Monday, July 14, 2008

My Obligatory Foo Post

(...but one I am excited to write.)

This weekend I attended Foo Camp. It was a crazy, exhausting, exhilarating, fascinating experience. I wasn't quite sure what to make of everything beforehand, but now I can say that Foo was quite possibly the best event I've ever attended. The thing is, I'm not sure I could say exactly how or why.

Foo is a mostly technical event. I've been to some really rotten (though well-intentioned) events that tried to wed technical and non-technical content. However, they involved putting technology and humanities people in the same room and expecting magic to happen. In contrast, through what I can only assume was painstaking care Sara Winge and the other Foo organizers put together a remarkable guest list, and the format (or perhaps, lack thereof) is structured to make with the mingling.

But I shouldn't be trying to do an expository description. You can't accurately describe Foo that way. The only way I can think of to really capture Foo is to just describe some of the things I saw and did there.

I saw and met a lot of people -- many of whom I never thought I'd have the opportunity to meet. For instance, I played Werewolf with Jimmy Wales, among others. At one point, Jimmy exclaimed "No no -- it's me who smells like pickles!" At least, I think it was Jimmy -- it's hard to remember clearly when you play Werewolf until 6am. (And don't ask -- I can't remember how we got on the topic of pickles anyway.) The whole time, I just couldn't figure out how I got meet Jimmy Wales, let alone play Werewolf with him, let alone hear him say a thing like that.

At least as interesting were the folks I met whose names I didn't recognize (but probably should have, and am pleased I do now). I was going to list a few, but decided that would be name-dropping, and there's no way I could even remember everyone I met anyway. Instead I'll say that a big part of Foo for me was being in the presence of people who seemed larger than life, and realizing that they are all just people -- albeit more talented and more interesting people than me. I know that probably sounds gratuitous and cliche, but it's the truth: there's something profound in the simultaneous revelations that celebrities are just people, but many of them really do deserve to be celebrities.

The sessions were great too. I went to one session where the first half was about electric cars, and the second half was about baking killer bread. And both were really great conversations! Where else can you find a session like that followed by one on parallel programming trends, and then co-lead one yourself on Android?

I actually co-lead two sessions, and tried for a third on designing a card game, but the aforementioned 6am Werewolf and my co-lead's unexpected cold spelled doom for that one. I'm bummed about that, because the card game session was to my mind the one that would have counted. I do Android stuff all the time so answering a few questions with a colleague for an hour is no big deal. It did go well (actually, very well -- the questions were quite good, and we had pretty good turnout at around 30 or so people) but I can't claim it was very original or insightful, as content goes.

What I still am not quite sure about is how I got invited. I'm curious, but I guess I don't need to know. That's not really the point of Foo -- you're just supposed to go, and be a part of what's going on.

And that, I now realize, is what Foo is all about: it's about people and ideas, not technology. Tim actually says as much when he describes the event, but sometimes it's hard to parse the forest for the trees.

Who knows if I'll get invited back next year (I doubt I was all that interesting to the other folks there) but it was definitely a pleasure and a privilege to go. I owe a huge thank-you to Tim O'Reilly and his awesome staff for a wonderful event.

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