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!

Arriving Smarter: More Than 15 Ways to Get Busy During Dead Time

london_underground
Most of us spend at least an hour a day travelling; commuting to work by car, train, bus or flying somewhere for business. It’s time that’s often spent looking out of the window, texting mates or eyeing the cute guy/girl sitting across from you on the train. (Or if you’re travelling to London, wondering whether the leaves on the track are going to delay the train again…)

It’s an hour or more that you should recuperate and use for your own benefits so here are a few suggestions for arriving smarter. [Credit to Christopher S. Penn for the “Arrive Smarter” theme & Tarek for pointing me to it originally.]

Listen to an audio or video podcast

Podcasts vary in quality, style, length and topics, so whatever you want to listen to, you should be able to find it. I tend to opt for a more focused podcast on the journey in; it wakes up the brain, gives some interesting ideas and motivation for the day. On the way home, I prefer the freestyle and slightly silly podcasts, which are sometimes informative, but always lighthearted.

  • TEDTalks video podcasts: TED offers some great food for thoughts from some fascinating people all over the world. Pick a topic you feel has little to do with your day job or industry and just listen. Some notable speakers for me have been Jill Bolte Taylor, Ze Frank and a number of people who spoke about creativity, imagination & education. [TEDTalks iTunes link]
  • BBC Radio 4 World of Business podcast
  • Heidi Miller’s Diary of a Shameless Self-Promoter: Brits tend to be much too self-deprecating and rubbish at self-promotion, so this one’s for you, my lovely limeys! Heidi’s podcasts cover a range of topics relating to promoting your business, yourself, and smart networking. [DSSP iTunes link]
  • Look for audio readings of Cory Doctorow‘s books, it’s always good to listen to.
  • Poke around the Podcasts section in the iTunes store and let me know what discoveries you make!

Tip: If you’re an iPhone/iPod user, set it to automatically sync a few “most recent unplayed” podcasts through the options in the “Podcasts” tab in iTunes. That way, you’ll always have fresh stuff to listen to even if you haven’t had the time to pick podcasts manually before travelling.

Pick a book that will help you towards your goals this year

If you’ve picked a themeword for 2009, to help you drive your year forward, browse the web for a list of a few books, ebooks or research papers that will get you closer to your objectives. Or just pick a book to make you think, laugh or cry!

Here are some of mine, to accompany my themeword “Impact” for 2009.

  • Tara Hunt‘s The Whuffie Factor, which will be published soon is on my must-read list
  • Cory Doctorow’s Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom is half holiday fiction, half social critique. I’ve already read it but definitely recommend it.
  • Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational is proving to be a good read on why and how we take certain actions, and how we may think we’re rational, we’re in fact predictably working on emotions or subconscious cues.
  • If you’re a productivity buff, you’ll know this guy, but if you’re new to it, you might enjoy Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week. Or Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less (which will be available soon in the UK)
  • Sitting on my bookshelf for far too long is Charlene Li’s Groundswell is much overdue to be read.

Keep offline reading material handy on your computer

If you’re the type who uses a laptop on the commute in, you may not always have the luxury of an Internet connection so when you find interesting PDF ebooks, stick them in a “To read” folder on your desktop to dig into when you’ve next got some spare time.

Alternatively, if you’re into that dead tree printing stuff,  carry a hard copy if you really must, but use the reverse side of paper you used before, or recycle the paper later by either giving it to someone else you feel would benefit or by chucking it in the recycling bin.

A few great ebooks:

  • Leo Babauta from Zen Habits (same guy as above) recently published an ebook called Thriving on Less, which is rather appropriate in this year where much of our usual habits need to be re-examined to avoid excessive spending and keep us afloat through tough times.
  • 37 Signals’ Getting Real: While I don’t really go for the 37S Koolaid, I must admit it contains some great tips for working with small teams and producing quality apps.
  • Seth Godin’s Flipping the Funnel may be nearly 3 years old but it remains very relevant. Seth has created a number of ebooks over the years, so why not browse his site and download a few?
  • Chris Brogan wrote Using the Social Web to Find Work is highly relevant in this era of job uncertainty. A worthwhile read.
  • Finally, not so much an eBook but rather a Slideshare presentation you can download: Chrystie Corns, Social Marketing Manager at Where.com created a cracking presentation giving insight into what it’s like to tweet, blog and use social networks for a living.

Make a conscious effort to relax

Not interested in any of the above and prefer to snooze or stare out the window on your way into work? That’s fine, in fact, it’s great! Your brain needs that restful time. But let’s do a deal, if you’re going to go for zen, do it well.

In other words, don’t let the train’s delay, the elbow in the ribs, the loud guy on his phone or the snow wrecking havoc piss you off. Take a deep breath and admire the glint of the sun on the buildings. Smile at strangers. Just enjoy the mental time off.

[Image: Birdbath’s Piccadilly Filly (or 50 Things you never knew about London Underground) on Flickr, Creative Commons license]

The BarCamp Virgin's Guide: Making the most of your first BarCamp

What is a BarCamp?

Wikipedia’s description is BarCamp is an international network of user generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants — often focusing on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats.”

Got your head around that one? Yeah, it’s a bit dry. This post should demystify a little what happens at a BarCamp event, and what you can get out of spending your weekend with geeks rather than chilling out at home.

Totally different to regular conferences, BarCamps are more open and less structured. This means, when you arrive, you’re likely to see this kind of grid, where you can jot down what you’d like to talk about. It’s an opportunity for people from all backgrounds and all skill levels to have a go at sharing some knowledge.

Sounds scary? It’s not essential that you present in front of a group using a Powerpoint presentation and a laser pointer while wearing a suit. In fact, suits are definitely not recommended.

Where do I find out about events like this?

