find your pics.

Sort through your stuff: Whether it’s business cards, memorabilia or schwag, just like pictures, sort through them now. Jot down actions, connect with the people you met via LinkedIn and follow up with the interesting people you met. Chris Brogan has a few more tips on what to do after a conference.

Take a breather: SXSW is infamous for the state it leaves its attendees in. Last year, it seemed everyone got ill after getting home. Exhaustion, long travel and lots of handshaking (no doubt swapping colds, flus and the occasional stomach bug) will leave most people drained. If you can, give yourself a buffer of a few days to recharge your batteries before jumping back into real life and you’ll feel much more positive about travelling.

Heading to Texas next week for SXSWi

I get the impression that a very large British contingent is heading to Austin, Texas for SXSW this year, based on the few conversations I’ve seen floating around Twitter. I’ll be amongst the masses, heading to my favourite event of the year.

sxsw-logoSouth by Southwest Interactive is “Spring Break for Geeks”, with around 7,500 attendees; developers, designers, marketing people, social media folks like me, hippy dippy creatives… All there to learn, exchange ideas and have a lot of fun in the meantime. Not sure it’s much of a break, considering how much there is to do in only a few days.

I’ll be blogging whenever I can and twittering as usual, so if you’re attending, drop me a line to say hi. Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to meet face to face at the conference center, or over a drink at one of the many evening events.

Texas, this time don’t disappoint me, I don’t want any snow. I want 25 degrees Celcius, sunny weather, a light breeze, oh and a cocktail umbrella on my drink too please!

Time to pick your favourite SXSW 2009 panels

SXSW Interactive FTW!!!It’s barely been a few months since I’ve stopped clap-trapping on about how utterly awesome my first SXSW experience was, but yes, I’m already talking about the NEXT South by SouthWest. I realise it isn’t until March 2009 and that I have to wait 215 days before the Interactive festival even begins, but I need your support now.

During August, future attendees are asked to vote for the panels they’d like to see and the themes they’d like to discuss via the Panel Picker. I’ve been invited by the fabulous Mel Kirk to join a panel called “Clear your ears for instant success”.

“it’s a well known fact that whilst you’re in a conversation with someone you’re often thinking about what you’re going to say next rather than listening. this can be the same for businesses too. this panel discusses the skills it takes to have effective communication with your users and the benefits that brings.”

So, just like Mel’s pimped her panels, here I am, pimping away! I would love to take a more active role in SXSW this year, so please go vote for us.

A few other panels I would love to see and encourage you to vote for:

Phew 215 days to go… How will I not blow up with excitement before then?

Oh hello there!

I'm Véro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

Say hi in the comments or on Twitter! :)

Archives