Unconference co-founder Sara Winge creates success with relaxed settings, interesting people and little structure.

by Quinn Norton | June 01, 2010 | (0)

Seven years ago, Sara Winge, a VP at publishing and conference company O’Reilly Media, had a simple idea that happened to change the world. The company was well connected in the technology community, and Winge suggested that their friends in that community come visit the headquarters for a big campout.

It was dark times. The technology community took a hit in the dotcom bust of the early 2000s. O’Reilly Media went through its first round of layoffs, and found itself with a surfeit of space at its new headquarters in Sebastopol, Calif.

“Everyone else was depressed. We actually had a company goal in 2003 to inject hope into the industry,” Winge said. “We were in this nice new building, we had extra space.” 

O’Reilly Media had been running conferences for six years, but Winge was proposing something very different: an unconference in which no one was in charge. Participants would self-organize the weekend. O’Reilly Media would provide the space, the food and Internet connectivity, but no agenda, no specific goal, not even topics beyond whatever participants were interested in. Winge called the weekend campus campout of creative collaboration Foo (Friends of O’Reilly), a programmer’s pun: Foo and Bar are code fill-in words such as “John Doe.” 

The Resident Grown-up
The daughter of an LBJ-era senate staffer, the teenage Winge grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Feeling stifled by the formality of Washington life, she bided her time to go west.

“I wanted to go to California, where I knew my people would be,” Winge says. “My picture of California has to some degree come true. You had more choices about who to be, and that was very appealing to me.”

Her first stop was about as west as you can get, philosophically.

“I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz and found out there was this thing called a feminist, and I wasn’t the only one on the planet,” Winge says.

Winge got a degree in women’s studies. She worked small jobs around the hills of Northern California, but hadn’t found her calling yet. She returned to school at Sonoma State to get a master’s in management.

“It was called Granola State back then,” she says. “You had a lot of discretion about how you defined management and what you could convince your professors it was... The program I was in at Sonoma State has since morphed into an MBA. There are plenty of jokes and rolled eyes about cookie cutter MBAs; you couldn’t be cookie cutter in the program I was doing because you had to shape it yourself,” she says.

Winge is a constant presence at O’Reilly Media events. She is a tall, almost imposing woman with dark, short hair. In rooms full of funny T-shirt-wearing technologists, grease-stained inventors and disheveled geeks, her business casual attire makes her seem like the resident grown-up of O’Reilly. In the perpetually neotenous tech culture, she often is.

“[Sara] speaks for customers, partners, employees, readers and technologists as human beings with egos and feelings,” says Nat Torkington, who worked at O’Reilly Media and launched the first Kiwi Foo Camp in New Zealand three years ago. “She reminds us that people are social creatures; we evolved to tell stories and respond to them.”

Brady Forrest, who works directly for Winge, describes his job title as “tech evangelist, I guess.” Titles don’t mean a lot at the company—it values creativity and the willingness to follow through on that creativity over just about anything else. Winge has been a vital part of that culture.

“As a manager, she’s the ultimate enabler. [She would ask,] ‘Really you think that’s a good idea? Well, why are you talking to me? You should go do it,’” Forrest says.

That empowering style goes for her boss as well.

“She’s one of the only people in the business that takes time to tell me I’ve done a good job,” says Founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly. “It shows she doesn’t take it for granted.” 

Start of Something Great
Winge’s faith in the unconference idea goes back to the early 1980s and California’s Sonoma State University as she was getting her master’s in management.

It was through a Sonoma State professor that she was introduced to Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology (OST). The idea was to create open, freeform gatherings, with a strong emphasis on participation over passive listening and self-organization over facilitation. OST is often used for institutions in crisis and emphasizes equality for problem solving. Winge’s idea was to apply the same techniques to creating an exuberant creative space.

On a Friday evening, the first Foo Camp gathered in Sebastopol, and Tim O’Reilly welcomed attendees and explained how the weekend would work. Wall-sized poster-boards with a schedule of rooms and times were centrally placed along a main hall. After the introduction anyone could walk up to the boards and sign up to talk about any topic of interest in any empty time slot. They didn’t have to be experts, just interested. The hosts weren’t even going to check that the sessions happened. That was up to the participants. Introductions were simple, no matter who you were: your name, affiliation and three words. Winge brought in a brass gong from her private instrument collection. If you tried to go on too long, you got gonged.

