What I learned at FOO Camp ’09

For the fifth time I managed to get invited to O’Reilly’s FOO (Friends Of O’Reilly) camp, an unconference weekend event held at O’Reilly’s headquarters in Sebatapol, CA. ~250 people are invited to camp out on the lawn and spend a long weekend discussing anything anyone wants to talk about. Big schedule boards are put up Friday night, with room for 8 or 10 to happen concurrently, and anyone can organize a session on anything. No restrictions. It’s that simple.

I’ve written up notes from past years and here’s what I wrote in my little Moleskine this year:

  • There’s a reflexive beauty to how FOO works that matches how many of the people invited to FOO probably work in their lives and explains their success: Get smart motivated people together and get the hell out of the way.
  • I learned from Andy Baio that what makes analog things, like printed books or hand written letters, both great and bad is they don’t scale.  And I realized why I prefer analog to digital is it’s easier for analog things to carry personal meaning (and I want a meaningful life) than digital things.
  • I love Jessica Hagy’s work even more after hanging out with her. She’s in possession of a most dangerous mind and will take over the world shortly if she has not already  (she’s smart enough that you’ll never know it was her). Plus I learned she’s going to have a show here in Seattle sometime soon.
  • The most under-appreciated skill in the modern world is someone who can explain the complex in simple terms without trivializing it.  I can divide all the people I’ve met (at FOO) into two piles: those that look to simplify and those that don’t.  The problem is many in the second pile think they’re in the first pile.
  • I realized the creation of government policy is a design problem, yet politicians have even less awareness of design thinking and creative process than they do about new technologies.
  • I’m retroactively disappointed Dan Myer was not my teacher in high school. Can we clone this guy? Plus he backed up my arguments (in a session on education) for smaller class sizes by mentioning a study that showed teachers often rarely leave the front of the room, even when class sizes are small enough to allow this.
  • I learned ‘urban and discriminating’ can be a euphemism for being gay, or at least for a person who buys lesbian beer (which apparently I do).
  • My trick of ‘sit at picnic table offering free beer at start of event as way to build a crowd and meet people early’ has worked 3 for 3 now. We are simple creatures, even at FOO.
  • I got to meet Beth Goza and Beth Robson who I’d heard about for years but never really got to know until this weekend.
  • Brewster Kale explained why we need a PBS for the internet age, a Frontline quality dissection of current events but one built to allow the crowd to contribute, shape and respond.  In the same session, everyone in the room was surprised to learn about CRS, great research funded by tax payers to help Senators make decisions that is not shared with the public.
  • The key word that separates great conferences from the rest is mastery of the many intangible factors that create vibe. (I think Sara Winge eluded to this at a session on great conferences)
  • I had my first attempt at drunken tweeting. If you had any doubts, this ensures I will never run for president.
  • I find it ironic that even the tech-elite stop using their gadgets when you get them around a fire at night. Fires and booze are the first and best social mediums.
  • Even at FOO there should be a blowhard gong in every discussion session that people can clang on anonymously when someone doesn’t realize they are not currently the smartest nor most important nor most interesting person in the room. It’s not entirely their fault as in their worlds they’re the CEO/founder/rock-star/center of attention, but at FOO some don’t realize nearly everyone in the room is the same kind of person in their world.
  • I was reminded again of the several thousand reasons I’m lucky Mary Treseler is my editor at O’Reilly.
  • The last and largest scribble in my notebook says only one word: TRANSCEND.

Going to FOO is a creative and inspirational highlight for me every year. Thanks to Tim, Sara, Marsee and everyone for preserving an amazing tradition and having me along for the ride.

10 Responses to “What I learned at FOO Camp ’09”

  1. Livia Labate

    Sounds like quite the event. I didn’t know you drank Yuengling Lager. ;)

  2. Scott Berkun


    The offending beer was Sierra Nevada, which when I bought last year.

    This year I bought it again, but also got some Eye of the Hawk in the hopes of seeming more manly. I’m not sure it worked.

    However telling this story did lead to some fun conversations with new friends.

  3. jess hagy

    Thanks for the props, Scott.

    We Seattle Foo Folkers need to gather for post-gaming of some sort (somewhere with lesbian beer on tap, preferably)

  4. Julie Angelos

    If you really want to know what I think, I think Bill Riley should have and could have afforded to invite all of you to a decent hotel. I can NOT imagine inviting people to my house and saying here bring a tent and camp out on my front lawn. It looks like you guys made the most of it.

  5. Julie Angelos

    OK my bad I need to read better. It was midnight when I read the post. Still is it possible that you all opted to camp out on the front lawn? Was there an invitation to come inside?

  6. Scott Berkun

    Julie: I really do think there is something very different that happens when an event forces everyone to simplify and humble themselves in this way. Everyone drops much of their typical professional pretense and meets each other in a more open, more intimate, and arguably more natural way.

    Of course people who don’t like to camp can stay at hotels, and some do, but they miss much of the experience, as there’s nothing quite like the 2am chats, the conversation waiting in line for the showers, and all the other little human moments with executives, CEOs, and other notable folks that provide a context for interaction, conversation and genuine connection (mostly in the human sense, but also in the business sense) making unlike anything I’ve experienced.

  7. Julie Angelos

    That’s just lovely. I can see you are a down to earth person. When I watched your video – nice by the way – especially the part with the audience interaction – You seemed to care. When I read your bio and saw you had 10 years experience at Microsoft I wanted to learn more. I’m on a quest for knowledge. I’ll forgive you for not being a mac fan. lol. Can I joke?

    I’d love to have you speak to one of my classes in Italy but there are three obstacles. The first is that my student’s English abilities are quite low and secondly it’s not so close. The third obstacle is you’d probably want to be paid. My students are Jr. High School level and I’m not sure if the administration would foot the bill! I will however transmit what I learn from you to them with your permission of course. I’ve ALWAYS admired intelligence and innovation. Here innovation is more of a concept than a reality.

    Have a good one Scott and keep up the good work.

  8. Julie Angelos

    I’m going to stop bugging you now because I see can be quite relentless. I just wanted you to know that if you reread the article above it sites the name O



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