Five Questions For … SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest

Austin—When Hugh Forrest joined SXSW in 1994, fewer than 4,300 attended the little-known music festival. That was the year that two new “events”—Interactive and Film—were introduced to the mix, with the first keynote being given by a tech executive: Richard Garriott, then the founder of Origin Systems, and now known as a video gaming pioneer and aspiring space entrepreneur.

Today, Forrest, who is SXSW’s chief programming officer, helps to play host to the tens of thousands who flock to the Texas capital. The days are long gone of SXSW being under the radar; commercial partners are now the world’s top brands, seeking the attention of the hoards who attend. In 2007, Twitter made its debut here, and last year’s keynote speakers included a double-bill of President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. (This year’s festival starts today.)

“I think as SXSW has grown in recent years, it’s getting more C-suite level people coming to the event,” Forrest says. “They wanted to come because there were so many people not like them at the event.”

In this week’s “Five Questions For … ” we speak to Forrest, who talks about the importance of personal interaction in our increasingly digital age, why words mean so much to him, and how he once thought he would not hold a job for more than four years. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be?

Hugh Forrest: I wrote my thesis in college about John Updike. It was never as good a thesis as I wished it was, but I was always fascinated with his writing. In particular, he had this series of rabbit books, Rabbit, Run. It was about this protagonist who had been a basketball player in his youth. He had lots of happiness but was never quite content with his happiness. He was moving from one thing to another. I’ve thought about that thesis and Updike a lot. I’d love to have a chance to have dinner with him and pick his brain, and ask how he became such a strong and effective writer.

Updike also did a ton of writing, reviews for The New Yorker. I would love to ask him what he did when it was his time to write four paragraphs. How did you do that? What were his inspirations?

X: What did your 25-year-old self know that you have forgotten?

HF: He was a lot better about athletic leadership-related things. I am not allowed to play basketball anymore. I had more bones then … I know that when I was younger I was much more committed to doing a lot of different things, and I remember always I had this idea that I was never going to stay in a job for more than four years, and then do something else. I still think that’s a pretty good idea but … I’ve been at SXSW for 23 years so I haven’t really followed that.

By comparison, I’m a lot more comfortable with myself now than I was at 25. I was much more of an introvert then than I am now. I was not as confident in my opinions, direction, leadership then. For me, at least, a lot of the confidence is simply repetition. There’s the Malcolm Gladwell saw about doing something for 10,000 hours. The more I’ve done SXSW, the more comfortable I’ve been in this role. I read about tech; I’m talking about it, and thinking that my opinions are relatively coherent.

It is somewhat daunting when I see someone who is now fairly established in their career, and I remember when they were volunteering at SXSW and I think, Gosh, is it really that long? I certainly tend to see early stage companies and? early stage individuals at SXSW. They use that platform to? grow, to get more experience, to get more contacts, to get the word out.

X: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about managing people?

HF: The more I manage people—the more I struggle to manage people—the more I realize how much of a labor-intensive thing it is. The best management comes when you meet with people a lot, and allot time to do that, and that is not necessarily fast or time-efficient. But that is the best way to better understand what your people are doing, the problems  and successes they’re having, and how you can help them. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve been very good at that and other periods where I haven’t been as good at it.

Certainly, I think the more I set aside time to meet with people, the better my management skills are. One of the ironies of where we are is we have so many more machines, gadgets, computers, interfaces, whatever you want to call it, to connect with other people. Those are very helpful in a lot of ways but nothing yet replaces one-on-one interaction with someone, lunch or coffee or sitting across the desk from them. From a management perspective, that is a very effective thing. Human connection still matters.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

HF: It was probably an athlete. When I grew up a little bit more, it was a writer. I still want to be a writer. I use that line kind of as a joke in recent years when I speak. Over the summer, I decided I should try to quit using it as a joke and follow up a little more. I’ve been on this project since August, to try to write four paragraphs every day on Medium. Some days it’s relatively easy; some days it’s very not easy. It feeds into a kind of creativity that I don’t exercise otherwise. I would love to get to a point to write longer than four paragraphs. But as much as I’ve thought about it, I’ve never had the discipline to sit down and do anything about it.

Last week, for SXSW, I found different ways to write about the event. It was a mix of general tech stuff, cool tech stuff, some about politics. The act of writing is more important than the writing itself. I’ve gotten slightly better at it, and slightly less nervous about it. It doesn’t keep me awake at night if I don’t have an idea for the next morning.

I started this because I was listening to a Tim Ferris podcast interviewing Seth Godin and Seth said, if you force yourself to write in a public way, it’ll improve yourself in some way. It will force you to take a stand on some things. I often don’t do particularly well—I’m good at skirting the middle in things—but trying to write has forced me to get a little better at making opinions. I still have a long, long way to go.

X: If you got stranded on a desert island, what’s the one item you would have to have with you?

HF: A Kindle with a super-duper battery, something to read. If not a Kindle, then a long book. I don’t get to read as much as I’d like to at this point, so as much as I’d enjoyed getting rescued, it would be neat to relax with some really good words.

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