What I learned at FOO Camp ’11

I was invited back to O’Reilly’s FOO (Friends Of O’Reilly) camp, an unconference weekend event held at O’Reilly Media’s HQ in Sebatapol, CA. It’s a privilege to go and every year I’ve written what I’ve learned to share some of the goodness, and force myself to review my Moleskine and digest.

If you’re new to FOO: ~250 people are invited to camp on the lawn at O’Reilly Media HQ and spend a long weekend together. Most people camp in tents, a few stay in offices or hotels. Big schedule boards go up Friday, with room for 10 or 12 sessions to happen concurrently- anyone can organize one on anything. No restrictions. It’s that simple. It works amazingly well because of the openness of the event (see below) and the quality of folks who are invited to go. The weekend is endless series of entertainments, provocations, challenges and wonderments.

The range of sessions is entirely self generated and that’s part of the fun. There is a strong tech bias, but many of the folks here have non-profit or cultural ambitions, and that’s reflected in the sessions they choose to put on. And since the board has a huge number of slots, people come up with ideas for sessions late in the day, often as a result of a conversation that took place in a previous session.

I have a little ritual I do at the event: I get there early, go the picnic table and bring a few cases of beer. As people walk by, soon one or two ask for one, which I provide, and we chat. Soon others see this and come over, and join. And boom – by the time the event starts, there’s a nice crowd of happy people chatting with a positive vibe. It’s these sorts of little contributions that people are drawn to offer at FOO and often they’re unannounced. Thanks to Jeff Potter, Laurel Ruma and Brian Sawyer another O’Reilly friend whose name (but not face) I’ve totally forgotten, helped carry the beer and kick it off. (Mary Treseler, you were missed, my friend. And yes, I did have some lesbian beer).

Here’s what I wrote in my little Moleskine this year:

  • The Productive Geek: The irony of a session like this is the people there are amazingly productive, but feel unproductive, leading to the suggestion the problem is not technological but psychological (e.g. we need therapy, not technology). I heard a few people mention  time off as a boon to productivity (first day back after a 3 day email/information fast is very productive). I suggested  productivity is measured in quantity, rather than quality and that’s a large part of the problem.
  • The Secret forces of cities: Not sure this was the actual session title, as I dropped in late, but it was applied urban planning and an exploration of the many layers of ideas, mostly hidden, that define why a city block or a public park end up being designed the way they are.  Favorite quote: “City as an invention is a force multiplier” . I ruffled feathers by claiming urban planning is more of a navigation of bureaucratic problem than a design problem, which few seemed to like. From what I’ve read, there is a huge gap from urban planning as theory (which is what most of the popular books are about), and urban planning in the real world . This begs for a session on “Design thinking vs. Bureaucracy” or something, which I didn’t think about until right now.
  • It was a mellower FOO. I chatted with some other folks who had been invited before, and we agreed things were more chill and laid back than past years, which was actually quite nice. Part of it was the move of the Make team upstairs – further away from the core hallway. Fewer folks built things or brought zany equipment (although there was the flaming keyboard, pictured at right. Which was awesome. And the Bloody Mary Foobar. Also awesome). I didn’t see, nor participate in, as many zany late night shenanigans as in the past.
  • Why Great Ideas Fail: I ran a session with this title and had a lively chat with ~20 people on different reasons, cases, stories and regrets about life experiences working with ideas. I will post notes from this eventually. Val Aurora kindly passed around a list for people to write down their own pet theories, which was cool (sadly, I don’t have everyone’s name. If you were there, drop me a ping). Memorable quote: “To be a great idea, it has to have a risk of failure”.
  • The Simple life FTW. I had a nice chat with Craig Mod about writing, living and the  power of living simply. Somehow I assume most of the tech crowd has an ethos towards complexity (whether they acknowledge it or not) and it was refreshing to talk to someone who actively defended his time by simplifying other choices in his life. And like me, he has one foot in technology and the other in writing (Check out this beautiful book of his). We both missed the FOO session on sabbaticals, which I suspect we’d have resonated with.
  • Design of Religion: I didn’t stay long here, but did catch this gem: “If you stop mutation, you increase longevity, but reduce evolution”.
  • Innovation through Accessibility. Had a long chat with the awesome  Wendy Chisolm about Universal design, and the idea that sometimes thinking about better design for special cases often creates opportunities for breakthroughs in general cases.
  • The Future of Email. I totally missed this one, and I’m looking for a writeup. I find it endlessly entertaining that despite all the things we’ve adopted, email still dominates the working life of most of us, and it’s often the bane of our existence.
  • Chats by the fire. It never fails that despite all the great stuff all day, I have the best time sitting by the fire late at night. It’s interesting to note how little technology is used by people throughout the weekend – very few sessions have slides or demos. Few people blog or tweet. It’s mostly tools centuries old that get used (if you shoehorn whiteboards as being version 2 of blackboards, this is quite true). Somehow the ancient bonds of sitting in a circle by a fire always wins for me. Especially if I get something potent to drink in my hand.

