SXSW Director, Hugh Forrest weighs in on #WhyAustin
(TECH NEWS) We sat down with SXSW Director, Hugh Forrest to chat about the past, present, and future of Austin – it’s an entertaining ride, join us!
An honest look at business in Austin
#WhyAustin is a special ongoing series featuring interviews with business leaders, politicians, and even outsiders. We’re taking a meaningful look at what makes Austin great while honestly examining the challenges our business and startup culture has.
Instead of talking about how Austin graces nearly every desirable Top 10 list ever published, we’re asking some of the most relevant names in business to opine. We’re interviewing company founders, politicians, startup investors, programmers, artists, musicians, and we’ve even interviewed leaders outside of Austin for their perspective. That is how you get honest feedback, folks.
Talking with a fellow native
In the video above, we chat with Hugh Forrest, Director at South By Southwest (SXSW), an internationally famous conference, music festival, film festival, and so much more as it has grown exponentially over the years.
As we put on our tech-casual outfits to jump on the Metro Rail to get our badges here in a few minutes, we reflect on what is special about Austin, what the challenges are, and whether or not SXSW would ever relocate headquarters. And the bonus is that Forrest and I are both natives – a rare treat! Below is the full transcript of our chat.
I understand you grew up here. Have you ever moved away?
I am a townie who grew up here. I first left to go to school in the Midwest. I went to a small liberal arts school in Ohio called Kenyon. Spent four years there and came back to Austin. Lived here for about another decade then lived on various places on the west coast from Portland to Seattle to L.A., but always ended up coming back to Austin.
What was it about Austin that always drew you back?
I think Austin is just, one, an easy place to live, particularly when you’re not quite sure what you want to do. Two, the creative, cool vibe that’s in Austin. There are a lot of cities like that, but I don’t think anyone quite has it the way we do.
what is the most attractive part of doing business in Austin?
I think the most attractive thing about doing business in Austin is we have an Austin-centric way to approach these things. It’s about having fun, but also being productive. Sometimes in that order, sometimes in the inverse order.
That’s very reflective of what we do with SXSW. It’s an event that’s a ton of fun, but it’s also an event where you can get a lot of business done.
Mixing those two together, I think, has been a pretty good formula for Austin and also pretty good formula for SXSW.
How does the quality of life in Austin compare to other cities?
Traditionally, one of the big quality of life points in Austin was that cost of living [was] fairly low. That was particularly good for me when I was in my twenties and thirties when I was kind of not completely sure what I wanted to do, was switching jobs a lot, was thinking a lot, was reading a lot, doing a lot of things that didn’t pay too much money.
Certainly the cost of living has increased as we’ve seen these boom years over the last decade, but we’re still cheaper than a lot of places and still have that creativity factor which is so, so important.
Have you ever considered relocating SXSW headquarters?
We have done events in other cities. We did an event in St. Louis for a few years. We did an event in Portland, Oregon for a few years. We did an event in Las Vegas. We were kind of nominally associated with an event in Toronto.
Those are all great cities and all have lots of strong points, but doing an event like SXSW has never been as successful in those cities as it has been in Austin.
Have we thought about moving SXSW? We’ve thought about everything and in terms of infrastructure, there are certainly other places that would have more hotel rooms, more convention center space, more of the things that we kind of depend on.
But at the end of the day SXSW is so much a reflection of Austin and Austin is so much of a reflection of SXSW, the two are so much connected that I just don’t think it would ever make sense to base this thing somewhere else.
Again, SXSW, our mission is to help creative people achieve their goals. That mission very much aligns with what the city of Austin is all about where creative people work here every day on their creativity in many, many different ways. That’s one of the things that makes the city so special.
Is Austin as small business or startup friendly as polls proclaim?
I think that we’ve done a great job of branding ourselves as a hub for startups and that is a big part of the success of attracting more startups. I’d like to see more successful startups come out of Austin. More exits, more funding, all of those things.
I think that there are ways we can always improve, but the city has developed an ecosystem here that attracts people from all over the U.S. and all over the world. It is certainly one of the big drivers of economic growth, of new jobs in the city at this point. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve all done to create that kind of ecosystem.
How is SXSW helping with those startup funding challenges here?
First and foremost, a lot of investors come to Austin for SXSW. Sometimes they meet companies and startups and founders from Austin, sometimes they meet companies, startups, founders from outside of Austin; but it brings that energy into Austin. That is extremely important.
I think, as well, helping to attract more startups to the city creates, again, an ecosystem where more funders want to be here. It is a long term project here.
Certainly as much as we grow the funding piece here, we are never, ever, ever going to be like what Silicon Valley is, that is leagues above us, and we shouldn’t be like Silicon Valley.
We should leverage and exploit the things we do really well as opposed to trying to pattern ourselves off of some other place.
