Kiwi Foo Turns 5

February 8, 2011 – 7:24 pm

We’re counting down the days here at the mothership, getting ready for the 5th Kiwi Foo Camp. It’s hard to believe this is year five already, the time’s flown by. I’ve had a few people ask for more details than are on the web site, so I thought I’d explain how it came to be and how it works.

In 2005 I returned from 10 years in the US tech world. We moved to the country because I wanted a bucolic NZ life for my kids, but I also wanted to find a way to help NZ. It’d done a lot for me and I wanted to give back. One of the things I’d seen work really well in America was the way O’Reilly Media’s “Foo Camp” brought together people from different fields who might not ordinarily meet to spark collaboration between them.

At American Foo Camp, the O’Reilly team brings together 150-300 people for a weekend with no predetermined agenda. Most conferences have themes and speaker lists and schedules. At an unconference we have an empty schedule of rooms and times, and the first thing we do on Friday night is have people propose talks at those times in those rooms. It’s a Pareto process: it’s not perfect, but it produces enough good sessions that it’s a good enough system. Best of all, because the schedule was designed by the participants, it’s the best conference for them.

There are other public versions of the unconference model, often called Bar Camps. Wellington has had a few on topics like Google services, open government, and agile programming. There’s an annual Bar Camp Auckland run by Ludwig Wenzdich. A Bar Camp is typically one day long, open for all to attend, with the same just-in-time scheduling as a Foo Camp.

Foo Camps run over a weekend, from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. Attendees can sleep on-site, whare style, camp in the grounds, or get a hotel or B&B room in the town. Like O’Reilly, we provide food and drink to attendees. Like O’Reilly’s Foo Camp, Kiwi Foo is invitation only.

As you can imagine, the biggest challenge is figuring out who to invite. My ideal person meets all these criteria:

  • interesting, because I’ll be spending a weekend in close quarters with them.
  • sociable, because the point is to spark collaboration and if the person spends the weekend looking at their shoes and not talking to others then it’s unlikely to happen.
  • from a range of different fields, such as technology, arts, science, media, politics, and business.
  • world-class at what they do, or breaking new ground in New Zealand.

What makes someone interesting to me? I’m keen on a lot of areas: businesses on the web, generating and mining lots of data, privacy, science as world view, science as R in R&D, security, national identity, the future of the country, Gov 2.0, open data, export businesses, free and open source software, hardware hacking, Arduinos, robotics, the giants (Google, Amazon, Facebook), business mentors, sustainability, fishing, and music to name a few. I particularly like people who are interesting in more than one dimension: people working on Internet music businesses, explorers who are also hardware hackers, that sort of thing. Foo stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”, and O’Reilly has a lot of friends in those areas. I do, too.

The way I look at it, I’m throwing a party. I only have budget for so many people, so not everyone that I could invite can be invited. Like putting together a dinner party, it’s an intuitive and personal process. I sometimes get “argh, why didn’t I get an invite?” email from a friend, and I have to explain that it’s not because I don’t like them. There are many reasons why people aren’t invited, for example: there’s not room for all my friends, I try not to invite the same people every year (and I’m bringing in an informal “no more than two consecutive years” policy to keep pushing me to find new people), some people (as much as I love them) aren’t the best of their field, and I don’t want one category of attendee (e.g., political activism) over-represented.

I keep the invitation-only barriers up because I do try to keep out time wasters: people who are unproductively contrary, who are abusive, who are ignorant. Yes, there are some good people who don’t make it to Foo because of the invite-only policy. On the other hand, there are some negative folks who don’t trainwreck Foo because the invite-only policy has kept them out. On the whole, I view it as a win. The good news is that if you disagree, it’s easy to start your own Bar Camp and prove me wrong!

The mix varies from year to year, reflecting not just my attempts to steer it but simple chance of who’s available. I’ve been fortunate to have five or so international attendees every year, people from Australia or the US who make the trip down here. Sometimes they’re Kiwis and have an attachment to the country (e.g., Ben Goodger who helped build Firefox and now Google Chrome), sometimes they’re not (e.g., Mike Cannon-Brookes from Atlassian in Australia, or David Recordon who heads up Facebook’s Open Source work).

So what happens over the weekend? As I said, we start by figuring out what we’re going to talk about. We’ve prepared a grid of rooms and times, and the attendees write proposed talks on sticky notes and then attach them to the empty grid. As it fills up, people are free to move around talks, lump related talks together, etc. At the end of half an hour, we have a pretty good conference schedule. At that point, we lock it down and head off to dinner.

