Olayinka S. Folorunso

Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated... but we are initiated, aren't we Bruce? Members of the League of Shadows!
— Bane. The Dark Knight Rises

Web Summit 2016 - The Right, The Wrong and The Disappointing

Berlin, Germany - Thursday, Nov 17 2016

In late 2015, I managed to win (How? I honestly do not remember) two free tickets to the Web Summit 2016 hosted in Lisbon. I gave the other one to an old friend hoping that we would meet there which we did. The timing of the event was perfect. Berlin’s temperature was falling rapidly and one had almost forgotten what the sun looked or felt like. So November came and I decided to go to Lisbon for four days to witness and be part of the over-40000-attendee multi-conference event called Web Summit. The event took place between 7th November and 10th November 2016 inclusive.

The Right

Of course, it is only fitting to start with the good stuffs. I have often been accused of being a whiner so when I get to the bad stuffs, there may not be an end to it.

So what did Web Summit get right?

The Numbers

They got that part right. I wouldn’t expect otherwise considering the amount of publicity involved in planning the summit. And I’d wager that my pair of free tickets played a significant role in the campaign to get as many people as possible into Lisbon. The Web Summit managed to attract over people involving founders of start-ups, investors, many C-something-O’s of notable and well established businesses, high political figures, football superstars, movie stars, music stars and average wannabe engineers, technicians, managers and even curious individuals who were willing to spend four days in a supposedly web-oriented event.

The numbers was not only beneficial to the Web Summit organization itself but also to the city of Lisbon, Portugal. Hotel accommodation, transportation, night life on the street, sales of goodies and souvenirs brought a lot of attention and returns to the city. For the four days of the summit, the city of Lisbon was blessed. I remember being at a bar on the second night of the summit and the bartender was complaining about wanting to close but decided otherwise after seeing the sheer amount of people having a good time right outside his bar.

The numbers also opened room for international connections. Imagine if every attendee met every other attendee, that would amount to over connections. Oh Web Summit, you sneaky match maker! Fortunately for me, I didn’t manage to meet everyone from the summit. I did however go home with a handful of business cards which I was happy to link up with on LinkedIn. Outside the summit, I had the chance to meet Lisbon locals who didn’t shy away from a conservation with a random tourist. Interesting people I must say.

The city of Lisbon was fully aware of the Web Summit for the entire week and there was no stopping it. At every corner right from the airport, you must be deaf, blind and dumb to not know something huge was happening in Lisbon. To be frank, you have to be completely incapacitated to not be aware of the Web Summit.

The Organization

Kudos to the Web Summit team on this one. I consider myself as a person with an embarrassingly poor sense of orientation of which most of my friends and acquaintances agree. Nonetheless from the moment I crossed the border at the Lisbon airport I didn’t spend a second wandering around. I knew exactly where to go and what to do.

A registration camp was set up at the exit of the airport. The team was helpful providing T-Shirts, navigation maps and there was a desk nearby where one could purchase a card to move around Lisbon through the subway or the bus. The card cost 25 euros which I later found out to be exhorbitant. Nevertheless, it was comforting knowing that for the entire stay, I did not have to buy or recharge the card each time I needed to change location.

The site of the event FIL (Feira Internacional de Lisboa) was no different. The pink (or purple?) guys were everywhere and one could never be lost. I suppose with such a huge amount of attendees, getting the organization right must be priority and for that the Web Summit team have my thanks and utmost respect.

The Night Summit

I like my alcohol. One of the reasons I think I may spend the rest of my days in Berlin. Alcohol in Lisbon is freakishly cheap compared to Berlin, although I can’t vouch for its quality and variety. To the lady who thought it wise to serve me half a glass of whiskey on a Monday afternoon, please don’t do it again. I only wanted two shots and there she was pouring it non stop until of course I said stop. Being the greedy bastard that I am I was curious to see how long she could keep pouring. And so she did until my shame hit me and I told her to stop. And all for just 5 euros. The same amount of whiskey would cost me about 15 euros in Berlin on any night.

The night summit was organized in such a way that everyone had something to do while the moon was out. I decided to sleep on the first night but went pub crawling the following two. Not exactly pub crawling, I only managed to do one pub or two. I did not have the energy nor sobriety to roam from one pub to another. On the second night, I also managed to sneak inside a cocktail party for investors and met all sort of people with brilliant ideas.

