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Startups and Hipster Jeans and BBQ, Oh My! (SXSW Debriefing)

Patti and Bobby have returned from the land of “Weird” and lived to tell the tale of SXSW 2012. Read on for a thorough debriefing of their adventures in Austin with a crowd of the most notorious tech nerds in the country.

Patti, an agile project manager, pioneering ideas-girl and San Franciscan foodie, returned to SXSW this year with an agenda – to uncover the core buzz of this year's event, participate in her first SXSW panel discussion, and nom on some seriously good BBQ.

Bobby, an avant-garde and tireless solutions-guy who makes it his business to help companies in "old tech" industries think forward and embrace new tech, hit SXSW with the intention of getting a glimpse at what this year's energetic startups are working on and the ways in which they are affecting the current tech landscape. And taco trucks – he was also there in large part for the taco trucks.

Captain’s Log

Captain's log stardate 65689.6. We're headed for Austin, Texas to SXSW – an event that promises to show us the current climate in tech on the planet Earth in the Terran System. Our mission is to asses the state of technology for this species. It's raining. People are wet. There are thousands of them. In the streets. At taco stands. It appears as though they are a peaceful group. My best guess is that they are human, though they are armed with an alarming number of technological devices.


At any event there's an overarching "feeling", or a zeitgeist of the times that is represented in that particular community or ecosystem. SXSW is no different, and the zeitgeist changes organically each year as new trends in tech surface, bubble, and bust.

The underlying buzz of this year's event was about relationships through technology:

There’s more and more talk about how to move between online and offline, especially in how we create and grow interpersonal relationships. This has been happening for years, but at SXSW there was a feeling that this will soon come to a head.

A major talking point with that topic was the use of big data. Now that we’re aggregating all these data points from Facebook, Pinterest, Foursquare, Path, and others, how do we leverage that data to enrich our lives through deeper relationships and richer experiences?

Bobby and I sat in on a great talk, “Making the Real World Easier to Use” in which MG Siegler (of TechCrunch) and Dennis Crowley (CEO and co-founder of Foursquare) talked about how Foursquare’s discovery feature Radar can analyze my check-in patterns to see if I’m out of “context” (i.e. not in my usual city, or maybe even neighborhood) and therefore jump in with more relevant recommendations.

Every year there’s one “hit” that comes out of SXSW. Last year it was GroupMe for group text-messaging. This year I kept hearing about Highlight, which will tell you what you have in common with people nearby.

Patti Chan, Director of Project Management

Rockstars or Roadies?

Patti's panel, Rockstars or Roadies: Who's the Better Employee? attempted to tackle the growing debate about the infamous 'rockstar' engineers. The hackneyed and now cringe-worthy term "rockstar" is used in nearly every recruiting email and job posting in the Rails community. Everyone wants to hire a ROCKSTAR. But what exactly is a rockstar programmer? Are there a unifying set of traits that a Real and True Rockstar Programmer embody? And more importantly, do you really want to work with a rockstar? What kind of value do they bring to your team, your product and your business?

Patti kicks off the discussion by explaining what she thinks makes an engineer a "rockstar":

They not only write code but they think about the big picture at the same time. They identify the business drivers. When they receive a functional requirement they’re more likely to question it, to ask ‘is this the right solution?’ A rockstar engineer doesn’t just blindly do what you throw at them but they think all the way through the problem.

The panel members debate on the definition of a rockstar developer and then jump into discussion about possible liabilities from having to silo off the more finicky rockstars from other employees, and losing forward momentum when they disappear into a cave for three days, spiraling on a problem.

You can listen to the podcast which covers the full panel discussion between Corey Reid, Daniel Ha, Heather Gold, Joe Stump, and Patti. Check back here next week for an in-depth article from Patti on her ideas about rockstars, how to work with them, how to set all your employees up for success, and her thoughts on the panel!

SXSW, I’ma let you Finish

….but where's all the game-changing products, and OMG OMG OMG ideas?!

Bobby, a SXSW rookie, landed in Austin starry-eyed and hopeful. For many, SXSW is considered the panacea of events for emerging and creative technology. Neither Bobby or Patti felt there was any mind-blowing tech.

While there were a handful of companies that were trying to push the envelope, too many of them were pushing “me too” products: Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare “killers” or applications and tools to enhance the existing functionality of those applications.

I never had that, “Oh! What a BRILLIANT idea” moment on the expo floor. No one was doing anything that was exceptionally novel or profound. The big players – Microsoft, Nokia and Google – they had a couple compelling ideas, thoughtful demonstrations and entertaining tents and parties. To be honest, I expected to have several “oh wow” experiences, but that was not the case.

I did, however, see a lot of hipster jeans. So there was that, at least.

Bobby Martines, VP of Business Development & Marketing


Though the expo floor wasn't necessarily that mind-bending, the panel discussions and keynotes were incredibly engaging and thought-provoking.

Both Bobby and Patti particularly enjoyed the presentation from Rainn Wilson (of NBC's The Office) on SoulPancake. Their FAQ describes the site as "a space where people from all walks of life could discuss and question what it means to be human—a place to wrestle with the spiritual, philosophical, and creative journey that is life."

Harkening back to the early days of AOL and topic-specific chat rooms, SoulPancake offers an unique space to ask hard questions and talk about the things you really care about amidst a collective of others who share similar sentiments and philosophies.

Bobby also found Baratunde Thurston's keynote presentation on political satire particularly engaging. Baratunde, the Onion's Director of Digital and long-time comedian talked candidly on the subject of politics, comedy and technology – speculating that the real changes in the world will be precipitated by a combination of these three elements working together:

“There is a need for a storytelling narrative, for a humanity and a voice, for humor. And all this … working in concert with code to get us to further steps of freedom.”

Captain’s Log

Captain's log stardate 65698.8. After four days here we are preparing to leave. We found no signs of futuristic innovation or alien life forms. Their technology, though very social and interactive, seems to be stagnating. The people here are kind. They dance in the streets with boomboxes (large, obtuse objects which emit sounds) on their shoulders and line up outside taco trucks for hours. Most of them seem to worship the same god, which is drawn in the shape of a simple piece of fruit, an apple. They do not seem to pose any imminent threat to future inter-galactic relations.


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