TNW in Review

I’ve just got back from “The Next Web Europe” conference, there’s a good chance the conference is still going on, at least the drinking/partying fun part of the conference. A few of the speakers triggered my thinking so there will be a few more posts in the coming 1-2 weeks but here’s my summary of the conference.

Location: Westergasfabriek is cycling distance from my house, so that scores it a bunch of points on my unscientific scale. But there are other advantages as well, it’s close to the centre, and set in a park. We were lucky to have sunny days so it was a joy to wander outside in the breaks. The venue for the red stage is an old gas storage silo that’s now been rebuilt, it makes a great shell to stage events.

Organisation: Top. A lot of thought had gone into the details, clever branding throughout, lots of exposure for partners, presenters were taken care of, the MC did a great job, clear signage, there were loads of people on the “TNW” team – and all the ones that I spoke to were helpful. Oh, and the wifi was great, and held up throughout the two days. So a big congratulations to the organisers and the event team.

My only minor complaint; a book giveaway was announced to start at lunchtime, but in fact started at the end of the speaker’s talk. So those who believed the announcement arrived at lunch to be told the freebies were all gone, but you can buy a book and the author will sign. No thanks, I like the guy but his signature isn’t worth the 22 euro price differential (from a kindle edition).

Speakers: This is my subjective judgement, I think there’s a big difference in the American style of presenting and the European style of presenting. Americans seem to go for big statements, dramatic conclusions, and value passion as a speaker. I think European speakers structure their speeches to tell a story, provide evidence, and value charm and audience connection as a speaker. Thus there were¬†a couple of speeches that I really wanted to hear but felt like I was being yelled at. The worst in this category for me was Stefan Molyneux, who is very angry with banks and governments. Granted there’s a lot to be angry about, and since I used to work for a bank I’ve probably heard more of such rants than is good for me but it just felt very… 2009.

I think the speaker I enjoyed the most was Dale Stephens, the founder of uncollege. His parents let him quit school when he was 12 and start managing his own education. I’ve felt for along time that our current education system isn’t fit for the future, and the existing university system is increasingly a very middle-class rite of passage rather than a real education. I’ll have more to say about this in a later post.

Audience: Mostly young, digital natives or near natives, hipster beards abounded. Mostly men – it’s one of the few places I’ve been where there was a long queue for the men’s toilet and none for the women’s. Generally they were enthusiastic about good speakers, but also quick to walk if a speaker wasn’t delivering what they wanted (except for me, muggins, who sat through to the end in hope). I’m a little sad that the audiences don’t stay in the room for the various awards and support their industry colleagues, perhaps next year those awards could be between two draw-card speakers to reduce audience drift.

Stuff I didn’t see: One of the problems of these megaconferences is that there is so much going on that you can’t see it all. So I missed out on some great speakers in the green and blue rooms, a hackathon full of brilliance, and talking to some cool startups.

Purpose: I’ve been to the Dublin WebSummit a couple of times, and left feeling I’d heard from people who are building the digital industry, I didn’t get that at TNW Europe.

It felt more like there were more researchers and commentators on digital than practitioners, this may be partly due to my choice of the red room. I certainly learnt from many of the speakers, but for thinking about “The Next Web” – which is after all the title of the conference – I think the Dublin WebSummit does a better job.

Best Moment: coming back into the room and finding anonymous masks on our chairs. It made the point that we were about to discuss those difficult issues of private vs public.

Plus it led to a rash of selfies, that’s my first ever “selfie” on the left.

The first part of this session was the story of Shawn Buckles, who sold his personal data to the highest bidder – for 350 euro.

At the end of which all those with masked stood for a great photo opportunity.

I guess the ultimate test of value (especially as I pay my own way for conferences these days) is would I go to the next one; yes, I would.


The Web Summit Highlights

It was another great conference, with lots of new ideas, great speakers and interesting people.

Highlights for me;

Seeing hundreds and hundreds of start ups; many I will never hear of again and some won’t ever “make it big” but it shows that digital is still innovative, and that much of the innovation is outside the standard companies. I spoke to a couple of people who work in incubators – helping these new companies get off the ground. It takes time and support to build a business out of an idea. Here are 15 of the hottest apps from the Summit.

I went to the “Leadership Lunch” which is a lunch for women in leadership positions in the digital world with keynote speakers. I’m usually a bit wary of “separate” events, but this had some great speakers so I signed up. It was really interesting to hear more personal insights of the challenges women have faced in working in Digital, but the biggest round of applause came for Caithriona Hallahan’s comment that one day we won’t think women leading in digital as unusual or remarkable and this won’t be needed.

Best session for me was a panel discussion on privacy, this is going to be an ongoing issue for all companies as digital becomes more mainstream and increasingly ubiquitous. It’s one where neither law nor technology has all the answers.

This year’s summit had more than twice the number of participants as last year, it added a “food summit” to showcase Irish food and is slowly being rebranded as “The Summit” as its fame grows. Some things were better this year – the taxis had been warned for example, and some things were worse – the wifi truly sucked.

There are plans to make it bigger and better next year – and you can already sign up for the 2014 two-for-one ticket offer. Prices are up on this year but it’s still good value as conferences go.

Coding for Kids

If Zuckerberg makes you feel depressed about your age you should probably stop reading now.

On stage at the WebSummit in Dublin yesterday were three young techie/entrepreneurs. Pep Gomez of FeverUp, Sujay Tyle of Scopely and James Whelton of Coder Dojo. Three very bright, very young men (all under 20) who are building a better world.

It was James Whelton who caught my attention, he explained that when he was at school he was bad at everything; sport, music, academics. The only thing he was good at was coding – but that wasn’t supported or recognised at school. He’s got a little bit famous for his coding skills while on a flight – he discovered and published a hack to get past Virgin’s pay-for-wifi setup.

So he left school, and started Coder Dojo, it’s an after school workshop where kids can go and learn to code. The stupidly simple answer to a problem that schools don’t have the expertise or resources to solve.

It’s now running all over Ireland and in 20 other countries, and not just wealthy western countries; Indonesia and Uganda have Coder Dojos. (If there isn’t one near you check the site – maybe you’ll get to start one.)

And just when I was getting over someone so young doing such cool stuff. He brought 4 children, average age 12 up on to the stage. They are fast becoming coding experts, one has already had a game top rank in iTunes. Take a look at Harry, the inventor of PizzaBot, age 12.

Kids are kids though, when the interviewer asked whether the top ranking and the sales in iTunes meant he could buy chocolate for all the girls at school he replied “well that’d be great, if there were any girls at my school”.

Given that technology runs the modern world more of the tech skills should be taught in schools. But of course there’s a long lead-time to make such a change. In the meantime there’s Coder Dojo.