Check out the BarCamp homepage for events in your area, look out on Upcoming.org or ask fellow Twitter users for suggestions.

Keep a close eye on registrations since tickets tend to go quickly, with gatherings ranging from twenty to hundreds, depending on how brave the organisers are and how large the venue is.

How can I prepare?

  • Have a think about the general theme of the event & associated topics that interest you: Could you talk about any experiences you’ve had, questions you’ve answered by either successfully completing a project or, if you’re brave, through a failure you’ve gone through.
  • Look at the list of attendees, which should be public… Anyone you’re burning to meet and get to know? The day will fly by so be sure to go say hi at the first opportunity!
  • Have an open mind: Join a session on a topic you know nothing about, play a game of Werewolf with new friends or start a conversation with the next stranger you meet.
  • Arrive on time: Come early if you want/can help with registration and setup, but don’t show up too late or you might miss on some of the social activity and goodies.

Tackling your first presentation

Presentation slots are generally 30-40 minutes, so you don’t need to do a doctorate thesis. It’s definitely not all about monologuing in front of the group for the full half-hour, it’s about sharing your experiences, asking others to pitch in with ideas or just leading a useful conversation.

  • Present something simple that people with less experience, who are new to the industry might be interested in.
  • Not sure what level of knowledge others will have? Present something completely wild and silly (“how to make the perfect margarita” was a hit at a past BarCamp I hear)
  • Nervous about being in front of people? Do a shared presentation with someone who complements your skills well. You’ll have someone to lean on when you’re not sure what to say next, and it’s more fun together.

But I’m not a spotlight kind of guy/gal…

Still getting cold feet? You can still help in a number of ways. The organisers are volunteers and (generally) have only two hands each. So if you’re not too keen on doing a presentation, why not lend a hand with registration, coffee breaks, cleaning up or setting up the A/V system?

One of the best bits of a BarCamp is the memories you take home with you. But if you’re like me and you have the memory of a goldfish, the key is to capture the event in some way. So why not offer to blog or record the event on video or in photos? If you’re a podcaster, create a VoxPop clip with the participants.

What do I need to pack?

Wherever possible, you’ll be able to stay on-site overnight for the BarCamp. You’ll find yourself staying up late chatting, coding or playing games. If that’s the case, you’ll need some of the following:

  • Laptop if you want to blog or take notes during the event. Don’t forget your charger (and adaptor if the event is abroad!) and your screen adaptor if you need to plug into a projector.
  • Business cards: Moo cards come highly recommended. Make sure you have somewhere safe to store the cards you’re given.
  • Scribble notebook & pen: You might not want to have your laptop out at all times, so pen and paper is essential.
  • Power strip: If you can, bring a power bar to plug into the much-coveted few outlets. It’ll allow more people to benefit from power during the day.
  • Video/photo camera: Immortalise the day in video and photos. Be sure to upload your content and tag it with the event’s hashtags (eg. #smclondon08 for SocialMediaCamp London 2008) and put a Creative Commons friendly copyright.
  • Money: Some events provide food, thanks to the sponsors, but others don’t, so come prepared to go buy lunch somewhere nearby.
  • Materials: Bring your presentation or demo (if you have one) on a USB stick or CD.
  • If the BarCamp is an overnight one, you’ll probably want to pack a sleeping bag and pillow.

What some BarCamp veterans say…

Tara ‘missrogue’ Hunt, Citizen Agency co-founder, public speaker & blogger, says:

“Personally? BarCamp was an exciting idea for me, but at first I was afraid to stand up and talk… just wanted to observe and have one on one conversations… maybe ask a few questions from the audience. After a while, though, I decided to take the leap and put myself on the speaking schedule.

I’m glad I did, because it started my career! I went from speaking at BarCamps… Really getting my chops wet and practicing my skills. I got stronger and stronger as a speaker. One day I was approached by a conference organizer who asked me to give a workshop on my ideas. Next thing I know, I’m speaking all over the world and have WAY more professional confidence than I’ve ever had. That all started with BarCamp. It gave me the opportunity to really push myself into the next level.

Mel Kirk, social media gal extraordinaire says:

My first experience of a barcamp was during SXSW and was BarCamp Austin… Totally awesome! We heard some people chatting about it and decided to drop in… I still have my pass and lanyard as it was one of my highlights. They had this awesome T-shirt station where you could buy a t-shirt and then have a number of different designs printed onto it. I didn’t have enough cash to buy one but I really wish that I had, they were gorgeous.

There was a whole buzz about the place – it was in a really cool bar – totally laid back and relaxed and I met some amazing people that I would never have otherwise have met. Because it was a lot more laid back than a normal conference-type set up, people feel more relaxed to ask the presenters questions which leads to much more of a conversation type feel rather than content being pushed to the audience.

I’d recommend a BarCamp to anyone – it’s filled with amazing talented people willing to share and discuss their knowledge… where else can you get something like that?

Nik Butler aka Loudmouthman says

“don’t let anyone convince you they are not the werewolf”

Got BarCamp stories to share? Suggestions for new attendees? Leave a comment below!

SXSWi 2008: "Self-Replicating Awesomeness: The Marketing of No Marketing" panel notes

For this panel, I ditched the laptop and only used pen and paper so my notes are less than clear. In fact, I’m lucky if I can read my own handwriting, but the highlights for me were finally meeting the lovely Tara Hunt, a fellow Canadian expat and inspirational blogger.

My notes might be a bit garbled but sue me, I was too busy listening.

“Self-Replicating Awesomeness: The Marketing of No Marketing” panel notes
Panel: Deborah Schultz, Chris Heuer, Jeremiah Owyang, Tara Hunt, Hugh McLeod, David Parmet
Continue reading

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