Jay Boisseau Showcases Top Innovators Each Month at the Austin Forum
The Forrest Files: August 1, 2020
An experienced, recognized leader and strategist in advanced computing technologies, Jay Boisseau has built and led many computing-focused programs, departments, and organizations.
He currently serves as the HPC Technology Strategist at global technology leader Dell Technologies, where he works on artificial intelligence and high performance computing solutions for industry, academia, and government customers.
He is also the CEO and co-founder of Vizias, a small team of talented, passionate technology professionals who are determined to change the world by using their advanced computing expertise and experience, especially in high performance computing (HPC), artificial intelligence (AI), and smart cities, including managing the Austin Smart City Alliance (ASCA).
Additionally, Boisseau leads the Austin Forum on Technology & Society, which is a free monthly lecture series and networking event that showcases some of the city’s most innovative minds. Over the last 10 years, local leaders who have spoken at this series include Richard Garriott, Sheri Grainer Ray, Admiral Bobby Inman, Dr. Mini Kahlon, Brett Hurt, Nobel Laureate Dr. Steven Weinberg, Dr. James Pennebaker, Amber Allen and many, many others.
Typically scheduled on the first Tuesday of each month (and with extra online sessions during the current pandemic), the August 4 edition of the Austin Forum explores “Using Data & Technology to Improve Our Racial Climate.” RSVP here to attend this virtual event.
When not pushing the boundaries of HPC and AI at Dell Technologies, or smart cities at Vizias and ASCA, or planning stellar content for the Austin Forum, Boisseau is an avid traveler who says he wants to go “everywhere”
when the world re-opens after COVID:
“I’ll start with the beaches of Yucatan, Mexico, and then Paris (both of which I’ve been to multiple times). I had trips scheduled this summer for Germany and Denmark/Norway/Sweden and to take my daughter to Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland. So I look forward to making those up next summer. I’ve also promised my daughter we’ll go to New Zealand and see the scenery from the Lord of the Rings movies, hike those mountains, and have a pint at the Green Dragon Inn (it actually exists — converted from the movie set!), so that’s in the queue.”
“Using Data & Technology to Improve Our Racial Climate” Is the focus of the Austin Forum on Tuesday, August 4. What should we expect at this session?
We’re living in difficult times, with a pandemic raging worldwide that has already claimed almost 700,000 lives (over 150,00 in the US) as of August 1. We pivoted the Austin Forum programing quickly to cover topics and present content related to COVID-19 back in April and May to support people in dealing with this natural disaster (albeit one influenced by our societal and individual responses).
But the recent killings of Black Americans including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, Mike Ramos, and unfortunately many others, has renewed and increased our collective awareness of a horrible problem entirely of our own making: racism and racial injustice remain in our country, including in our systems and services built to protect people. We are not the society we claim to be in which everyone is equal, with equal rights, treatment, opportunities, and of course safety and protection. While racial justice and equality is a problem that must be addressed by all aspects of society — government, education, private sector, and individually — technology also plays a role. Inequitable access to technology contributes to problems. However, data can be used to shine a light on those problems, and analytics can be used to help derive solutions, enabling technology to offer empowering and equalizing capabilities for all.
On August 4, we are excited to have four experts on this topic — Meme Styles of Measure Austin, Janice Omadeke of the Mentor Method, Eunice Chendjou of OpenTeams, and Michael Ward Jr. of the Austin Urban Technology Movement — share how technology, data, and analytics can help us improve our racial climate. This event is online, free, and open to everyone. We also have a complementary event on August 18 to share how the tech industry can and should be part of addressing this problem, too. We’re trying to do our part — within our tech-focused mission and scope — to sustain attention and momentum for these topics.
Name an Austin-area leader you have always wanted for the Austin Forum but have never been able to get?
Michael Dell. But to be fair I have never asked — not even for the last few years while I’ve been working for Dell Technologies. I’m saving that ask for a really big fundraiser event of some type…
What were some of your all-time favorite editions of the Austin Forum?
Wow… so many. It would be lame to say any at which I’ve presented on AI or smart cities :-) so let’s rule those out. I really loved the one on gene editing and CRISPR. I loved when Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg presented on science and society, on politics and pubic opinion, and more. I loved the ones on tech and music, especially the one with three live bands at the Spider House Ballroom, even though I don’t think we had as much impact as I had hoped. I loved the debate-format events on privacy and data and social media, and I’m downright sappy for our December ‘social good’ events. So many…
What makes for a great edition of the Austin Forum?
A great edition is when the vast majority of the crowd is clearly into the event for the entire time, and then is buzzing with energy afterwards during networking, talking about the event and the topic, exchanging business cards and contact info, etc. It’s important that we educate and hopefully inspire, but we also want to entertain since the events come after a long work day for most people. It’s more difficult to measure that attention and energy online, but people are contributing in the Zoom Chat window and staying for the Q&A session for up to two hours per event now, so they seem to like it! All that said, I think it’s only a perfect event if it inspires some attendees to do something afterwards: to learn more about the topic, to integrate what they learned into their company or organization or forge a collaboration, to create something new, etc. We know that happens, but it’s difficult for us to know when and how it happens after the event is over. Fortunately, we do get lots of positive feedback informally, and our annual surveys provide data supporting this post-event impact is real.
