The Heart of the Geek


Over the past 48 hours I have had the peculiar experience of surprising myself, my wife, my colleagues and Saul Kropman. Why? Because contrary to my rather vocal expositions beforehand, and the dread (yes, dread) I felt driving toward Stanford Valley on Friday last week, the second Geek Retreat not only exceeded my expectations but it delivered blows to my mind by the dozen.

Anyone who heard my co-coverage of the first Geek Retreat on The Digital Edge will know that I left feeling underwhelmed. I found the discussions aimless and the goals vague; the participants seemed to be drawn from a tiny sub-set of the digital industry, itself already a tiny sub-set of the general business population. I questioned whether anything would actually come of the many lofty proposals, and my particular session (on my proposed Africa Binary wiki) was spent mired in naysaying and points of process.

With bridges burned, so I imagined, and a vow not to subject myself to (in the inestimable words of a close colleague) any further “wankery”, I felt disembodied applying to attend the next one, agreeing to some low-level assistance and then going through the motions of arranging my travel plans. I put it down to showing my face and perhaps bumping into some networking opportunities. For the rest I planned to drag myself through, and resort to cheap wine whenever even the dragging became too much to achieve.

Stanford Valley is a short drive out of Hermanus in the Western Cape. Nestled in the mountains (well, it is a valley after all) it is a small conference centre built in Cape Dutch style, with sharp white walls gleaming against a dark, craggy backdrop. I arrived late (I blame a crowd of wandering geeks for extending my quick lunch in Hermanus into something altogether more involved) and rushed in to find a familiar kind of ‘teambuilding’ setup: flipcharts, data projector, crappy chairs, battered tables. The complimentary pen and exam pad were, gracefully, omitted.

But then over the next day or so a peculiar thing happened. A kind of trust seemed to settle into everyone. The usual marketing bullshit dissipated. The need to self-aggrandise skulked off into the corner, and was replaced by a genuine desire to make meaningful connections. Competitors shared stories and frustrations. People spoke when they had something to say, not when they felt they needed to be noticed.

This quickly starts to sound very touchy-feely and fuzzy, as though informed by the imbibing of too much tequila. But anyone who knows me knows I’m not that person. I don’t bond when I’m drunk, and I hate groups. Which leads me to conclude that I responded to the one thing I never imagined I’d find at a Geek Retreat: sincerity.

Heather Ford, whose brain this retreat is the child of, said “The people who are here are meant to be here”. I dismissed this as a platitude, but I now wonder if that’s not just exactly correct. In this immersive, intense, demanding, intriguing and – at times – frivolous space, I feel like the best parts of us were called out. And to say this about people who, in some cases, I might have set my pet scorpion on a day or two before means something big must have happened.

The content and proceedings will, no doubt, be covered in some depth elsewhere. Suffice to say I met at least 20 people from whom I learnt at least one important thing. I saw a possibility for collaboration in a way I had never before imagined. And I was stunned by how smart some people are in at least 3 cases.

The retreat made me question not only some parts of my business strategy and my career path, but also my attitudes at a fundamental level. I have not undergone a religious conversion (as some have joked) but instead I have experimented with using friendship as a way to interact with my competitors rather than defensiveness and egotism. It’s an utterly bizarre turn of events that has left me reeling, and who knows, I may come to regret it or change my mind. But I wonder this one thing most of all: if I treat those I have previously snarled at as friends first, and competition second, what will that do? If I let go of the notion that them getting is me losing, will something even better emerge?

At the risk of getting overdoing this I will leave it there. I have no idea if this kind of thing can be recreated at another Geek Retreat. Whether anything tangible emerges, whether we change anything is unpredictable and anyway irrelevant. Some experiences are enough in themselves.

I want to say a particular thanks to Marlon Parker for being a true example of a selfless humanitarian who makes just about everyone else I know seem ineffectual. In a world of reasons not to, he has challenged the inevitability of poverty and addiction and won, at least some of the time.

Oh and Willem van Straaten you are fucken crazy. Seriously.

For a full rundown of the retreat and interviews with some of the attendees, be sure and catch The Digital Edge episode 53 on Monday January 25.

Photo by Paul Furber.







35 thoughts on “The Heart of the Geek

  1. Can’t agree more. The geekretreat has had a fundamental impact on my business and my life. A new era of openess and collaboration in the SA software and digital space has been ushered in by this event. Exciting times.

