Talent hunting in the counterculture
Pyromaniacs on the payroll? Sure. Counterculture events like this week's Burning Man attract exactly the kind of creative people you want working for you.
By Chris Taylor, Business 2.0 Magazine senior editor

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- If you want to make an appointment to see Larry Page and Sergey Brin this week, you'll have a harder time than usual doing so. The Google founders are making their annual pilgrimage to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for the Burning Man festival.

Google's known for its exacting hiring requirements, which include a degree from a top-notch university and a stratospheric GPA. But Page and Brin also have a preference for hiring Burning Man attendees - a practice that other talent-seekers would be wise to imitate.

Page and Brin are just two of the approximately 30,000 Burning Man devotees - burners, as they're known - who gather every year to help build and enjoy the art-filled collective on an ancient, dried-out lake bed known as Black Rock City (which, for the week it exists, is the third most populous burg in the state).

So many tech types attend the event, it's a running joke in Silicon Valley that you can't get any software code written or raise venture capital funding the week before Labor Day.

The Google guys have been going for almost as many years as they've been running Google. When this correspondent hung out with them in the desert in 2000, they were body-painted blue and green, respectively. After the pair hired Eric Schmidt as CEO in 2001, Brin explained their choice thus: "He was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man."

Fire in the belly

To the untrained eye, Black Rock City may look like it's filled with a bunch of dusty, pyromaniac proto-hippies partying in the desert. And it is, sort of.

But it's also a fountain of the most incredible out-of-the-box thinking and engineering. Participants spend thousands of dollars of their own cash to build their temporary community, and it encompasses both the sublime and the ridiculous.

According to the Burning Man organization, this year's 240 constructs include "flaming blocks of ice, a steam-engine powered insect carousel, a deconstructed cathedral, a robotic spider, a field of sunflower robots, a mobile 3-story Victorian house, a homicidal hammock, a rubber chicken-launching trebuchet, a gigantic burning bra, and much, much more!"

Of course, none of this art would be very useful to your business. But the brains that create it are worth their weight in platinum. If you're in an industry that demands constant innovation, if you despair of the inside-the-box thinking displayed by your buttoned-down employees, then you could do a lot worse than follow Page and Brin's rule: Look for signs of a counterculture before you hire.

Counting on the counterculture

If you rolled your eyes at that suggestion, you would do well to read up on recent business history. After all, the PC and Internet gold rushes did not spring from staid old East Coast technology behemoths like IBM.

As Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand wrote in his essay "We Owe It All to the Hippies," "The counterculture's scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution."

More dispassionate observers concur. The New York Times' John Markoff, one of the most respected technology journalists in the world, wrote a seminal tome last year called What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. The hothouse of the San Francisco Peninsula, which gave us the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, also gave us the integrated circuit and the Internet router.

The two groups of achievements are more connected than most of us care to remember. Consider, for example, that we would not have the iPod or the Macintosh without a certain acid-dropping, long-haired college dropout named Steve Jobs.

So should you go to Black Rock City with an eye to hiring the Steve Jobs of tomorrow? Of course not; burners consider talking shop to be terribly gauche.

Go instead to marvel at what creative people can do with the tabula rasa of an ancient lake bed. Go to discover how successfully community is fostered in a harsh environment that is trying its best to kill you. Go to participate (a key Burning Man tenet is "no spectators").

And if you happen to find yourself sailing across the desert in a vast pirate ship on wheels, sipping margaritas with a venture capitalist, an engineer, and two suspiciously familiar-looking guys painted blue and green - well, consider yourself lucky you didn't have to make an appointment.

Surfing the web with nothing but brainwaves.

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