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SXSWi Keynotes: Hsieh Proselytizes, Silver Wonks Out

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BusinessWeek‘s Stephen Baker interviews political prediction prodigy, FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver in a Sunday keynote at SXSW (via)

Toothless: That was the assessment of many in the 1,000+ audience to hear Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh‘s opening remarks Saturday at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival. Known in the tech set for its “customer service above all” ethos, Zappos.com is considered a model by many for its early embrace of Twitter to fuel customer service, and for its emphasis on transparency.

In an address with a hearty helping of self-help, Hsieh told the crowd he turns reporters loose when they come to visit the company for a story. “We believe so strongly in our culture, we’re not afraid of what employees will say,” he enthused, describing the “weirdness” and individuality Zappos seeks in employees. “If [reporters] talk to three different employees, they’ll get three different answers to what it’s like to work at Zappo’s.” Given Hsieh’s fanatical-sounding approach to recruitment and training in the interest of alignment, this reporter finds that tough to believe. All that indoctrination doesn’t seem like the recipe for the diversity Hsieh was touting. We found ourselves wishing the format for Hsieh had been an interview with a tech/business journalist who could ask him pointed questions about what happens when the economy takes a dive and people are clinging to their jobs like life rafts — can the same sincerity and singularity of purpose persist when employees are forced to consider the bottom line in their own lives?

What of FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver, number-crunching ingenue and presidential prediction prodigy?


In his keynote interview with BusinessWeek writer Stephen Baker, Silver was — true to his ascent from unassuming baseball analyst to political prediction-maker — understatedly affable, and as wonkish as you’d want your data-obsessed autodidact to be. We found Baker’s line of inquiry to be a bit uneven and lacking in angles, with no discernible thrust to his questions — somewhat understandable, given Silver’s predilection for out-of-left-field sports examples and case studies. At the same time, we wished Baker had taken an approach more like CNet’s highly specific post-talk interview, and also asked Silver about the data sets he leaves out of his calculations, and what variables kept him awake at night during election season.

We know everyone here’s in a porky, beer-infused haze, but it doesn’t eliminate our appetite for dramatic tension and real-world practicality in these addresses. Here’s hoping *someone* manages to mention the tanking economy in this supposedly definitive tech conference’s third day, and that Alltop’s Guy Kawasaki makes sure to take it to Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson tomorrow, in their closing keynote of the conference fueled by Anderson’s upcoming book, Free, extolling the virtues of open and available content — seemingly a great idea when this conference was planned six-plus months ago, before the media-industrial complex began collapsing and industry majors began pondering ways of reinstituting paid content models.

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