  2. fun post jarred. the comments are even more fun. it sounds like a great networking event. definitely unlike jarred to be so gushy. <cynicism> i am just waiting for a 20 year old web 2.0 genius who has never experienced these kind of things in every industry from oil production to armaments to give the age old concept of industry networking a fancy name (something to do with physics, psychology or consultant speak always works) and a series of TLA’s and tell us all how its the way the world will change </cynicism>

  3. We need to look at the bigger picture. I heard that this years geekretreat was better than the last and I am sure that next year will be even better. Even if this retreat does achieve something huge, it will probably be nothing compared to the impact it has had in attracting the right people to next years event. This momentum, if maintained, will recruit all those required to implement real change in the industry and our country. Its this potential that makes every geekretreat, lame or not, worthwhile.

  4. This conversation frustrates me. From everything said, I support Ivo’s comment wholeheartedly. But let me try to add a new perspective.A lot of comments have been debating the narrow view of whether Geekretreat, and industry events like it, lead to immediate and actionable projects of direct value to South African society. A side issue is the concern that Geekretreat, and events like it, are dominated by a small community of techies that is non-inclusive of "outsiders".They are missing the point. The people speaking on this forum are smart. The criticizers and rebutters are, depending on your point of view, both right. But we’re getting sucked into narrow thinking.In November last year I did a tour of Silicon Valley and spent time with various techies, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists there. It is undoubtedly the tech centre of the world. A huge part of that world is about industry events, where tech people can get together, share knowledge, create relationships, do business, start projects (for profit or not), and have fun. This all adds up to build serious momentum for their industry.To illustrate my point, check out the events happening in the Bay Area this week alone: Silicon Valley culture thrives on industry events. There is value in it. Events create a kind of randomness that lead to all sorts of tangible and intangible gains, for the individual participants and industry as a whole. Generally speaking, that industry will always help society in one way or another. Malcom Gladwell or any armchair economist would be better at articulating these effects than I.Where would Silicon Valley be if critics cried out every time an event was held that didn’t yield a direct, sustainable, non-profit project? Where would they be if every time a group of people in the same group got together, others from that space yelled "circle jerk"? What would it feel like if every time the industry equilibrium was moved just a millimeter toward a productive direction, pundits groaned at the sound of another fruitless talking shop, where all that was exchanged were ideas and energy.Answer: they would be where we are right now.Events help the tech industry in South Africa. Any event. Let people coalesce around stuff they are passionate about. If you don’t care for that, to each his own. The tiniest bits of progress should be cheered, not booed. With narrow thinking, our industry won’t grow. Event organization and participant enjoyment should be the only metric for its success.I went to Geekretreat and thought it was fantastic. That should be enough.

  5. Sorry, I meant to say: "As a proverbial n00b to the geekretreat, and definitely someone you could NOT say was part of any ‘circle-jerk’, I found Geekretreat to be three things to me…"

  6. As a proverbial n00b to the geekretreat, and definitely someone you could say was part of any ‘circle-jerk’, I found Geekretreat to be three things to me:1. Explorative. I got to think outside of my box for once2. Exciting. I got to meet, speak with and chill with people I have only ever been able to admire from afar, and who I respect very much for their contributions to making the Internet a better place for SA. 3. Enlightening. Fact is, even though I am an avid reader, keeper-up-to-date-on-whats-going-on-especially-in-SA, I learnt more in 2 days at Geekretreat than I think I did during the entirety of 2009. I firmly believe that the genesis of initiatives that occurred at GeekRetreat will, in some way, come to fruition. Moreover, I believe the connections made and the stories shared have led me to feeling inspired and supported. And that, to me, is worth it. All the way. Cath

  7. The solution is simple (and will stick with what I imagine is the original ethos of the GR). Every year/event the group picks a project to really run with above and beyond their "selfish" personal work. If we as a group in the tech space (whether we went to the retreat or not) cannot do one project to actually help every year then the Retreat is basically an excuse to have fun, network and grow your personal brand. (Disclaimer, I think that’s a good idea as well)

  8. Jarred, it was a pleasure to hang out with you this weekend. I appreciate your advice and insights, all delivered with *sincerity*, experience and humour. One of the many conversations I had that I’ve been reflecting on since the weekend. My response to the criticisms comes from my own experience of not only the GeekRetreat but also events like 27dinner and PodCamp: meeting stakeholders in the SA web, media and marketing industries and sharing concerns, ideas and opportunities consistently leads to new projects, friendships, businesses, and innovations within businesses and NGOs. Not always, and not for everyone, but often enough. This is why we all carry on participating in them.I would personally like to see more initiatives like GeekRetreat, SiliconCape, 27dinner, HeavyChef and more. These community building events are educating our industry, driving innovation, raising awareness, and stimulating growth.

