THINK2019 — Why You Should Go To Tech Conferences

In February 2019 I won a trip to attend THINK in 2019, San Francisco, which was absolutely amazing. I went over with a two agendas. The first was that I wanted to meet amazing people in technology. The second was that I wanted to bring home and share their stories to inspire people as much as I was. THINK 2019 honestly changed my life, I made some great friends, learnt a lot and was blessed to so happy to have the opportunity to interview multiple global leaders within IBM. There was something magical about being at THINK that really changed my whole perspective on technology, life and what I want to accomplish in my career. There is something to be said about putting yourself into a position where there is a high density of some of the most amazing people in the world, who all share similar passions to yourself. I have written this blog really to share some of my experiences at THINK and to convince you that if tech is something you are passionate about and want to forge a career in, you need to go to conferences.

As usual, the footnotes like you see here 1 will contain fun extra notes. These footnotes are slightly more boring 1 and will contain definitions and additional information. Let's dive into it.


👀 Pre THINK 2019

🌎 THINK 2019

💡 Key Messages

👀 Pre THINK 2019

In early February one of those business wide emails was sent out, you know one of those ones that everybody gets so you don’t feel that special? But this one was very exciting however.

“WIN a Trip to THINK 2019”


“Just submit a 90 second video of why you should go, your top 3 achievements and how you will share your experiences when you return”


Now there is nothing worse than having to record yourself talking into a camera, except watching it back afterwards and hearing your own voice and questioning your own existence. So I decided not to do that. I decided I would do literally anything else. I decided to get in touch with my inner child. I decided to do a magic trick 2. It is a tough task when someone asks you to tell them how good you are because what they really mean is tell me how good you are without appearing arrogant, which is tough. It is an important skill though, because sometimes we need to do it 3. Like in interviews, dates or when we share the work we have done with others. This was one of those situations. So I did the only thing I could, I made sure I was only really in the video for about 10 seconds. Here is the youtube video of my submission.

Submission Video

Now seeing as I've showed you the video I may as well give some quick insights into why I chose to do my submission this way. Firstly, I put myself into the shoes of the potential submission reviewers. They will likely be viewing dozens and dozens of these submissions and so I wanted to do something creative that set my apart from the status quo. Besides, everyone likes magic. Secondly, I chose background music that set the desired vibe for the submission. I actually just searched for "happy upbeat background music" and picked the first video that came up. By presenting it in a lighthearted matter it helps to come off as more genuine and relatable rather than arrogant or self infatuating. Thirdly, finish strong. Notice I left the best - and possible lamest - part of the video until the end. This is the end effect at play here. Viewers will look more favorably back on the full experience if the final moments are enjoyable. 

One week later was bed ridden with bandages wrapped around my head, recovering from the removal of my wisdom teeth when I woke up to some delightful news. I was one of the winners announced to attend THINK 2019. I smiled, which hurt so I stopped immediately. Whilst I was laying in bed for the next several days I had ample time to think about how I wanted to spend my time at the conference and how I would share my experiences when I returned. 


Well I came to two conclusions. The first, was that I wanted to spend my time at the conference meeting amazing people. The second, came quite naturally after that. Instead of just sharing my experiences, why don’t I do something much more powerful than that. Why don’t I reach out to as many amazing people at THINK as I possibly could and share all of their stories of all the amazing people from all over the world. I have always thought about creating my own podcast and this was the perfect time to do it. And so I went out and bought the best microphone that money could buy. Then I realized it was far too big and so I traded it back in and bought this little guy, which plugged neatly into my iPhone. Much better.

What was next? Well to have a podcast I would need people to interview, ideally. So I started performing the activity made famous by Tim Ferris and reaching out to people that I normally would think would not reply. I started building my supernormal network. Here is the email I sent out!

Reach-Out Email

So this is basically how the interactions went, more or less.

Hi, I am a data scientist in the Artificial Intelligence practice of IBM GBS from Perth, Australia. I will be heading to THINK in San Francisco, with the objective of interviewing as many amazing and interesting people that I can for my blog. The aim is to share the interesting and exciting life/career journeys of people all around the world with the Australian/NZ community. Before traveling to the States I have been trying my hand at the famous Tim Ferris activity of simply reaching out to those who seem unreachable, because you never know if you do not try. I would love the chance to interview you! I will be in San Francisco from February 12th - 15th. Would you be available to meet with me over the conference? If so, what day/time works best for you?
Sure how about Tuesday?

I crafted this email to achieve a few things. I wanted to briefly explain who I am, why I was reaching out to them and ask them directly when they would be available. You need to craft the email such that only one reply is required from the person you are reaching out to. Have energy and passion, it is okay to show how enthusiastic you are about the prospect of meeting them, this will come off as flattery. Most people enjoy helping out others, especially those who may be on a similar path to their own when they were younger or earlier in their career. 

