7 ways to get the best from SXSW (and any other large tech conference)

By Andy Cotgreave 18 Mär, 2014
I had the great honour to attend and present "The Most Influential Visualisations" at South By Southwest (SXSW) last week. If you haven’t been to SXSW, I recommend you go next year. It’s the biggest, craziest tech festival I’ve ever been to. Registration for 2015 doesn't open until August this year. You can get planning ahead now, and follow these lessons on how to get the best out of it. These lessons will help with any large conference you might go to (such as Tableau’s own conference, Destination Data!)

1. Talk to people. Everywhere.

from BJC Media.com
(image from BJCMedia.com)

Honestly the best thing about SXSW was the random conversations I had with people in lines. I met the head of news at DR1 (a Danish TV channel) while waiting for a taxi at the airport and we talked about data journalism. I met some NSA staff while having a sandwich.
But the best meeting was while sitting in a really disappointing session. The twitter stream was more entertaining and eventually some of us on Twitter suggested we went for a drink instead. I had more inspiration during that conversation than at any other stage.

2. Don’t try to follow the #SXSW hashtag

We used Datasift to track SXSW-tagged tweets. Over just the weekend, we collected 450,000. You can only dip into and out of the hashtag but it’s too large to either consume or try and use to spread your own content. Aggregating the data, however, is interesting. There are many insights one could find using the data. One super-simple thing to ask is what time of day are people tweeting? Below is the tweets per hour on the Saturday of the conference. What’s striking about this profile is how it contrasts to other large conferences, such as CeBIT, which was taking place in Germany the same week

3. Study the schedule.

The schedule is enormous. With 150,000 people attending the Interactive festival, there needs to be a lot of content. I tried to find all the data-related content to go see, but it wasn’t until I read Randy Krum’s wrap-up post on Cool Infographics that I realised just how many sessions I had missed. You can pore over the hefty printed agenda or browse the great, Eventbase-powered app. Whichever large tech conference you're going to (SXSW, Dreamforce, the Tableau Conference) it pays to plan ahead.

4. Choose ONE thing per day to go see

With so many sessions you are bound to be conflicted in your choice. What I also discovered is that lots of them are popular. Several times I went along to a session, 30 minutes early, only to find the room was already full and a long queue was forming. If you look at the agenda and feel really strongly about a session, skip a session before it and be there early.

5. Apply to speak

I was delighted when my talk, “The Most Influential Visualisations of all Time” was accepted. Not only does this pay for your badge, it’s a great experience if you have never done it before. Sharing your stories with people will help you meet more people and learn from them. They’ll tell you what you think, either to your face or on twitter, and this will help you learn more.

6. Hire a bike

The traffic in Austin is terrible. Walking between venues is time consuming and tiring. The pedicabs are cool. But the best way to get around? Hire a bike and cruise in style. It’s the perfect mix of ease, speed, exercise and general coolness.

7. Leave space for swag

The exhibition hall and the vendor parties provide you with all sorts of great swag. Make sure there's room in your bag to get it home!


SXSW is fantastic. Registration for 2015 opens in August. But before that there's Tableau's own conference, in Seattle in September. It's not as big as SXSW yet, but some of these lessons apply there too! Are you ready for a big, amazing show? In which case:
Take me to the Tableau Conference!


Submitted by Gregory L. on

Great summary, my friend!! Looks like a fantastic experience...I gotta find a way to get there next year :)

Having seen your session several times, I am confident that you blew them away!!