  9. Jarred – as one of the so-called ‘competition’, I agree with your thoughts – we arrived suspicious, but parted on friendly terms, and open to collaboration. Now, that was unexpected 🙂

  10. @spratt It’s a good day when the only fault you have with my comment is re a mere two spelling mistakes 😉

  11. Good to hear Allan. Please update somewhere on the progress, and mention that it was inspired/connected to Geek Retreat.As for Elan’s comment, I think that pretty much proves my beer-swilling point earlier.

  12. Who actually gives a fuck?The fact that this is being debated is already amusing. You don’t like the idea you don’t go, you like the idea you go. You go and don’t like it, don’t go again – pretty simple really. Tequila anyone? I’ll see you at the next GR thanks.

  13. Leonard, I attend most of the 27 and Geek dinners and I too arrived at Stanford wondering if we were going to be the same group of people saying the same things. I really couldn’t have been further from the mark. Yes, there were people that I knew already from the industry and various industry events, but at the same time I met, was exposed to and was inspired by, so many people that I probably never would have otherwise. My hope is that we don’t appear to be self-aggrandising and create a "those that were there and got it" versus a "those that missed out and don’t understand". I’ve publicly committed to being a part of the process going forward, and lest we become another abstracted "planning group", have also committed to one of the projects that were proposed over the course of the weekend. But since I’ve yet to actually do anything tangible (see self-aggrandising above) that’s a moot point. Yes, there are smart people doing amazing things in SA, and now, after the Geek Retreat, hopefully there will be some more.

  14. From an onlooker’s point of view, it would seem that it is the very same bunch of people who attend all of these events. 27 dinners, geek retreats, word camps, star camps, BAND camps … you name it, it’s the same people. Just call them industry networking events and get it over with, but also realise that there are many smart people doing GREAT things who do not need to attend all-night beer drinking events to prove that they love this country and invest all of their time and energy in making the internet in SA a better experience for all.

  15. To all the handwringers: Everyone (mostly) paid to be there. Nobody lost anything by going. Most had fun. Where’s the problem?Much of the benefit of the event is that it’s not pre-planned and pre-moulded. People get to talk not about what the sponsors want, or the organisers think, but about what they are interested in, involved in, or passionate about. If you don’t want to listen, then go somewhere else. Nobody’s forcing you to be there. If you think your time is better used elsewhere, or on your own, good luck to you. But if you do hang around, you might get a new idea, or hear a new perspective, or get involved in a new project.If nobody likes a proposal, then of course nobody’s going to pitch in and help. What do you expect? Go home and think up something new, fresh and doable that you can get people excited about. Or do you only have one idea in you? Getting all dismissive and pissy because your idea didn’t bowl everyone over is a little pathetic.In short, if you don’t like GeekRetreat, don’t come. Then you won’t feel you have to whine. Simple.Oh, and the first person to call me an altruist gets it.

  16. @richmulholland – I know of your charitable exploits and I commend you. but why not use your obvious talents, not least of which leadership, to be a part of the process. I saddens me deeply when people with leverage dont at least try and be part of the process before they condemn it, for it is these people that can change the world and make a difference. it is people like you can seriously increase the odds of success.@saulk – be patient and keep the faith, please. as per my comment to Rich above, South Africa is in need of leaders like you guys to keep the voice going. To all – I am an Australian in SA trying my best to make this place better for all. Sure I have family here so that helps (self interest), but really, all of my family have Italian or Australian passports – it would often be easier for us just to leave… For me personally though, it is about making a great life for the future kids of this country. It breaks my heart to think kids starve, go unschooled and are orphaned all because of missteps of fat-cat politicians and business folk. I believe we, biz folk, need to be the change as the politicians will not – notwithstanding Zille. And in my readings (hundreds of books) and experience, strong personalities can influence hundreds of others and thousand of others in turn. This snowball effect has, so many time in history, lead to significant change. Hopefully GR and Silicon Cape can be catalysts to rally ppl for this change to be materially positive. Maybe not, what are the other options? I set up ISLabs with like minded ppl at IS and am lucky to be part of SC and GR to this end. Take away for people critical: What are you doing to help make SA better?——@eved – "cognician" and "organisation" 🙂

