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All hail Foo

This article appears in the issue November/December 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 10]

Foo Camp is the best conference ever. Or at least the oddest, excluding get-togethers such as Burning Man and Woodstock that can only be called conferences if you're willing to stretch the word past the breaking point.

"Foo" stands for Friends of O'Reilly, although it's a word with a special meaning to techies, and an unprintable meaning to veterans of World War II. O'Reilly is Tim O'Reilly of the eponymous technical publishing company. Tim is a remarkable fellow and Foo Camp is a direct reflection of his attributes.

This is the second year that it's been held. Last year the defining moment--the one that you tell your friends about to give them a taste of what it was like--was the session at which attendees dismantled a Prius that one of them had rented for the trip up from the San Francisco airport. Have I mentioned that the attendees are uber-geeks? You know, the type of folks who dismantle a Prius with every confidence that they'll get it back together so well that the only differences Hertz will ever notice are that it runs more quietly and gets better mileage.

The Prius session says a lot, but it actually isn't typical. In fact, it's hard to define what's typical with this group. About 200 people show up on Friday afternoon and sign up to lead sessions. There are no refereed papers or careful balancing of topics. You want to talk about something? Grab a felt-tipped marker and sign up.

This year there was some useful premeditation. Of course, the conference has its own wiki where you could list any session you were interested in leading. Other attendees could, in a non-binding way, list themselves as interested in attending. That way, you're less likely to come ready to lead a session that absolutely no one else is interested in. Of course, it may only take a handful of people to make your session a success, assuming you define success along the lines of: a rip-roaring conversation with some preternaturally smart people.

The accommodations are informal. By that I mean you are expected to bring a tent and camp on the back lawn of the O'Reilly buildings an hour north of San Francisco. You can also opt to sleep in one of the empty cubicles indoors. Some people, claiming arthritis and allergies to stars, stay in one of the local motels. Even I, an indoor Jew, bring a tent and do a little camping. Of course, I sleep horribly and resent the jerks who stay up till 5 drinking and laughing on the other side of the lawn, but I sleep in my tent as a matter of stupid pride, primarily so I can whine about it all day.

The session topics are all over the lot, as are the session styles. A few people give stand-up lectures, and they have been outstanding. Others run their sessions as seminars with discussion-opener presentations, and others run them entirely as a conversation. I went to a session this year where someone described a piece of software he wanted to write so that people there could help him architect it properly. At another session, a guy demonstrated his homemade device that reads the information off the magnetic stripes on your credit cards. He showed it, explained it and demonstrated it on our cards. It was exactly like a science fair exhibit by the smartest kid in the class. The types of sessions run the gamut, reflecting the style and purpose of the presenter, and of the attendees.

Since for me the best part of conferences is the time between sessions, Foo is ideal. You can hang out on the lawn, in the halls, in one of the eating areas, and be guaranteed that the person next to you has done something remarkable and knows 10 times more than you do.

Here's the rub: It's by invitation only. That hurts some people and makes the mix of people completely O'Reilly-centric. But it's also responsible for much of the conference's success. If many more than 200 people came, it would lose its intimacy. Plus, Tim knows an impressive bunch of people, including the company's stable of authors. Excluding people is always a tough thing to do. But as long as people understand that it's arbitrary--and so long as I'm not one of the excluded ones--it's worth it for the lucky attendees.

The gender mix at the conference is nothing to write home about: about 9:1, males to females. And that too is a tough problem. The women who work for O'Reilly, at least the ones I spoke with, find it to be a remarkably gender-blind organization. In part, the gender imbalance reflects the regrettable imbalance in the industry. Even so, it feels odd to be at camp with so many boys and so few girls. I hope O'Reilly tries harder to bust up the boys' club of geeks. That's not O'Reilly's job any more than it's any of our jobs, and the point of Foo is not to create a civic utopia, but it is so close to being an intellectual, technical utopia that getting a better mix is one of the few steps that could improve it.

There's no reason you can't hold your own form of Foo within your own organization. Learn from each other in a self-organizing way. Sleep under or at least near to stars. And there's $5 for whoever is the first to disassemble the CEO's car.


David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail self@evident.com.


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