Tim O’Reilly could well be described as the “scribe” of Silicon Valley. Over the past 45 years, he and his company have provided technical manuals, books and industry meetings that helped codify and disseminate world-changing innovations, what he calls “pickaxes and shovels of learning about the Silicon Valley gold rush.”
Although he no longer runs the day-to-day operations of the eponymous media company he founded in 1978, he may now be considered the “conscience” of the entire tech industry. Dale Dougherty would later join as a co-founder in 1984. This founder’s journey is based on my interview with Tim O’Reilly.
Like many entrepreneurs, O’Reilly owes much of his success to chance and being in the right place at the right time. The son of Irish immigrant parents, O’Reilly attended Harvard University, graduating with a degree in classics in 1975.
“I have no training as a computer scientist. I trained as a Greek and Latin classicist. I was writing a book about Frank Herbert, the science fiction writer, after I left college,” says O’Reilly. After finishing the book, he was asked to write a technical manual for Unix in the minicomputer era.
The success of this project led to more technical textbooks, which then led to the creation of a company called O’Reilly & Associates, where he developed his craft by hiring and mentoring writers to do even. “I’m becoming a really good technical writer just based on learning by doing. And it’s been this kind of arc throughout my career, throughout the history of the company,” O’Reilly says.
The Sebastopol, California-based company moved into book publishing and its books became iconic in the industry due to their instantly recognizable woodcut animal designs on the cover. O’Reilly hired designer Edie Freedman to design the book’s covers. She created animal drawings because she thought Unix program names looked like strange animals. She also thought some Unix tools looked fantastic, like Dungeons & Dragons.
The books stood out from other technical works and helped create a sense of community around the growing business. The company would change its name to O’Reilly Media to better reflect its publications and dissemination of knowledge through all forms of media and events.
By translating highly technical information into readable and usable formats such as books, digital media, online training and events, O’Reilly became both a witness and contributor to technological innovations that would have a profound impact on businesses and society. “We are definitely a mission-driven company. We are a mission that has become a business. Our mission is to change the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators,” says O’Reilly.
O’Reilly’s long history of spotting technology trends is a process of what he calls “connecting the dots” by being deeply connected to early technology creators within the tech community. He gives some examples:
At the dawn of the commercial Internet, he published The Complete Internet User’s Guide and Catalog in 1992, the first popular book on the Internet, later named one of the most important books of the 20th century .
When Microsoft was trying to crush Netscape during the browser wars, it began promoting open standards on the Internet. “I became a board member of the Internet Society and the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation),” O’Reilly says.
He saw the future importance of Linux-led free software developments and helped promote the open source movement by organizing his first conference on the subject called Freeware Summit, which he later named the Open Source Software Convention (OSCON).
The company launched the first web portal, GNN, before Yahoo!, which was later sold to AOL for $15 million in cash, along with AOL stock that would later be worth around $50 million , according to O’Reilly.
O’Reilly was one of the first to develop online learning. “Conferences were an interesting activity for us. But we couldn’t afford to pay everyone involved with this business model. We need to have a business model that supports our ecosystem of content creators and so we developed one. We came up with the idea of live training on our platform, and it turned out to be a huge success,” says O’Reilly.
In late 2020, O’Reilly introduced a search engine based on an early LLM (Large Language Model), BERT, which allows a user to ask a question and get an answer from all O’Reilly books from the platform.
According to O’Reilly, his company’s innovations were based on finding ways to help its authors make more money, which shaped his thinking about the state of technology and his belief that creating value is a collaborative process. He further states that collaboration and transparency are key to possible future regulation of big tech and AI.
“We wrote a paper last year explaining why we need operational disclosures from companies. We’re pushing for that, and I think AI helps make that clearer. My point about regulation is that the first thing I would do is regulate disclosures. We don’t need a new rule to say, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” We need a rule that says: show us what you do,” says O’Reilly.
He compares it to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) accounting reporting, which does not regulate what a company does, it only provides rules for reporting how it accounts for its financial information with an independent standards body to oversee the standards, regulatory agencies. equivalent to the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States) and ESMA (European Securities and Markets Authority in Europe) to enforce them, and to an ecosystem of auditors empowered to dig in and ensure that the companies and their products make accurate claims. disclosures.
Although he sees many problems in the technology industry and government, he remains optimistic because he sees the world in terms of people, rather than technology, and what technology can and should do to improve people’s lives. people.
“The core of what we do at O’Reilly is teaching people the skills of the future. And that’s rooted in the idea that people can learn. It’s not just about finding people who already have the skills. It’s lazy. Companies need to train their employees and provide them with the skills needed for the future, not just hire AI PhDs. And if you want to be a winner, you want to teach your people how to learn themselves and how to be bold and courageous in learning new technologies. We have a self-service platform where we give people challenges and knowledge and set them free,” concludes O’Reilly.
In doing so, he believes there will always be a future for O’Reilly Media. And while O’Reilly no longer runs day-to-day operations himself, after 45 years in the industry, he remains a vital voice, both for the company he founded and the tech industry.