As I close in on 4 days being back from San Francisco, I struggle to find a way to “wrap up” my thoughts about WWDC. This being my first time attending the conference, I was a little wide-eyed throughout the whole process. I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know what was on schedule. I didn’t really even know what the atmosphere would be like, as this was the first time being around Apple developers at all. Most of the “events” I’ve been to have been Microsoft-based events, which means there’s much more of a corporate/business feel to them.
It turns out that WWDC is very different from what I thought. The main reason: it’s in San Francisco. You couldn’t have a more different city/atmosphere from Atlanta than San Fran. It’s a little ritzy, it’s a little hippie, and a whole lot of Californian. (It’s also a little bit rock ‘n roll, but I thought that may be too much to hit you with this early on.) I mean, come on, they sell medical marijuana out of vending machines. We can’t even get Sudafed off a shelf at a damn pharmacy anymore.
Something you immediately notice is that the people you are surrounded by at this conference are insanely smart, specifically with their particular area of expertise. Most of the ones I chatted with and got to know have been doing Apple development (both Mac and iOS) for quite some time. So, they grew up (if you will) with the Apple development culture. They know how Objective-C works. They know the ins and outs of programming with Xcode. They know the gotchas and the catches that (as a newbie developer) can be really frustrating when wrapping your mind around a new platform. This is what they do. And they’re REALLY, REALLY good at it.
I know I can get there. The best thing to do (just like learning another language) is to immerse yourself in the culture. Do as they do. Get involved in the online communities. Communicate with them directly (more on that in a minute). Ask questions. Seek answers. Make yourself known in this (still relatively) small arena. That’s how relationships form. That’s how ideas are passed from one developer to another, from one group to another. That’s how the community itself grows and betters itself. Ultimately, it’s up to me. I can do what I always do and be a wallflower, or I can get out there and start being involved. I just wish I had the genes to do that without having to psyche myself up. And I do know people that are inherently good at that. I’m talking to you, Mr. Ribner.
It’s funny, but when you are surrounded by about 4,500 developers (most of them male, by the way), you see clearly that a vast majority of them are geeks. In the very real sense. Let me be clear, I am in no way disparaging the term “geek” or anyone associated with it. I actually call myself a geek (or the more 80’s term, nerd) all the time. I will admit that it’s not that we’re anti-social. Not at all. We know how to drink. We know how to party. We’re just not very good at it most of the time. Why? Because we’re not really outgoing. We are nice, friendly people, but we have a hard time putting ourselves out there to strangers. Especially if we are alone. If we don’t know anyone, the most we can expect is some small talk here and there, but that’s about it.
This happens mostly because, when we do find a group, we like to stay with it. It’s very cliquish. It’s almost like high school. Remember high school? When the school was split up into these groups that occasionally mingled, but mostly moved together. In packs. Like wolves. In my high school, you had the jocks (and the corresponding cheerleaders), the “smart ones”, the rednecks, and the artsy people (art, band, chorus, theater). I kind of mingled with the “smart ones” and the artsy people, myself.
WWDC was no different. While everyone was exceptionally nice, you certainly had your groups. Mostly, this came down to whom did you come with or who did you travel with. Let’s face it, the one person I spent the most time with is from Atlanta, and I probably only met him because he was on my flight. But, there was also an apparent split between the veterans and the newbie crowd. A lot of this has to do with the recent explosion of the iOS development community. There are lots of new people developing for iOS devices that were never here when it was just Mac developers. So, that split is hard to break in to, because you have a different mindset, different concerns. Hell, they even have segregated sessions where appropriate.
I was listening to John Siracusa’s wrap-up of WWDC on the most recent episode of Hypercritical. This was technically his first WWDC, but he is famous for his seriously in-depth reviews of every new major release of Mac OS X. So, he is widely known already in the Mac development community. So, his experience was vastly different than a lot of people’s (including mine) because that veteran community already knew him (Hypercritical doesn’t hurt either, mind you). Obviously, he attended mostly Lion sessions while I stuck with iOS sessions as my main focal point. Therefore, different groups were available and moving in the same circles.
