SXSW Interactive 2014 Review

Toopher bought the devs SXSW Interactive badges this year, and we took advantage of the conference being so close. Overall, I’m glad I went. I’m grateful for a company that sponsors my conference-going—it was great to experience South By with my co-workers too. SXSW really is magical, and I’m glad to have it in my city.

The Good

SXSW is overwhelming in the best kind of way. There’s a lot to like:

  • Amazing energy.
  • Great talks in a variety of formats including book readings, panel discussions, interviews, workshops, and standard lecture-style talks. Some of the highlights include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Wolfram, Edward Snowden, Jeremiah Lee, and my favorite talk was given by husband and wife couple Jennifer and Jim Moss who are building software to improve happiness at work.
  • So much to do! At virtually anytime, there were at least three talks I would have liked to see. On top of talks, there was a trade show, various parties and giveaways, meetups, personal meetings and a man’s gotta eat sometime. One odd exception to the too-much-to-do-at-once plight was the Adam Savage (Mythbusters) keynote, which was the only event at 2pm on Monday.

The Bad

The conference is a victim of its success and has clearly outgrown its space. I think all the negatives are related to how big the conference is, although if SXSW was smaller it would lose the grandeur. Some negatives:

  • Sessions tended to lack depth, which makes sense because there were thousands of people from diverse backgrounds. You trade depth for breadth at SXSW.
  • Traffic of all kinds. There were just too many people getting around downtown, so the streets and sidewalks were crammed with cars, bikes, skateboard, and people on foot. The sheer number of people made for long lines for everything from bathrooms to food, to talks.
  • Poor planning. This wasn’t the norm, but it happened a few times; for example, Tim Ferriss, who could probably have packed a keynote, was tucked away in a small room so hundreds of people were turned away.
  • Somewhat related to poor planning and traffic: it was hard to get from one session to another. I attended sessions in the Austin Convention Center, the Sheraton, the Hilton, the Driskill, the Four Seasons, the Omni, and the Palmer Event Center. With zero to 30 minutes between sessions, I was routinely late. A few times I missed getting into the next session because I stayed until the end of the current session. I felt that encouraged bad behavior, like bailing early and skipping sessions in order to wait in line for the next talk.

There are no easy solutions here, and the organizers really did a great job. Each negative I’ve listed could be viewed as a positive: the conference is a great place to hear about new ideas; the number of people makes the conference epic; sessions filling up means they are interesting talks, and, truthfully, across five days I was able to see almost everything I wanted to see.