My SXSW Experience: In Like A Modem, Out Like Fiber

SXSW Interactive is officially over.  It started as a slow burn modem connection and culminated into an urban Burning Man that was an explosion of geek.

Many have discussed their experiences at SXSW.  Some positive.  Some negative.

Mine SXSW experiences were overall positive.

Yes, I did have some negative experiences.  I had to yell at people behind me to shut up during a panel (2 separate times).  I got a product pitch while I was minding my own business in the lobby of the Hilton.  I moaned every time people asking questions either wouldn’t get to the question quick enough* or they plugged their lame website.  And some of the sessions I went to were duds.

But it’s a “numbers game” and overall I had an amazing time.

Why I Was There And How I “Took The Beach” (Strategic Planning Tips)

I’m in marketing and my focus was on marketing and business topics as it relates to the social web. I was less concerned with design or development topics since I don’t do that stuff and was even less interested in any consumer product topics since my company’s focus is on solutions for businesses.  Having focus on what I did and didn’t want to attend helped me significantly narrow down my focus on what to attend.

Like many, I used a combination of the panel picker website, app and printed pocket guide (love that thing) to figure out where to go and what to attend.  I have learned from past attendance that sessions sometimes become “pot luck” and having a backup is as important as having a primary; especially when they’re near each other.

That said, there were a number of things I missed that I’ll have to listen to on the podcasts or watch the sliderockets.

I drove to the Convention Center (since I am a local)and found that the earlier I got there, the better shape I was to park in the garage.

Also, as funny as it sounds, I packed a lunch. Long story as to why, but it actually helped me save time by not having to wait in long conference center lines for mediocre food.  The down side is that I did pass up a few opportunities to go with people (and socialize) for lunch.  But usually going to lunch means missing panels so it becomes, like everything, a trade off (I feel horrible I didn’t get to spend more time with Tiffany).

AT&T iPhone Service And SXSW Wifi

Zero complaints for either service.  Both the free SXSW wifi service and the AT&T infrastructure upgrades (GigaOm) worked well during my time in the Convention Center and in the Hilton.

Top Panel Picks

  • Bumpin’ Up: Has The Glass Ceiling Ever Smacked You In The Butt? – full disclosure, the moderator of this session is my friend Allyson Kapin (@WomenWhoTech).  That said, she led a great open discussion on how to get around issues of discrimination in the work place.  It wasn’t a gripe session, but rather extremely productive with a lot of tips on how women and men can overcome some of these real-life issues.
  • Blah Blah Blah: Why Words Won’t Work – part of my job is making PowerPoint charts and it was a revelation to see Dan Rohm is the missing link between my love of comics and my job in marketing.  I ordered his book that evening.  If any part of your job is communication, this is gonna open a new world to you.
  • GMail: Behind The Scenes – I mentioned on Twitter how amazing it was that Google admitted their faults when it came to the roll out of Buzz.  They talked about the problem, why it happened, and how they are going to correct it in the future.  That takes a lot of guts and they have my respect.  They also provided some interesting insights into product management and development and staying focused on the core value propositions for a product (for them, any feature that affects the speed of the app is denied).
  • Conducting Great Interviews – this is what SXSW calls a “core conversation.”  The room is smaller and participation from the audience is encouraged during the session (the rooms are setup as semicircles a la “Theatre In the Round“).  Speaker Nancy Baym is a college professor and I think she really nailed this format.  She came prepared with handouts (a one page cheat sheet on her topic) and instead of going through bullet points…which we could easily read in our hands during the session…she instead had a roadmap that she went point-by-point through.  She skipped the points that nobody was interested in, talked about the points we were and took questions and advice from the room as people raised their hands.  As someone who has to interview subject matter experts to extract information out of them, it is going to be very useful in my day-to-day.
  • Visual Note-Taking 101: Dave Gray, Austin Kleon, Mike Rohde and Sunni Brown RAWK!  They gave out little notebooks with cheat sheets and went a long way to “demystify” the process I saw Dan Rohm do in his session.  I’m hooked on this visual note-taking thing now and can’t wait to start using it at work.
  • Customer Care In A 140 Character World – Caroline McCarthy (CNet) had a nice balance of herself (press), Jeremiah Owyang (Analyst, Altimeter Group) and then representatives from Comcast, HP and Microsoft.  I honestly think this is the model that most sessions should try to follow.  You get Caroline moderating and Jeremiah providing “commentary” while the company representatives answer questions.  Great format.
  • Is Too Much Math Killing Marketing? – speaking of great models to follow, the same can be said about this session.  Moderator Joanna Burton had two panelists, each with different views on this topic.  She gave them 20 minutes to present their case and then left time for Q&A.  In addition, Joanna also mingled with the crowd prior to the session starting to get a gauge of where the audience was at and what we wanted to hear.
  • Dangerous Curves: Hockey Sticks, Swine Flu and More – holy crap!  Rolf Skyberg from eBay nailed this amazing session about statistical analysis and crammed like 10 hours worth of information into 60 minutes.  You will never look at graphs the same way again.  In addition, on the way out of the panel I had the fortune to meet the wonderfully awesome Micki Krimmel (@Mickipedia) and hear about her interesting new startup!
  • Bruce Sterling Presentation: inspiring, amazing and insanely relevant.  I kept looking at this one woman in my row and her mouth was open in awe throughout the presentation and she kinda represented the entire room.


