How O’Reilly Media Helped Change The World By Sharing Knowledge (2024)

Tim O’Reilly, could well be described as the “scribe” of Silicon Valley. For the past 45 years he and his company provided the technical manuals, books and industry gatherings that helped codify and disseminate world-changing innovations, what he refers to as “the picks and shovels of learning to the Silicon Valley gold rush.”

Though no longer running the day-to-day operations of the eponymous media company he founded in 1978, he is now perhaps viewed as the “conscience” of the entire tech industry. Dale Dougherty would later join as 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 serendipity and being at the right place at the right time. The son of Irish immigrant parents, O’Reilly attended Harvard University where he graduated with a degree in Classics in 1975.

“I was not trained as a computer scientist. I was trained as a Greek and Latin classicist. I had been writing a book about Frank Herbert, the science fiction writer, after getting out of college,” says O’Reilly. After finishing the book, he was asked to write a technical manual for Unix during the mini-computer era instead.

The success of that project led to more technical manuals, which then led to the creation of a business called O’Reilly & Associates, where he scaled his trade by hiring and mentoring writers to do the same. “I become a very good technical writer based simply on learning by doing. And that has been this sort of an arc throughout my entire career, throughout the entire history of the company,” says O’Reilly.

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The Sebastopol, California-based company graduated to book publishing with its books becoming iconic within the industry because of their instantly recognizable woodcut animal designs on the cover. O’Reilly hired designer Edie Freedman to design the book covers. She created animal designs because she thought that Unix program names sounded like weird animals. She also thought that some of the Unix tools sounded fantastical, like Dungeons & Dragons.

The books stood out from other technical books 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 publishing and knowledge dissemination through all forms of media and events.

By translating highly technical information into readable and usable formats like books, digital media, e-learning and events, O’Reilly became both witness to and contributor to the technology innovations that would have profound impact on business and society. “We're definitely a mission driven company. We’re a mission that became a business. Our mission is to change the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators,” says O’Reilly.

O’Reilly’s long history of being early to spot technology trends is a process of what he calls “connecting the dots” by being deeply connected to the early creators of technology within the tech community. He provides some examples:

At the dawn of the commercial internet, he published the Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog in 1992, the first popular book about 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, he started pushing for Internet open standards. “I became a board member of the Internet Society, and the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation),” says O’Reilly.

He saw the coming importance of the Linux-led free software developments and helped promote the open source movement by hosting its first conference on the topic called the Freeware Summit, later naming it 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, plus AOL stock that would later have a value of some $50 million, according to O’Reilly.

O’Reilly was early to develop e-learning. “Conferences were a decent business for us. But we couldn't afford to pay all the speakers with the business model. We have to have a business model that supports our ecosystem of content creators and so, we developed one. We came up with this notion of live training on our platform, and that turned out to be a huge hit,” says O’Reilly.

In late 2020, O’Reilly introduced a search engine based on an early LLM (Large Language Model), BERT, that allows a user to ask a question and get an answer from all of the O'Reilly books on the platform.

According to O’Reilly, his company’s innovations were based on finding ways to help his authors make more money and that shaped his thinking about the state of technology and his belief that value creation is a collaborative process. He further states that collaboration and transparency are the key to future possible regulation of big tech and AI.

“We wrote a paper last year about why we need operational disclosures from companies. We're pushing for that, and I think AI is helping make that clear. 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're doing,” says O’Reilly.

He likens it to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) reporting for accounting, which doesn’t regulate what a business does, it only provides rules to report 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 US) and ESMA (European Securities and Markets Authority in Europe) to enforce them, and an ecosystem of auditors that is empowered to dig in and make sure that companies and their products are making accurate disclosures.

While he sees much wrong with the tech industry and government, he remains optimistic because he views the world in terms of people, rather than just technology, and what technology can do and should do to improve people’s lives.

“The core of what we do at O'Reilly, is to teach 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. That’s lazy. Companies need to teach their employees and provide the skills for the future and not just hire PhDs in AI. And if you want to be a winner, you want to teach your people how to teach themselves and how to be bold and fearless about learning new technology. We have a self-service platform where we give people challenges and knowledge and turn them loose,” concludes O’Reilly.

In doing so, he believes there will always be a future for O’Reilly Media. And while O’Reilly himself no longer runs the day-to-day operations, after 45 years in the business he remains a vital voice, both for the company he founded and for the tech industry.

How O’Reilly Media Helped Change The World By Sharing Knowledge (2024)
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