Reviewing Refactor Camp 2012

I’ve been procrastinating on this post for a couple of weeks, wondering what the heck to say about my first attempt at a serious Ribbonfarm event: Refactor Camp 2012, on March 3rd, at the San Francisco Zoo.

Throughout 2011, I did a whole lot of physical-world stuff, meeting people all over the country, sleeping on couches and in spare bedrooms, and organizing a handful of field trips (I think I met at least a hundred people, if not more). But Refactor Camp felt different somehow.

It started with a thought that came to me early in the day: holy crap, I’ve managed to fill a largish room for an entire day, and they’re expecting me to arrange for entertainment in non-written form. And some of these people have actually flown in especially for this. What the hell were they thinking?

The slightly surreal feeling continued through the day. Immediately after the event, as I noted in my follow-up email to the people who attended, I was feeling somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing.

Now, two weeks after, I am really glad I did it. I hope good things come of it.

As part of the follow-up, there is now a Facebook group called Bay Area Refactorings, which you are welcome to join if you live in the area/visit frequently/are planning to move there, and want to meet others in the area who resonate with ribbonfarmesque themes, join the group.

A Stick-Figure Meeting

It was a rather uncomfortable new mode of operation for me, especially because in my head, blogging is very much associated with solitude, coffee, ideas and typing.  Other people in the equation don’t really register except as stick-figure caricatures.

Blogging can seem like an insubstantial video game at times. You zap trolls with lasers, spar with “handles” rather than people in comments, circle warily around “anons”, and wonder, with each new unsolicited email, whether the person on the other end is a lunatic or a regular person.

So the fact that so many 3-dimensional people actually coughed up hard-earned dollars to hang out for a day, and talk about nothing in particular, frankly shocked me.  I am just not used to taking myself that seriously. Especially my online self. My own online identity is no exception to the caricature phenomenon. It feels like a stick-figure too. 

Since my own bar for “not a lunatic” isn’t very high and cannot be trusted, the test was whether people enjoyed interacting with each other. I am happy to report that nobody ran away screaming from anybody else,  and nobody came armed with a gun and intent to kill. So a more robust “not a lunatic” test was passed by all attendees (congratulations, you can print out and hang a sign saying “Certified Non-Lunatic at Refactor Camp” next to your college degree). 

An event like this really drives the point home: people online are actual people who eat lunch and drink coffee. Relationships that start online are real relationships. Paypal dollars are real dollars. The online world is not primarily populated by Nigerian scam artists and East European identity theft rings.

So here’s the roundup. I really don’t know how to summarize the event, so I’ll kinda loosely talk around it. It was one of those “you had to be there” deals, but let me see if I can convey the general feel of it.

The Roundup

Describing what happened is also hard for the much more concrete reason that I personally only participated in a small fraction of it.

Since we’d set up the event as a barcamp, with a small-group structure, most of the conversation was sort of in little silos, with some 40-45 people (I didn’t take attendance, so I don’t actually have a firm attendee count) sitting around six tables.  We did have a fair amount of mixing and moving around the tables, so I expect people talked beyond their tables to some extent. But it was basically a somewhat illegible event. I don’t think anybody has a clear overall view of what happened.

On the what-passed-for-formal part of the agenda, we had a half-dozen short talks, three each in the morning and afternoon sessions. Jason Ho took at shot at recording video footage of the talks (he also took most of the other photos in this post). This is pretty rough, and some of the videos are cut off due to running out of memory. Also, there is a good deal of dead-mic/panning-camera time due to some interactive exercises.

So if you view these, think of them more as random out-takes to get a feel for the event rather than complete, polished talks (I think only the Sam and Adam talks are complete).

  1. Nick Pinkston kicked things off with thoughts on finding purpose
  2. Sam Penrose did a talk on design thinking
  3. Adam Hogan talked about how design should either be bad-ass or symbolizing
  4. Greg Rader talked about mashing up Myers-Brigg theory with right brain/left brain stuff:
  5. I did a bit on motifs, mascots and muses

There was also a talk by Jane Huang on “learning to learn” that appears to have gone AWOL (she co-organized and emceed, which was a huge help).

If you’re interested in hearing longer, non-cut-off versions of these talks, let me know in the comments and I’ll think about pulling together webinars and persuading people to do longer, online versions.

Beach, Sewer and Zoo

I am a big believer in making events more than sit-around-time. So much so that this was the first event that I’ve done that even had a formal sit-down element. The previous ones have been walkabout field trips.

The San Francisco zoo turned out to be an excellent venue for non-sit-down stuff. It’s right by the Pacific Ocean, and Jane Huang, Mark Maxham, Nick Pinkston and I, who got there early, got a chance to stroll around on the beach for about 20 minutes early in the day. I hope some of you others did too, after the event.

The beach also had this sewage overflow pipe (there’s a water treatment plant nearby) with spectacular graffiti. I liked it enough that I’ve made it the theme photo of the event in the Facebook group.

We had a post-lunch “field trip” session with small groups heading to the zoo. Here’s my favorite picture from my group. Flamingos  are just weird.


Small Group Stuff

The small group discussions were all over the place, as far as I could tell from the topics proposed and discussed by people. I vaguely recall that the topics included things like “emotions and leadership,” something about narrative psychology, a rather esoteric discussion on “refactoring agency” and one about “singular value decomposition as metaphor.”

I’ll leave it to people to post summaries of their table discussions as comments if they want to share.