What are the biggest challenges when hiring talent here in Austin?
I think some of the challenges we have in terms of SXSW is that it is a fairly unique job. There’s not a whole lot of training that someone can do for this until you get in-house, on site and go through a season or two. There’s the challenge of just training and how that works.
I think that it’s also become a challenge finding qualified people as the marketplace has become more competitive for job seekers. That is a, kind of, first world problem that I think we can live with. If we’ve got more job opportunities in Austin, more employment opportunities for more qualified people, that’s a good thing.
Are Austinites frequently generous with their contacts?
I do think that there is a spirit of cooperation, a spirit of community, a spirit of camaraderie here amongst many people in the startup/tech ecosystem that is a good thing, that helps the whole ecosystem.
In Austin, I think there’s a general acknowledgement that a rising tide lifts all boats.
The more we can all improve and help each other improve, the more chances we all have of continued success far beyond today and tomorrow. In that sense, I think we are fairly sharing of our contacts, fairly willing to mentor people, fairly willing to give out a hand, but I also think that is a general characteristic of a lot of the startup community. That a lot of this community around the U.S., around the world, came out of the open source movement where people share a lot of things. There is certainly competition, but there is also a lot of cooperation.
Is Austin’s past, present, or future brightest?
I still think our future is brightest and our best days are in front of us. I have an old friend who told me this once and I repeat it often:
Austin reinvents itself every seven years.
The city changes like crazy and some of those changes we miss. We miss having Las Manitas downtown and that kind of sucks that it went away, but at the same time I really like the J.W. Marriott. I really like the restaurant there, I like the opportunities that that has created. The fact that we change, continue to change, is a good thing. What you don’t want is a city, a region, that just stays the same, because if you’re staying the same, you’re not growing and you’re falling behind.
Again, we do a really good job of pushing forward and that’s really exciting. It’s an exciting place to be.
How can Austin attract more talent and more business?
How do we attract more talent and more business? I think, again, having another generation of high profile success stories come out of Austin will help a ton. That’s happening, but maybe not yet at the level of a Michael Dell. At the level of John Mackey from Whole Foods.
But that next generation is coming and coming up quickly and I think the more that we have, the more that people can see and identify of the success stories that are here, the more that attracts interest, the more that attracts people to want to come to Austin, want to move their business to Austin, do new things, do new creative things.
Again, that’s one of the things I think works really well about SXSW. It brings new people to the city. They’ve never seen the city before. They come in the spring when the weather’s nice, they fall in love with the city, they want to move here. We can say all we want about there are too many people moving here, but again, these are first world problems that we are lucky to have.
What do you think the local or state government’s role is in Austin’s growth?
Well, I think from a local and state perspective try not to mess too much with the formula is made this place successful and that formula is strong attention to creativity, strong attention to diversity, strong attention to new ideas.
It’s one of the reasons that we’ve come out strongly against the Bathroom Bill. That really goes against everything that what we believe in in Austin and what we believe in with SXSW. We are morally opposed to it. We also think it’ll be very bad for business and that’s not good.
Again, we’re the poster child for Keeping Austin Weird is good for business and very concerned what happens when you change that formula.
Can you tell us about the evolution of the Keep Austin Weird movement?
I’m sure everyone has a very different impression about how that worked and how that went. My particular impression is that 15 years ago at this point, or 20 years ago, Keep Austin Weird was very much a rallying point of the forces that didn’t want development here, that opposed growth and particularly that was when the Save Our Springs movement was very strong.
I think it’s amazing that, again, 20 years later that idea, that concept, has very much been adopted or co-opted or however you want to phrase it by the mainstream. The Chamber of Commerce, who I’m good friends with, very much agrees that Keep Austin Weird is good for business.
I think the Chamber of Commerce now understands that the creative culture in Austin is good for business. These were things that weren’t necessarily the case two decades ago. I remember we get Richard Florida as a keynote speaker at SXSW in, I think, 2003 or 2004. He had just come out with Rise of the Creative Class.
I remember at the last minute we ended up having to pay for some his travel and I was going around trying to find people who would sponsor that. Even though Austin was the poster child of very much the model city for this creative city movement and creative class, I couldn’t get anyone to bite that they should support this weird author who had these weird theories.
Again, in 2017 I think there’s a ton more agreement that having a strong creative class, having musicians, artists, filmmakers, web developers, mobile developers, whatever you want to call it, is part of of a vibrant scene. I’ll also say that having had a great opportunity to travel a lot around the U.S. and a lot around the world, everyone wants what we have in Austin.
Every other city wants to have this creative culture. Every other city wants to have a SXSW and ACL and F1. We have created something real, unique and special here and we’re the envy of the world.