Randomly Interesting Quotes I heard

  • “You are a really bad person, and I approve”
  • “Fail harder” / “You are useless to me until you fail 3 times” (as told by Renny Gleason)
  • “I could patent that, but then I’d have to kill myself”
  • “To be a great idea, it has to have a risk of failure”
  • “What is in your soul? And why?”
  • “Trash into treasure’  – Wendy Chisolm

Coolest startup discovered

Craziest working idea heard

Random Polls I conducted

  • A) “What percent of people are assholes? B) What percent of people are awesome? (Was curious if these numbers tended to match for people. They never did).

Meta – Observations

  • Some people like to hear themselves talk. I found myself thinking about this in several sessions, and wondered if anyone else in the room had the same thought i did. I fantasized about tapping them on the shoulder and whispering, “Yes. You are very smart. Possibly the smartest person in the room. Now, can you please stop being so annoying?” It’s the downside of unconferences, in that some people will insist on dominating the floor, despite being in a room filled with 20 or 30 people, some of who are just as smart and notable on the subject as they are. Facilitation is still a lost art (I’ve written about facilitating unconference sessions). I myself had a hard time at times in my session on Great ideas. Maybe there needs to be a session or an article on “How to impress people (at FOO)” which explains that trying hard to impress people often has the opposite effect.
  • Split opinions on the round the room opening exercise:  A tradition at FOO is after Tim O’Reilly and Sara Winge give opening comments, a microphone is passed around to everyone in the big tent and they get to say their name and three words. Some people love it, some hate it. It takes about 60 minutes to do the rounds with 250/300 people. As I’ve been to FOO several times, I tend to wander off and talk to other people who have wandered off (forming our own affinity group). Those that love it like the serendipity, and like matching names to faces (and the board in the main hall with pictures of every attendee, and their interests, affords this too). Overall, the event is packed with great people, and serendipity is, by definition, everywhere, so I’d easily trade 1 or 2 good 1-on-1 conversations, over doing a group exercise. It seemed women like the exercise more than men do, but that’s entirely anecdotal data.
  • The elimination of pretense always wins. I say this every year, but putting people in tents, and having no keynotes or plenaries, flattens the vibe in a great way.  Everyone  has something interesting to offer and because it’s so flat and friendly it’s up to you listen and be curious, rather than being a network jerk, looking for angles in every conversation. It’s amazing how after often at FOO, after talking to someone for 10 minutes, I realize “Oh my god, this is THAT guy”. Very humbling and empowering in many ways to spend a weekend in an environment like this.

If you liked this writeup, I’ve written summaries for past years as well.

14 Responses to “What I learned at FOO Camp ’11”

  1. Kathy Sierra

    Good write-up :) I’m not sure you and I were ever in the same session; amazing how such a small group can still seem like a bigger event given all the choices.

    My favorite Foo lesson came at a much earlier Foo, but stuck with me: Martin Fowler, who I’d never met before, appeared at one of the first Foo talks (possibly before I’d ever spoken *anywhere* in public) and said the reason was, “I came to this session because I really hate the whole idea of your topic, so that is a good reason why I should be here.” All I could think of was, “And that’s why he’s Martin Fowler.” It had honestly never occurred to me that a way to pick topics you could benefit from would be based on how much you dislike them (assuming you’re not already an expert on the topic).

