This year I got the honor of being invited to speak at the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin. It was such an amazing experience that I wanted to chronicle what it was like and what I learned from the conference.
Speaking at South By Southwest
Imagine you applied for a job that you really wanted, and then you got an email that said that an important email was coming, but if you mention anything about these emails, the news in the next email would become invalid. What feelings of excitement and questioning would mix inside of you? Well, that's what happens when you get invited to speak at SXSW. I felt like a character in mission impossible that got an email that was so secret that it was set to self-destruct after 10 seconds. I became so paranoid that anyone I would tell could mistakenly post something online and validate the news that was coming. Funny thing was that the original email didn't officially say that I was accepted, just that an important email was coming. I walked into work that day with a task list and a set of things to accomplish and walked out a spy with a classified secret.
After spending the next night freaking out, I got the confirmation email that I was hoping for: I was selected to speak at one of the largest and most prestigious events in the world. My first thought (and one that was prevailing for the next 6 months) was that there had to be some kind of mistake. We had just set out this last year to strategically speak at more conferences. I had been accepted to a smaller local conference earlier in the fall and the talk that was accepted at SXSW was rejected by other conferences. My business partner had submitted what I thought was a better topic and wasn't accepted. The topic of building software development kits (SDKs) for mobile apps wasn't "sexy" or "hip". I had proposed a talk that I found incredibly interesting and deep but seemed like a hard sell for others to come to the same conclusion. Imposter syndrome hit me in a very real way.
Once the official announcement came out and I saw the rest of the speaker list, I became even more convinced that there had been some kind of major mistake. I was one of the few from my state that was speaking. The list of speakers in my track read like a who's who of Silicon Valley and comprised of people from most of the teams who build the products and devices I use every day. Billionaires and professional athletes, world-renowned scientists and CEO's of Fortune 50 companies, household names, and published authors. Then there was me. To say that I was freaking out was an understatement.
Speaking at conferences is really fun for me, I love to talk to people and share things that I know will help them in their professions. However, since I value the ability to be at home with my amazing wife and 5 children, traveling for a conference has a real cost that I feel deeply. The invitation to SXSW came at an extra cost- I was scheduled to speak on my 11th anniversary. My wife was incredibly gracious to let me take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to speak at this event, and for that, I am incredibly thankful. As a husband, I know that I stand in large part because of my wife's amazing sacrifice and support. Once the date was set, preparation for the talk began.
Preparing for the talk
There are slides that you throw together to make a case for an outcome to a decision, slides that you write to impress an investor, and slides you write for speaking engagements. Then there are slides that you write for a conference like SXSW. Every shortcoming in my aesthetic acuity and ability to create something that would match up with my impression of what my slides needed to be visually was crushing to overcome. I looked longingly at slides from past presentations and saw the level of polish and graphic design that went into creating them and knew that I was in for a challenge.
The content of the talk was easy. I had been writing and supporting a huge SDK for years; if they had called me and told me that I had 15 minutes to prepare a talk about SDK's, I would have been thrilled to do it. I wrote an outline for more than enough content in less than 10 minutes. However, the pressure of creating something that is in equal parts engaging, informative and impressive is immense. Early in the process, I knew that I'd never be able to compete with people with photoshop skills. I was banking firmly on the fact that I'd be speaking to other developers who could hopefully overlook the fact that my slides weren't mind blowing.
Arriving at SXSW
My experience at conferences was that you had a few floors of a hotel or conference center booked and the rooms and layout became familiar during your stay. You could find a favorite place to catch up with email, a coffee shop or store that you stopped at for those much-needed mid-day snacks. There is a rhythm and cadence to a conference. Things have a start and end and everyone follows a similar trajectory and has a common purpose for being there. SXSW is like a totally different category. To call it a conference isn't fair, it's like 10 conferences happening all at the same time with people and topics from every corner of our society.
The variety and scale of the conference was something I was not prepared for. 200,000 people, 5000 speakers, 1000's of volunteers. A film festival, concerts, tech luminaries, societal influencers, random "activations" (we got to go to Westworld: https://www.wired.com/story/westworld-sxsw/) and untold number of "only at SXSW" things that I can't quantify. I'm a pretty strong extrovert, but even I'm glad that my company sent a delegation to the conference with me because I would have become quickly overwhelmed with all the activity otherwise.
Other than the express goal of eating as much Texas BBQ as possible during my stay, I tried not to come with preconceived notions of the conference. Walking into downtown the first night with my coworkers made me thankful for this because I don't know that I could have "prepared" for this conference. We arrived on Thursday so we could get settled before the craziness began. The first night we had dinner overlooking 6th street and even though the conference hadn't officially started, there was already a buzz about the city.
Before the Talk: Gathering Intelligence
I wasn't scheduled to talk until Sunday night, so I had a few days to listen to other speakers and get a sense of what expectations for my talk would be. I scoped out the room I was speaking at and went to a number of talks in my track to see what others were doing. SXSW is similar to other conferences in this way: talks range the gamut of quality and usefulness. I went to a few talks with extremely polished speakers. I saw a talk from the Chief Scientist at Salesforce who made reference to the multiple people he had creating the visuals for his presentation (which were incredibly impressive). I also saw talks where the speaker had created a nice title, but really didn't have much to say about it.
SXSW is a great conference for getting a pulse of where technology is and what is currently important. I mused with my coworkers that I wish I had named my talk "Creating an AI with Elon Musk running on the blockchain" so they would have had to build a new room to contain the number of people who would go to it. Talks with even ancillary mention of the blockchain had 1000's of favorites on the conference mobile app. I took solace in the fact that even with my mundane topic, I still had more favorites than a professional poker player's talk. I went to a few of these blockchain talks bringing my mediocre knowledge of the underlying principles and came away with a lesson that I didn't expect: make sure you say something of value in your talk.
I feel pretty strongly that conference talks should do one of two things (ideally both): expand your thinking to a new technology that is helpful to your future direction or to give a practical set of tips that will make you better at what you do now. Listening to some of these talks was like flying over a city at 10,000 feet. You knew that something was there, but nothing deep enough to know anything about the city or why you'd want to go there in the future. After listening to the first few days of talks, I decided to go back and make some of my slides a bit more practical in nature so that people could walk away with something to help them in their work.
The Day of the Talk: The Green Room
If you ever get the chance to speak at SXSW there is one recommendation that I would make pretty strongly: spend as much time in the green room as possible. As a speaker, you have full access to green rooms at the conference. During my time in the green rooms, I met an astronaut, an ex-NBA GM, NASA scientists investigating a Mars mission, a nationally-known social activist, engineers at most of the products I use every day (Slack, Apple, Facebook, Adobe) and multiple professional athletes (I even almost got pulled into being a last-minute moderator for a panel on Real Estate technology). Only at a conference like SXSW where the intersection of different industries is commonplace could this happen. After spending time having these experiences in the days leading up to my talk, waiting in the green room before I went on stage felt almost normal.
As they walked me to my talk, I realized that all these months of planning and anxiety were finally coming to a head. Speaking at SXSW was an absolute honor. It was incredibly fun and 100% worth the time and effort it took to do it. I am still in awe of the people who put on the conference and the logistics necessary to pull it off. One day I'd love to come back and speak again or be part of a panel and have that same feeling I had when I got that first email and found out that I'd be embarking on the experience of a lifetime.
If you're interested in hearing the audio of my talk, check it out on the SXSW site: https://schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP77637 (Video is coming soon).