(Did anyone take a picture of the whiteboard with the open session agenda?? If you did, please send it to me and I’ll add it here).

But the important thing is that there was food and coffee (both pretty good, I thought), and a good time was had by all (at least nobody walked out in a huff, and nobody’s asked for their money back).

I wonder what topics would have popped up if I’d figured out how to put in an all-day open bar.

Here is a view of my table at lunch. In case you can’t recognize me, I am the guy at the back.


Following Up

I had to rush to the airport immediately after the event, but I am told a bunch of people had enough energy left to go on to a pub and hang out a little longer. Not entirely sure what happened there. If somebody met a startup co-founder, I want a cut.

The Facebook group really has no agenda. I started it mostly as a laid-back online hangout where stuff can get started if people are interested. There are no rules other than “don’t be a lunatic/jerk.” You can share links, advertise your own existing local events, pull something together with people from the group, look for jobs/apartments, sell Amway products, etc.

The intent is for it to be a sort of online forum from which perhaps more offline interactions can emerge.  Online is interesting too of course, but there’s plenty of that anyway, so I am interested in seeing what I can do to catalyze more physical-world stuff. Having this group also makes it easier for me to connect with people when I visit.

I know of at least a couple of people who are thinking about pulling together other events through the group, and I expect some coffees and beers will be had.

Events Beyond the Bay Area

The economics of this sort of thing are worth a short note.

I spent a good deal of the 2011 sponsorship money on Bay Area events last year. This year, I felt that would be unfair, since sponsors are from all over the place, but events are only possible in places with some critical mass.

So I priced admission to roughly break even, and also had a bunch of more expensive “sponsor tickets” (thanks Jesse, Kartik, Adrian, Kevin and Kype for buying those) with the idea of only making up any remaining shortfall with ribbonfarm sponsorship money.

That turned out well, I only had to pitch in a little bit, which I took from the 2012 sponsorship money that has rolled in so far. The event overall clocked in at about $2000, and the tickets paid for about $1750 or so. I suppose it could have been done more cheaply, but the zoo was worth it as a venue. I’ve come to believe that truly stimulating venues are worth the extra cost.

The call for 2012 sponsorships and details of associated evil plans will be posted in the next couple of weeks, but feel free to not wait if you were thinking of sponsoring. Part of my plan for the year is to use the money to catalyze more real-world (break-even) events in more places, but I haven’t yet figured it all out.

I don’t know if there’s enough of a critical mass of ribbonfarm readers in other areas, but Refactor Camp convinced me that offline events are crucial for ribbonfarm, and for me personally, in the long haul. After all, I’ve been doing this for nearly five years now, and may very well end up doing this for decades longer. Writing to stick figures gets tiring after a while. Things have to start getting more real at some point.

So if you are interested in meeting other ribbonfarm readers in your area, or helping pull an event together, drop me an email with your location and whether you just want to meet others or are interested in helping organizing something.

I know of at least a few other areas where there are at least a dozen readers (LA, NY and Toronto I think).  I’ll compile a list and do email introductions. If there’s enough locations with a critical mass, I’ll put up a directory page or something.

For locations with a critical mass, I’d enjoy flying out specifically for a meetup if I can find a cheap ticket and a free couch/spare bed (though going beyond the US/Canada won’t be affordable for me).  And of course, if I am traveling somewhere anyway, there is no need for a critical mass.

I expect to be in LA, NY and India later this year, and probably a few other places. There will probably be at least a couple more Bay Area visits as well. And if you didn’t already know, I live in Las Vegas, and am always glad to meet people who come out here (I’ve met a few already; Vegas is a popular pass-through spot it seems).

For places that are way off my usual stomping grounds (several people from Norway and Australia have emailed me at various points for example, but I doubt I’ll get to either of those places anytime soon), I can do email introductions to other people who are in the same area.

Anyway, thanks to all attendees for making Refactor Camp such a uniquely stimulating event, and I hope to continue meeting people as I grow old along with this blog. Fingers crossed. It’s been a year since I went free agent, and so far I haven’t had to hit the sidewalk.

Maybe there will be a Refactor Camp 2042 with a bunch of old people complaining about how the blogosphere is nothing like in the good old days, and me complaining about how arthritis is slowing me down.

I should really try out speech recognition software.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Thanks for organizing everything Venkat! Shelley and I had a blast. Come crash at my apartment in San Francisco whenever you’re in town. I’m a 5 minute walk from the Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown.

  2. Venkat,

    Are you organizing this in India when you are here? Let me know…


  3. Jay Hinton says

    I had a great time, and met some really interesting people, which was what I was hoping to get out of it. I’ll gladly organize a Los Angeles event. I think a few changes in the format might be in order, but I liked the ad hoc nature of what was going on, and the fact that no one seemed particularly stressed out about it. I’d be willing to travel to San Francisco, Vegas, Phoenix, or someplace reasonably close to do it again.

    BTW, having been to a lot of events–you’re spot on about being someplace interesting (and it doesn’t help that the food was good).

  4. I’d be happy to host you and/or the refactor camp in the Seattle area anytime. I started reading your blog recently and it has already become my number 1 destination in the blogosphere. Great stuff.

  5. Other small-group talks:

    — Sam Penrose finishing up his “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” exercise.
    — particular itches people have and why they have those particular itches
    — Mr. Maxham had one about the joys of being a loser, I think