The 2011 Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conferences has come to a conclusion, with the final day passing by in light speed. My eyes are burning from being tired, my legs hurt from sitting and standing in line and my brain has turned into a mushy substance. Yet I feel like I have to sum up a couple of things I learned just so that I might anchor this experience just a little bit more deeply in my memory.
Hey you, Apple PR guy, don’t you worry about me revealing any details, this post is mostly about the emotional side of attending one of the most useful and exhilerating … pardon THE most useful and exhilarating experience that’s available to a Mac/iOS developer. This being my first such conference I think I have found a couple of strategies that might severs as a reference in future years.
This article does not have a specific order, I’m just writing down what comes to mind.
It definitely pays to have mobile hardware with you. The MacBook Air has proven to be ideal for quickly getting out of the back and putting it back in. There was at least one case that i know of where a MacBook Pro died. While this coincided with installing a new OS this is most likely a result from the mechanical hard disk having gotten damaged from all the commotion. This is one of the many reasons that I vote SSD for main storage in your WWDC equipment.
I had brought an iPad as well, did not use it very much, except tweet humorous observations every now and then. But then again, it’s so light and flat that it does not add much weight to your backpack next to your MacBook Air. And of course how could you travel to an iOS conference without toting an iPhone. As a tourist it proved invaluable to be able to use Google Maps to navigate around the bums that go to sleep in the seams of the streets. Of course you’d have to have an iPhone without Sim-Lock, but experienced developers prefer these in general so that they can always updated to the latest BETA software, even though that can be a risky thing.
In addition to these 3 devices I brought 1 Air power adapter with the plug changed to the US version. One USB cable. One iPhone earphones. Additionally I purchased a Mophie mobile charger and the mini power-plug for the US outlets, just so that I could change my phone without having to leave my Air turned on over night. And I tried out two different wireless carriers and ended up choosing AT&T, when my curiosity was piqued by conflicting horror stories being told by AT&T employees to unsuspecting iOS developers.
Let me at this point give a shootout to Scribd who sponsored my entire trip to San Francisco, including footing the bill for attending WWDC. They also enabled me to come to town a week in advance of the event which allowed me to get rid of the jet lag well in advance.
There are generally two strategies for doing so: either you force yourself to stay up until normal bedtime, or you eat early dinner and sleep when your body tells you to. A month ago I tried the former, but it took me like 4 days. This time I tried the latter and I found that I was out and about already on the second day, Saturday. Generally you would probably best plan for the weekend or even longer to synchronize your rhythm.
When the day of the day of the Keynote arrived I decided to get in line round about 4 am in the morning. Walgreens pharmacy had foldable camping chairs for $8 each, so I purchased one the night before. I also packed an umbrella which the hotel provided, there was a 60% likelihood of rain. Next time I’ll bring a foldable one. Thankfully it did not rain and so I did not need it. But I wished that I had dressed warmer, because standing or sitting outside at that early hour has a chilling effect. I ended up around the 270th position, around the first corner alongside the Moscone West conference center. You have to bear in mind that the main hall “Presidio” only has a capacity of 1500 seats. Of which quite a few are traditionally promised to the press. In total there are 5000 attendees which natually means that the majority of attendees will have to be content with washing on provided overflow rooms. This however invariably means that you will miss Steve Jobs because those overflow areas only get filled after the keynote has already started.
I’d say the very first WWDC you attend, you should be willing to get in line, just for the experience of it. Obviously people in the line around Moscone (typically going once around all 4 sides of the building) are seen as captive audience, so a variety of companies will try to market or crowd-please by handing out flyers, T-Shirts, breakfast burritos and coffee. But even then you might want to bring a thermos with hot tea to bridge the first couple of hours until the catering starts.
I had only known about WWDC what the session videos on iTunes had told me. So naturally I tried to “watch WWDC” the same way, to consume as many talks as possible But this mode actually cheats you out of most of value that can be gotten at the conference. First, you have to queue for almost everything, from talks, over food to going to bathrooms. Ladies are far in between, and the efficient we boys take pride in speeds it up only slightly, especially if we are washing our hands. And this we do, religiously, because you never know who you might need to shake hands with.
So don’t make the same mistake I did and try to go to all sessions. Save yourself the lines, because normal sessions can be seen on video very soon after the fact. Instead make a list of questions that have been bugging you recently. Even topics where you think you might have found a “workable hack” are definitely worthy of being brought up with Apple’s most valuable people: their engineers. The best strategy in the labs for me has proven to be this: tell the “concierges” what the area of your question is and they are often able to point you in the direction of an especially competent individual. The queue up next to them, wait patiently for your turn and then present them with a quick sample that demonstrates your problem, your hopefully well formulated question or even a fully fledged app.
There are also special labs that you have to make a reservation for. This year Apple tried to have people reserve their slots via the WWDC app, but for unknown reasons the process was switched to paper. You could specifically get advice on app reviews, publications or even get an expert critique your UI design. Those are in short supply and you can only reserve on the same day. Being prepared is even more important for these specials.
