EuroFoo

Recently I was invited to the O’Reilly Euro Foo Camp in Bruxelles, Belgium. Tim O’Reilly invented those Foo (Friends of O’Reilly) Camps a few years ago. He invites interesting people to talk among them about their projects, ideas, etc. There is no real structure to the event, not much is pre-planned, the event doesn’t follow conventional conference structures, but is free-form and spontaneous. Recently this idea has caught on and there are many “Bar Camps” or other un-conferences, as this form has been dubbed.

I had never been to such an un-conference before and didn’t really know what to expect. After an introductory meeting we split up in smaller groups. There were five or six rooms available, the time was devided into one-hour slots. There were large boards where everyone could write in the session(s) he wanted to lead subject to availability of a room and timslot. The boards quickly filled and everybody moved off in their respective rooms. There was ample coffee and lunch break time also, but most of the day was spent in the many sessions.

The sessions were very different. Some more technical oriented, some more social or just entertaining. Anything was allowed. And there was the constant problem of where to go. Do you go to those events that you already have some interest in or do you go to something else to learn something new? Do you go to the more practical sounding things or the more visionary sounding ones? As it was very hard to tell from many of the session titles on the board what the session was really about it was more of a gamble. But that makes sense because a session is mostly not this preplanned thing but a free flow of ideas and you could shape it yourself in the way you might want to.

In the beginning I had the problem that I was seeing them as normal “corporate-type” meetings where you should have a proper agenda and everybody leaves the meeting with a clear idea on what the next steps for the project are. But these sessions were nothing like that. In many cases much time was spent getting everybody up to speed on the subject before a real discussion could start. And once you got going the time was up and everybody moved on. This was a bit frustrating at the beginning. But after a while I got into the flow of things and saw it more like semi-organized serendipity. You never knew what to expect, but if you just go with whatever happens you get a lot out of it. There were many faszinating ideas, new points of views on old things and thought-provoking discussions. It is hard to single out specific items, because after a while it all became a blur of one new thing after another, one thing moving to the next and then a jump to a completely different topic for the next session. A lot of fun but also quite strenuous.

The most important thing though were the people. So many interesting people. And this is what I think makes the event a success. You need lots of genuinely interesting and smart people to make this work. Without them its just a bunch of sessions on topics which might or might not be interesting. But every subject in the world is interesting if somebody passionate and smart talks about it. And even those for which the subject is new are intelligent enough to quickly grasp it and make intelligent remarks coming from their own background. And that is when you get a fast-paced and interesting discussion.

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