I spent the weekend in Sebastopol, California at Foocamp. This photo is from Saturday morning’s 40 mile bike ride to the Pacific Coast. Foocamp is Tim O’Reilly’s annual gathering he hosts where he invites roughly 300 people he believes are doing the most interesting things with Internet-related technology right now. It’s really about getting them all together, introducing them to each other, and creating an open forum to mutually learn. There are folks from the White House, small tech companies doing fascinating things, large companies with scale, artists, independents, etc. There’s a strong hardcore geek contingency who add a layer of deep understanding of their field. It’s definitely the geekiest conference I attend.
You show up Friday evening at the O’Reilly corporate campus and the bar opens. After dinner, in a big tent, we all take turns individually standing up saying your name and three words you’d use to describe your interests. It takes an hour or so and it’s always entertaining. After the introductions, a big physical grid is put up with hour slots on one axis and rooms on the other. Attendees are encouraged to claim a spot and lead an hour long discussion at some point in the weekend of whatever they think will be an interesting conversation.
It’s by far the best structure for a conference. This year was my 5th or 6th year going to Foocamp. Every year, a theme typically emerges. Healthcare, drones, the maker movement, AI— they’ve all been themes. Last year’s highlight was the small team of rock star technologists who swooped in to fix healthcare.gov. This year’s highlight, for me, was an hourlong discussion on why text messaging is the future hosted by Matt Webb of interconnected.org fame. Only about 15 people were in the discussion including Stewart Butterfield, the CEO and founder of Slack and Flickr, Trei Brundrett the VP of Product at Vox Media, and the head of product at Skype from Microsoft. We were all asked why we were there and I thought Stewart’s answer was best: “because the future of my business depends on the premise.” Slack is one of the latest companies to be valued over a billion dollars and it’s popularity and usefulness is on fire. The Sherpaa team uses it daily.
We all agreed that asynchronous text is the future. First, it’s just so convenient and slips so easily into our busy, multi-tasking lives. We’re social creatures and communication is literally our lifeline. SMS is my go-to place for communicating with the most meaningful people in my life. It’s noise-free. It’s also universal. Everybody in the world with a phone has access to it, one of the main reasons why FedEx chose it as the technology they’ve invested the most in to communicate with their customers. It’s just so damn scalable. It’s also analyzable and can be used by either humans or bots leveraging natural language processing.
But the most interesting thing about asynchronous text messaging to me is the concept of messaging as a platform with embedded widgets that allow you, via a messaging-like interface, to communicate with services and actually do things. It’s similar to how you can order food or a taxi via the messaging interface in WeChat in China.
Healthcare is a perfect application for this kind of functionality. Healthcare, at its core, is just communication over time about your health. It’s a discussion you have with and between healthcare professionals with data that trickles in over time from your physical exam, imaging, lab tests, medications, your subjective feelings about your health over time, and many others. Sherpaa’s product has been on this track of asynchronous text-based communication with data widgets scattered throughout the interaction since its inception three and a half years ago. I cannot wait to see this product a year from now.
In ideating and designing any of the healthcare technologies I’ve ever created, I’ve always taken inspiration from other industries and applied their best features to healthcare. I’ve always had a soft spot for asynchronous communication. Sherpaa was founded on it. And, like Stewart said, the future of our business depends on it. And so does the future of WeChat, Whatsapp, Snapchat, Slack, Facebook, and countless others. Sherpaa is in good company with rock solid precedence.
Sometimes a technology is invented that, although super simple and basic, it’s just a fundamental invention that changes things and will never go away. It can be somewhat improved, but it will be with us forever. It’s endlessly nostalgic. Wheels, electricity, and text messaging. They’ll always be here. And I’m having the time of my life building on a fundamentally important foundation, bringing it to healthcare, and creating the future with something so primitive.