From your perspective at the Austin Forum, what makes the Austin technology ecosystem unique?
The creative energy and soul of the city influence the nature of many of the tech startups and non-profits, and I think even the spirit of larger tech companies and what those companies do in their Austin divisions. Also, we have a progressive, socially conscious culture; that also influences the kinds of tech startups and non-profits we see, and is evident even in the larger companies’ actions (such as Dell’s social impact programs and it’s very aggressive 2030 goals). Every tech company wants to succeed and to make money, but here in Austin there is often more focus on whether the company is creating something cool or fun and/or achieving a positive social impact than on money. Maybe that’s a bad thing from a strict capitalism perspective and maybe we could have even more homegrown startups grow big, but we have great creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, and soul in our tech ecosystem. I see lots of local efforts to create interesting, unique, socially positive companies and organizations, and I’m proud that we get to showcase some of that in our Austin Forum events, podcasts, and blog posts. If we’re going to be a tech city, I’m happy that some of our “creative culture DNA” has been spliced into our tech ecosystem, making it different from Silicon Valley… making it uniquely Austin.
Would an event like the Austin Forum work in another city?
Of course! OK, yes, Austin is special, but as we get larger and more tech-focused and thus farther from our music/slacker heyday (I miss those days). We are becoming a bit more like other cities — in both good ways and bad ways. However, that means what is working here could definitely work in other cities. Really, we’re just appealing to some basic human desires: to learn, to network, to maybe find collaborators and friends, to have fun… as you understand very well, Mr. Chief Programming Officer for SXSW!
By the way, we now have folks from other cities tuning in now that our events are online during the pandemic — and much thanks to you, to Navira Abbasi at Galvanize, to Chelsea Collier of Digi.City, and other supporters with big national networks that are getting the word out! We have long talked about putting together a document for other cities to copy us, and my managing director, Jessica Sager, has ‘generously volunteered’ J to travel the world to help them start, but maybe another silver lining of this pandemic is an opportunity to inspire other cities to copy us. We should probably put together a slide offering help in doing that for our non-Austin participants.
What are your best strategies for making an online event an online experience?
The irony of this is that we created the Austin Forum long ago, specifically to pull techies and others out from behind their screens so they could learn and interact in person. We prioritized the venue, the pre-presentation mingling, the post-presentation networking and the ‘second networking’ at Trifecta, and now we have to go against that principle and compete with so many other seemingly similar Zoom events. However, I think we’re doing several things ‘right’, transforming and altering things that worked well for in-person events and adding other things we couldn’t do in person. We still ‘open the doors’, start the Zoom session at 6 pm even though we start the formal event at 6:15. People like seeing the presenters talk informally amongst themselves and in response to things coming in by Zoom Chat for those 15 minutes. Jessica asks everyone a fun question at the start and the answers come pouring in via Zoom Chat. And she reads many, creating a great vibe. I ask our speakers to remember to speak with energy and passion since it’s been a long day for many already — and they’ve likely already been on Zoom (or Teams, Skype, or Webex, etc. sessions all day) — we have to make this worth their time! We now have extended Q&A in place of networking and we have our attendees speak live during that. We have done some other things like have live music before one event from the awesome Amy Atchley, and we had online gaming sessions after the event on gaming. Basically, we care about the experience for anyone who connects, and we want to be better and different than other events, and even change things up in our own events. We’re still learning, but the commitment and effort to do this well are there every time.
When is COVID conquered such that the Austin Forum can return as a face-2-face event?
I’m not an epidemiologist, virologist, biologist, doctor, or healthcare professional of any kind. However, since lack of expertise doesn’t seem to stop some people from making statements and even policies, I’ll take my shot. :-) The fact that we generate antibodies and most people recover means vaccines are theoretically possible, and the Moderna and Oxford vaccine trials are going well so far with over a dozen other efforts pursuing vaccines. So, I am confident we will see a vaccine by early 2021. And we might get our act together (wear the masks, people!) and get it under control before then. So, I think we’ll have in-person events again in the first quarter of the 2021. However, we will probably not want to draw crowds of 300+ anymore in person, and we will continue to offer the option to attend online from now on.
Between COVID and the George Floyd murder, the US has seen incredible turmoil over the last four months. What has been your silver lining during this very difficult time period?
The obvious silver lining is watching an increased awareness of social injustice lead to a new wave of long-overdue reforms. It’s been sobering, but it gives me some optimism for November (ahem) and for 2021. I truly believe that our nation will be more inclusive and fairer in 2021, and that our world will be better prepared for pandemics — and that helps keep my spirits up during this time of tragic events.
Personally, the sheltering/stay-at-home phase has allowed me to spend less time commuting and traveling for work, and thus more time and focus on connecting with people — family, friends, colleagues — albeit mostly online, but that’s also had an upside. I have been communicating more with lots of old friends who don’t live in Austin. I’ve also been able to spend more time with my daughter the past few months, before she heads off to college. Finally, I’ve had more time for introspection — to think about what I value, what I want to do next and what I want to be if I grow up, and what value I can contribute in this pandemic and after.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world.