What impact does having so many colleges in town have on Austin’s business ecosystem?
I think the impact of having a lot of colleges and a huge state university here is one of the many factors that has pushed this strong creative vibe here. You’ve got a lot of young people who are doing a lot of interesting thinking and that interesting thinking has, again, pushed a lot of the interesting, unique, weird ways that Austin has evolved.
It’s certainly one of the biggest things, i.e. the University of Texas, as well as other colleges, is one of, I think, our biggest reasons for success on a number of levels. Ranging from ideas to the number of volunteers that we get from those institutions.
How do you feel about Austin being on every Best Of list ever?
I’m torn on that. I feel a sense of pride that we’re recognized by more and more people. I also know that too much hype tends to kill anything and we’re in a little bit of a over-hype phase. It’s often better to be farther down on the list than number one.
We’ve been fortunate enough to be number one on a lot of lists recently, but again, I’ll say what I’ve said a few times – these are first world problems.
These are good problems to have, that we’re on too many lists of great cities to live in. Where we really have problems is when we fall off those lists. Thankfully we haven’t fallen off yet.
What is the biggest flaw in the city’s business culture?
I think the biggest challenge we have now, 2017, is a direct result of our success. It’s become a less affordable city to live in. Cost of living has increased. In some ways, or in many ways, that threatens the creativity that made Austin so unique in the first place. When it costs more to have some kind of basic dwelling, basic rental property, you’re forcing these people farther outside of Austin and, again, you’re potentially threatening what made the city so unique in the first place.
Again, that affordability challenge is huge. I think that most of our city leaders recognize that at this point and there are lots of interesting, innovative solutions that are being worked on. I’m optimistic that those will help stem that problem.
I think it’s also interesting that those challenges with the city of Austin very much reflect some of the challenges we have at SXSW. That the event itself has moved from something very affordable to attend 10 or 15 years ago to something that is not quite as affordable to attend now.
Again, same challenges there. Are we pushing out that creative class? Those smaller developers, those students, those innovators, those people with new and different ideas that made the event cool in the first place? There are always challenges, but these are better challenges to have than some of the other ones.
Words of advice for anybody moving their business to Austin or starting a business here?
Words of advice to people coming to Austin? As with anything, try to do as much research as possible. We are fortunate to benefit from a lot of hype, but you should probably investigate and figure out what is hype and what is reality.
If you are going to move to Austin or are making that step, take some time to try to meet as many people as possible.
Again, people here are generally friendly, generally friendly to outsiders who can contribute to our ecosystem. The more people you meet, the more people you can connect to. Those small connections can lead to big, big things and make our ecosystem even strong.
A special thanks to StoryCraft who diligently crafted the above video – we’re proud to partner with a crew that consistently offers such high quality work!
China no longer dependent on U.S. for smartphone components
(TECH NEWS) Trump’s trade war, more specifically, the ban on shipping phone components, to China has begun to take a toll on chip manufacturing.
Once upon a time, the U.S. and China were buddies, exporting and importing from each other with ease. However, President Trump’s recent actions regarding trade with China is certainly putting a damper on things.
It seems that Chinese companies have moved past the need to import certain products, like smartphone chips, from the U.S. – something they previously relied heavily on by working with American companies like Qorvo, Inc. in North Carolina, Skyworks, Inc. in Massachusetts, Broadcom, Inc. in California, and Cirrus Logic in Texas.
Since the ban in May, Trump specifically barred shipments from the U.S. from companies like Qualcomm and Intel Corp to companies like Chinese tech conglomerate, Huawei Technologies Co. But much like the bans that came before the Trump administration, it didn’t last long. With tensions high, the U.S. actually recently started rolling back some aspects of the ban and started making exceptions that allow American tech companies to continue to work with Chinese companies like Huawei.
Of course, China’s lack of U.S. parts hasn’t stopped them from rolling out new and improved products. As a matter of fact, in September, Huawei unveiled its newest phone, the Mate 30, which boasts highly-desired features, such as a curved screen and a wide angle camera. This makes the phone a pretty solid competitor of Apple’s newest iPhone, the iPhone 11, of which China was sent 10 million of in September and October.
After Huawei’s announcement, investment and banking firm UBS, and Japanese technology lab Fomalhaut Techno Solutions, partnered up and took to their labs to analyze the phone’s components. Their analysis was simple and straightforward. They found that there were absolutely zero American components in the phone. In fact, the chips in the Mate 30 are actually from Huawei’s in-house chip design agency, HiSilicon. They also provided Huawei with WiFi and Bluetooth chips. With HiSilicon’s 20 + years experience in the industry, 200+ chipsets, and 8000+ patents, it’s no wonder U.S. chip companies are getting nervous. Qualcomm, for example, announced a 31-40% decrease in estimated chip shipments over the next year.
