Dinner With Tim O'Reilly At 27,000 Feet And Notes From Foo East

Written By: Dharmesh Shah May 3, 2010

I’m writing this article on a flight from Boston to San Francisco.  In a weird, serendepitous twist of fate, I happen to be sitting right next to Tim O’Reilly on the flight.  So yes, I really did get to have dinner with Tim O’Reilly at 27,000 feet. foo east

For those readers that are used to pithy, pointed, helpful articles along the lines of “Startup Marketing: Tips From The Trenches”, this may not be the article for you.  This is going to be more of a stream of consciousness thing where I make an (undoubtedly ineffective) attempt to capture some of the things I’ve learned from being on the road the past few weeks at various events and gatherings and having the undeserved opportunity to talk to some really smart people.  You need to prepare yourself because I don’t have a particulaly strong knack for narrative (but I’m good at subtlle alliteration, as the more astute of you may have noticed in this sentence).  This is going to be a bit wordy.  Fasten your seatbelts.  (My apologies to Jason Fried, who is brilliantly brief and whose head would explode if he read this article.  Sorry, Jason, I’m just not that good yet).

So, lets get started.  I’m going to take a LIFO (Last In, First Out for those that are not CPAs or didn’t take remedial accounting in college).  Or, for those that are not into accounting, but watched the movie “Memento”, this is kind of like that, only different. 

So, lets talk about Tim O’Reilly.  He’s sitting right next to me on the plane (working away furiously himself on his laptop and I think subconsciously grateful that I’m such a good seatmate because I wouldn’t dream of being the obnoxious fellow passenger that has nothing important to do and as such can’t help start-up inane small talk).  At first, I didn’t know/realize that it was Tim sitting next to me.  What sparked the conversation was that in another weird twist of coincidence, I am reading the latest issue of Inc. Magazine that just happens to feature Tim on the front cover.  But, that’s not really that important (other than being freakily weird).  What I want to talk about instead is my experience from attending part of the recent “Foo Camp East” (#fooeast for those that are tweeting) in Cambridge yesterday.  So, lets rewind…

Late yesterday afternoon, I took a small, 9–person plane from Nantucket Island (ACK) to Boston (BOS).  I was on Nantucket Island to attend the simply named “Nantucket Conference” organized in part by the ever clueful Scott Kirsner.  More on the Nantucket thing later.  It was a beautiful day in Nantucket.  Almost perfect.  The only reason it wasn’t perfect is that I’m not sure what exactly perfect weather looks like, but in my book, this was pretty damned close for many people.  But, I had to leave that perfect weather and fly back with the lovely @kirstennet (my wife) who was inexplicably understanding about this neet to fly home.  Here’s the (literal) transcript of our text messaging that afternoon (I’m at Foo Camp, she’s enjoying the beautiful weather in Nantucket):

Me (9:27 a.m., from conference room): Good morning sweetie.  I’d like to fly out at 3 pm today so I can attend foo camp.  Do you want to stay here an extra day?  Skies are calm for flying today.

Kirsten (10:11 a.m.):  I’ll pack and come with you.

So, we hopped on a plane and in the taxi from Boston’s Logan airport, I’m like:  “You know, I’m already kind of late for this foo camp thing, would you mind if we just stopped in Cambridge and you dropped me off for foo camp and you go on home with our luggage without me?”  She’s like “sure, no problem” so that’s what we did, and so I went to Foo Camp.  (Note to self:  There are many reasons I love my wife, this kind of understanding is but one).

Foo Camp was a little overwhelming at first.  It might have been because I was kind of jumping in mid-stream (the event started the day before) but the organization was great, there was someone at the registration desk to greet me, give me a quick lay of the land and a free t-shirt.  Foo is mostly an “unconference” (the sessions are constructed “on the fly” and the schedule is kept on a white board and people show up and talk about whatever they’re interested in).  I mostly like that concept, with the one negative being that it’s really hard to tell from some of the topic descriptions what’s actually going to be interesting.  But, it works in a “life is a box of chocolates” kind of way.  Of the sessions I attended, my absolute favorite was “Privacy And Behavorial Economics” conducted by a professor from Carnegie Mellon who had sone some recent research to dig into how people think about privacy (particularly online privacy) and why many of the things that online companies are doing today are diabolically clever. 

Here are a few quick take-aways from that session:

1. People make imperfect decisions because not all the information needed for that rational decision is available to them.

2. Even if they had access to all the information needed for optimal decisions, they often don’t have the “computational power” to process all that information (i.e. just because you have access to a bunch of data, doesn’t mean you can absorb it and factor that into your thinking).

3. The ability to “control” one’s privacy (like Facebook does with it’s fairly granular share X with Y feature) actually causes people to irrationally share more information than they would have otherwise. 

All of these were highlighted in the presentaiton with some brilliant “experiments” that had been conducted to scientifically study this overall phenomenon.  On a side note:  There was a sociologist in the room and he was continuously dubious of all of the studies and kept bringing up the “imperfection” of the experiments.  The presenter did an outstanding job of making the argument that no experiments are “perfect” and that this imperfection does not, by definition, make the experiments useless.  The “reductionist” approach tries to simplify complex systems and control for whatever variables can be pragmatically controlled to try and gain some sort of understanding.  He did that, he was very, very clufeul and I enjoyed the presentation immensely.  My big takeaway was that we all need to think really hard about privacy as we try and colllectively figure out what the “right” balance is in this “what should be public, what should be private, and who gets to decide” debate.

