Sean J. Taylor

Foo Camp Report

It was an honor to be invited to my first Foo Camp this year. The weekend certainly lived up to its billing as a gathering of “alpha geeks” that imposes only loose structure on their interactions.

Coming from the academic world, the flexible format and mix of attendees were completely foreign to me. Academic conferences are attended by (mostly) homogenous groups who have read the same literature, have attended the same conferences before, and know each other personally or by reputation. This approach streamlines communication because everyone is steeped in jargon and shares a large set of common experience.

Foo Camp is the opposite. The diversity of skills and perspectives makes transmitting and receiving information inefficient and uncomfortable. But I firmly believe that these feelings are precisely what happens when you are learning and making new connections. The weekend fell solidly on the exploration side of the exploration-exploitation tradeoff in a way that was refreshing.

The other campers were actually homogenous in one important way: they were all people who get stuff done. Each person I met seemed to have been through at least a few cycles of taking on ambitious challenges and succeeding at them. (As my advisor would say, these people all had great red zone offenses.) This can be more inspiring than innovative ideas – it’s nice to hear stories from others who have worked hard to take their projects across the finish line. 

My contribution to the discussions stemmed from my two current interests. First, I tried to relate as many ideas as possible to my own experimentalist worldview. Ben Waber and I led a session on broadening the scope of experimentation in organizations to include self-experimentation. I think there is a false conceptual divide between the experimenter and the subject, leaving us uncomfortable applying scientific methods on ourselves. Yet, as the quantified self movement has shown for individuals, rigorously collecting data and applying carefully planned manipulations can help us learn about ourselves in addition to our environments.

Second, I shared my vision for systems which reward skill in prediction. We take for granted that smart people like Nate Silver will become popular, but I believe we should re-evaluate how reliably we come to pay attention to those who add some value to the conversation. My Ignite talk outlined the missing pieces needed to learn who is worth listening to when we care about what will happen in the future. The success of open source software projects and competitive platforms like Kaggle are inspiring early examples of how information technology and incentives can help reward the right people for their investments in skills and expertise.

I have to thank Tim O’Reilly and Sara Winge for curating such a memorable event. Bringing together so many amazing people and keeping them captive/cogitating for a whole weekend is a huge coordination problem. After years of focusing on my Ph.D. in a small field, I really enjoyed talking with people who were hackers like me and yet completely, wonderfully different.