Over the weeks leading up to THINK I managed to setup interviews with some amazing people. I was ready to go to San Francisco 2.

🌎 THINK 2019

Day 1

After touching down in San Francisco I checked into the Fisherman's Wharf Holiday Inn Express - which was about the only accommodation left in the city - and headed off to check into the conference 4. When I first walked into the conference grounds I could feel the buzz and the energy instantly. I checked in, grabbed my name badge and headed over to the main event of the day, the Project Debater.

For the first time in public history, AI was taking on a world debate champion. The topic was "We should subsidise pre school". At first I thought the human debater has been stitched up as he was arguing against the notion, what kind of monster would do that? However due to the way the winner is awarded, it was actually the project debater that was stitched up. The winner is selected by polling the audience if they are for or against the notion both before and after the debate and then assessing the difference. Since the original poll had about 80% of the audience voting in the affirmative, the human debater only had to make a few good points to shift that closer to equilibrium. And so even though project debater did not end up winning the debate, it was still voted as the most knowledge enhancing. Here is the link if you want to give it a watch!

Beyond the ability to scour the internet for relevant research papers, supporting quotes and pioneers for the movement, there were a few distinctly impressive moments throughout the debate. What I found particularly impressive about project debater was its ability to preemptively guess the main points it's human opponent would likely say and provide a rebuttal to those points before he even had the chance to speak. Sure enough, the points project debater predicted were the ones that the human debater brought up. What was also impressive was project debaters ability to use humor and engage with the audience. Project debater was also able to utilise its position of morality in the debate to attempt to make the opponent look inhumane or immoral for arguing that primary school children did not deserve welfare. All very cool.

I then headed to my first interview with Dr. Jeff Welser, Vice President and Lab Director of IBM Research Almaden, which is basically San Francisco. Check out the interview here.

At a networking event later that night, I found myself on a table talking about something I could have never predicted. Technology within the livestock industry, which amongst other things, meant the technology of killing livestock and processing the meat. I had never been so hungry by the time mains came out. I'm joking. After that though, it was definitely time for bed.

Day 2

So day 2 was the first real day of the conference. For me, day 2 was all about quantum. I started off my day by heading to the quantum keynote presentation, led by Dario Gil, the new Director of IBM Research. At this point I had one interview setup for the day, it was time for another. So I sent an email to Dario Gil and then I rushed off to my first interview with Dr. Robert Wisnieff, the Chief Technology Officer for Quantum Computing, or Bob as he prefers. Follow the interview here.

I then headed to a tutorial class which I was pretty excited for - quantum teleportation using IBM's quantum resource, Qiskit. If you are interested in learning about quantum and using the IBM quantum computer, give the tutorial a go! As well as learning about how much of my physics degree I had forgotten, I learnt that quantum teleportation is only the teleportation of information, not objects, which is still really cool, I guess. No but seriously it was pretty awesome. How it basically works is that two particles - usually photons - are what we call entangled which means the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently. Building upon this, the implications that quantum teleportation could have on security are really interesting due to the Observer Effect - which basically means that once you observe one of the quantum states it is destroyed. If someone was to intercept a message or packet of data sent through quantum teleportation, we would be able to know if there was a security breach as the quantum state would have been destroyed by the time the message is relayed to it's intended receiver. Very cool. Here is a good little video that might explain it better than I did.

I then made my way to my interview with Dario Gil, the Director of IBM Research. Follow the interview here.

Day 3

After having some good success with reaching out to develop my supernormal network, I decided to up the ante. Continuing my "why not?" attitude I sent an email requesting an interview to IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty. Perhaps a bit overzealous I know, but I was on a high. She replied - which was big enough news already - stating that she admired my tenacity but unfortunately she was booked end to end, to which I thought - fair enough. She then however introduced me over email to Mark Foster, Senior Vice President of Global Business Services at IBM, suggesting that he might be interested in accepting such a request. Awesome. Mark's assistant was quick to organise a time and before I knew it, I was clearing my morning schedule to make my way to Mark's hotel. I ran through pouring rain and arrived in the lobby looking like someone had poured a bucket of water over my head. I quickly composed myself and headed up to meet Mark. Follow the interview here.