What made the idea world-changing was its escape from O’Reilly Media. The original 2003 Foo Camp welcomed about 150 people. By 2005, the event’s popularity had grown such that tech players not invited to Foo Camp organized a simultaneous open event with the same format in the nearby Bay Area. As it complimented Foo Camp they called it BarCamp. It was a huge success, and people realized that it was easy and cheap to organize such gatherings. They have since sprung up all over the world, and applied to every topic under the sun. To the ideas of OST and Foo Camp, BarCamp added a public wiki and a guide on how to do it.

In the last five years, thousands of camps have cropped up in most countries of the world. Not all “camps” involve camping, but the informality that came from the first Foo Camp is what made it clear that nearly anyone, anywhere, could organize a BarCamp. Owen sees these variations on OST as part of a natural truth about how people relate.

“There’s no such thing as a non-self organizing system, there are just a few deluded people who think they organized it,” Owen says.

Not everyone was quite so sure.

“I was initially really skeptical,” Torkington says. “[Winge] trusted in interesting people to be able to make it work. It’s taken me many years to get comfortable with that, but she was down with it from the start.”

He emphasizes that inviting people to Foo Camp who will be comfortable in an unstructured environment is vital. Winge understands what makes Foo Camp and BarCamp work: unstructured situations, passionate people and high expectations all drive creativity.

“I’ve always been happier in situations where I have to take responsibility for making it up as I go along. It’s more real,” Winge says.

In her personal life, Winge has been a musician and instrument collector for years. Her musical style exemplifies the qualities that make her good at her job. She compliments 30 years of solid practice on the guitar with an impressive collection of rare, experimental and antique instruments, which she also plays. Her esoteric favorites include a spring guiro, a hybrid instrument that seems like something for a tribal one-man band and the waterphone, a haunting instrument featured in the Matrix soundtrack. 

“Her day job takes her into the pragmatic money-making future, but she balances it with a love of the quirky beautiful past,” Torkington says. 

What Have You Done Lately?
These days Winge is working to promote two new formats. The first is Ignite, a speaking series spontaneously organized around the world based on Pecha Kucha, a presentation style from a Tokyo-based architectural firm. (See the May 2009 issue of One+, Page 83, for more on Pecha Kucha.) Bre Pettis, founder of Makerbot and hacker extraordinaire, and O’Reilly Media’s Brady Forrest modified that style to five minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds a slide, Winge says.

The topic is anything the speaker cares about, and the format is notoriously tough to prepare for since the speaker can’t control when the slides advance. But the results have been tight, informative and entertaining talks, presented under the motto “Enlighten us, but make it quick.” O’Reilly Media sponsored a Global Ignite Week in March, and created a central video repository for hundreds of the five-minute talks.

Winge is also involved in Maker Faire, launched to accompany O’Reilly Media’s Make magazine, which focuses on instructions for the extreme do-it-yourself (DIY) scene. Usually filling up a county fairground, the fairs are held annually in California, Rhode Island, Texas and the U.K., and there’s even an unaffiliated-but-authorized Maker Faire Africa. They are full of robots and Tesla coils, people demonstrating solar-powered inventions and homemade musical instruments. It is by far the biggest O’Reilly Media event, with the broadest reach.

The common ethos between these events goes back to Winge’s days deciding for herself what management meant.

“We tend to be so defined by our title or our expertise. But those three things—Foo Camp, Ignite, Maker Faire—they are all forums in which you can bring that unexpected part of yourself to the world,” she says. “It feels really good to people. They love to be a whole person.”

As O’Reilly Media Author Schuyler Earle tells it, he and Foo Camp alum Mikel Maron were road-tripping from Pune to Mumbai along the expressway in India. They stopped to get gas and stretch their legs. Maron was wearing his Foo Camp T-shirt and two young Indian men approached them, excited.

“Foo Camp!” one said. “Is that anything like BarCamp?” One+ 

(Image: (CC) Joi Ito)


Quinn Norton
QUINN NORTON is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in WiredNews, The UK Guardian, Make Magazine, Seed and more. She lives in SanFrancisco with her daughter, and a number of teapots. Quinn is reachable at quinn@quinnnorton.com.
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