Education

Tim O'Reilly wants tech heroes to change government (interview)

Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media

Above: Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Tim O’Reilly created a tech media empire at O’Reilly Media while advocating free software and open source. His life’s work earned him a Visionary Award from Silicon Valley tech association SVForum.

In his acceptance speech, O’Reilly said he spent the past year in Washington, D.C., with his fiancé Jennifer Pahlka, helping with Code for America, a nonprofit that wants to modernize government with the help of tech-savvy professionals. He said he is passionate about people who are trying to change the world.

“The thing we should all be looking for are people who want to make a difference,” he said. “I’m a big believer in the Silicon Valley religion of the power of markets. But I also believe in our obligation to give back, and to give back in the way we do business, to create more value than we capture for ourselves.”

Right now, he is trying to change government, which he notes is a third of our economy. He said the failure of Healthcare.gov at the outset led to a great turnaround as tech-savvy experts came in to fix it.

“That is not something we should allow to fail,” he said. “That is something we must stand up for and make work. We want to show how technology can be applied to fix our problems. We need to celebrate not just success but to celebrate people who make a difference. It starts with people who do things for love, with no expectation of return. Some of that turns into enormous financial success, and then some of it goes back into doing it for love. Those people who worked tirelessly on Healthcare.gov are heroes.”

We caught up with O’Reilly for a one-on-one interview at the awards event. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jen Pahlka of Code for America and Tim O'Reilly

Above: Jen Pahlka of Code for America and Tim O’Reilly

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VentureBeat: What are you up to lately?

Tim O’Reilly: A lot of my energy is going to Code for America, Jen Pahlka’s non-profit startup. We’re doing a lot of great work teaching government how to apply technology and changing the culture of government. Jen just had a year in Washington as deputy CTO. I went along for the ride and was helpful where I could be.

I’m also spending a lot of time focusing on two big areas at O’Reilly Media. One is the transformation of our events business. It’s a much bigger part of our business today.

VB: I missed the Web 2.0 event. I always used to go every year.

O’Reilly: Yeah, the Web 2.0 events were terrific. There’s this great line that I once heard from Joni Mitchell. She talked about why she preferred to be a painter than a singer-songwriter. She said, “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘paint A Starry Night again!’” I have to say, I got so tired of talking about the same stuff. You have to move on. With most of my events, I’ve been successful at not being necessary to it. We’re still doing our open source convention after 17 years, but I’m not the main man there. Web 2.0, John and I were so much the frontmen for it. It was just time to move on.

I’m super excited about our new Solid event that we just had a couple of weeks ago. There’s this new wave intersecting hardware and software. Thinking about that and getting people to think about it in the right way is super important.

The other thing I’m spending a bunch of time on at O’Reilly is the transition of publishing from print to ebooks. We’ve done a lot of interesting things there. Safari Books Online, our joint venture with Pearson, is growing apace. That’s the online library of computer and business books we launched in 2000. It’s become a very powerful business. Also we’re doing really well with downloadable ebooks, where we’ve taken a strong position on DRM-free downloads. It’s been driven by the recognition that Amazon has an implicit lock-in with the Kindle. If publishers don’t step up to create open formats, then we’re hosed. We give people the choice. When you buy an ebook from O’Reilly, you get an ebook bundle, your choice of any or all formats – PDF, .mobi, .epub, or even Daisy files if you’re visually impaired. We’ve built the infrastructure to be able to generate those, and we do it all DRM-free, because we think that if you don’t trust your customers, why should they trust you?

In general, we’re thinking about new business models for ebooks. We’re also working on a new platform called Atlas, which is our own internal publishing platform. We’re now turning it into a B2B service for other publishers.

Finally, I’m putting a lot of my time into O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, our venture firm. You may have seen one of our portfolio companies, Cover, come to San Francisco. They’re an Uber-like experience for paying your restaurant check. We have a lot of stuff in the news about micro satellites. We’re an investor in Planet Labs. 3D Robotics, with drones. Another company, Sight Machines, is doing industrial machine vision. A lot of data companies. There are a lot of different areas that are very much aligned with the things I talked about.

I mentioned Code for America. There’s a whole startup ecosystem we’re trying to build around government.

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