The Wrong

Now that we’ve got the good stuffs out of the way. Let’s talk about the bad stuff. Yes the bad stuffs, the one we’ve all been waiting for.

The Numbers and Organization

What the hell were they thinking bringing that amount of people together for a tech event? Now that I think about it, it wasn’t exactly a tech event. It was a little of everything and nothing at all. That amount of people implied that if everyone didn’t go there with the same purpose, then no one was going to get anything out of it. Now say you are the kind of person who went there with a purpose which might be to attend a specific set of talks and/or meet a specific set of people, the only way you might have benefited from the event was if your selected talks were scheduled on the same stage, or if you got lucky and they were inside the same hall. But as I experienced, this wasn’t the case for the Web Summit. The talks were scattered all around and even though they tried as much as possible to schedule similar talks around the same stage or hall I still found myself running from hall to hall so as not to miss the start of a talk or in order to get a seat which was most of the time futile.

They say bigger is always better but not when you believe in the hipster conjecture where uniqueness holds higher value over following the masses who are often confused with the majority. With such amount of people, you run the risk of satisfying everyone and no one. And that was the case for the Web Summit. Everyone left satisfied and no one left truly satisfied.

The Speakers and the Talks

The opening remarks by Paddy Cosgrave was sub-par. It felt like an advertisement for the next edition of the summit and also an excuse to brag about how huge the Web Summit had become. Paddy in his opening speech failed to make an impression. He failed in what is considered the most important part of any opening remark which is; Why the hell are we all here? However, the Prime Minister of Portugal who took the stage after Paddy didn’t fail to emphasize on how Web Summit and its aftermath would influence the economy of his country which in my opinion was fair coming from a political personality. I left the opening night of the summit feeling like I have been invited to just another party, only this hosted over 40 000 people.

Most of the speakers looked under prepared and inexperienced in public speaking either by going out of sync, by talking too much and/or total failure to engage with the audience. The interviewers for the talks that appeared to be interviews also lacked the charisma to lead an interview in a stage as huge as Web Summit’s. It is quite possible that I only managed to attend talks with above said faults but considering that I sat (or stood) through at least five talks every day, there is a valid point somewhere in my complaints.

The talk on Alexa by Werner Vogels of Amazon was the first talk that had an impression on me and that was on the third day of the summit. Due to the enormous amount of talks going on, I missed half of his second talk which took place on the centre stage. The talk by Richard Stallman which was more or less what one would expect from Richard Stallman was a close second. However due to having an ex college mate in the VIP forum area, I managed to squeeze myself inside and I realized that the good stuff was happening there meaning they left the mediocre ones for the rest of us. I attended an interesting forum on autonomous vehicles titled Self Driving Cars and the Future of Urban Mobility with Jose Viegas, Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty and Rodin Lyasoff on stage.

As an on and off Tinder user I did not fail to see Farrah Storr’s interview with Sean Rad titled Love & tech in the time of Tinder. I have always wondered why Tinder’s UI and UX suck. I thought Sean might shed some light on that but of course he didn’t say enough about the technicality of what they do at Tinder but he did say more on numbers. I guess in this age of data, numbers is such a big deal. At the end of the interview, I was somewhat convinced that Sean was only a good person trying to make the dating experience better but was unfortunate to hire crappy developers and engineers. Farrah on the other hand was a fantastic interviewer.

From running up and down the site, I was present in an interesting debate on whether advertisers should love adblocking and I walked way feeling justified (not that I need any justification) about having adblock installed on my browser.

The Disappointing

Internet and Mobile Application

You’d think that with the huge amount of people they managed to attract, the Web Summit team would provide a solid internet connection and mobile application.

