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!
4 ways startups prove their investment in upcoming technology trends
(TECH NEWS) Want to see into the future? Just take a look at what technology the tech field is exploring and investing in today — that’s the stuff that will make up the world of tomorrow.
Big companies scout like for small ones that have proven ideas and prototypes, rather than take the initial risk on themselves. So startups have to stay ahead of technology by their very nature, in order to be stand-out candidates when selling their ideas to investors.
Innovation Leader, in partnership with KPMG LLP, recently conducted a study that sheds light onto the bleeding edge of tech: The technologies that the biggest companies are most interested in building right now.
The study asked its respondents to group 16 technologies into four categorical buckets, which Innovation Leader CEO Scott Kirsner refers to as “commitment level.”
The highest commitment level, “in-market or accelerating investment,” basically means that technology is already mainstream. For optimum tech-clairvoyance, keep your eyes on the technologies which land in the middle of the ranking.
“Investing or piloting” represents the second-highest commitment level – that means they have offerings that are approaching market-readiness.
The standout in this category is Advanced Analytics. That’s a pretty vague title, but it generally refers to the automated interpretation and prediction on data sets, and has overlap with Machine learning.
Wearables, on the other hand, are self explanatory. From smart watches to location trackers for children, these devices often pick up on input from the body, such heart rate.
The “Internet of Things” is finding new and improved ways to embed sensor and network capabilities into objects within the home, the workplace, and the world at large. (Hopefully that doesn’t mean anyone’s out there trying to reinvent Juicero, though.)
Collaboration tools and cloud computing also land on this list. That’s no shock, given the continuous pandemic.
The next tier is “learning and exploring”— that represents lower commitment, but a high level of curiosity. These technologies will take a longer time to become common, but only because they have an abundance of unexplored potential.
Blockchain was the highest ranked under this category. Not surprising, considering it’s the OG of making people go “wait, what?”
Augmented & virtual reality has been hyped up particularly hard recently and is in high demand (again, due to the pandemic forcing us to seek new ways to interact without human contact.)
And notably, AI & machine learning appears on rankings for both second and third commitment levels, indicating it’s possibly in transition between these categories.
The lowest level is “not exploring or investing,” which represents little to no interest.
Quantum computing is the standout selection for this category of technology. But there’s reason to believe that it, too, is just waiting for the right breakthroughs to happen.
Internet of Things and deep learning: How your devices are getting smarter
(TECH NEWS) The latest neural network from Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows a great bound forward for deep learning and the “Internet of Things.”
The deep learning that modifies your social media and gives you Google search results is coming to your thermostat.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a deep learning system of neural networks that can be used in the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Named MCUNet, the system designs small neural networks that allow for previously unseen speed and accuracy for deep learning on IoT devices. Benefits of the system include energy savings and improved data security for devices.
Created in the early 1980s, the IoT is essentially a large group of everyday household objects that have become increasingly connected through the internet. They include smart fridges, wearable heart monitors, thermostats, and other “smart” devices. These gadgets run on microcontrollers, or computer chips with no processing system, that have very little processing power and memory. This has traditionally made it hard for deep learning to occur on IoT devices.
“How do we deploy neural nets directly on these tiny devices? It’s a new research area that’s getting very hot,” said Song Han, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at MIT who is a part of the project, “Companies like Google and ARM are all working in this direction.”
In order to achieve deep learning for IoT connected machines, Han’s group designed two specific components. The first is TinyEngine, an inference engine that directs resource management similar to an operating system would. The other is Tiny NAS, a neural architecture search algorithm. For those not well-versed in such technical terms, think of these things like a mini Windows 10 and machine learning for that smart fridge you own.
The results of these new components are promising. According to Han, MCUNet could become the new industry standard, stating that “It has huge potential.” He envisions the system has one that could help smartwatches not just monitor heartbeat and blood pressure but help analyze and explain to users what that means. It could also lead to making IoT devices far more secure than they are currently.
“A key advantage is preserving privacy,” says Han. “You don’t need to transmit the data to the cloud.”
It will still be a while until we see smart devices with deep learning capabilities, but it is all but inevitable at this point—the future we’ve all heard about is definitely on the horizon.
Google is giving back some privacy control? (You read that right)
(TECH NEWS) In a bizarre twist, Google is giving you the option to opt out of data collection – for real this time.
It’s strange to hear “Google” and “privacy” in the same sentence without “concerns” following along, yet here we are. In a twist that’s definitely not related to various controversies involving the tech company, Google is giving back some control over data sharing—even if it isn’t much.
Starting soon, you will be able to opt out of Google’s data-reliant “smart” features (Smart Compose and Smart Reply) across the G-Suite of pertinent products: Gmail, Chat, and Meet. Opting out would, in this case, prevent Google from using your data to formulate responses based on your previous activity; it would also turn off the “smart” features.
One might observe that users have had the option to turn off “smart” features before, but doing so didn’t disable Google’s data collection—just the features themselves. For Google to include the option to opt out of data collection completely is relatively unprecedented—and perhaps exactly what people have been clamoring for on the heels of recent lawsuits against the tech giant.
In addition to being able to close off “smart” features, Google will also allow you to opt out of data collection for things like the Google Assistant, Google Maps, and other Google-related services that lean into your Gmail Inbox, Meet, and Chat activity. Since Google knowing what your favorite restaurant is or when to recommend tickets to you can be unnerving, this is a welcome change of pace.
Keep in mind that opting out of data collection for “smart” features will automatically disable other “smart” options from Google, including those Assistant reminders and customized Maps. At the time of this writing, Google has made it clear that you can’t opt out of one and keep the other—while you can go back and toggle on data collection again, you won’t be able to use these features without Google analyzing your Meet, Chat, and Gmail contents and behavior.
It will be interesting to see what the short-term ramifications of this decision are. If Google stops collecting data for a small period of time at your request and then you turn back on the “smart” features that use said data, will the predictive text and suggestions suffer? Only time will tell. For now, keep an eye out for this updated privacy option—it should be rolling out in the next few weeks.
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