Burning Man's tech director brings full-scale IT to Black Rock City

Heather Gallagher, who heads IT for the annual 70,000-participant Burning Man event, on putting up towers in the desert, laying cable in the dirt and the 11 months of meetings to make it all happen.

Heather Gallagher, director of technology, Burning Man [2016]

Most IT executives inherit an existing technology environment; Heather Gallagher gets to build her own every year. Gallagher is director of technology for Burning Man, an annual weeklong gathering dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Gallagher and her team build, run and dismantle the IT infrastructure needed for Burning Man's temporary metropolis, dubbed Black Rock City. Additionally, she oversees the Burning Man nonprofit organization's year-round IT needs, where a team of more than 20 full-time staffers and contractors support the group's community- and art-focused efforts around the globe.

Gallagher holds a bachelor's degree in business and computer information systems from James Madison University and a master's in computer science from George Mason University. She's also a photographer and originally came to Burning Man in 2003 to produce its annual print calendar (a job she still holds). She became technology director in 2004.

How does your job compare to other IT executive positions? People say, "Your job is so awesome." 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.

I have just under 100 full-time employees and contractors who are in our office at any time, and at our event we have up to 7,000 staff, many [of whom] are volunteers. We have 70,000 participants and have easily a quarter-million who consider themselves part of our community, and we have a global audience.

We're a nonprofit, and one that's still getting its legs under it, seeking grants and raising funds. We have to be responsible, and there are a lot of checks and balances with how we spend money, and a lot of processes. We use our resources very efficiently.

How do volunteers fit into your organization? Volunteerism is a huge part of our culture. They engage with us to offer support in many ways. But you have to know what projects they fit into. Some projects can afford a little bit more breathing room, maybe some of the back-burner projects. We always have projects we can't get to immediately, so that's where we use them.

We have meetings where people who are on our different lists can show up and they're part of conversations and they bring their expertise to the table. Or I'll reach out and tap people in my community. We can say, "Can we have your help? If we set up a sandbox, can you code it or update it?" And they're engaged enough that we're not starting from scratch. They blow us away with what they're able to do and their dedication and their patience.

Can you describe your yearlong strategy? Interestingly enough, we spend a lot of our time convincing people they don't need tech. Come on, folks -- it's a camping trip. Yet, the complexity of what we do continues to grow. [After our annual Burning Man event], we'll spend part of the fall debriefing with all our customers. We had about 53 locations and hundreds and hundreds of staff people using the software and devices and office spaces we set up in the desert. So we talk with them about how the event went. We also kick off our tech committee process.

Every fall, I try to tickle the organization from top to bottom and find out what projects are going to be coming out that we need to apply tech resources to. We already have a Gantt chart with all our other projects. But we want to talk about the new things; we want to see what's on the event horizon.

What's the technology landscape like for Black Rock City? 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 favorite 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.

Do you use custom or off-the-shelf systems? I don't like solving problems someone else has already solved. So we do look to find off-the-shelf solutions. But we have niche spaces, and no matter who we get in bed with, we end up doing some customization.

We have a unique workforce, and we have a long list of things we want to do differently. We break pretty much every model. But at the same time, doing [everything custom] all the time, we'd need five times the staff I have. So we have some custom-built, some off-the-shelf. 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.

Burning Man 2016, photo by Trey Ratcliff [SINGLE USE] Trey Ratcliff

The Burning Man Temple, a highlight of Black Rock City, temporary home to 70,000 people for a week each summer.

What do you look for in products and the vendors you use? For software layers solutions, we try to build relations. We invite them out to the event. We want them to experience what we're doing so they can see what our operations are like.

For most of our hardware layer, a lot are things that are available, fortunately. We're building microwave networks in harsh environments, but people do that all over the world, so we're just keeping an eye on the equipment as it matures.

There are people making relatively affordable radio devices that are configurable and pretty hardy. So we keep an eye out, and when something comes out that's new, we get a few and try them out.

Do you ever disconnect? I absolutely do. It's one of my favorite things. Some of my favorite talks or conferences are leading stretches for 500 people and encouraging people to take care of their bodies, to meditate, to develop their spiritual and emotional self. When I go "off comm," I go way off comm. I've been touching computers since I was 9, and I'm now 45. It's important to develop yourself as a human.

What technologies are on the horizon that will impact Burning Man? We're now finally coming around to embrace and work with more geo technology, which some volunteers wanted us to get into a decade ago. We weren't ready then, but it's a natural next step for us. 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.

We're a large ship to steer, and change is expensive, but the community brings innovative things, so I'm excited to see what they're going to bring.

This story, "Burning Man's tech director brings full-scale IT to Black Rock City" was originally published by Computerworld.

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