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Reflections on Foo Camp 09

By Jason Grigsby

Published on September 20th, 2009


Last month I had a unique opportunity to attend Foo Camp at the O’Reilly campus in Sebastopol, CA. This weekend’s WordCamp Portland reminded me that I had yet to write about my Foo Camp experience.

Foo Camp is a free, invitation only event organized by O’Reilly. Foo stands for Friend of O’Reilly as well as being a play on words on a popular term used in programming documentation.

While resembling a conference in many ways (there is a schedule with multiple sessions at any given time), Foo Camp is most often called an unconference because the sessions are suggested by the attendees on the first night of the conference. It is also truly a camp as many people, myself included, pitched tents on the O’Reilly campus.

Many tents on the O'Reilly Campus during Foo Camp '09
Photo courtesy laughingsquid (thanks Scott!)

While the format is unique and fun, that’s not why people go to Foo Camp. The reason people attend and rave about their experiences is because Foo Camp brings together many of the smartest and most creative people working with technology.

Bring 300 brilliant people together for the weekend, then step back and watch the ideas and connections take off.

Part of the reason I’ve had so much trouble writing this summary of my experience is because there were so many amazing experiences and people that I met that I find it difficult to convey to other people. The simplest way I’ve explained it is that I didn’t want the weekend to end.

There are some other observations that I made during the weekend:

  • People were not just smart, but genuinely nice and helpful. Going into Foo Camp can be a bit intimidating “How did I get an invitation? I’m not worthy.” The warmth of the people I met is probably the thing I will remember the most.
  • That first point bears repeating. The people were amazing and wonderful.
  • I found myself gravitating to sessions on the economy, politics and health care despite the fact that there were many technology sessions. Some of the really good ones were:
    • Bill Janeway of Warburg Pincus led a great session on the current recession and the parallels/differences to the great depression. BTW, Mark Sigal has a great extended summary of this session on his Foo Camp recap.
    • Susan Crawford and Andrew McLaughlin from the White House talked about ways to help the government and what types of data the government could open up that would help the public the most.
    • Mitch Kapor and Jay Parkinson shared how they are each attempting to change Health Care and in particular Health Care IT.

    I realized that I’ve been spending so much time on the day-to-day things that we need to do to build our business and deliver for our customers that I’ve track of what is going on in the world. One of the things that motivated me to start working on mobile was the fact that it can be a transformative technology—something that can make people’s lives better in substantial ways. I need to find ways to make more of that happen.

  • I find the idea that Tim O’Reilly has been promoting of government as a platform to be intriguing and there were a lot of sessions at Foo Camp talking about what is currently being done with the data the government provides. I didn’t realize how much was already happening in this space. Really nice to see.
  • I had a great time leading a session with Andre Charland from Nitobi on building applications using mobile web technology. The folks at Nitobi are the lead developers of the PhoneGap framework. Good discussion and ideas during the session.
  • It was really, really hot. Many people chose to stay inside where it was air conditioned which meant we didn’t get that many people for our session. I didn’t feel too bad because every other outdoor session had low turnout during the same mid-afternoon time slot. But what did happen was many people who wanted to attend the session, but didn’t, later asked me for a summary. I had more than one person ask me if this information was written down anywhere. It has been a big incentive to start blogging more. Posts like The Five Most Common Arguments for Native iPhone Development are direct responses to comments from people like Mok Oh who rightly said, “What’s the url for that blog post? I’d like to read it.” 🙂
  • B.J. Fogg is working on peace in 30 years. He says peace has a bad brand. He is looking to change that and make peace happen. Yes, please.
  • Werewolf rocks. We played into the wee hours of the morning. What a blast!

There were many, many other conversations that made it a wonderful experience. I cannot thank everyone at O’Reilly enough for the invitation and for hosting me. I wish there was some way I could repay their generosity. Tim, Sara and the rest of the team, you have an open invitation to dinner at our house any time you are in Portland. For that matter, if you need a place to crash (or pitch a tent), mi casa es su casa.

I left the weekend inspired and reminded again of the great things that individuals can accomplish. I turned 35 the week after Foo Camp. Being around people working on world-changing things has me thinking again about my legacy and about how the work that I do and the life that I lead can help make the world that my daughter is going to grow up into a better place.

I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do with this renewed perspective, but I’m thankful to Foo Camp for the reminder to think and dream big.