  17. Ok… I have never been to a GR and planning n going to the next one… Only because it sounds interesting… I have net read through everyone’sssss replies because i am a slow reader and just don’t have the time now, but planning to… So I do apologise if I repeat something someone has already said… But I have the same vision… Not only in my life but for others… I know that the world is starting to work together more and collaborate. Because trying to something on your own just never worked…Always wanting to learn new thing and see other people’s view on life, business and being a geek… But all I am seeing is that, people are wanting to change the way South Africa is running businesses and life… But no one has the balls to actually do something about it… My thought on this is that: Lets stand together as geeks and DO IT!!!! Because we always wait for someone to take the first step.. So lets do it together… Because 100 people are better than 1.I would love to attend and change the world… Its always been a vision I had in my life as an individual. But dong it with others will be even better… So all I want to say is… Lets DOT IT TOGETHER!!!!

  18. The road to hell… good intentions etc.To me it rests with all of us involved to deliver against (at the very least) one meaningful project, and I’m hopeful that we can. 20 well intended but half-finished projects gets nobody anywhere.Its as simple as that.

  19. Spratty, for me talk is cheap. You need to understand that while I opted not to attend the last GR I did pay close attention to the promises and tweets made by people after the fact, I did not see many direct results. I’m sure some things may have happened that were discussed, but I imagine that could be a case of "post hoc ergo propter hoc". Understand that when you work in conferences for a living you tend to get quite cynical, people make big promises, but they leave and then life kicks in, everyone gets back to business and that’s that. I was not denigrating the process, I was simply adopting a, "I’ll believe it when I see it" attitude.The name says it all to me, Geek Retreat, the words themselves talk to a weekend away. SA does not need a weekend away, it needs a movement. I’m not sure what went down in CT other than the bonding, but I’d suggest that if this is to work the following is required:- A manifesto should be tabled based on the outcomes of GR. – A board should be elected, and they should meet, be it on or offline, to discuss things.- There should be a plan of action for kicking through items.Lastly, I have a problem with the elitism that exists in the online community, I really do see this as case of, "I’m going so I can say I was there" for many people, and like it or not there does seem to be a lot of circle-jerking going down. To me it seemed like a weekend long 27 dinner. A gig that I’m sure you know I respect a lot, but am personally not a fan of.However having said that, I hope to fuck you make me eat my words.(Oh, and on "getting paid handsomely), dude, I did well over R1 000 000 of charity work last year – I get doing the right thing).Eve, spot on. I’m a filthy capitali$t myself, I don’t apologise for that fact. I attend networking events around the world with the purpose of learning stuff and making contacts – what I don’t do is pretend to be completely altruistic about it. I see a lot of that going on here.

  20. My 2 cents,I’ve run my own business for just over a year now, and in that time I’ve quickly learnt one very important lesson, and I’ve leant it time and time again. "Assume everyone to be full of shit, until they prove otherwise." With the risk of sounding cliched, actions always speak louder than words, and until I see initiatives such as this and others like Silicon Cape prove otherwise, while certainly very inspiring, they’ll remain nothing more than group pat-on-the-back sessions. Cynical? Probably.*I’ve not been to GR

  21. It seems that the twitter generation has forgotten one thing, that Rome was not built in one day, one geek retreat, and in fact 100, may not individually change the world, but the energy and intentions will ultimately build to move the metaphorical mountain. For me I felt what Jared felt, and in a small way hope to make some changes going forward. If we dont all contribute, whilst paying the rent of course, nothing will ever change. Once again thanks to those that worked so hard to make the event happen.