    Still, I find myself attending sessions based on one or more of these, but probably in this order:

    * Because I really really really like/want to hear the person hosting it
    * Because I am currently deeply interested in the topic
    * Because it’s a topic I *think* I should know more about (usually because it’s a new idea and someone I respect thinks it’s important, or because *everyone* else but me seems to know more about it)
    * Because it’s an idea I have never even *heard* of, and seems fun/crazy/fascinating
    * Because I think it’s bad/wrong/stupid/useless

    So, the first two or three are about me staying in my own filter bubble, but it’s what I do. There are enough unconference dynamics, though, that I end up getting pulled along into sessions I’d not have chosen on my own.

    And I always return with notes on my OWN topics that completely surprise me… simple yet powerful ways of looking at the things I care about most, but that had just never occurred to me until someone *else* (who is smarter, more creative, different-from-me, etc.) mentioned it, usually without even breaking a cognitive sweat. Awesome.

    Really regret not making the failure session.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Brian: Fixed! Thanks for helping my senile brain get another shot at matching a name to a face.

  2. Scott Berkun

    Kathy: Great comment :)

    I’ve been using the trick of walking the halls (in this case, the tents) and listening to see which group has the most interesting dynamic, or I hear something that makes me curious. So I don’t even know what the topic is until after I’m in the room.

    I guess this is cultural based session selection? Not sure what to call it. Requires both laziness (you have to arrive late to do it) and tolerance for having people stare at you (which they do when you arrive 20 minutes into their session) but otherwise is easy to do.

    I very much like Fowler’s rule for picking sessions. Forces you to listen (Assuming you don’t choose to form a mutiny in someone else’s session :)

  3. Bryan Cantrill

    Agreed on the meta points. I was at your session on why great ideas fail, and I think that particular topic is — unfortunately — something of a fly-strip for the self-important (which, of course, sucks, because I think it’s a deep and interesting topic). I think that one way to improve the signal-to-noise ratio when having meta-conversations about innovation is to keep the discussion personal: if participants had spoken more to their own failures and in greater detail, it might have limited some of the whiteboard-seizing grandiosity to present pet theories. Despite this, I still thought the session was valuable, by the way; thank you for proposing and leading it!

  4. Scott Berkun


    You’re right. Had I framed the conversation as more personal (even by offering a story of my own failure, rather than Titanic / Maignot line), it would have deflated the egos in the room, and sent us into a more introspective, and fruitful direction.

    Selfishly, I wanted a list, and I did get one, which I’ll post. Hopefully it will be something that can be reused. I do think it could make for a great book, especially if, as you point out, it was more introspective than theoretical.

  5. Andy Nash

    Great write-up, especially wanting to tap people on the shoulder when they go on too long …

    About “urban planning is more of a navigation of bureaucratic problem than a design problem” as a city planner I think you are quite right. The technologies exist to create better cities, what’s needed is political will to get the good things done. This does not mean strong-arm tactics by city bosses, but rather using new social applications to teach about good ideas that work and then listening to residents as they apply these ideas in their own cities, oh yes, and organizing these residents to push their elected officials to do the right thing. (I’m working on this subject: http://www.greencitystreets.com).

    Thanks again for the post!

  6. JIm Stogdill

    To Kathy’s methods of selecting sessions I’ll add “Just walking into a room and see what they are talking about” – which is how we came to be in your wordpress session. Nice to meet you. :)

    I am a really big fan of the “I think that is absurd so I better attend” method too. That’s how I came to attend the session on identifying the genetic source of intelligence given by Stephen Hsu. It turned out to be one of the most interesting sessions (and infinitely thought provoking) of the weekend for me.



  1. […] Executive summary: I had a great time at Foo Camp and met some amazing people, every one of whom had interesting stuff to say or show. I’m indebted to Edd Dumbill for my golden ticket, and to Tim O’Reilly, Sara Winge and the rest of the team for making it all happen.  As Quinn Norton put it, “My favorite parts of Foocamp aren’t getting answers, but making the questions harder and more interesting.” You may also want to read Scott Burkun’s ‘What I learned at FOO Camp‘. […]

  2. […] I won’t even try to enumerate the sessions and side conversations that excited me — topics included privacy, the future of publishing, a critical analysis of geek culture, and irrational user behavior. I missed the session on data-driven parenting, though others have pointed out to me that you can only learn so much if you don’t have twins and perform A/B tests. The best summary is intellectual diversity and overstimulation. If you’d like to get a general sense of the discussion, check out the #foocamp tweet stream. I also recommend Scott Berkun’s post on “What I learned at FOO Camp“. […]

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