by Jill Dyché

Technology, tapas and shoptalk: there’s a new breed of tech conference

Aug 04, 2017
EventsIT Leadership

In which Jill swears off rubbery chicken.

At a recent tech conference I had a conversation with an industry analyst on the future of data science. We weighed hard versus soft skills, discussed hiring practices, and debated whether executives “got it.” Sounds pretty standard for a technology event, right? Except we were both in kayaks floating down a river. (And yes, there was beer.)

Hotel ballroom luncheons, labyrinthine demo halls, and cold egg rolls in the lobby bar aren’t quite behind us. But some event organizers are reimagining tech conferences, and the results are compelling.

Last fall I participated on a panel at The Harvest Summit, which invites “innovators, influencers, and tastemakers” to spend a day at a private ranch in Sonoma County networking, pitching new ideas, and yes, drinking wine. There was the requisite panel discussion on innovation and a small swarm of venture capitalists milled around, armed with craft beers, paradoxically seeking their own. But most of the activities were held en plein air. Breaks between sessions featured vertical tastings from small batch wineries as servers navigated the crowd offering Manchego cheese cubes and vegan tapas. There was a yoga class. And a spaceship.

It was a refreshing change, to be sure, and well-covered by media. (Even famously buttoned-up published a piece on what to wear to the Harvest Summit.) But it wasn’t the first of its kind. “I wanted to gather analysts, vendors, and consultants who were all too used to the conference grind, and get them away from the circuit,” explains Scott Humphrey, president of Humphrey Strategic Communications and consigliere of the Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit. “It’s amazing the truths that emerge when you put a domain experts in shorts and t-shirts, hand them a drink, grab a chair at the fire pit, and then bring up advances in deep learning.”

Humphrey’s event, now in its sixteenth year, is held at a small inn on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. In keeping with the laid-back setting, the agenda mixes informal talks by tech industry gurus with jet boat riding, glassblowing, cooking classes, and poker night. (The latter has cultivated its own following, and winnings are donated to charity.) Volunteers from a local wildlife sanctuary show up with wolves and owls in tow, and a blues band has rocked the lodge. The Summit proves that more can be learned on a sunny afternoon in an Adirondack chair than in an entire week of meetings in Menlo Park.

To encourage intimacy and engagement, organizers of these events cap attendance. Speaker choices are “curated” to ensure domain proficiency and discourage divas. Topics cut across a wide swath of trends, from storytelling to robotics, hydroponics, neuroscience and DNA sequencing. Artificial intelligence is a staple. Ditto anything “smart.” Expect pitch contests, demos and hackathons.

This summer’s at-capacity AT&T Shape conference explored the intersection between tech and entertainment. Attendees had the run of the Warner Brothers Studio lot, donning VR headsets, visiting food trucks, and attending talks in a retro movie theater. The crowd was refreshingly diverse, with hipsters hobnobbing with besuited entertainment execs itching to lose their ties.

On the diversity front, Shape wins the award for its assortment of speakers and topics: Alex Padilla, California’s Secretary of State and rumored contender for governor, advocated digital government. DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson got the crowd going with previews of comic-themed video games. Adding to the oohs and ahhs were Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, a giggling Kate Hudson talking athleisure wear, and a digital magician (aka: “cyber illusionist”).

On the final day of his BI and Analytics Summit, Scott Humphrey asks each attendee to make predictions for the coming year. These are recorded and reviewed the following year to see what hit the mark. My predictions were about the gig economy pervading analytics, the coming convergence of open source and commercial software, and the inevitable return to a kayak on an Oregon river.

My bet is that at least one of those is a sure thing.