When people reflect upon their experiences at Burning Man, the technology behind the event is quite possibly the last thing they consider. Many probably don’t even know that a small army of dedicated geeks and geekettes work diligently behind the scenes all year long. In the Burning Man community, its cool to be a geek! In fact, our Technology department is a large and thriving organization that keeps the Burning Man offices in operation, enables several key operations on the playa, and keeps the community informed and connected during the 51 weeks a year when we are not in Black Rock City.
Throughout the year, our Technical Support team ensures that computers for staff and shared use are operational and connected to Burning Man’s technical infrastructure as well as that outer virtual world of the internet. By taking care of details like phones, wiring, printers, and the office networks in both the San Francisco and Gerlach offices, Tech Support makes sure that the rest of us have the right tools (hardware, software, and connectivity) to get the job done. In April 2004, Burning Man connected a T1 network to the office in Gerlach, which significantly improved communication between our staff members, suppliers, and the two offices. In addition, a wireless network was implemented for the office, and another now covers most of the town of Gerlach, providing wireless internet access as a gift to the community. For most of 2004, the Technical Support team worked to extend the technical infrastructure to the expanded San Francisco office space and to additional office and common space in Nevada, an effort that will continue into 2005.
Members of the System Administration team are often the unsung heroes of any technical organization. As Burning Man’s technical needs have grown in scope and complexity, so too has the demand for system and network administration talent and time. The number of servers in use has steadily increased over the past few years, so that almost a dozen machines hum away in several locations to bring us the website, email (almost 250 lists), databases, our extranet, back-up functionality, and more. These machines demand maintenance and upkeep from a team of volunteers and staff, along with management support for the team. These essential services had outgrown the capacity of our existing core team, all of whom were already taxed to their maximum and wearing multiple hats. (Of course, in true playa fashion, many of the hats are furry and stylish, but its still pretty difficult to wear many of them at once.) In the spring of 2004, we shifted some roles and resources to bring some administrative oversight to this team as one step toward giving this vital piece of our infrastructure more of the attention it deserves. After the event in 2005, we will be looking to bring still more dedicated support to this area.
Burningman.com is one of the main tools that our community uses to stay connected and informed. The Web Team is one of the largest and most active parts of the Technology department. A talented group of staff and volunteers with diverse talents and relentless dedication meet every 2 weeks and work independently and remotely everyday to modify, enhance, redesign, and add new content and functionality to our beloved web site. Our Web Team project manager and main webmaster for the past several years moved on to explore other opportunities in the spring of 2004, and the replacement brought new ideas and a panache for stirring up the team dynamic in a way that further distributed leadership and initiative to dedicated team members. Looking forward to the 2005 event, we will further strengthen those roles, bring in new team members, and seek additional project management talent on our team to help drive more projects.
Our Engineering Team kept busy all year working on continual development of the Burning Man extranet and re-crafting some of our existing tools such as forms and questionnaires (with their supporting databases). All this work was part of the migration to our target technical architecture using Plone and Zope. Members of our Engineering Team are heavily involved in the open source development community and have made presentations while attending conferences on these tools.
Maintenance work continued in support of our existing FileMaker databases. The Database Team made numerous tweaks to the interface and data feed linking our systems to those of our ticket vendor. The team also supported the migration of lasso scripts back and forth to different servers while we did OS upgrades. Additional work was done to clean up our data import process to help reduce the number of duplicate contact addresses, which will save money in our mailing process.
The Technical department’s volunteer orientation process was restructured in 2004. We realized that we spent a great deal of time at meetings throughout the year bringing new team members up to speed on our tools and processes. The complex requirements for contributing in a technical environment determined that we should train as many people as possible at the same time, so we shifted our process to a twice-yearly volunteer intake cycle. These events allowed us to get all the geeks together at one time for a social gathering and to get the right people connected with the right teams. We also developed a curriculum for a series of training sessions to help get new folks on board and contributing as quickly as possible. This process has been very successful for the Web Team training, and our focus for 2005 will be to strengthen our management infrastructure and experiment with new ways to get system administrators and programmers actively contributing on a variety of projects. We will continue to improve our technical infrastructure and processes to enable even more participation by remote team members.
The Technology department teams are rather unique in the Burning Man organization. Unlike many departments, where schedules are busiest immediately before and during the event with a bit of a slow down the rest of the year, technology projects continue in full swing through the whole year, and activity actually subsides a bit during the week of the event. Only a bit though, as new technologies emerge and the needs for on-playa technology continue to grow. During the event in 2004, we supported more on-playa technology than ever before. Real-time updates to our box office systems required that we extend our high speed internet connection from the town of Gerlach to several locations in Black Rock City. In addition, support was required for a new DMV and Ranger database, updates were made to the web site during the event, and a video stream was webcast during most of the event.
In early 2004, we realized that our department infrastructure and technical leadership requirements had grown so much that both areas could no longer be realistically supported and managed by one individual. One of our team members stepped up as a co-lead for the Technology department and began to provide oversight and support for the Database, System Administration, Web, and Technical Operation teams. A timeline was created with technical projects and operational needs for the year, and this tool helped the Technical Operations team to stay on target for the year while facilitating planning for future years. Additional structural changes and management training will be a continuing focus for 2005.
Respectfully submitted by,
Heather (CameraGirl) Gallagher
Technology Department Management