They’re Just People
One thing that continued to strike me over and over again was this notion that THE names in the Apple development and press communities were all attending this show. The authors of the blogs that I read, the hosts of the shows that I listen to on a daily basis were all here. I know I said this throughout the week, but it’s very surreal to see some of these people in the flesh. It’s like when you see a television or movie celebrity for the first time in real life. I mean, they are who they are, but when you get down to it, they are also normal people. Normal, crazy, sleep-deprived, drunk-ass people. That aura of them being only what you thought they would be is smashed very quickly.
One particularly stuck out in my mind. John Gruber, author of Daring Fireball, happened to be standing a couple of rows back right before one of the lunch sessions. Now, for those of you who don’t know John’s work, he is a very intellectual and strategic thinker. He will take a small detail, dig into it, roll it around, and spit out some analysis and maybe some prediction on what it means for Apple and/or one of their products. Very logical, but also very “go-with-the-gut” style. That’s what I have in my head going in to WWDC. As I’m sitting there, though, I hear him recounting this story with Marco Arment (of Instapaper fame) from the night before. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say I got the impression that away from work, he’s not what I had pegged him at all. This particular night, he was looking to have some fun with friends out on the town. Pure and simple. Nothing complicated. Nothing logical. It almost felt a little fratboy-ish (in a good way) to me.
But sitting at home once the kids have gone to bed, reading his stuff and listening to him on The Talk Show, you’re not exposed to that side of him. You don’t see the human, just-a-guy side. You see his brain working, and that’s it. It was actually very refreshing. I mean, I can name a lot of names that I was taken aback to actually get to see/talk to: the aforementioned Marco Arment, Daniel Jalkut (Core Intuition), Manton Reece (Core Intuition), Don McAllister (ScreenCastsOnline), Steve Scott (iDeveloper Live), Marc Hoffman (RemObjects Software), the aforementioned John Siracusa (Hypercritical), Craig Hockenberry (Twitterific). And that’s just a few. They’re almost like a version of a rock star in this relatively tiny community.
Independent != Scary
Like I mentioned earlier, the events that I’ve attended in the past have mostly been Microsoft-centric. Therefore, it’s mostly been people like me who are there representing a company that they did not play a role in creating. This was not the case at WWDC, at least from my perspective. I could be talking out of my butt here, so if anyone knows the real numbers, please let me know. I would estimate that a good 55-60% of the developers who were there either worked for themselves or work with a very small group of people. And for most who work with some kind of group, I would venture to guess that they played a very large role in starting whatever that business has become. That means, over half of the attendees work for themselves in some way, and that is both commendable and scary as shit, all at the same time. In a position like mine, I don’t have to worry about where my next paycheck is coming from. In my particular case, I can reasonably know where my paycheck will come from for the next two years. And that is good for me. It’s stable. It’s secure.
But my choice in career path is not the absolute right choice. There’s something very romantic about being the guy (or guys and gals) out there doing it for themselves. Taking that leap off that bridge to do something great. I wish I had the balls. It’s invigorating. The entrepreneurial spirit has not left me, by any means. But, it’s pretty dormant right now as I try to get my kids raised and ready to start their lives. And that’s not to say they don’t face the same issue about kids and family and all that. They’ve worked it out, and like I said, I commend them for doing it. It’s courageous (there’s that word again) and I look up to them for taking it on. It’s inspiring.
So what did I take away from this, my first, WWDC? A couple of things:
The more I look back on it, the more the conference is not about the material presented or the products released. All that stuff can be gathered from sources later at your own leisure. To me, a lot of this conference is about relationships. (Some would call this networking, but I hate that term for it. It’s way too corporate-speak. I’m sticking with relationships.) Everybody there shares one thing in common. They all have passion about writing software. Specifically, they all have passion about writing software for the Apple ecosystem. That bond spurns other relationships within the community that may benefit you in ways you don’t even know yet. One very simple example is when I met David Reeves. I now have a go-to guy for apps in Atlanta that we may want to do business with in the future if our plate is too full. That’s where the conference atmosphere really shines. For a short week, it takes the business part of all of this out of the equation. It’s lets you focus on the code and those relationships. And that’s what we like dealing with anyway.
