At 10:32pm on a Thursday night in March, my father and I cruised into the drop-off zone of Austin’s Convention Center to pick up our badges for South by Southwest (SxSW). After making friends with everyone at the registration table, figuring out how to light a profile photo in the dark, and an unnecessary number of dad jokes, we made our way to the hotel to plan out our weekend.
Wait, Wait, Wait, What’s SxSW?
SxSW is a festival that’s been held in Austin since 1987 and if you’re unfamiliar it’s usually referenced textually as “SxSW” but verbally called “South by Southwest” or “South by”.
There are three parts to it:
- Interactive – This is your classic conference style event. There’s a huge convention center where companies set up booths as well as talks and panels on tech, design, startups (and more) scheduled at various hotels around downtown Austin. The bulk of this happens in the first four days of SxSW
- Film – Film premieres (lots of indie films), workshop sessions, interviews, you name it
- Music – SxSW is actually the biggest music festival of its kind. This year they had over 2,000 bands from 63 different countries performing
I specifically went for the interactive part over the first weekend and got to count it as training for work, but my father stayed for the whole week checking out the bands and other events.
This is what my weekend looked like (forgive the photo quality, next time I’ll bring my DSLR)
The Shadow Side of Human Centered Design
Dr. Melis Senova (Huddle)
In her talk on design, Senova spoke about how we design for ourselves rather than for the people using the product or technology. Not that we don’t know who our users are, but that we imagine them as their “best selves” rather than their true selves. In designing products, you have to keep in mind the negative uses for them in addition to the positives.
She talked about her own experience patenting work that ended up being used for war. She talked about how Viktor Papanek fell out of grace in his social circles for advocating that unsafe designs weren’t ethical. She talked about how the Unibomber’s manifesto came from a terrifying place, but also had some validity.
She advocates for looking at the shadow side of your user, or the dark side of your technology to see what it could become – and if it’s not something you’re comfortable with, figure out how to change it so it can’t be misused in that way.
“Possessing the ability to engage so powerfully in the world is the essence of human potential. But, it is also true that humans are fallible. Design activities can do and have done great service for humanity. But design has done great harm as well. We cannot know for certain, that what we design is what ought to be designed. We cannot know what the unintended consequences of a design will be, and we cannot know, ahead of time the full, systemic effects of a design implementation.”
– Harold Nelson, The Design Way
You can find the full recording of the talk here, but know that you aren’t seeing her awesome presentation which consisted largely of comic-style drawings
How Bottom-Up Privacy Models Will Save The Net
Ben Briggs, Josh Chin
A security specialist and a tech educator respectively, in their talk Briggs and Chin covered the ramifications of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), discussing their doubts about how legislation can protect users. This is something we’re starting to see rolled out now (in May) as companies are sending out mass emails about updates to their security and privacy policies.
The TL;DR is that the GDPR at a very high level will likely only affect companies that are intentionally/directly monitoring residents in the EU (i.e. companies like Facebook or Amazon) rather than those that incidentally collect information (such as a small business in the US that has some EU customers).
Aside from the logistical details of the law, they brought up the issue that the legislation is largely a reactionary measure – the company gets fined if they get caught doing something wrong – rather than preventative one. So if companies think they can get away with something shady, they’ll likely continue to do so. The only way to really keep data safe is to allow users to have some semblance of control over their own data and to educate them on what that really means.
“Privacy and sex have something in common – both should involve continuous consent”
– Ben Briggs
What Developers Can Do to Keep the Web Open
Matthew Claypotch (Mozilla), Geraldine de Bastion (Heinrich Boell Foundation), Jonny Leroy (ThoughtWorks), Nanjira Sambuli (World Wide Web Foundation)
Hands down, one of my favorite talks over the weekend. The panel discussed a lot of things, but the one that’s stuck with me months after the fact is our increasing inability to dive deep into good software to see how it works.
“We’re losing The ability to tinker with things, not just on mobile devices but on the web. Nothing against minification or frameworks, but we’re shipping proprietary content and it’s hard to see what’s going on under the hood”
– Matthew Claypotch
If we don’t allow people to tinker with the code, allow them to re-invent it, and allow them to learn, then the glorious, wonderful, things, that we’re creating for the web-community are fairly useless if they don’t precisely align with what users need. Plus, if people can’t access it in the first place (for network or infrastructure reasons) then what’s the point?