Yes, dinner. Because Kiwi Foo is multiday and because I believe strongly that dining together and socialising between sessions forms stronger relationships than the discussions in the sessions, we provide three meals a day to attendees. I want them talking about brilliant ideas and wonderful possibilities, not how much they hate cucumber sandwiches, so we work with our caterers to keep the food from sucking.

Sponsorships cover the cost of the event, including the non-sucky food. Google, Catalyst, Silverstripe, Telecom, Vodafone, and many other companies and individuals have made the event possible. They believe, as I do, that bringing these people together and introducing them to the international attendees, makes New Zealand a better place to live, work, and hack. This is a big difference between Kiwi Foo and classic Foo Camp. In the latter, O’Reilly Media is the only sponsor. Here, I feel there are more companies and people stepping up to say “I believe in this, I think it’s important that it happen, the world will be a better place if we sponsor.” That makes me happy.

For the same reason, we leave more space for the attendees to step up than O’Reilly does at Foo Classic. We ask attendees to move tables and chairs, help clean up, tap kegs, and more. The lovely people who help are all supervised by the fabulous Jenine (my wife and able deputy) who manages all the logistics of venue, catering, swag, badges, trash, rooms, schedule boards, and more. We don’t have a high-tech campus like O’Reilly to run it at, so we run Kiwi Foo from the local high school, and the Head of IT helps out with the networking. Between hotels, B&Bs, and catering, we bring in some much-needed business to the area as well.

Then it’s session time. Each session is an hour long. Sessions are often conversational: someone who wrote up the session will kick off the discussion, but it’ll get handed around the room. Some sessions are interviews or panels, for example “ask an economist”. Some sessions are straight presentations—one of the most-talked-about sessions from last year was on the forensic psychology of psychopaths.

Kiwi Foo doesn’t come with outputs and deliverables, that much should be clear by now. The premise of the event is that attendees know best: they know what they want to talk about and they know their field, so put them in charge. I don’t say “this year we’re going to figure out how to fight the bad copyright law,” instead the attendees who are passionate about it decide to continue working together after the event to make it happen.

Because I started with tech people, the composition of Kiwi Foo still has a very strong tech core. From year to year it varies based on who can attend. I’ve been consciously trying to find the interesting social world-class people in whose circle I don’t necessarily roam, growth in attendance from women, science, Maori, etc. has been slower than the growth in invites. It remains a work-in-progress for me.

In the evenings the sessions are over and it’s informal conversation time. If you walked through the main room, you’d see groups of two to ten people chatting, some with laptops, some in circles, some with drinks in hand. We also provide a certain amount of lubrication for the evening, soft drinks as well as hard. Only a certain amount, though: drunk people make lousy conversation.

For a similar reason, I try to encourage people not to blog or tweet too much during the event. These things take you out of conversations, and the point of a face-to-face gathering like Kiwi Foo is to interact with each other as human beings with bodies rather than as Twitter handles or email addresses. I also discourage blogging because I try to make Kiwi Foo a safe zone where people can muse about possibilities without having their words quoted against them. For these reasons you’re likely to be disappointed by Kiwi Foo’s relatively low profile if you try to follow along at home.

And, late at night, the werewolves come out. It’s a fun game, not cheesy, that pits people against each other. You have to figure out who is friend and who is foe with no evidence but what the players say and how they say it. It’s not my cup of tea, but late into the night you can see a room full of people having a great time arguing and swearing blind that they’re not werewolves.

Kiwi Foo has started some interesting projects, such as the political action against S92A of the Copyright Act (the “blackout” campaign of ’09) and against the ACTA trade agreement (the PublicACTA project). One entrepreneur told me that the connections he made helped him steer a law change in the right direction. At least one company was born at Kiwi Foo, and several job changes. More than that, it’s formed several solid groups of “fellow travellers”—people who are heading in the same direction and are glad to have company on that journey whereas before they were alone.

I plan to keep doing Kiwi Foo Camps. They seem to be good for the attendees, and I certainly enjoy them. I’m thinking of changing the name, though not sure to what (Friends of Nat Torkington would be FONT, but I’ll only get typography geeks coming to that!). Next year I hope to bring in more experienced business people and at least one literary author (I’m keeping a close eye on ebooks). Until then I’m off to draw up empty schedule grids and move boxes of Teza tea into the venue. Foo is in the air …

You must be logged in to post a comment.