This coming Friday night is the DCWEEK Opening Party sponsored by Palantir, which kicks off Digital Capital Week, a 10-day festival focused on technology, innovation and all things digital in the nation's capital. This is not your average "come and have a few drinks with us while we scream over the too-loud sound system" kind of party. No, this party will serve up the unexpected and top things off with several hits of "you don't see that everyday" because this is the inaugural year of DCWEEK and we wouldn't expect anything less.
Of course there will be great live music, ranging from electronica and rap to live percussion and a house DJ. But that's just in the gallery. In the alley, people can pick their poison - jazz, flamenco guitar, conga and more. Held amongst the Long View Gallery, Speakeasy and Blogden Alley, the party will also be a visual smorgasbord with interactive events like a Facebook Avatar photo shoot area and live art involving people's faces and an electronic graffiti "pen". Not impressed? Well, then try walking on stilts. For real - because there will be stilt walking lessons. Performance artists and hip-hop dancers? Check. Surprises? Maybe a few.
So much to talk about, yet the question I keep getting is - what is Palantir? To best answer this question, I went to Palantir's hired "muse" in DC, Amy Senger, who invited me to join in some intimate "Palantir Night Live" events. At the most recent event just last week, Palantir Technologies hosted former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff as the featured speaker for the series which is designed to allow technologists and government associates to meet and engage in topics of significance and common interest. According to Amy, the small Palo Alto-founded company is determined to bring the best of Silicon Valley to the DC-metro business and tech scene. Their efforts are not going unnoticed. Before kicking off his talk, former DHS secretary Chertoff, in response to the Palantir's not-so-typical office space, asked, "Where do you actually do work?".
Upon first glance, Chertoff's question seems valid. Palantir's McLean, VA office, nicknamed "Rivendell", appears more like an adult play space than a work area. A fooseball and pool table greet you as you enter their lobby, just a few steps down the hall from a large, open kitchen stocked with an assortment of food and beverages (where they have daily catered lunches - nice!). Around the corner is the actual game room, where employees can relax in deep leather couches and play Wii, Rock Band and even old-school Nintendo. It's not until you get to the back of the Rivendell space do you find the offices, where you still risk getting run over by an employee on a push scooter.
Given all the distractions how and when do the employees actually do any work? Trae Stephens, a Georgetown University alum and Forward Deployed Engineer who runs several of Palantir's deployments across the Intelligence and Defense communities, says it's tough to get Palantir employees to actually stop working. "The employees are given an environment and culture that makes them want to be in the office creating and innovating for the company." How very Google-like. But what do they do?
Amidst the open data and gov 2.0 movement, Palantir is leading the effort to integrate, visualize, analyze and make sense of the world's information. A flat organization of approximately 280 employees, Palantir employs no sales-people, and consists mainly of engineers. Shyam Sankar, Palantir's 28-year old VP of Business Development who spoke at this year's TED on the use of Palantir to uncover GhostNet, a large Chinese cyberspying operation, believes by hiring extremely bright, energetic and capable individuals, Palantir doesn't need the sales and marketing people. The employees and the product sell the company.
Alex Fishman, Palantir's Lead Engineer for Regulation and Oversight spoke at the recent Gov 2.0 Expo on Palantir's involvement in "Discovering and Investigating Fraud, Waste and Abuse". Fishman is also a young, smart engineer who seems completely at ease commanding the attention of high-profile audiences and showing what the product can do - all while wearing the signature black and white Palantir-logo track jacket. In a city where seniority, hierarchy and appearances reign supreme, this is turning heads.
As Silicon Valley insiders (several Palantir founders were also PayPal founders), many at the company were surprised to find that collaboration is not always regarded as highly in DC as they expected from analytic and tech environments. Stephens says, "Even now, we still are often naive to the bureaucracies that operate around us." But this might be the reason why the company is winning an ever-growing legion of friends and fans. At the Gov 2.0 Expo, Palantir brought the fun with their learn-and-play Expo Hall set-up - people could sit down at one of the several computer stations and interactively explore their product or hang out in the U-shaped leather couch area where a Wii station had both Palantir employees and Expo-goers battling in competition.
Continuing in their quest to win fans and help evolve the tech culture of DC, Palantir enthusiastically took on a lead sponsorship role in the upcoming Digital Capital Week by sponsoring the Opening Party, which Amy refers to as the "event of the summer". "It's the only way to build a relationship - to bring something of value to the table. So that's what we're doing. We want to give all the innovators, creatives and technology-enthusiasts of DC a party like they've never experienced."
Come join us for this exciting summer party in DC - there's nothing hotter.