“But why would you want someone to mess with your proprietary code in the first place?” Well..
“A lot of the impetus [in tech] is building for people, not with people. Like you’re deciding what they need”
– Nanjira Sambuli
We’re designing services for people all over the world from the perspective of where we are. What works in Silicon Valley doesn’t necessarily work for people in Africa.
I was surprised when diversity and inclusivity was brought up in this discussion, but it was. Increasingly there’s an awareness that developers program their biases into their software, so the idea is that we create better and more usable products when more people have a say in what’s being created. In order to do that you have to be able to get the right people in the room to help design and give feedback on those products in the first place
My summary definitely didn’t do this panel justice, you can find the full hour-long recording here
Designing with Bias
Erin Muntzert (Google), Robert Murdock (Amazon), Pam Scheideler (Deutsch LA), Ted Selker (UC Berkley)
This was the first panel I went to where the room was full (I mean, making friends with strangers full). They talked about the inherent bias in data, diversity & inclusion, and the idea of getting the right people in the room (again, this topic was brought up a lot). It felt like listening in on a conversation that I’d have at work, but with people who work at places like Google and Amazon.
They specifically broke down the different biases that affect product design:
- Team Bias (the people in the room designing the product or gathering the data)
- Company Culture (even if you go outside your team, the company culture has baked-in biases related to the hiring/recruiting processes)
- Customers (the people using your products have their own biases that may or may not align with your own)
The big solution I took away from it is to keep questioning your methodology. To never feel satisfied that the workplace is a ‘meritocracy’ or that your methods are perfect, because when you stop questioning, those biases start to sneak back in.
You can find the full recording here
Investing in Diverse Startups
Kai Bond (Comcast Ventures/Catalyst Fund), Sutian Dong (Female Founders Fund), Arlan Hamilton (Backstage Capital), Charles Hudson (Precursor Ventures)
I didn’t know what to expect from this panel (and honestly didn’t even plan on attending it in the first place), but it exceeded any expectations I could have placed on it. The panelists are all involved with venture capital firms, and though a lot of the speaking points they had were more related to pitching than developing your business plan, as a young tech consultant who’s occasionally involved in client interactions there were some valuable sound bites.
“Killing yourself to pursue your dreams is often glorified… it’s a marathon, not a sprint”
– Kai Bond
Any developer who has pulled an all nighter (or a late nighter) knows the irresistible pull of wanting to solve a problem “now”. If you’re debugging code you (usually) aren’t reliant on a deadline for a presentation, feedback to make some edits, or for a certain meeting to happen in order to continue: it’s just a fight between you and the computer and it can go on for as long as you’re willing to have your hands at the keyboard. The difficulty, however, is that anyone who’s been working full time can tell you that the problem will still be there tomorrow. School teaches us to complete massive amounts of work in short sprints, but It’s not sustainable to kill yourself day after day when it’s also your full-time job.
“If you don’t fit ‘the mold’ it’s awkward for everyone. Come from a place of strength. Find what makes you comfortable and build off of that.”
– Sutian Dong
Dong was specifically talking about pitching to investors, but this can extend to any kind of work presentation. Practice your presentation skills, figure out what works for you, and employ that (even if the people around you have different methodologies).
My biggest personal failure in a presentation was relying on someone else’s script for a demo because I blindly trusted that they thought and maneuvered around the tech the same way I did. When it came time to practice for the first time (in front of everyone) I found that the script felt incredibly awkward, I felt awkward and awful because of that, and it threw me off-kilter for the actual presentation later that day – since then I’ve made a point of ignoring the specific “scripts” that other people hand to me in favor of making sure I can present the relevant information in a way that feels natural.
If you’re in a position to practice your presentation with others, keep in mind that some people thrive on feedback from a huge group all at once (efficient, but maybe intimidating) and some people need one-on-one feedback (where constructive criticism can become a conversation rather than one-off statements). Regardless of the size, surround yourself with people who will be brutally (and kindly) honest with you, who will tell you if you seem uncomfortable, and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if what works for you isn’t the norm for others.