Coffee, Tea, Soft Drinks and assorted Juices are provided throughout the day. Though I found myself trying to limit my liquid intake the the absolute minimum possible to avoid spending time on the inevitable bathroom breaks. With little success. It’s my theory that your brain heats up at WWDC to such an extent that it liquifies and will get excreted. Or maybe it is water from the air that condenses on the surface of your brain for the purpose of cooling…
The are small sweet snacks provided for breakfast. At lunchtime you have multiple tables with usually 1 vegetarian and 2 non-vegetarion combinations, conveniently packaged in a plastic box. This is next to many rows of tables with provided power and ethernet hubs. The whole area is designated as “Download Area”. To avoid hogging of Wifi by downloaders the transparent proxy forwards you to a page stating that you can only get these GBs via a wired connection. Speaking of which … for the MacBook Air you should also bring an USB ethernet adapter. I had purchased mine in the close Apple store. At first I had considered it a joke, but this had proven to be the most important purchase for getting the new BETA-software, samples and other useful downloads. So when I read it twice on Apple’s website to bring such an adapter I rushed and got one.
Sessions and Labs are spaced only 15 minutes apart which gives you little time if you try to watch it all. This is another reason why seasoned WWDC attendees will only pick out immediately valuable stuff and shirk from sessions covering technologies that will only be of use to them several months in the future. Though I found it to be a welcome contrast to have an interesting session follow and brain-liquifying lab visit. Apple also tried to book sessions at lunchtime that are on a tangent. This year we had a technical director from Pixar, some other Space-related company and on the final day, Buzz Aldrin. You can grab a lunchbox and rush to the third level where the biggest room is located, but that might already be too late. On one occasion I found that I could exchange a stack of lunch boxes for a front-row seat.
Generally it is good advice to befriend as many people as you can, because you will find that you can more easily cut in line where they are in front of you if it sounds to your surroundings as if you have been best friends since high school. I am lucky to have already done quite a bit of networking via twitter and my blog much in advance of the conference. Not only helped me this to get into better positions in lines, you also have a more enjoyable time waiting if you have somebody to talk to. I couldn’t help to get the impression that for the most part the engineers are used to fend for themselves or are mostly sticking with their peers. So you should have as little reservations as possible to take the first step and introduce yourself.
I did not think to bring more than 8 business cards, because I did not think about making more in time. And these I handed out extremely selectively. People generally did not seem to mind not getting a card, but getting my Twitter handle instead. Some people also used their micro business cards to transport a promo-code for their app. Now that you can no longer review apps without buying them this practice might make much less sense.
In the middle of the week I switched my strategy to selecting interesting labs first and then loosely filling the remaining space up with sessions. Getting to the engineers is something you don’t get at home. I probably would have gotten twice as much infos would I have come better prepared. But towards the end of the week suddenly I started having all kinds of ideas that would make for a great topic of conversation. Stuff you don’t understand. Stuff that’s badly documented. Better next time to have a prepared list of “things I don’t know” for the next WWDC, you should start this list right now.
One thing I did not decide soon enough was to get a memento from the clothing store on the ground floor. Of course it was too late to still get a WWDC T-Shirt on the last day. But then again, I had already stocked up on Apple T-Shirts a month previously. So little was lost there.
There is another tradition that might surprise you. Across the street from Moscone are two locations what you see mentioned often. Jillian’s is a restaurant that also plays host to several WWDC parties. And then there’s Yerba Buena gardens which traditionally has a surprise band play which everybody is drinking beer. Because of this the event is also lovingly referred to as “beer bash” and an inside source tells me that WWDC is really all about the parties. And there was an app for that. A badly made but nevertheless quite informative app showed you the entire selection of parties. In addition to these you might have a company invite people over to their offices (like Twitter did) for a presentation. Or do some marketing activity right in front of the conference building (like Square did).
There is very little need to plunder your hotel mini-bar in the middle of the night for food or snacks. There are grocery stores like 7Eleven always closeby and food and drinks can be had at the parties. I find that I always gain a couple of pounds visiting the USA, so I made a conscious effort this time to not do any late-night snacking. And generally I don’t drink alcohol, so I refrained from partaking in the World Wide Drinking Contest.
With the exception of the keynote Apple reminds you at the beginning of every session that everything is under NDA. So the intellectual diversion seems to be to make witty remarks on twitter that can only be understood in full by other people sitting in on the same presentation. I think you get used to this kind of humor rather quickly and you are less likely to have something slip. Also don’t forget: you paid to be at WWDC, why give anything away? You don’t need to show off your newly acquired secret knowledge. Most likely you people will feel your aura of Pro-ness by themselves when you get home.
I hope to be able to attend WWDC 2012 next year, if it has not been sold out yet. This and the lines in front of everything were two running gags. I am sure they will continue to be.