I have never been to a Google I/O but the applications are usually smooth and we can all agree that Google I/O attracts a lot more people, on and off site. Of course it would be unfair to compare Web Summit with the almighty Google but considering it was called Web Summit, how about hiring skilled mobile app engineers to design and build your application. Instead there were ad banners all around the site stating that Web Summit is looking for Data Scientist. What in seven bloody hells do they need Data Scientists for? I suppose their aim is to get more people to the conference instead of improving the quality of what they have. The Android app crashed literally every time it was launched on my phone. It wouldn’t even start without internet access and sometimes when it did start, it became non-responsive after a couple of touches. At some point, all my chat disappeared and I guess they had to restore or rollback the database. The event schedule on the app didn’t match what was happening in real time and there was no easily accessible way to synchronize the schedule on the app with an external calendar app which imply a lack of real time notification for talks and other parallel events. Instead, I had to rely on notifications from the application which came either too early or too late or didn’t come at all. Meeting and connecting people was supposed to be made easier with the application. The catch phrase at the summmit was Can I scan you? This is said when one attendee wants to scan the barcode of another attendee but most of the time the scanner didn’t work and people had to rely on exchanging business card. Exchange of physical business card in a supposedly tech event in 2016 :rage2: The worst from the mobile application was the frequent spam notifications which were mostly about purchasing a ticket for the 2017 Web Summit also to be hosted by Lisbon.

The wifi was crappy. There were two (or maybe more) of them. During the summit, I had to rely on my mobile internet data because the wifi was completely unreliable. My device was busy disconnecting and reconnecting all the time and my battery drained faster than the Flash running to save Iris West. Only four days at the summit and I’d already used up my mobile data quota for the month. There really isn’t much to say about a crappy internet connection other than it being crappy.

It wasn’t about the Web (at all)

This is one rant which is a continuation of the last point on The Wrongs above.

I must admit now that I had conflicting expectations about the summit. I expected to walk in there and find tech geeks like myself. This must have been due to my lack of attention to the details of the schedule. However when one sees the buzzwords used in naming the stages and scheduled talks and interviews, one can easily be seduced into thinking that a geek can get something useful out of it. There were 21 conferences named AutoTech, binate, PandaConf, MoneyConf, FullSTK and other fancifully coined names.

It wasn’t even about the Web. It had little to nothing to do about the Web. Mostly due to the US election’s timing colliding with that of the Web Summit, it was incredibly hard for most speakers to avoid talking about the US election and/or Donald Trump. I get it, the choice of the US president affects the entire world directly or indirectly but this is a Web oriented summit (or so they said) and talking about the US election with every given opportunity made the whole thing feel like one big political propaganda.

But it was a corporate propaganda when I reflect more on it. I barely left Portugal before I was being spammed with emails informing me on how to get a discounted ticket for the next Web Summit because this one was such an impressive turnout. Web Summit was in summary a stage for up and rising startups to display their product and attempt to seduce investors, marketers and the media into taking a chance on their products. It was a good opportunity to meet and connect with people in business and I did just that which is to little or no benefit to me at this stage of my professional life.

There were so many talks. It is hard to mention them all but nothing really stood out. Nothing. How can anything stand out when every talk is less than 20 minutes long. And one misses a huge part of a talk by running between pavilions and the centre stage. How can anything stand out when a summit is organized to satisfy over 40 000 people and no one in particular. This wasn’t a football match where everyone can leave the stadium and discuss the match. It felt like a religious convention, except they claim it was about the web or tech oriented by naming it Web Summit but it was what it was; Europe’s Largest Technology Marketplace. I sure haven’t seen bigger.

During the Web Summit. Lisbon was a brothel. The Web Summit organization was its keeper. The startups were the whores waiting to go in bed with the investors, except they paid to be there. The speakers and the important personnel present were just an advertisement campaign. I’m not exactly sure where I fit in this picture.

Summary

As a Software Engineer, the Web Summit was a huge disappointment. However as a fan-boy, a tourist in Lisbon and someone who had been tortured by the cold and rain in Berlin for two straight weeks prior to the summit, I had a blast. The Night Summits were eventful. I met a lot of wonderful people including three young Brazilian Lisbon locals. I saw live on and off stage, people that I admire including Jon Skeet, Werner Vogels, Richard Stallman, Luis Figo, Ronaldinho and the amazing Joseph-Gordon Levitt. I met a lot of struggling entrepreneurs and well established ones with brilliant ideas. I met some crappy ones as well. I admire these individuals a lot and they do make me feel inadequate for not having the courage to have my own business. But who am I deceiving I am not cut out for the entrepreneurship world and Web Summit will not be seeing me again. However disregarding the pigeon that crapped on my head while I was having a smoke, Lisbon is on my vacation destination list.

Pictures and Videos of the Web Summit including the various talks, speeches, debates and interviews can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

  1. Web Summit
  2. Web Summit Pictures
  3. Web Summit Videos