“Don’t ask an engineer to build your solution. If you can get an engineer to buy into your problem, they’ll want to work on it. They’ll spend time after hours, they’ll build a solution better than yours ”
– Kai bond
This was pointed advice at business-types bringing “solutions” to engineers. As a computer science major who was approached by her fair share of business students in college saying, “Hey, I have a great idea, can you develop it?” this is spot-on.
You can find the recording of the full session here
Code is Creative: Treat your Developers as Artists
Pat Malatack (Twilio)
I loved this talk so much that this summary is just going to be a bunch of Malatack quotes and a tiny bit of commentary
“Developers are building what’s next. Apple & Google didn’t predict the future – they created a platform and let developers create it”
WordPress didn’t write all the blog content that’s been successful, Google didn’t create all the sites it indexes, Shopify doesn’t manufacture all the goods that are sold through the platform, eBay doesn’t go out and raid a bunch of thrift stores for vintage fashions to sell, and so on and so forth
“Even if you a have a handle on what’s coming next, building it is a different matter”
This was in reference to AT&T boasting about how they’d be the ones bringing us the future of tech in 1993
“Experimentation is the pre-requisite for innovation.”
Part of what Malatack elaborated on is Twilio’s practice of setting aside two weeks in the year for developers to invent things. One of the caveats is that they can’t work with people who are on their current teams, so it’s also a way to get to know others in the company. It’s a big sacrifice for a company to specifically set aside time for developers to not be doing their “jobs” but it also creates a safe environment for experimentation, for the creative side of the devs to be fulfilled, and (hopefully) for the company to benefit from some innovation.
Developers + Platforms -> Experiments
Many Experiments -> Innovation
This ties into the idea of failing fast and thereby allowing yourself to get past those unsuccessful attempts. From a statistical perspective, the best way to guarantee success/innovation is to try as many different things as possible and eventually one of them will probably (hopefully) not fail.
“Don’t just tell someone what, tell them why, give them context to enable them to come up with ideas”
Absolutely, yes. Particularly if your day job isn’t something you’re deeply passionate about, having a “why” can be an incredible motivator. It gives purpose to the “what” rather than just adding it to the task list.
Listen to the full talk here, do it, he’s great
Death & Legacy in the Digital Age
Rebecca Blum (Frog Design)
If you’ve known me for more than an hour, you’ll know that I have an intense fascination with death and how humans respond to it culturally (I’ve casually hung out in cemeteries since I was a pre-teen, when I visited Europe I was way more excited about the catacombs than the Louvre, most of my favorite tv shows and movies revolve around death, you get the idea). What I’m saying is: this talk was made for me.
“We’ve ignored death online, and it’s time for us to start acknowledging that our users are going to die… the awareness of death is one of the only things that everyone has in common”
– Rebecca Blum
Did you know that approximately ten thousand Facebook users die each day? Because I definitely hadn’t contemplated the idea until Blum brought it up.
Companies are now trying to figure out what to do when their users up and leave this mortal plane. What happens to their data? Does it get deleted? Does a family member get access to it? Should companies be asking users what their death plan is when they sign up? How is this all managed? How does a company even know if someone has died?
Facebook has memorial pages that look almost identical to a normal user’s Facebook page and Google lets you coldly “Plan your Digital Afterlife”, but some websites just don’t acknowledge that death is an option at all. One morbidly hilarious example described was a dating app (Hinge) that connects people via mutual Facebook friends: a newly matched couple was brought together by a mutual Facebook friend who was, you guessed it, dead (and had been for a while).
With the further development of AI, other questions have started to arise: Can we/should we be able to create immortal digital copies of ourselves? Is it creepy? Is it cool? Would you want to live forever given the chance? If your immortal digital copy exists but you don’t, does it have rights?
Black Mirror: Season 2, Episode 1
Aside from the rights of those who are no longer with us, Blum posits that our digital legacies are changing the way living people are pursuing their lives and the way we’re handling death online is impacting our ability to grieve. That in order to even start handling death well in a digital space we need to start implementing these four steps around the death of our users:
- Intentionality – Ownership over what happens when you pass on
- Transition Spaces – Not simply deleting everything immediately, but allowing people to visit, view, and grieve
- Decay Over Time – Memories fade, but Facebook profiles (or other web pages) don’t. If there’s something available that “feels” like the person is still alive, after a while it can start to affect people’s abilities to move on
- Tangible Traces that are Curated – Something that is a curated version of the digital presence, so the person is not “gone” if they don’t have to be, but is distinctly seen as not active in the digital space
All of this was incredible food for thought and while I certainly don’t have any answers or solutions, I’m looking forward to watching what happens with this in the future.