Apple does care
There’s the highly held belief (in the more general tech press) that Apple doesn’t seem to care about their developer base and that these developers are simply out on an island fighting with Apple every step of the way. While I agree with their other notion that Microsoft invests a lot more time, energy, and capital in developer relations, the Apple development experience is not as bad as they think. And of course, not seeing what I saw last week, I can see how they might come to that conclusion. All they hear about is how Apple rejected this app for that reason or it’s not “open” enough for all developers or some other nonsense. What they don’t see is the tool development going on behind the scenes to aid developers in their day-to-day job of coding. They don’t see how they are slowly moving the (Objective-C) language forward for the better, making it easier for a wider variety of programmers to come in and embrace it. They don’t see the toolkit(s) set in front of every developer and Apple saying go nuts. What they seem to fail to understand is Apple (while in business to make money) profits themselves from their developer’s labor. Therefore, it makes no sense for them to be hostile to their dev community at all. I mean, WWDC in and of itself is a shining example that they do care. How many billion-dollar multi-national corporations can you sit down with an engineer and ask them a question and their response is, “When I wrote that..”? Not many.
It’s good that the conference is a physical conference. It’s a bonus that it’s in San Francisco, but it could be held anywhere and still have the overwhelming value of not being at “home”. With the advent of technology, it’s becoming easier and easier to forgo travel. Products like GoToMeeting, various webinar programs, and even the WWDC session videos have all been brought to market to facilitate learning at your own pace in your own time. To me, these products have two main flaws.
Flaw #1: We don’t make time. Sometimes, we can’t make time. These days, it’s very rare for me to have more than about 60 minutes of “free” time during the course of the day. With work, picking up the kids, feeding the kids, putting the kids to bed, checking Twitter, checking Facebook, checking in on work one more time before bed, it’s hard to make time for anything. And when you do make time for yourself, the last thing you want to do is have to focus yourself in. It’s actually very difficult for me to switch to a pure learning mode anymore. With the overuse of multitasking, it’s like I have ADD. Having a conference like this away from that “home” helps you focus on the conference and nothing but the conference. It quiets the background static noise that omnipresent in everyday life and lets you focus on why you’re there.
Flaw #2: People need to get away. Plain and simple. As many who know me know, I don’t take vacation days from work that often. And when I do, it’s mostly when I have to deal with a kid issue or I’m really sick or something like that. There really are no vacations for me anymore. Not vacations in the sense of going somewhere exotic or something like that. No, I mean mental vacations. Vacations where (like I said above) you quiet that constant stream of static noise in the background of your life and experience something that makes you happy. Something calming. Something refreshing. Something that gets your (creative?) juices pumping. That’s what WWDC did for me. It was fun being there amongst these Apple developers. It was fun seeing the passion these people had for their craft. It was enjoyable being able to get out of a day’s worth of sessions and going to the Giants’ game. I think I actually tweeted something to the effect of it was relaxing, after a day of nerdy code stuff, to sit and watch a game of baseball. It was almost simplicity, personified.
I admit it now, I needed this. The ironic part was that I wouldn’t have been able to tell you I needed it until I had experienced it. That’s how bogged down I was.
All in all, it was a trip I’ll never forget. I had a wonderful time, met some great people, ate some absolutely delicious food, and learned more in a weeks time than should probably be allowed. Unfortunately, knowing some of the financial challenges that we will face in the coming year(s), I don’t know that I’ll get back to WWDC every year. I have to go forward with the notion that I won’t. But I guarantee you this, if the opportunity presents itself, I will not hesitate.