How to Survive Foo Camp (Introvert Edition)

I just read the 2010 edition of Scott Berkun’s regular Foo Camp review. It’s very good, and makes me want to amplify a couple points for future, introverted attendees.

First, the social dynamics are much as he describes, although I would certainly not argue as he does that pretense is “eliminated”. It is somewhat attenuated. The attending population can be segmented in lots of ways, but here’s mine:

Foo Regulars Foo Newbies
Extroverts Introverts

Extroverts should have a grand time, lots of people to talk to. Regular attending introverts can lean on existing acquaintances when burnt out. But if you, like me, are an introvert, and you aren’t part of the “in group” of repeat attendees, you may find yourself feeling socially isolated and very very tired, in the midst of a happy group of very energetic people. You might begin to resent them.

Foo is what it is, though. It is an opportunity to connect with some people you’d otherwise never meet, so all you can do is arm yourself before-hand with some tools and expectations to avoid having a negative experience.

Social Fatigue

First of all, bad news, the Cocktail Party dynamic is going to be a major mode of interaction. “So, what do you do?” You’re going to have to answer that (and ask that) a lot, and people will filter you based on your answer. It’s best to have an answer that is interesting to a wide swathe of people outside your field. The population of askers will be intellectually sophisticated (Michael Arrington excluded) so the answers that generally work can be surprising.

For me the general truth “I work for OpenGeo doing spatial database programming” was not effective at all. But a specific instance “I’m working on spherical geometry algorithms for location data” worked pretty well. (Unfortunately I was too dazed to really parse that fact until after I left.) Anyhow, on review, the second explanation has lots of potential follow-ups from “why?” for people who understand “location data” to “what’s that?” for people who don’t. The first explanation is too mushy.

Back to the bad news. Because a lot of your interactions are going to be draining first encounters, you’re going to run out of gas pretty fast. Find a seat by the fire, get a quiet corner, and don’t feel guilty about not talking. You’re tired. You can’t. Go to bed early, it’s OK – the alternative is just going to make you feel worse.

Note to Parents: Your early-to-bed-early-to-rise conditioning comes in handy sometimes. You can get up early, get a coffee, and join the other parents for a quiet, introvert friendly, discussion around the fire pit while all the 20-something future masters of the universe are sleeping off their hangovers.

The “Formal” Program

Sessions are easy. There’s structure, you can talk or not. For a first time attendee, I think this piece of wisdom on the Foo wiki (“Find people whose work you have no supposed interest in and go to their talks” – Chris DiBona) is absolutely wrong.

You can bring the most value to the group, and meet the people who are going to be of most direct value to you in the future by going to sessions that are directly interesting to you, that fall in your area of expertise, that you have passion for. If you’re going to Foo over and over again like Chris, then you have the luxury of sampling. I (foolishly) took the advice and missed going to database sessions with folks like Brian Aker, who says something worth writing down (if you’re a database geek) about every 30 seconds. Bad, bad decision on my part.

Blowhards: There will be blowhards. Statistically speaking, the larger the session, the more likely there will be a blowhard in your session. Scott Berkun’s 2009 post mentions them, and I like his idea of the “anonymous gong” to help the blowhard achieve self-awareness.

Bring a Pen and Paper

Laptops and iPads are heavy and take time to start up and get into data entry mode. Paper is light and fast. There will be names and ideas you want to remember. Precisely when the nuggets fall from the sky is unpredictable, but you probably won’t be sitting down with your device at the ready.

Celebrities

Own your inferiority complex. Yes, you’re inferior. Suck it up. Unfortunately, this is “do as I say, not as I do” advice, because I wasn’t very good at it.

I didn’t tell Kathy Sierra that her 2009 Business of Software talk is currently conditioning all my thinking about building the OpenGeo Suite materials. I just glanced at her out of the corner of my eye.

I did, however, have a nice time talking with (well, listening to) Mitch Kapor. Feed them some rope, provide them a context to tell you what’s on their mind. A general request for advice on a general topic will usually do. I asked Kapor about economic development. I should have asked Sierra about our own product issues.

Invisible Celebrities: I actually talked to Chad Dickerson, but I never connected the dots until afterwards that he wrote the “CTO Corner” column in InfoWorld, back when it was a paper publication. That column was the only reason I kept receiving the magazine, it made me feel sane (I am not alone!) to be advocating open source, which was very much a minority position at the time. I would have liked to have told him that.

Meeting People You Want To Meet

If you look at the list and see a name you absolutely want to meet, track them down ahead of time, get their contact information and then contact them during the conference and arrange a time.

The venue is deceptively intimate, but 250 people is a lot of people. You may not randomly run into the person you are looking for. You probably will not. I was absolutely looking forward to talking with James Dixon about open source business models. I even staked out the main passage ways, during transition times. I did not see the man! (Here’s where having one of those “iPhone” things would have been handy.)

Surprising Social Norms: Either there is a Silicon Valley thing going on that I’m not acclimated to, or this behavior is a form of status advertisement for high status individuals, but a number of times I saw people pull out their smart phones and check messages while other people were talking to them. I had not encountered this before, though I suppose it is just a variation on the equally noxious answering-your-cell-phone-in-the-middle-of-a-conversation. (Both should be grounds for an immediate caning.)

