Notes & Tips From A SXSW First Timer

Maybe these tips will help you through the gauntlet that is SXSW.

Kelly Packer

March 6, 2011

As a SXSW newb I looked online for clues about how my SXSW experience would be. I didn't find anything about my morning bad coffee and Eggo breakfasts in my sketchy motel room or the chance conversation in the shuttle with an illustrator from the New Yorker who had sketched Mel Gibson or my love affair with brisket. You just have to go experience it. But along the way I did figure some things out, maybe these tips will help you through the gauntlet that is SXSW.

What SXSW is All About

I don’t think of myself as a hick from the sticks, but apparently Idaho is a bit remote in the minds of some. Although some locals may think differently, Idaho is not known to the wider world as a hotbed of technological innovation. And I have never thought that living in the wilds of Idaho was a detriment, in an industry of remote workers. We have local clients, but also work with clients all over the world. Everything I need to know is on the internets, right? All the news that matters ends up on Twitter, no? Turns out human interaction is still important. Whew. It’s especially important for free-lancers and people like myself in remote areas, to check in with the larger community. You can only get so far toiling away by yourself. Hearing about what other people are building (and how) is a kick in the pants.

Brisket at Iron Works

Although panels are the necessary structure for SXSW, they are not the main focus. The panels I attended didn't tell me much I didn't already know. Occasionally there are some pearls (I confess that I reveal in hearing about the minutia of CSS Working Drafts probably too much). And I did catch a few comprehensive overviews of usually disparate information, stuff you subconsciously absorb by working on the web everyday, but it's nice to hear in an organized way (e.g. OAuth, grid design, the state of publishing, how to market products, etc.). SXSW is all about talking to people and hearing about what they are up to.

@myerman giving his presentation: "Freelancers: You’re Five Products Away From Freedom."

10 Tips for First Time SXSW Attendees

1. Find your community

The ExpressionEngine community is filled with wonderful people. It’s an approachable group, in size and temperament. They aren’t a faceless, monolithic mass; you may even get to have lunch with the CEO. ExpressionEngine people really love what they do so they are generally a happy bunch. Whatever you are interested in: comics or game development or Technomads, there is a community for you at SXSW. And if there isn’t, organize a meetup.

2. Attend some smaller panels

I relied a bit too much on the big Design & Development panels. As with any group event, smaller is usually better and contain more targeted, useful information. The convention center is not the only place that has talks. Look for smaller venues in the surrounding area.

3. Find off-the-grid happenings

The main SXSW events are not the only game in town. Non-official events pop up all over downtown. Etsy held a day of talks, essentially a mini-conference. Google’s League of Extraordinary H4ckers showcased brilliant things people are building.

Jeffery Zeldman's Awesome Design Panel

4. Research who is speaking

Panel titles are filled with more buzz words than real words and often end up being about something totally different than the name implies. The SXSW pocket guide doesn’t even list speakers and the mobile app doesn’t make it easy to find who is speaking. Do some research before to find reliable speakers and don’t pass up an opportunity to get recommendations from other people along the way.

5. Don’t stress too much about attending every single panel

It’s just not possible. The list of panels is overwhelming and not easy to parse. There are panels I missed and panels I wish I hadn’t attended. C’est la vie. Focus on getting to know people.

6. Don't overdo it the first couple days

Free drinks are everywhere and I have trouble turning down FREE, so it was painful to leave piles of free drink tickets behind, but let them go. The Tomorrow you will thank Yester-you.

7. Bring a reusable water bottle

Water is plentiful at the convention center, but harder to get in usable quantities. Until I left it at a club, my metal water bottle was one of my more valuable possessions. I used more styrofoam in one week in Austin than I have in the rest of my entire life. Sad face.

My motel at the end of the universe

8. Have some energy bars on hand

There are times when you might not want brisket, or, more likely, brisket may not be readily available. Grabbing some quick, fairly healthy sustenance can save your brain (and other parts).

9. Take a minute to decompress

Austin is beautiful and warm (hopefully). Take a minute to appreciate where you are and remember who you are. The 15-minute break down by the river laying in the sun is delicious and life-affirming.

10. Book early and downtown

This one might be unattainable, but a good goal. There is a shuttle to many of the hotels that is relatively well organized, but it takes extra time to wait for the shuttle (there is no set schedule), then it may be full because everyone wants to leave at the same time, so it might be an hour. Let's just say it makes it very difficult to catch a 9:30 panel. A hotel close to a bus stop would be great too, the Austin Metro is cheap and easy to navigate.

@nikibrown and @unruthless riding the solar carousel

Just go

If you are on the fence about going, my recommendation is: DO IT. I don't know how the event will adapt in future years if attendance keeps increasing; it seems to be busting at the seams, but it still very well organized (abundant water and wifi). A shuttle driver told me 800 to 1000 people move to Austin every month. I can see why, the tech community is strong, the weather is great (in March) and the people are so nice. So if you go, repay the favor and be nice to Austin.

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