Although the chip ban has made a big impact on larger U.S. companies who make and supply chips to China, there are still many other businesses that have been affected in Trump’s trade war. As it happens, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently confessed that, since May, when the ban was put in place, the U.S. has received at least 260 requests, asking that they excuse them from the ban and be allowed to work with China as they previously had.
But really, at the end of the day, with so many American companies relying on China for both import and export, it’s probable that the ban will be short-lived and that exceptions won’t need to be made. As Americans, we can be hopeful that the end-result of this trade war will be a positive one, but only time will tell.
AI cameras could cut down traffic deaths, but there may be flaws
(TECH NEWS) Traffic accidents have plagued humanity since motor vehicles were created, can AI help cut down on text and drive incidents?
What if we told you Australian officials believe they have found a way to reduce driving deaths by almost 30% in just two years? It’s a pretty appealing concept. After all, Australia alone faces an average of over 3 deaths a day due to driving accidents. And Australia’s average death rate clocks in at just half of what we face in the United States.
There’s just one problem with Australia’s proposed solution: it’s basically Big Brother.
Basically, Australia plans to use AI cameras to catch people texting and driving. There are plenty of places that have outlawed texting and driving, but that rule is very hard to enforce – it basically means catching someone in the act. With AI cameras, hands free driving can be monitored and fined.
Australia has already started rolling out some of these systems in South Wales. Because this is a new initiative, first time offenses will be let off with a warning. The following offenses can add up quickly, though, with fines anywhere from $233 to $309 USD. After a six month trial period, this program is projected to expand significantly.
But there are real concerns with this project.
Surprisingly, privacy isn’t one of these worries. Sure, “AI cameras built to monitor individuals” sounds like a plot point from 1984, but it’s not quite as dire as it seems. First, many places already have traffic cameras in order to catch things like people running red lights. More importantly, though, is the fact these machines aren’t being trained to identify faces. Instead, the machine learning for the cameras will focus on aspects of distracted driving, like hands off the wheel.
The bigger concern is what will come from placing the burden of proof on drivers. Because machine learning isn’t perfect, it will be paired with humans who will review the tagged photographs in order to eliminate false positives. The problem is, humans aren’t perfect either. There’s bound to be false positives to fall through the cracks.
Some worry that the imperfect system will slow down the judicial system as more people go to court over traffic violations they believe are unfair. Others are concerned that some indicators for texting while driving (such as hands off the wheel) might not simply apply texting. What if, for instance, someone was passing a phone to the back seat? Changing the music? There are subtleties that might not be able to be captured in a photograph or identified by an AI.
No matter what you think of the system, however, only time can tell if the project will be effective.
DeepComposer: AWS’ piano keyboard turns AI up to 11
(TECH NEWS) Amazon has been busy with machine learning, which includes a camera, a car, and now DeepComposer that’s able to add to classics on the fly
Musicians, listen up, there’s a new kid in town, its name is DeepComposer and it’s coming to take your creativity and turn it up to 11.
Artificial Intelligence has taken a leap into what has long been considered the “pinnacle of human creativity”, as Amazon revealed what is said to be the world’s first machine learning-enabled keyboard capable of creating music.
Amazon unveiled its AWS DeepComposer keyboard Monday during AWS re:Invent, a learning conference Amazon Web Services hosted for the global cloud computing community in Las Vegas.
Demonstrating DeepComposer’s abilities, Dr. Matt Wood, Amazon’s VP of Artificial Intelligence, played a snippet of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and then let the keyboard riff on it with drums, synthesizer, guitar, and bass, sharing a more rockin’ version of the masterpiece.
Generative AI, is considered by scientists at MIT to be one of the most promising advances in AI in the past decade, Wood told the crowd. Generative AI allows for a machine not only to learn from example, as a human would but to take it next level and connect the dots, making the next creative step to composing something completely new.
“It [Generative AI] opens the door to an entire world of possibilities for human and computer creativity, with practical applications emerging across industries, from turning sketches into images for accelerated product development, to improving computer-aided design of complex objects, Amazon said on its AWS re:Invent website.
How does it work? The Generative AI technique pits two different neural networks against each other to produce new and original digital works based on sample inputs, according to Amazon. The generator creates, the discriminator provides feedback for tweaks and together they create “exquisite music”, Wood explained.
A user inputs a melody on the keyboard, then using the console they choose the genre, rock, classical, pop, jazz or create your own and voila, you have a new piece of music. Then, if so desired users can share their creations with the world through SoundCloud.
This is the third machine learning teaching device Amazon has made available, according to TechCrunch. It introduced the DeepLens camera in 2017 and in 2018 the DeepRacer racing cars. DeepComposer isn’t available just yet, but AWS account holders can sign up for a preview once it is.
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