It’s not every day that you see a speaker meditating on stage. Unless you’re at a Buddhist conference, I guess?
And yet, one of the very first talks featured exactly that. Paul Jurdeczka sat cross-legged on a chair on stage and invited us to leave the Sheraton and journey with him into the woods…
I was beginning to worry how we were going to get there and back within half an hour, but thankfully it turned out to be a metaphor. A metaphor for creativity, for leaving your usual environment in search of solutions.
And what a solution Paul had had in store! I can’t stop thinking about it even now.
But before revealing the solution, let me describe the problem.
The talk revolved around the process of getting from an idea for an app to an actual working digital product.
You may think building the product is the longest part of the process, but more often it’s just icing on the cake.
No, the longest part is having all of the necessary conversations beforehand. Conversations with management, with Finance, with Marketing and Sales, with an internal or external tech team…
In a sense, it’s like collecting stamps, only you don’t know how many stamps you need to collect. And every time you get one, you discover 3 more you need to get after that.
It can take months; even up to 9 months, as Paul mentioned. 3 to 6 months, if you’re lucky.
That’s a problem, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The solution? Time was too short for Paul to share the details, but he did say this: using STX Next’s tried and tested framework, we can shorten this time to only 5 days.
That caught my attention and catapulted his talk into my top 5.
Kicking off a new project in full in just 5 days sounds like a dream.
How is that possible? I’m not entirely sure. But what if it is?
(Maybe you should ask Paul to follow up on this.)
Personally, I hope some of our clients will get to find out how Paul works his magic. Sure, I work in Marketing, so maybe I should be saying that. But I’m pretty sure turning 9 months to 5 days is enough to leave a lasting impression on anyone.
When the time came to introduce Jerzy Kowalski and his talk about word vectors, I frankly had no idea what to say.
I know words; I write them sometimes. And I guess I could explain vectors if I reached into my memory from high school. But word vectors?
And yet, in just 30 minutes, Jerzy helped me not only understand, but get fascinated by word vectors.
I was surprised to learn that through word vectors, computers are now starting to read the way humans do.
Funnily enough, one of the most popular programs to do this is called Bert.
Here’s what happens when you use Bert:
First, you input a paragraph of text, like the first paragraph of this Wikipedia entry.
Then, you ask a question, for instance, “Who was the first actor performing as Bert in Sesame Street?”
With this information, the program will output an answer based on its understanding of the text; in this case, the answer would be “Frank Oz.”
In other words, it’s an algorithm that has some level of reading comprehension. A 6th grader’s level, but still!
And I could tell I wasn’t the only one fascinated by this talk.
There’s one surefire way to tell that people are really listening to what you’re saying: when the Q&A begins before you’re done talking.
And that was exactly the case with Jerzy’s talk. Before I knew it, people around the audience were speaking up:
“What if you ask the question the other way around?”
“And what if you ask Bert the name of Mary’s hamster, even though she doesn’t have one?”
Which brings me to the core question of the entire Summit for me: what if?
What if this trend continues and our tech moves beyond processing data and onto processing meaning?
Jerzy’s talk showed me that we’re a lot closer to that reality than it may seem.
I’ll admit that Maciej’s talk started off in a fairly technical manner. He was going in-depth into computer vision in Python, and as a non-developer, I couldn’t keep up.
But before long, Maciej not only emerged from the depths of technicalities; he soared.
More specifically, he decided to demonstrate his Python-powered facial recognition program in practice. But not just using a webcam. Instead, he used a drone.
It was a sight to behold. The drone hovered in the air with a constant whirr, while the projector displayed what the drone was seeing: Maciej’s face clear in view, perfectly recognized in every frame.
Then, curiosity once again got the better of our attendants.
“What if you turned the drone towards the audience? Which face would it follow?” they asked.
So we tested that. After all, finding out more is exactly what the Summit is all about.
It was interesting to observe how the drone’s focus kept on switching from one audience member to another, but in a few moments I stopped caring about that. That was because as the drone was adjusting to what it was seeing, it started flying sideways, closer and closer to my face.
A week later, my left brow still hurt. But that was only because I had had a close encounter with somebody’s elbow at a concert the day after the Summit.
Maciej’s drone landed safely in his hand, and we were all a little more savvy about computer vision.
