From the floor at Foo

In early February Warkworth will play host to the inaugural New Zealand Foo Camp, a down-under version of the famous invite-only gathering for inventors, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers. Expect some wizardry, plenty of left-field brainstorming and a lot of late-night socialising. Russell Brown, who is helping organise Foo Camp here, goes to the heart of the Foo

Foo Zealand

Sebastopol, 50 miles north of San Francisco in California wine country, is where the hippies moved when the 1980s happened. You can’t get Starbucks there, but every second store seems to sell handcrafted educational toys. Even the local vet does homeopathy.

But for one weekend a year, it is ground zero for alpha-geeks. And this is that weekend. On a sunny Friday afternoon, around 200 invited guests are converging on the chalet-style campus of O’Reilly Media for the company’s annual ‘unconference’, Foo Camp; aware that a few thousand others wish they were here.

You can’t just sign up for Foo Camp: you have to be invited by the O’Reilly team, and being a heavy hitter is no guarantee that an invitation will be forthcoming.

So, while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos lines up for his laminate, photo and t-shirt (and Google founder Larry Page is rumoured to be wandering around incognito), along with the hipster founders of Digg.com, so are people you’ve never heard of: Nasa’s youthful GIS consultant (and community activist) Leila Hasan; Leo Dirac, the dreadlocked director of Real Networks’ Rhapsody music download service; and Ben Fry, the white-hot art-hacker from the MIT Media Lab.

Foo, first staged in 2003, is the kind of event that makes O’Reilly’s influence out of proportion to its commercial heft. O’Reilly has only 15 percent of the US$400 million annual trade in tech books, and there are bigger fish in the IT conference game, but it frequently manages to be first on the porch when something is happening.

It was an O’Reilly conference in 1998 that named the open source software movement. O’Reilly was the first to start evangelising the term ‘Web 2.0’ and in 2005 its Emerging Technology conference launched Flickr and de.licio.us.

The other side of registration, on a flat lawn by an orchard, dozens of people are pitching tents, renewing acquaintances and plundering the onsite wi-fi. Some of them already have drinks in hand. Nobody is shy about having a drink or two at Foo.

By the time dinner has been served, dusk is drawing in. The crowd is called into a marquee on the lawn and a slim, fit, greying man stands to speak. This is Tim O’Reilly, who founded his company in 1978. He offers a welcome, and declares the weekend’s purpose:

“We have to know who the innovators are, and that’s where Foo Camp comes in. We figured out a long time ago—just inductively, it wasn’t a business plan—we actually found ourselves in the middle of a lot of interesting technology because we were in the middle of a lot of interesting people. And it starts, actually, with people, not with technology.

“I have a talk called ‘Watching the Alpha Geeks’. It’s about when you find people who are really passionate and interesting and interested in things, and three or four of them start telling you the same story. And it’s not necessarily the story that they think they’re telling you.”

He reels off some signature O’Reilly slogans (“We want to create more value than we capture”) and enunciates the company motto (“Changing the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators”) before stating “ground rule one” for Foo Campers:

“Participate. One good way to not be invited back is to be a fly on the wall. Reach out beyond your circle of friends. Make introductions—if you meet someone really interesting and you know there’s someone here they should meet, go out of your way to make that introduction.”

After a long and often mirthful process where everyone in the tent must stand, state their name and affiliation and use three words to describe themselves, it’s time for the great Foo ritual: the rush for the whiteboards.

Up to this point, there has been no conference schedule. It is being created amid a six-deep scrum in front of a row of whiteboards. Within an hour, the boards are filled with sessions scrawled up with names like ‘The Wired Brain’, ‘Dirty Semantics’, ‘Radical Copyright Reform Brainstorm’ and ‘Welding with Mr Jalopy’.

Sounds crazy, but it works. And it’s portable. Since the first camp, O’Reilly Media has staged Euro Foo and the recent (and much celebrated) Science Foo.

Over the next two days—while campers struggle to choose between as many as 12 simultaneous sessions every hour—O’Reilly walks the campus, meeting, greeting and making introductions—or, as he puts it, “creating new synapses in the global brain”.

It’s not that O’Reilly is a saint. The company’s move to consolidate its early-mover advantage on Web 2.0 by trademarking the term got a few backs up. But he’s no bean-counter. Over the years, he has forgone tens of millions of dollars by keeping the company private and fending off what he regards as the deadening influence of corporate life.

“We did a little bit of consulting—well, not consulting, because it was free—with Disney,” says O’Reilly, taking a break on Saturday afternoon. “They did something called Pooh Camp. And the thing that they struggled with the most was that it was non-hierarchical. They were saying, we have to invite this guy because he’s the head of such-and-such, and we said, no—you have to invite the most interesting people.

“It could be an intern, or it could be a department head—you don’t think about that. And they really struggled with that. They made some compromises and they were really happy with their event, but it really is about subverting hierarchy.”

The inescapable theme of this year’s Foo Camp is making. O’Reilly Media took a punt last year on what it perceived as an emerging culture of hardware hacking, with the launch of Make magazine. Make was the brainchild of one of O’Reilly’s first employees, Dale Doughtery, who pitched it to his boss as “Popular Mechanics done right for the 21st century.”