After the interview I made my way to watch Max Kelsen's presentation on the use of AI in the field of genomics for the prediction of immunotherapy outcomes in cancer patients. This was honestly one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me. It was amazing to see an Australian machine learning consultancy - partnered with big players such as IBM, AWS and Google Brain - performing life changing research in Queensland, Australia. After the presentation countless people came up, pouring out their own stories and how much it meant to them to see this work being done. It was powerful stuff. I met with the team and ended up getting to know them quite well over the conference, which led to my interview with the CEO, Nick Therkelsen. The progress that these guys have made in just 4 years since starting up is unbelievable. They are ultra passionate, know their stuff and I can't wait to see what their bright future holds. Check out the interview with Nick here.

I then moved on to my next interview, with Pavel G Ferreri, Worldwide Leader, Global Sales IBM Cloud, Kubernetes & DevServs at IBM. Pavel was a super awesome guy and actually talked me into video this interview so definitely check it out if you are interested in Kubernetes, kickboxing or watching me on camera again which we already established I hate. Interview is here.

It was time for my last interview of the day with Jay Bellissimo, Global Managing Partner, Global Business Services, Cognitive Process Transformation at IBM. Jay was an integral piece in forming the Watson group and actually did a big chunk of work with Woodside Energy from my hometown of Perth, Australia. Check out the interview here.

The Last Day

I am not sure that day 4 deserves it's own section, it was quite sad really. I arrived at the conference to see that almost half of it had been packed away. By the progress they were making, a few hours later it would have been hard to tell that anything happened there at all. All good things come to an end right? I managed to meet with the team who worked on deploying CIMON 3 aboard the International Space Station. CIMON is the world’s first artificial intelligence-enabled astronaut assistant and is basically a floating head that the astronauts can talk to and engage with to perform tasks such as inspection or just playing some good old fashioned music. Really cool project to work on, the team was able to attend the launch and everything. Super jealous.

It was then time to say some goodbyes. In less than a week I had met some amazing people, made some life long friends and learnt a lot about myself and what kind of career I want to pursue. Sometimes it just isn't possible to have this sort of experience when we are caught up in our day to day lives of focussing on a specific project, a specific sprint or a specific quarter. Sometimes we need to shake things up and throw ourselves into a different environment. Sometimes that is the only way we can grow. Holidays can do this and sure we might get some downtime, but if you are passionate about technology there is something truly magical and inspiring about attending a tech conference.

I had to make a very tough decision after attending THINK. I recently chose to pursue a career in robotics with Woodside Energy, where I have set two goals for myself. The first, is to collate my engineering and data science backgrounds to become an adept robotics engineer with a strong technical background in mechanical and electronic engineering, software development and machine learning. The second, is to be an integral member in helping to turn my hometown of Perth into a robotics hub of the world. The opportunity to do this in Perth is very unique by Woodside's recent partnerships. Things have just started to take off and after a year of consulting it was the perfect time in my career to roll my sleeves up and get deep and technical in an extremely exciting field.

IBM taught me a lot and I can honestly say that 2018 was the best year of my life. I was able to build my consulting, software development and machine learning skills, whilst also figuring out exactly what it is I wanted from my life and my career. Before I started IBM I would not have been able to answer that question, now I can say with complete confidence that all I want to do is positively impact the world through technology, however that may be. IBM has some truly amazing people, which was even more evident to me after attending THINK.

Give the interviews a listen. There is some amazing and inspiring stories, useful life advice and great career tips that I think anyone can benefit from, grads or execs.

💡 Key Messages

This is why you should go to tech conferences.

  • Meet amazing people - There is going to be a very high density of amazing, intelligent and passionate people all in one area. If you are into statistics this is an easy one to sell. There was 30'000 people from all over the world who registered to THINK 2019. The conference grounds are approximately 1'000'000 meters squared which means that at any given time there is probably a smart, passionate and interesting person within 1.73 meters of you, which is at arms reach 4
  • See what is happening in the world - You may be in tech, but perhaps you have been limited to one particular area. I have been working in tech but mostly in resources and energy sectors, being based in Perth. By attending a tech conference you will be able to see the vast magnitude of ways that tech is being applied to every field imaginable. This will spark ideas and thought trains that you may have never considered before
  • We live in a time like no other - We have entered the elbow of the greatest growth in technology that we have ever seen in human history. It is an exciting time to get involved with tech. The Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems - or NIPS as it is usually called - sold out in less than 12 minutes in 2018. Conferences are the new Miley Cyrus concerts for tech geeks
  • Get a change of scenery - It is easy to fall into routines. We get entrapped in our day to day lives, our work, our habits. Sometimes we stick to what we know, even if it is not in our long-term interest. What better way to shake things up then travel to another country, meet amazing people, discover endless possibilities and come back reinvigorated and reinspired? None

I would like to thank everyone I had the pleasure of working with over my time at IBM, feel free to reach out to me if you are interested in following my journey into robotics, have comments on my podcasts or blog, or just want to say hi. Thank you for reading 5