Us and Them

People sometimes ask, “What can I do to be invited back?” and your best bet is to make a (positive) impression by engaging and presenting.
– Foo Camp Wiki

In general, it’s going to be hard to make a good impression if you have no psychological energy. And it’s difficult to plan for a session or an Ignite talk when you have no idea what the audience is going to find interesting.

However, having seen the audience, I can now (post-facto (arg!)) offer a generic recipe for an interesting topic: something that is foundational in your specialty field but mostly unknown in the larger world. In my case a talk about general principles of geography, like Tobler’s Law or the ecological fallacy or some topical examples of how to lie with maps would have gone over well at Ignite.

It’s worth noting, given the mix of regular repeat attendees versus new attendees, that the criteria are not strictly meritocratic – obviously you can also get invited back by being intrinsically “important” in some way to the O’Reilly organization. The “engaging and interesting” criterion is only applied to some.

In Conclusion

Like many of life’s memorable experiences (“there was this time I hiked to the top of a mountain in the rain…”), there is a strong possibility that, as an introvert in a highly social milieu without a group of friends to lean on, you might find Foo Camp difficult and unenjoyable in the moment. You might want to leave, a lot of the time. But if you stick with it, you’ll come out with some good memories and look back on it as an important experience. You’ll also meet some very friendly people who will make you feel welcome despite yourself. Give it a shot.

Shout-out: Thanks to the people who made me feel not like a stranger at Foo Camp, despite my acting like one. Selena Deckelmann, Cary Davis, Joe Hughes, Matt Cutts, Nat Torkington, Shel Kaphan, Toby Boudreaux, Andrew McLaughlin, Laurel Ruma, Emily Jacobi and many others.

Nerds Redux

I had a chance to re-present my FOSS4G 2009 keynote talk at the Rendezvous OSGeo a Quebec last week, and thanks to the good work of the FOSSLC team, there’s now a pretty clean online video of it.

PostGIS @ FOSS4G 2010

One of the things that tickled me about the presentations selected for FOSS4G 2010 was the number of talks in the list that specifically mention PostGIS:

  • Beyond PostGIS - New developments in Open Source Spatial Databases
  • Introducing PostGIS WKT Raster: Seamless raster/vector operations in a spatial database
  • Introduction of flood evacuation route search system?using QGIS,PostGIS,GRASS and PgRouting
  • Moving from Oracle/ArcGIS to PostGresql/PostGIS
  • PostGIS meets the third dimension
  • PostGIS WKT Raster. An Open Source alternative to Oracle GeoRaster
  • Running long and complex processes with PostGIS
  • The State of PostGIS
  • Tips for the PostGIS Power User

The last two are mine! And one is about not using PostGIS. But still, some interesting talks on the use and future of my favourite spatial database.

PgSQL on EC2

The theory behind putting a PostgreSQL (and PostGIS) instance on an Amazon EC2 instance with an Elastic Block Store (EBS) file system underneath is pretty straightforward, even for big databases. But when you want those databases to show the kind of properties we have come to expect from our systems, like durability, throughput, and reliability, things get much harder.

This thread on pgsql-general was very illuminating to me. Among the tidbits:

Let’s be clear here, physical I/O is at times terrible. :)

There’s no way we could run this database on a single EBS volume.

We had to fail over to one of our spares twice in the last 1.5 years. Not fun. Both times were due to instance failure.

Basically the assumptions of AWS architecture (virtual instances will be less reliable than real world computers, but that doesn’t matter because getting a new one is really easy) don’t map well with the requirements of running a classic production database.

There are probably some engineering solutions around for this (GlusterFS, for example, but the core PgSQL would need some serious work and end up looking a lot more like OracleRAC than the currently single-machine set-up.

More Stories from the Future of Computing

From the Jobs keynote of yesterday, a slide with a quote from Theo Gray of Wolfram, regarding the popular “Elements” iPad application:

I earned more on sales of The Elements for iPad in the first day than from the past 5 years of Google ads on periodictable.com.

Quoth Jobs, “That’s what I like to hear from you guys.” Audience whoops.

Right now the walled garden is kicking the jungle’s ass, but for how long? It’s incredibly interesting, that for the moment the old school revenue model of application sales is actually besting the new school free-with-strings (ads) model that we were told was the Future. Perhaps once HTML5 application quality gets up to the level of fit and finish that the current crop of native apps is providing we will flip back again.

I think, for example, of a stock market application. Would people pay a buck for a really excellent application that “just works” in a clean and uncluttered way for displaying current information, research, blah blah blah, instead of just going to Yahoo! Finance? The information is available for free (just like the periodic table!) but a really excellent encapsulation of that information might be compelling enough to pay for. Walled garden starts to fall apart where it interfaces with the jungle… once the application has to link out to things like company reports, and other non-structure pieces in the raw internet, it re-gains the clunkiness of the old browser experience. So why not start with the browser?

For geo, I think that sites like GeoCommons, which have applied a baseline level of structure to a wide swath of data, are fertile grounds for the “app treatment”. An application that provides superior interactive access to their data archives would be an alternative monetization path for leveraging their growing holdings of structured GIS data.

Interesting times!