I’m not really a social creature.  I don’t drink and have done enough trade shows in the past that I know that you need to pace yourself across the span of the show.

The parties I did go to were pretty neat.  I met some very nice people at a Women In Technology Happy Hour (Friday) and then also popped into the Web Awards pre-party (Sunday).  And that’s really about it.  I find that overall I could do a better job networking between sessions (see below, “Meeting People“).

Buzz Out Loud Meetup

I suppose, technically it’s a party…anyhow, I’m a huge fan of BOL and the meetups are always great to meet fellow fans and kinda geek out.  I met some amazing people (new and old) and then managed to find myself talking to Nicole, Molly, Tom and Jason.  They were all extremely nice and so gracious to their fans that I can’t say enough great things about Buzztown, the hosts or the fans (whatup, Joyce!).

Meeting People

Talking to your neighbor is one of the favorite pastimes of SXSW attendees.  You never know who you’re going to meet.  I met a handful of former and current colleagues as well as a bunch of people who know friends, etc. (and not just because of tech-related things).  My conversations with everyone I talked to were informative and interesting and we shared a bunch of great information.

If you have a problem, a lot of times your neighbor can help you solve it.  Vice versa, I found myself “dropping knowledge” (as the kids like to say) to strangers I just started talking to at random.

The whole point of talking to strangers at SXSW is to share information and learn from each other.  And I did that with so many people.  Shout outs to Micki (see above), Suzanne, Mike and Caris.

Oh, and totally by accident, I ran into one of my all-time favorite panel speakers, Ben Huh of  Ben was doing an interview for a podcast and I waited until he was done, shook his hand, told him I was a fan and was listening to him on Buzz Out Loud on my drive over to the convention center.  He was gracious, extremely nice and we talked for maybe 2 minutes and I was on my way and he was on his way.  It was the most ideal way to meet someone you’re a fan of.

Is SXSW A Product Catalog Shoot?

Walking around SXSW, you get the feeling that somewhere there are catalog shoots going on for Apple, Timbuk2, Canon and Converse.  Seriously.  Tons of product from those vendors being used/worn by SXSW attendees.

QR Codes AKA “I Have A Great Portfolio Of Crotch Shots”

The super-awesome Gina Trapani asked about the success rate of QR codes (see her excellent Fast Company blog on what they are and then she has a feed of responses).  Basically, you’re supposed to take a snapshot of this square pixelized barcode thingy that was on people’s badges and an app would translate it into the person’s business card information.

