A classroom lion from KiwiFoo
One of the joys of being involved in the O’Reilly world is the occasional chance to attend one of their Foo (Friend Of O‘Reilly) events. These tend to be invite-only unconferences, with the mothership FooCamp happening at the Sebastopol HQ, and other topic or region specific ones popping up around the world. Invites have an admirable bias towards newcomers, especially folks who wouldn’t normally appear on conference organizers’ radars, so I never count on getting one. When I do though, I move heaven and earth to make it, because every one I’ve attended has left me buzzing with ideas and energy. The people who go aren’t only smart, they’re picked because they’re do-ers, and a lot of my projects (like the iPhone tracking story) have emerged as collaborations with fellow campers.
I’ve always found the experience of mingling extremely hard on a personal level though. It’s hours of rapid-fire conversations (and sometimes heated arguments!) with a succession of complete strangers, and if I’m not careful I find myself quickly getting exhausted and longing for a hole to hide in. I’ve read the tips, but even after three or four camps, I never felt like I was managing as well as I could. This week I was lucky enough to make it to KiwiFoo, organized by the wonderful Nat Torkington and the awesome Jenine Abarbanel, and it went so well I wanted to capture some of what worked for me. Bear in mind this is all very personal, and I bet different strategies will work for you, but here are my approaches:
I’m normally a social drinker, and in past camps have had a beer or two during the evening sessions to relax. This time I stuck to coffee, and I was surprised to find I was actually able to stay awake a lot longer and have more rewarding conversations. This is probably a very personal preference, in most situations I find booze a fantastic social lubricant, but keeping my brain engaged made the experience of chatting to all the interesting people I kept bumping into a lot less taxing.
I have an inbuilt skepticism of organized fun, which doesn’t always serve me well. I’d never actually played Werewolf, despite it being the centerpiece of every Foo’s evening entertainment. This time I joined in, and now I’m a complete convert. The level of backstabbing and general deception, disassembling and deviousness made it the perfect forum to get to know the other people around the table. I was singled out as looking “sneaky as fuck” in my first game, which wasn’t actually a disadvantage going forward, and proceeded to have a wonderful time alternately murdering and lynching the other folks around the table, and being lynched and murdered in turn. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Sit alone at lunch
One of the hardest parts for me is meal breaks. It’s like being the new kid at high school, and I’m left staring at a room full of strangers all busy in conversation with each other. I feel intensely awkward trying to sit down and break into people talking, and when I’ve done it, it’s hard to jump in the middle of it all. Paradoxically what worked for me this time was sitting at an empty table, looking welcoming and letting people join me. I’m not quite sure of the dynamics that make this so much better, but it held for more than just mealtimes. At previous Foos I spent a lot of time concerned with how to approach people, but making myself approachable turned out to be a lot easier. I still tracked down people I really wanted to connect with, but also let myself hang out, relax and be visibly ready for a conversation, whether it was at lunch or just between sessions. This alone saved me a lot of energy, and led to some great chats I never would have had otherwise.
You don’t always have to talk
Part of the joy of Foo is that all the participants are also contributors. Almost everyone runs a session, and the sessions themselves are more like discussion forums than lectures. This can be a culture shock compared to typical conferences, so a lot of first-timers rightfully need encouragement to join in and not just be an audience member. In previous Foos though I’ve ended up being concerned when I don’t have much to offer during discussions, which has left me spending too much time thinking about how my experience touches on the topic and not enough hearing what other people are saying.
At KiwiFoo some of the sessions I got the most from were on Maori topics, where I’ve got very little knowledge beyond the basic history. By listening carefully, I was able to learn a lot from what the other participants knew, especially when it came to their lived experiences. I got a flavor for the richness and complexity of how an indigenous culture was adapting to, and altering, the rest of New Zealand, in a way I never would have been able to outside of that sort of forum. I was active, but actively listening, with only a few contributions where they made sense. It saved me a lot of energy, and I got a lot more out of it than I would have otherwise. So, if you’re a newcomer definitely push past your normal conference instincts to get involved in a lot of the sessions, but do give yourself permission to be a complete beginner in a few too, absorbing what the other participants are contributing.
Anyway, I hope these very personal notes are helpful, at least for coming up with your own strategies for getting the most out of FooCamps. They really are the most amazing get-togethers I’ve attended (SciFoo in particular was truly one of the highlights of my life), so if you’re lucky enough to get an invite, try as hard as you can to make it, and enjoy it as much as you can!