Stewart Smith
Sxsw Hero 1

On joining the SXSW Pitch advisory board

Returning for its 16th year, SXSW Pitch showcases innovative new technology to a panel of industry experts, high-profile media professionals, venture capitalists, and angel investors. I’ve recently been invited to join the SXSW Pitch Advisory Board to recruit fresh startups for the pitch process, and to nominate judges for the live event panel convening next March at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

I was lucky to receive an introduction to SXSW Pitch event producer, Chris Valentine, via prolific strategy prodigy, Cindy Mallory. (Cindy has served on the SXSW Pitch Advisory Board for some time, and is also New York Chapter President for the VR/AR Association.) Chris felt I was a good fit for the board, and soon afterward I was put to work seeking new startups to submit their pitches—and excited to participate in the first (pre-SXSW) round of judging. It’s been a fun experience so far, and a fun way to reconnect with SXSW.

2023 SXSW Pitch – Innovative World Technologies – Photo by Kimmi Cranes.

2023 SXSW Pitch – Innovative World Technologies – Photo by Kimmi Cranes.

Hacking SXSW’s registration

It’s been a few years since I’ve attended SXSW. My last visit was in 2019—prior to the outbreak of COVID-19—when I served on a panel to discuss virtual reality and immersive experiences. At the time I had recently departed Unity to join Amazon Web Services in support of their WebXR creation and publishing tool, Amazon Sumerian. (Only a few years later I would leave AWS and its silently deprecated Sumerian platform to return to my Unity family.)

I must have been feeling a bit spicy the day I registered and redeemed my SXSW ticket. I recall filling out the registration page’s HTML forms—a list of fields that expected firm, absolute answers. I bristled at the terribly limited and unimaginative drop-down list for Job Titles—and the required task of choosing one of them in order to complete my registration. None of the job titles in the queue seemed to correspond with my new role at AWS—at least, not emotionally so. (An admittedly silly frustration, but one that I harbored nonetheless.) And the situation was the same for Industry Category—none of the descriptions in the list felt aligned with our creative platform. “I have to identify with one of these options? Why? What other bullshit awaits me further down this registration form?” (Apologies to the folks who spec’d and built this registration system. I mean no offense. As I said, I must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed that day.)

Global thermonuclear war

In a fit of inspired frustration I opened my browser’s Elements Inspector and lasered in on those annoyingly anemic dropdown lists. I knew I wanted to add my own custom entries for Job Title and Industry Category—but what should those custom entries be? My thoughts turned to the playful hacking featured in the 1980s Cold War classic, WarGames. (The main character, David Lightman, nearly triggers World War III when he breaks into a computer network that he believes to be a video game company, but is instead a US defense system.) Industry Category? Why, it’s global thermonuclear war, of course. And Job Title? What if I’m not a human being filling out this form, but an artificially intelligent computer program? I took the name WOPR (War Operation Plan Response, pronounced “whopper”) from the fictional defense system in the film.

Shall we play a game?


The form did choke a bit on submission, but ultimately validated on the server-side. (I won’t go into detail here; some secrets do keep the world safer, eh?) When the confirmation page loaded and the email receipt arrived, I saw no references to my altered entries. I figured the backend sanitization code must have stripped out my creative additions. (And that was all for the best, I supposed.)

But a few weeks later when I downloaded and logged into the official SXSW app for its schedules and live announcements, I noticed that within the Networking tab there was a curious “Industry” entry: Global-Thermonuclear-War,—yes, including those hyphens and that trailing comma, oddly. So I had succeeded after all: I’d injected my own custom labels into the SXSW registration flow and these made it into the live social app shared among all attendees. Marvelous. It sparked joy in myself and a handful of gobsmacked friends who caught the hack as well as the cultural reference. (No SXSW employees or attendees were harmed in the execution of this adolescent, yet harmless prank.)

Screen grabs from the official 2019 SXSW iOS app showing my Industry Category as “Global Thermonuclear War” and Job Title as “WOPR”—inspired by the 1980s Cold War classic film, WarGames .

Screen grabs from the official 2019 SXSW iOS app showing my Industry Category as “Global Thermonuclear War” and Job Title as “WOPR”—inspired by the 1980s Cold War classic film, WarGames.


It feels about right, these years later, to be doing something a bit more constructive with my relationship to SXSW. I’ve joined this year’s Pitch advisory board and very much look forward to sending a selection of exciting new startups to the live panel convening next March in Austin. Do you have a fresh startup? Are you seeking funding? Submit your application to SXSW Pitch here!