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
- http://vittana.org/ – Microloans to college students
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.