Business as Usual While Revamping Decades of Code
Rashi Khurana (Shutterstock)
Unless you’re working for a startup or doing greenfield projects at your company, the chances are pretty good that you’ll be working with a codebase that’s at least old enough to be enrolled in primary school. As a general concept, there isn’t anything “wrong” with old code, but there comes a point in every codebase’s life when developers are doing more maintenance than net new creation and doing a tech stack migration seems like the only solution. The difficulty is that statistically 36%-50% of tech stack migrations fail for various reasons leaving people frustrated, and the idea of migrating with a bad reputation.
“It’s not the programming languages that don’t scale – it’s the threading, the architecture the design that we create that doesn’t scale”
– Rashi Khurana
Khurana’s recommendation for businesses was to keep three things in mind:
- Evaluate When Your Stack Needs to be Migrated – What’s the tipping point?
- Figure out your planning strategy- Get your developers involved
- How are you going to run your business at the same time? – It’s much easier to lose customers than it is to gain them
What I took away from it was her emphasis on communication and teamwork: if your team isn’t on board with the migration, if they’re scared because it’s a new technology that doesn’t fit with their skillsets, if they aren’t accustomed to working with deadlines or milestones, then the migration is doomed to fail from the start.
Even in technology, people need to come first.
A way to mitigate this people “problem” is to bring employees in on the changes. Do training sessions on the new technologies, encourage them to learn new things so they don’t feel like they’re getting left behind, notify them well ahead of time that things are changing so they won’t be blindsided when the changes occur.
Khurana brought up in the Q&A section that she isn’t a fan of technology consultants (awk), but it seemed like the main reason she isn’t is because she feels that the teams developing the applications need to have direct ownership over them and that bringing in a third party to do development detracts from that buy-in and adds to the fear. Being a consultant, I couldn’t agree more. I would love if the client teams we work with saw us as a resource rather than competitor developers (especially because watching client developers grow is one of my favorite things about work).
Listen to the full talk here
Don’t Call This a Panel of Female Coders
Gemma Busconi (Discovr Labs), Emily Epstein (Bustle), Lee Pulatie (Offers.com), Nanea Reeves (Tripp)
This one was a trip – there were multiple generations of females developers on this panel, and while they were all cordial and friendly, there were definitely a variety of viewpoints. They discussed everything from how to get girls interested in development in the first place:
It’s not just video games, it’s not just trendy apps – it’s about showing them that there’s other stuff out there
– Gemma Busconi
To what kind of companies women want to work for (and why they might be staying away from others)
“I have post-startup-trauma-disorder. As someone starting a family I’ve stayed away because while they may have pizza every Friday, they haven’t sorted out maternity leave”
– Lee Pulatie
To what challenges you face as a woman moving up in your career
“You have to come up with a strategy to overcome the real bias – we still have to be likable. Sheryl Sandberg still smiles when she says terrible things. I go for the badass gamer persona”
– Nanea Reeves
The TL;DR is that being a woman in technology is (still) a lot more complicated than simply having the technical skillset required to do your job well. It involves thinking about the culture of your workplace or school, looking at the policies that will affect you in your first couple decades of being in the workforce, and curating your work-persona (particularly in workplaces where there’s a significant difference in the gender-ratio) to find what’s acceptable for you in terms of fitting-in but also still being yourself.
I definitely didn’t agree with everything that was said, but it was interesting to hear the different perspectives.
You can listen to the full panel discussion here
(These are all my personal recommendations, not from the panel)
In March of this year I spent a couple days hanging out in Austin, Texas listening to people talk about technology and design. You can find links to recordings of (most of) the panels/presentations at the bottom of their respective summary sections, and if the topic piques your interest there are relevant reading lists attached as well.
What I found most valuable about SxSW wasn’t necessarily the individual talks, but the idea of getting a grasp on what tech companies are valuing right now as a whole. It was interesting to see what topics were naturally coming up again and again and what people dismissed.
Do I plan on going next year? Absolutely.