Another session I sat in on was on “Open Platforms: Apple vs. Twitter vs. Facebook”.  Brad Burnham (from Union Square Ventures) led the discussion and Tim O’Reilly was there too.  It was a big topic (particularly given the recent news).  I don’t have notes on a lot of the other stuff that was said, but I’ll share my thoughts (because hey, it’s my article:  Apple is mostly a closed company.  They’ve always been that.  It’s their strategy.  They are closed because they believe that to bring a new technology to market (like the iPhone or iPad), the key is to “control” the entire experience and solve for simplicity and ease-of-use.  Steve Jobs like to control the edges so that he can create a brilliant product — which he is a genius at.  That’s Apple’s thing.  No big surprises there.  Over time, as the market gets more comfortable, it starts valuing price/performance/third-party-stuff much more, and we move towards a more “open” system where not everything is vertically integrated.  Twitter is mostly open — and has been since its inception.  They’ve behaved like a platform provider (or even a utility provider).  Some of the recent developments has created some tension within their developer ecosystem, but as long as they don’t do really stupid things (like making some functionality only available to their internal apps), they should be OK. 

The really big topic to talk about are the recent announcements from Facebook.  There’s big stuff afoot at Facebook.  The two really big announcements recently are:  1) The lifting of the restriction on storing data retrieved through the API (effectively meaning, you can have a partial “copy” of the Facebook information stored in your own database.  2) The ability to convert any web page into a page that behaves like a Facebook Fan Page.  This page then can be “liked” — and most interestingly, the people that “liked” the page can later be sent messages (just as if they were fans of an internal fan page).  Heady stuff.  I’ll be playing with all of this once I get through some of this conference and speaking stuff this week. 

Foo Camp (East) was held at the Microsoft New England Research and Development center (NERD) an exceptionally nice facility in Cambridge, MA (a block from the current HubSpot offices) that Microsoft has been kind enough to make available for all manner of tech-related events.  Hats off to Microsoft for contributing their facilities to the community so readily. 

That evening, there were a series of “Ignite” presentations.  These are (exactly) 5 minute presentations, with 15 slides, where the slides auto-advance every 15 seconds.  It’s an exercise in discipline, constraint, creativity and timing.  It looks like it would be really hard.  I’d definitely suck at it.  Several of the presentations were really good.  One of my favorites was Hilary Mason’s presentation “How To Relace Yourself With A Very Small Shell Script V2”.  Hilary works for bit.ly now and she is awesome.  Tactical tip for Ignite presenters:  I saw one of the presenters had a sliding “15–second clock” on the bottom of each slide.  That worked really well for her, and the audience. 

So, later that night at Foo Camp, I got pulled into a game of “Werewolf” by the lovely Laura Fitton (aka @pistachio) who is a big ‘ole bundle of awesome.  (I’d say that even if I were not involved in her company OneForty, which I am).  I’d never played the game before, but Laura was kind enough to explain the basics to me.  Long story short, I ended up playing the game until around 2:00 a.m. in the morning at which point Danah Boyd, our fantastic “moderator” had to kick us out from the Microsoft facility so she (and others) could get some sleep that night.  And, as long as I’m in name-dropping mode, Anil Dash and Gina Trapani (of LifeHacker.com fame) were there playing all night too.  For the record, don’t ever play poker with Anil.  He’s bad-assed.  But, Gina, you rock and we totally nailed it in those last two games.  It was diabolically brilliant game play.

But, I digress.  So, I was at Foo Camp, and the second “O” stands for O’Reilly and that’s who I’m still sitting next to (thank god I type fast, because I’ve written a lot, and still have an hour and a half before landing).  Tim’s one of the very few successful people that I aspire to be more like.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect a whole bunch of great people who have accomplished more than I can ever hope to, but Tim is in a special category.  He’s got that rare mix of super-smart, hyper-entrepreneurial, highly-successful and, most importantly, cares deeply about his time on this planet and what he can do with it.  I respect that.  I also respect that he exhibits common human courtesy despite his success — which I’ve gotten to experience first-hand, sitting next to him.  It’s hard to respect people that are disrepectufl to others, and Tim is a nice guy even after having a brutally long day/week.  In any case, second to this “generally nice guy” part, what I like most about Tim is that he’s a true thinker.  He can move between various levels of abstraction based on the situation and the need.  He likes patterns.  I like people that like to study patterns.  He’s also been kind enough to meet with my co-founder and I so that we can get his advice and thinking on HubSpot.

Whew!  When I first started this, I thought I was going to write about things from Foo Camp (East) and the Nantucket Conference.  But, this article is already way over the limit in terms of normal reader attention-span, so I think I’m going to wrap it up and save the other stuff for a different day.  I’ve got a ton of great notes from the Nantucket Conference which I’ll try to post later this week.  And I’ll work on being more concise next time too.

I’d like to close with a question: If you could manifest the traits of a successful tech entrepreneur, who it would be?  (I’m not talking about the actual success, but the things that you belive made them successful that you’d like to have more of yourself)

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