Make, famously, taught its readers how to hack a redundant VCR into a programmable pet feeder. Also, how to make a beer keg cooler based on the Peltier effect (look it up) and a homebrewed steadicam. The first issue included a detailed introduction to soldering.

“There’s a lot of technology magazines, there’s a lot of technology information—there still isn’t a whole lot about how to do something,” Doughtery explains. “Not what to buy, but what to do that’s cool, that’s fun.

“I looked at those old magazines and I thought, well, I could refresh that. I could bring that back. In fact the size of Make is based on the actual size of Popular Mechanics in 1959.”

The difference, of course, is that the content of Popular Mechanics came from the top down. Make depends on its reader community to bring in the ideas. They write in, seek help on forums (“Anyone know of a cheap source to get magnesium?”) and post their projects on YouTube.

“I’m proud of that,” says Doughtery. “The magazine is not about the editors. We just help shape it and reflect it back to the community. We’re not the party, we’re organising the party. You don’t show up for us.

“The joy of doing the magazine is meeting these people. They’re fascinating. They’re good people with interesting ideas, their minds are at work and they like to build things.”

In April, the magazine staged its first Makers Faire. Twenty thousand people passed through in two days. Unix hackers set up next to a group of seamstresses and swapped ideas. The Faire is here in miniature at Foo, in the ‘Makers’ Room’, whose walls are papered with spreads from Make’s new sister publication, Craft (first issue projects: knitting a robot, and decorating t-shirts with an inkjet printer).

As Saturday night unwinds, groups cluster the length of the campus. A physicist tells a great story about winning a treasure hunt at Yale by staging a miniature nuclear reaction. Hackers swap advice by the fire, where bottles of single malt whisky have appeared. Dozens of younger campers play uproarious serial games of Werewolf, an old parlour game reinvented by the California web scene. The O’Reilly crew have hauled out guitars and banjos for a roots music jam. And in the Makers’ Room—where they seem to be having the most fun of all—there’s a soldering iron in one hand and a beer in the other.

Foo Zealand

Nathan Torkington, confides one Foo Camper, “just doesn’t know how good he is.”

He’s the kind of guy everyone knows and likes, he’s the author of the O’Reilly Media’s big-selling programming Bible The Perl Cookbook, and he’s a New Zealander. All those things stand as qualifications for what was until recently his chief task with O’Reilly: networking with the alpha-geeks.

“Being a Kiwi has been a great help,” he confirms. “The accent makes me memorable, and we’re a pretty grounded type of people, so it’s helped me keep a hold of reality in a land where ubiquitous dreams and venture capital make it easy to forget the real world. I was easygoing and laid-back in a country that’s pretty high intensity, and ended up being really good friends with a lot of the people I met in the course of the work.

“I tried wherever possible to follow Tim O’Reilly’s example and do right by people, whether with introductions to the right people at the right time, or with exposure at my events, without expecting a quid pro quo. And above all, I tried to have the public me be the private me. Kiwis generally aren’t big on politics, game-playing and pretence—and I think Americans react well to that. They certainly were amused by my fisherman’s salty vocabulary. I hear a lot, ‘You say the things we only think!’.”

Torkington has a pedigree here. He designed and ran New Zealand’s first website (Victoria University’s Campus-Wide Information System) in the early 90s before moving to Colorado in 1996, where things really took off in 1998. That was the year he wrote the first Cookbook for O’Reilly, and helped stage the company’s groundbreaking Open Source Convention. He went fulltime with the company in 2000.

“O’Reilly’s a great place to be if you’re into technology. Tim’s an amazing mentor, and the whole company believes in giving you time to find what you’re good at. It’s been a fantastic place to grow up—I’ve been working with them for ten years, and I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d have seen so much history being made: open source going mainstream, peer-to-peer being born, web services becoming real, the Maker-DIY culture identified and promoted.”

He says the driving concept at O’Reilly is the belief that tomorrow’s mainstream is what open source hackers, DIY experimenters, and other alpha geeks are playing with today.

“The real world doesn’t always take a direct path between technology innovation and reward: the people who build a cool technology are rarely the ones who profit from it. Part of our job has to be to track products and technology through the early hype and inevitable trough of disillusionment, before they begin riding up the hockey stick of mainstream success.”

Torkington recently ended his time as a full-time O’Reilly employee, to return home to live north of Auckland with his American wife, Jenine, and their two sons.

“We live in the house that used to be my grandparents’, on the peninsula that my great-great-grandfather settled in the 1880s. The connection to place, to the land, is part of who I am. I also want my kids to grow up as Kiwis with the laid-back country upbringing I had.”

That doesn’t mean he’s settled down. Quite a few people in the local tech community have already had a friendly phone call and a meeting with him. He wants to “see Kiwis creating Internet businesses and competing globally from their baches”.

And, perhaps best of all, Torkington has brought the Foo. He’s organising a Kiwi Foo Camp near Leigh in early February. Yes, it will be invite-only, with campers coming from the US and Australia as well as New Zealand. And if you do happen to field one of those invitations, it’s an appointment you’d be well advised to keep.