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Newcomer’s Guide to Foo Camp

This was my first year attending Foo Camp, Tim O’Reilly and O’Reilly Media’s annual gathering of new and old friends. (Thanks are certainly due to Jesse Robbins and Brady Forrest, who have helped me connect to the O’Reilly community and who no doubt helped make the invitation appear.) TechCrunch has a great summary of this year’s event, with some excellent comments from attendees.

While I’m only 24 hours home and still only quarter-brained, I thought I’d write some hints down for next year’s newbies. There are some great resources about Foo Camp online – the 2008 Foo Camp Wiki and Scott Berkun’s collection of articles are just two – but I thought I’d add a few things to help out.

  • Force yourself through the shellshock. It is strange showing up on the O’Reilly campus and seeing folks who you’ve been reading/listening to/building because of just chatting with each other. Being around people who are famous (at least to you, maybe not so much your mom) is strange, and it’s easy to seek out the few people you do know and chat with them.

    My advice: get through it as fast as possible and get to the other side. It took me ~2 hours to stop talking to just the Seattle people. There’s wine if you need it – I just forced it until it became natural in an hour. (Talking about something you know with someone you don’t really helps.) I met almost nobody who was too pretentious to talk to the more unknown people at the camp – there was an assumption that everybody had interesting things to talk about.

    It’s also worth remembering that almost everyone is going through that same thought process – one non-slouch-himself said that in every conversation, “I could always tell why that person was here, but I couldn’t tell why I was here.” I just called it “Impostor Syndrome Camp.”

    Introvert? Extrovert? Worrywart? Just fake it ’til you make it. The experience will be better for it.

  • Talk about something you know. Two things here: first, Talk. Do something: run a session, give a lightning talk, something. Be in production at least as much as you’re in marketing; produce at least as much as you consume, in the O’Reilly lingo.

    Second, make it about something you know. This may seem counter-intuitive, as Foo is supposed to include a lot of learning about things you don’t know, but 1) this isn’t the place to not know what you’re talking about, and 2) people do know who you are and want to hear about the things you do.

    I was fortunately dragged along on this one, when Steve Souders asked me to join him to talk about making faster web pages. I spoke about Jiffy, Steve talked about some of his new ideas, we had a lot of conversation with people from organizations big and small, and it tied me to something that was concrete for others and led to a number of followup conversations. (I also learned that Jiffy is spreading much faster than I knew… more examples to come on that later.)

    You don’t have to just talk about areas you’re an expert: I also led a session on Unexpected Consequences of Software, which I could talk about intelligently but which others could know better, and it wasn’t bad – but it wasn’t as good, either. I also did a proto-Ignite talk on making your first open source project, which I’ll likely turn into a real Ignite talk for later in the year.

    Oh, and don’t stress about the signup board. I say the mad rush is overstated, and I know – I was pinned against it for about 5 minutes, and then just watched people for another ~20 (and the board still had plenty of space). There were still a few signup sessions open >24 hours after the conference started. If you want to talk about something, you’ll find people to talk with. (Of course, before you do, read Scott Berkun’s required reading on running an unconference session.)

  • Practice Serendipitous Session Selection. All of the advice said “go listen to things you don’t know anything about” – I didn’t even know how to pick those, and so a few times I found myself just wandering about for the first five minutes until a home felt right. Sunday morning, I just walked by some tents and saw Linda Stone leading a session with some people I had talked with earlier, and I just sat down. It ended up being about Attention Hacks – ways to improve your ability to focus – and let’s just say that we’re all ready to build some very cool things after that hour.

    I saw some other newcomers plan out their whole schedule in advance: my advice is pick the next session when it’s time to go – it enables more magical things to happen.

  • Play a little. Join a Werewolf game, play whatever crazy thing Jane or Robin (whose game I was too late to play :( ) or Elan or someone else will bring, find a demo, something that forces you into a different kind of interaction. Does wonders for your confidence and creates memories (and YouTube videos). Every conversation doesn’t have to be dripping with meaning, and you aren’t wasting your time not having them.

That’s all. Thanks for the invite, O’Reilly folks, and I hope to join next year’s newcomers!

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