As I replied, I was unsuccessful in getting it working and all I managed to do was fill a portfolio of crotch shots :-/

That said, I have a solution.  If you’re a fan of vintage photography equipment, or the Cold War, then you know about the Minox camera.  These are the small cameras spies use to take pictures of documents in the movies (and maybe in real life).  Since the Minox is a fixed-focus lens camera (like most camera phones), one of the accessories was a chain so that you could accurately measure the required distance from a document to get the paper in focus and in frame.  I kind of think that someone should have handed out chains (or string) to help with the image capture.  Maybe next year…

Most Awkward Quote At SXSW

At the Buzz Out Loud meetup, a woman was trying to get past me and brushed by me and said, “I’m sorry.  My tech bumped into your tech.”  I suppose I should find that highly arousing, but all it made me want to do was take a shower…so maybe it did work?

Best Quote, Ever

In the session, “Eight Ways To Deal With Bastards,” one of the panelist (an HR Director) said, “Many things are illegal in the workplace, being an a-hole isn’t one of them.”

Also, in that same panel, Karen Walrond gave the best story about taking the high road.  And that’s the lesson I learned in that session and in Bruce Sterling’s talk; always, as painful as it might be, take the high road.

Volunteers Make SXSW Work

The reason why so many things run as smoothly as they do at SXSW is because of all the hard work and dedication from the countless volunteers who do such great work.  A thank you to all of them, and I will buy you a drink if I ever meet any of you in person.

The BackChannel For Sessions

FYI, much of the sessions can be found checking for hash tags on SessionTweet.Com (thanks, Steven).  Also, when I see of information on posting of materials, I’ll post it to my blog or Twitter.

So.  That’s what I got.  Hope people found it entertaining to read.  Another story to come shortly.

*it should be a requirement that anyone approaching a microphone to ask a question at a panel be required to listen to at least 500 hours of terrible talk radio and public access television to learn how not to ask a question.


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6 Responses to “My SXSW Experience: In Like A Modem, Out Like Fiber”

  1. heatherjstrout Says:

    Hey Noah, great wrap up and it seems you had a good experience at SXSWi as well. As you mention, it does take a bit of work as it’s such a diverse group and the conference has many tracks.

    I am local to Austin as well but I never brought my lunch. Since I’m a local, I used that to make a connection with folks. “Hey, I know a great lunch place, want to grab something?” I didn’t have any of the conference center food. Why wait in line for super medeocre food when you can pop into a local place a couple of blocks away?

    The parking lot on the southeast corner of the convention center was never full and costs less than the garage. It was free the last day because the attendant bailed due to the weather.

    Have I met you in-person? Either way, you should come out to the Twestival this Thursday. Deets here:

    Heather | @heatherjstrout

  2. Noah Kuttler Says:

    Thanks Heather. I’d recommend anyone who reads this blog to also go and read Heather’s comments on her blog (see

    I agree with you that taking my lunch with me cut me out of opportunities to show some out of town friends some local spots (and to socialize). It was a decision I kind of regretted in the long run.

    And yes, I’ll keep an eye out for you at the Twestival. Thanks for the deets.

  3. Nancy Says:

    Thanks Noah! Very glad to hear the interviewing session was useful for you.

  4. Online Fandom » How to interview and SXSWi highlights Says:

    […] meant to pool our collective wisdom about how to be a good interviewer. It got nice write ups here and […]

  5. Ryan Boyles Says:

    Great SXSW Write-up Noah. Still bummed we didn’t bump into one another.

  6. SXSW Charts For Dangerous Curves By Rolf Sky « Noah Kuttler’s Blog Says:

    […] SXSW Charts For Dangerous Curves By Rolf Sky By Noah Kuttler No bulls***, this was one of the best sessions I went to at SXSW Interactive (see my previous post). […]

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