SXSW and the expanding definition of tech

This past weekend I went to my first SXSW Interactive. I enjoyed meeting people from around the digital media and startup communities, attending parties, and getting free food and t-shirts. I was inspired by all the different angles speakers had on the future of tech, often focusing on emerging areas like health-tech, the smart home, and smart transportation, and even discussing the role of science fiction. Sometimes the startup hype and guerilla marketing there was so bizarre, I felt like I was in an episode of Silicon Valley.

Friends had warned me to not expect much content on software itself at SXSW. Still, as a software engineer, I found it a bit disappointing. I’ve always thought of the tech industry and startup community as as software at its core, so SXSW was a reminder of how the term tech has broadened considerably to encompass so many things besides software itself.

The best broad definition of tech I’ve read comes from this New Yorker piece on San Francisco’s startup community:

“Tech today means anything about computers, the Internet, digital media, social media, smartphones, electronic data, crowd-funding, or new business design. At some point, in other words, tech stopped being an industry and turned into the substrate of most things changing in urban culture.”

I also have thought a lot about how to define tech while volunteering for Out for Undergrad, a nonprofit that runs career-oriented conferences for LGBT undergrads. O4U offers both a business conference, for careers such as finance and consulting, and a tech conference for careers in software. As of last year, companies can only sponsor one conference, so we needed a rule of thumb to determine where to best put financial-tech companies. We decided to look at the company’s leadership: to qualify for the tech conference, a co-founder or key executive should be from a software background, and software engineering should be regarded as an executive-leadership-track position.

How did “tech” get so broad? I think there have been 2 big shifts over the past decade. For one, the spread of smartphones has enabled new categories of businesses, like on-demand commerce, and new types of social media, like messaging and photo-sharing. For another, venture capital has grown, so there’s a broader set of companies getting funded. Many of these new companies aren’t selling hardware or software. But they depend on software platforms to function, they’re getting covered by the tech press, and they’re hiring talent from other tech companies, so that puts them in the same industry and in the same conversation.

This broad definition can be disorienting sometimes, as it was for me during SXSW Interactive. But ultimately I’m proud that software is having a broader and richer impact on the world and I look forward to seeing where tech goes next.