“Whatever you do, don’t forget about Tomek Maćkowiak, okay?”
That was the general vibe I got from my briefing with the Summit team a few days before the event.
It was part of my job as a host to invite everyone at the very start of the conference to take up Tomek’s challenge.
“Tomek has trained a couple of bots to play a game, and he invites you to challenge them in the chill room. He’s pretty sure you won’t be able to beat them.”
“Later during the day, his presentation will tell you all about how he trained the bots.”
I could even see Tomek’s confident smile as I was issuing the challenge.
And indeed, he was right. By the time his presentation began, I had had a chance to race with the bots myself, and there was no way I could beat them.
There was a scoreboard on the screen: AI: 40, humans: 0. That spoke for itself.
But during his presentation, Tomek gave everyone one last chance to challenge the bots.
“If you can beat them on stage,” he said, “you’ll earn this.”
Then he showed everyone a crisp €100 bill.
Doubt swept across most of the faces in the audience, but Tomek reassured us that the bet was very real.
One challenger stood up: Adam Srebniak from our Product Design team.
He sat at the computer, grabbed the gamepad, put on the most intense focus face I had seen that day, and the game was on—literally.
You could see the tension mounting in everyone in the room. I was smiling uncontrollably as I watched Adam do way better at the game than I had during the break.
In fact, he was winning!
But then one of the bots overtook him. Adam got stuck on an obstacle, and the bot gained a generous advantage.
Having been holding my breath until then, I finally exhaled at that moment. It seemed like Tomek was right to be confident in his bet.
Before I knew it, Adam slingshotted past his obstacle, while the bot hit some obstacles of its own, slowing its progress. Suddenly, the race was a lot closer again.
And then, Adam got the lead again.
And then, he crossed the finish line first!
The burst of applause was as sudden as it was intense, and I was happy to join in on it. Later on, Tomek commented that he hoped nobody had seen his face when good old human reflexes prevailed.
True to his word, Tomek handed over his €100 bill and we have the pic to prove it!
Looking back on this situation, however, I’m left wondering: what if this was just one anomaly in the face of a prevailing trend?
What if ML-powered skill becomes the undisputed champion a few years down the road?
“Last but not least” very much applies to the final memory from the Summit I wanted to share. It’s the most emotional of them all.
Per tradition, our final presentation was by Maciej Dziergwa, our CEO.
As he started speaking, I knew he would be alluding to the story of STX Next he had published not too long ago on his LinkedIn profile.
I was familiar with the story. Years ago, Maciej left Poland to seek success as a Python developer in the Netherlands. He found it, but was missing home, so he came back to start STX Next.
That’s it in a nutshell, the bare facts. And yet, seeing him talk about it in person was very different.
Hearing the emotion in Maciej’s voice, I finally understood the true impact behind the story.
It became clear to me what a sacrifice it had been for Maciej to let go of the lucrative opportunities abroad and focus on building a company from scratch in Poland, with no guarantee of success.
Why take that risk? Because being close to home is more important. Family is more important. No matter what.
I thought about my own family for a brief moment, and the family I’m yet to start with my fiancée.
What if that was my life?
How far would I go to stay close to the people closest to me?
What would you sacrifice to be close to your loved ones?
It’s thoughts like these that make Maciej’s presentation the one I’m most grateful for.
When the conference ended, I put his thinking into practice. I had coffee with my fiancée (and our cat), then came back for the evening gala. But I’ll admit, I didn’t stay as long as I could have.
Coming back home was more important.
Leaving the Summit and remembering the talks, one thought was very clear in my mind:
I had no idea.
No idea that technology was growing this rapidly.
No idea that AI/ML was becoming this formidable.
No idea that some sci-fi scenarios are close to becoming reality.
I also realized it was very important for me to not only host, but simply attend the Summit, so that I could prepare myself for the changes to come. And I think you should prepare, too.
As ever, technology will dictate which new business opportunities will emerge in 2020 and beyond. It will also dictate which vocations will lose their relevance—and yours might be the next to go.
Of course, the best way to prepare would be to attend the Summit next year.
But before you can do that, here’s a few steps you might take right now:
Thanks for taking the time to read my memories from the Summit.
I hope I’ll see you at next year’s edition!