Moderating from the bullpen

LISBON

My Wednesday got a little more interesting halfway through breakfast when my phone buzzed with an e-mail from my Web Summit speaker coordinator: He’d had a panel moderator drop out after a problem with his flight interrupted his travel to Lisbon, and was there any chance I could cover the session?

Oh, and this “Time to define AI” session was starting in two and a half hours.

I like a challenge, my schedule had room for this panel, and I’ve written at non-trivial length about artificial-intelligence applications, so I said I could do the conference equivalent of pitching out of the bullpen.

Then I learned that the original moderator had not e-mailed an outline for the panel, leaving me with just a short briefing written by the organizers weeks ago.

Fortunately, my new speaking partner–Dataiku CEO Florian Douetteau–had written an essay for VentureBeat about his vision for AI a week ago and then shared it on his LinkedIn profile. As I read that, I thought of a fun question that would work for an opening or closing line (do you put “AI,” “machine learning,” “neural network” or some other buzzword on your pitch deck to investors to get the most money out of them?) and reaffirmed that I could still do this.

We had a quick conversation as we walked to the stage, four large convention-center halls away from the speakers’ lounge, that lodged a few more talking points in my head. I transferred them to a paper notepad as we sat backstage, we got fitted with our microphones–and then the talk went fine.

It helped greatly that Douetteau showed himself to be a practiced speaker, easing my job of panel clock management by holding forth on whatever topic I threw out. To put it in D.C.-radio terms, he spoke in NPR-affiliate WAMU paragraphs instead of commercial news-radio WTOP sentences.

We wrapped up the panel within seconds of the scheduled length, the audience applauded, Douetteau and I shook hands, and I had relearned an old lesson: When in doubt but always when it’s reasonably easy, be the person who solves your client’s problems.

The conference that got away: Viva Tech 2018

In an alternate universe, Sunday’s recap of my last week’s work would have included a round of panels at Viva Technology Paris, the growing tech gathering that’s now in its third year. In 2016 and 2017, I moderated a round of discussions and got my travel covered, which was an excellent way to go to one of my favorite cities.

That didn’t happen this year, and I’m the reason why. I didn’t think to e-mail anybody involved with the conference until a third of the way through April, which in retrospect was absurdly late for an event of this size. I got a reply a few days later, saying they were “quite advanced” in assigning panels but wanted to know if there were particular topics I could handle.

My response emphasized my flexibility, which may have been a mistake in that it didn’t say “give me everything open on this topic.” In any case, I didn’t get another e-mail back and then ensured I wouldn’t be going to Viva Tech by not sending any more myself.

(If you listen closely, you may now be able to pick out the sound of a rather small violin playing for me.)

The lesson here is nothing new: Sitting back and waiting for good things to happen is more likely to result in nothing happening. Which in this case not only foreclosed any chance of organizer-paid airfare and lodging but also meant I didn’t get to cover Viva Tech talks by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

I did, however, avoid having four weeks in a row of business travel, and being around this weekend meant I could catch up with an old friend from my college paper at a gathering on the roof of his apartment building. That wasn’t so bad.

I will try to be more assertive for next year’s Viva Tech… although its mid-May scheduling may overlap with Google I/O. In which case: le sigh.