Edge of Innovation

The Woman Behind Burning Man Tech

Julian Smith Writer
Burning Man

The otherworldly celebration of art, music and self-expression is powered by a serious technology backbone built and managed by a woman who knows how to keep the massive event running smoothly through extreme desert conditions.

Twenty years ago, Heather Gallagher traded in her corporate suit for dreadlocks. She brought her technology background to Burning Man, an annual week-long gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, and hasn’t looked back.

Late every summer, tens of thousands of people gather in the remote northwest corner of Nevada for an annual week-long bacchanalia of art, music and “radical self-expression.”

CameraGirl - photo by John Curley
Credit: John Curley

Surrounding the flamboyant and steampunk outfits, fire-belching vehicles and multi-story art installations, rises a fully functioning temporary metropolis called Black Rock City, complete with airport, law enforcement, DMV and IT/communications services.

That last amenity is the domain of Heather “CameraGirl” Gallagher, Burning Man’s Director of Technology.

Out on the “playa,” as attendees call the featureless desert, Gallagher and her team are responsible for keeping the various parts of the sprawling event connected with each other and the outside world — to a point.

“People go to black Rock City and have no idea all that technology exists, but that’s good,” she said. “The tech should support the experience, not be distracting.”

Gallagher is aware of the irony of maintaining an 80 Mb/s internet connection in one of the harshest environments in North America, where every day can bring burning sun, downpours or dust storms. Absolutely all of the Burning Man tech has to be trucked in and out; part of the event’s ethos is to leave no trace behind.

But to Gallagher, the added challenge is just part of the job. Her rules for keeping hardware working on the playa also apply in any office: “Keep it cool. Keep it powered. Keep it closed. Keep it out of the elements. Have back-ups.”

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Before Burning Man

Gallagher’s path to the playa started with degrees in computer information systems and computer science, both earned in Virginia where she grew up. She spent the next decade immersed in traditional corporate America as a telecommunications and integration consultant, learning to program in a dozen languages.

“I even wore a suit and pantyhose for a while,” Gallagher said with a laugh. That’s a long way from the multi-hued dreadlocks she sports now.

She was introduced to the world of “burners” after she moved to San Francisco in 1999.

“My friends would not stop talking about this Burning Man thing,” Gallagher said. “It was weirding me out.”

She went herself the following year and loved it.

“It was like stepping through a portal into a place with a new set of rules for a more brilliant and happy society,” she said.

Soon she was leading Burning Man’s photography team and producing its annual print calendar, earning the nickname CameraGirl. Gallagher joined the IT staff in 2003 and started managing the technology department in 2004.

Above all, Gallagher wanted to move closer to the human side of tech.

“I wanted to work at the place where technology interacts with users and human beings, not technology interacting with other technology,” she said.

A Fully Connected Festival

Burning Man has exploded in popularity in the last decade, evolving into a year-round global network with events around the world. The organization has about 80 full-time employees, with hundreds of volunteers, seasonal workers and contractors coming aboard during event season. This gives Gallagher plenty to do throughout the year, mostly focusing on network engineering and web development.

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In the past two years, she has guided the complete overhaul of the Burning Man website and its transfer to a .org domain as the company became a nonprofit. Another recent project was creating a management platform to help guide artists who want to bring their works to Black Rock City, covering everything from grant applications to transportation and follow-up reports.

About a month before the event, Gallagher heads to the desert with a team of about three dozen, plus many more part-time contractors and volunteers. They set up dozens of small microwave dishes on communications towers connected by miles of Ethernet cable.

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One day Gallagher might be climbing a 60-foot metal tower, the next she might be laying cables in the dirt—often in an outfit better suited for a rave than construction work.

If the job sounds interesting, Gallagher is currently hiring network engineers.

Black Rock City’s FCC-licensed microwave internet backbone comes through a 100-foot tower that Burning Man installed and maintains in the nearby town of Gerlach. The network connects internal departments from gate operations to emergency services, often maxing out the bandwidth. Local residents can use the connection for free during the rest of the year.

Burners have limited access to the network, and cellular network providers have put up temporary service nodes. Although the connections are critical to setting up and running the event, Gallagher said participants certainly shouldn’t depend on them during the event.

“There are days we wonder if we should just take away participant network,” Gallagher said, as being plugged in goes against Burning Man’s emphasis on immediate engagement. “Most of the time I would say the more disconnected, the better the experience.”

By the time Burning Man is underway, most of her team duties shift to troubleshooting in case anything goes wrong. In 2015, for example, an explosion at a data center in Los Angeles interrupted reliable data exchange with their vendor ticketing system.

“There we were, the Saturday before the event opened, with a major hole in the internet,” Gallagher said. “There was nothing we could do but wait for it to reroute itself, like a biological system healing.”

This year the tech team is installing a new communications tower in Gerlach and working on getting a second internet connection to Black Rock City for redundancy. Otherwise, just keeping everything up and running is a kind of victory in itself, Gallagher said — not to mention participating in the week-long revelry.

“It’s super fun, like a family reunion,” she says. “I get to play and have fun and work at the same time.”

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