burning man

The harsh winds, dust storms and freezing temperatures and of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada seem an unlikely location for a week of debauchery, but tens of thousands of revellers descend upon the sandy planes every summer for a week of art, self-expression and alternative thinking at Burning Man festival.

Behind the stories-high installations and pulsating sound stages lies a vast operation ran by a 50-strong technical team headed by Heather Gallagher, Burning Man's director of technology.

"People say, 'Your job is so awesome'," she told CIO UK's sister title Computerworld. "I say, 'Look, it's 11 months of meetings and then it's one month playing in the desert in the dirt'.

"We have budgets and spreadsheets and processes and staffing reviews and goals. And my team generally goes through a planning exercise to map out the next 18 months. It's a business, and I have to be very pragmatic and sometimes conservative."

Image: Computerworld

Every year, Gallagher and a team of 7,000 staff build, maintain and then dismantle the immense technical infrastructure that powers Black Rock City for seven days. There are almost 100 full-time employees and contractors in their office at any time of year, serving 70,000 attendees and a community of hundreds of thousands.

Her strategy is to support the festival, not distract from it. Burning Man is famed for being totally off-the-grid, and a destination where 'burners' go looking to disconnect.

Fanning the flames

"Interestingly enough, we spend a lot of our time convincing people they don't need tech," she says.

"We've never been in the business of providing connectivity for the participants. It would be a tremendous drain. But we are running a city, so we have extremely complex operational needs. We have an airport, a hospital, there are government agencies out there.

"We build out a wireless microwave point-to-point network. We build a meticulously complex wireless network. That's my favourite part, going out there to put up towers. We distribute connectivity and equipment to a lot of different offices, scanners, mobile devices. And now some of them have stand-alone software installed. But more and more we're using a cloud-hosted solution and architecture.

"So we have people working on a device that's offline and when they come near any of the internet locations it syncs up to a master database. We build the internet, the software and we give out the devices. It's the full spectrum - from laying cables in the dirt to very sophisticated software."

The former corporate IT consultant, who has a bachelor's degree in business and computer information systems and a master's in computer science, and had her first experience of Burning Man in 2001 as a guest. Three years later she began managing the technology department, a role she continues to today.

The line between work and play is often blurred in the Burning Man community, and software providers are invited to the event to experience the atmosphere and operations. Suitable hardware solutions are often already available, and off-the-shelf solutions are normally bought and then customised.

"I don't like solving problems someone else has already solved," says Gallagher. "Some things come off-the-shelf that we move into and break. And many systems are now integrated with each other so we have that added complexity."

Fuel for the next fire

The work doesn't stop when the festival ends. In autumn Gallagher's team has a full festival debrief, and then the tech committee begins the process for the following year and finds out the future plans to understand how tech resources should be applied.

"We already have a Gantt chart with all our other projects," she says. "But we want to talk about the new things; we want to see what's on the event horizon."

Those plans can change when innovations such as geo-technology create new possibilities.

"That would be for mapping and planning our city, tracking and coordinating different groups that need access to information about what's where. There's not a Google Map for our city.

"For robotics, something like that will become more prevalent with the art and the creations that people bring out there. That's where a lot of our true innovation is - in the community."

Next on the agenda for Gallagher, who also practices yoga and studies philosophy, is having an influence outside of Burning Man by encouraging young girls to get involved in the technology sector.

"I've been doing more public speaking because I realise as a female leader in tech, I have a responsibility to hopefully inspire girls to be technologists and encourage them to be a bigger version of themselves and take care of themselves as human beings," she said.