Picture of a SXSW event

It’s easy to be down on SXSW (Interactive specifically). The long-running conference earns its fair share of criticism for being too big, too loud, too crowded, and too distracting to be a productive exercise. For many years I’ve agreed with such summaries, as the general sensory onslaught only had a few upsides (namely tacos, BBQ, sunshine, and opportunities to see clients/partners new and old). Whether it’s my own attitude, the conference, or some combination of the two, I left Austin this year with a renewed excitement about some parts of the state of tech. Here’s a recap.

Diversity/Culture Has Escaped the Fringes

In looking through the programming schedule, I quickly decided in on my (related) areas of interest, diversity in tech and company culture. Having our own efforts to support both (more on that later), I wanted to hear from colleagues in other organizations to confirm we’re on the right track and to gain new ideas. I was pleasantly surprised that there was a full schedule of panels and workshops on these and related topics, and spent the conference attending panels, workshops, and discussions - kudos to the panel selectors for having this content available.

The biggest takeaway from these sessions wasn’t one specific nugget, it’s that tech seems to have really turned a corner of sorts. While there’s no shortage of work to be done, there’s a passionate groundswell of activity happening now that didn’t exist even two years ago. Larger organizations, often slower to realize the changing landscape, are in many ways leading the charge, and there are a lot of ideas out there to be tried. The sense of camaraderie among those working in these areas is refreshing, as everyone’s looking to share their wheels rather than let others reinvent it.

Everywhere Wants Tech

The world of tech, especially the startup scene, is synonymous with the Bay Area, and rightly so considering the sheer explosion of activity happening there. That said, it was interesting to see the amount of effort put in by wildly varying locations vying for attention, attempting to recruit talent, companies, and the tax revenue those two things bring, along with shining a light on what they already have. The obvious winner here is the District of Columbia, whose We DC House seemed unmissable to anyone walking around. Other areas included Blacksburg, VA, Denton, TX, the state of Michigan, France, Sweden, Italy, Japan, and even a contingent from Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s less notable that all of these locales want to support tech, but it is interesting watching them manipulate statistics to make their place look like the belle of the “up and comer” ball. It’s going to be interesting watching how this all shakes out.

The Killer App is “Back”

Two of the biggest SXSW success stories are the launches of Twitter and Foursquare. Both, by fitting the attendee demographics desire to find the best party, got a huge lift from the conference. In the years since, countless apps have tried and mostly failed to garner that same attention, one notable being Highlight, the proximity-based contact discovery app that became legendary not for its utility but for its ability to destroy battery life.

This year, despite the squirrel costumes, a fake Stig, and sponsored bars, the winner was real-time video sharing app Meerkat. It’s possible it’s already peaked, having gone unseen during Music, having its Twitter API access to Twitter shut off, and having Twitter’s own Periscope out in the wild, but it definitely garnered mindshare during Interactive, with nary an event (not panels I was in thankfully) going by without someone streaming the experience. Personal opinions aside (it’s going to ruin concerts and I hate that idea), it was exciting to see an app consume the zeitgeist so quickly, even if it was all ultimately smoke and mirrors.

Gravity Still Works

As with last year, I was “lucky” enough to visit St. David’s Medical Center after another broken bone. While the staff there remain incredibly friendly and this year’s injury won’t require surgery (a win of sorts), I wouldn’t recommend injuries while traveling.

Speaking Next Year

For all of the quality of the panels and presentations, there were a few blind spots in my opinion, namely that most of the organizations speaking were of a much larger size than Substantial. That’s not to diminish their accomplishments, but I’m leaving Austin believing that there is an entire swath of the audience that’s underrepresented, so I’m going to spend the next few months deciding on what experience(s) to share with SXSW next year. More on that as it shapes up. Until then, it’s time to put some of these lessons into action. And to eat some quinoa to balance out the tacos.

Main image by Flickr user quintanomedia