  22. So I’m with Saul and Richard on this. *And* Justin.One of the very serious topics discussed at GR, initiated by Heather, was the question of whether GR is good enough as a stand alone event, or if it needs the burden on delivering on projects. We shouldn’t discount the value of networking for 3 days while discussing geeky stuff, and while being inspired by the *concept* of making the SA Internet better. Every single participant I have spoken to was thrilled to have attended – no one had any regrets about schlepping to Stanford to meet up. That suggests great value in itself. I’ll speak just for myself though: simply speaking, I went to GR, launched and discussed some projects I am working on, spoke one-to-one with many people for the purpose of furthering my business, and walked away happier than when I arrived. (And I was pretty happy even then!)Am I going to do something for the better of this country as a result of GR? You bet. But you, and you, and you probably won’t get to experience it, because my influence is not that vast. But *someone*, *somewhere* *will* experience it, and that’s good enough. I am always amazed when people assume that working for "the better" of a country, organization etc precludes you from making money out of it. Nonsense. So here is the deal: we came to GR, we walked away with business leads, contacts, ideas etc. We will act on those (hopefully), and make some money. We’ll add that success to our overall wish to make SA better, and do it in our small little way. For example: some scholars paid back their scholarships, so that more can attend next time. Someone has already spoken to a school in the area, so that next time the youngsters can also attend. P2P university got offers from us to create courses, Cognition got good publicity, which will help them in the short run, one attendee sponsored another attendee for SxSW (YAY!), my Broadband Bible got a huge spike in traffic, etc etc etc. Baby steps? Maybe. But add that to the fact that we actually had FUN…and ask yourself…what’s wrong with that?

  23. Sprattles, I’m cynical because I don’t see a result. I’m basing my comments purely on the first one (so this is totally unfair) but for example Jarred’s concept of the Africa Binary Wiki (which I put a lot of effort into) was dismissed and no one bothered to get involved in it at the last retreat. The most we’ve got is some shared office space for Eve and Brett Haggard (kudos to Eve, she’s a powerhouse) but it’s hardly enough to make SA better. From what I can see, nothing else has come about (at least not publicly) from the first retreat. That said, it was the prototype and I’m not sure the second was different but it’s not just about making SA better and the sooner we realise it’s about making ourselves better (to then make SA better) the better. I’m not saying it’s purely a networking event, it’s a collaboration event for our own projects. That’s really useful not just for ourselves but eventually the country as well. In all honesty, we all have day jobs and don’t have the time to do digital charity work. At the last retreat there was a talk about getting involved with other industries to bring them into the 21st century but nothing ever came from that.Let’s get a beer and I’ll tell you how I would add to the concept :). I will be at the next one, if only to get things done.

  24. sadly, I vehemently disagree with both @saulk and @richmulholland.Rich first: how do you know ppl didnt change the world? Jobs talks about "making a dent in the universe" (small things, each day). most of these are imperceptible to most. how can you possibly know that nothing happened? I know several instance of great things done as a result, but these were small and would definitely not have fallen onto your "maximum-100-follows-only" twitter radar. Lets assume that you are right about action outside of the retreat Rich, just doing the event that led to this second event was enough to warrant the accolade. Without the first event, the second would never have been a success. As an event organiser, you will know what kind of work is required to host an event build a website, community, etc. The only difference is you get paid handsomely – none of the loads of people who have helped on have been paid a dime. why? no, not fame. because they believe. you and saul wouldnt even know of 10% of the actions people have performed.Saul: wow, so cynical at such a young age. It saddens me that you can be so dismissive knowing how smart and good valued you are… first, read above the sentence were I talk about the multitudes who have helped that you have never heard of and will never. I repeat: do you know why? because they believe. They know that they have something to contribute that can make South Africa a better place. Instead of using their sharp wits to be pejorative and dismissive (yes, jab intended) they believe in a better world. This may sound corny but ask any leader worth his or her salt and this is what they trade in – believers. As far as your networking jibe goes, well, frankly, here you didnt use your brain. There are many events that can provide such a service and guess what, social media does this quite nicely without spending lots of our money to go to place to mutually mentally masturbate. Networking was certainly a by-product. But then, so what?Guys – you are two leaders in our community. be apart of the process before you denigrate it!Sincerely, @justinspratt

  25. Can’t agree more. The geekretreat has had a fundamental impact on my business and my life. A new era of openess and collaboration in the SA software and digital space has been ushered in by this event. Exciting times.

  26. I think the sooner we realise that the Geekretreat is about networking and not saving the South African public through the Internet the better. Let’s get together as geeks twice a year and brainstorm ideas and for our own businesses and grow those to employ people. Cynical yes, I don’t believe people (besides Marlon who should be given a sainthood) really want to change the world beyond their little bit of space.

  27. I’ll believe it all when I see if anything worthwhile happens. Last year was a lot of talk about changing the world… no one did.

  28. Thanks for an honest and frank post about the latest GR. Makes me want to attend the next one, if only to see if what you experienced can be recreated and how I can add value to that and learn as you have too.

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