Our DNA is written in Swift

State of our iOS Nation

I just returned from my visit to San Francisco, where I helped Scribd on iOS-related matters. I’m sitting in a quiet restaurant near the railway half way between Vienna and Salzburg. There I’m awaiting the arrival of somebody I’m coaching, again related to iOS development. I find this to be a nice diversion from coding hours on end, and it’s especially welcome being throughly jetlagged. Flying east is said to be especially tiresome.

Too many Developers …

I consider it a good omen. After having touched down in Vienna, I boarded a train to where I live, 2 hours from Vienna. The next day, when I opened my laptop to start dealing with a large backlog of e-mails, I found that Apple has finally decided to start selling WWDC tickets. We think they had like 5000 seats available, which – after having removed all discounting options last year – where sold for $1600 a pop. Not too shabby, that’s like 8 Million Dollars made. More for Steve’s treasure chest, Apple has been sitting on a pile of cash assets for the longest time.

Last year’s WWDC took 8 days to sell out, this one less than 10 hours. Assuming that the number of tickets was about the same, that means that 19 times as many developers wanted to attend. And those were only the ones that did not have any slow corporate approval process to go through, called “red tape” by some.

What can we conclude from this information?

Apple is way too successful for their own good. Just last year we read about Apple being run as a startup with engineers frequently shifting their attention to new projects, and often a single person being in charge of an app, like the Remote.app. While this is a basis for a lot of innovation, this also making me concerned. Apple’s way of dealing with their success does not scale well.

One example for this lack of scaleability you saw on their recent keynote event. Apple started to stream their events a while back, discontinued it, then the tried it again for a single event, but the problems they had with that caused them to turn it off again. Apple is being forced outside of the comfortable niche they have been in for the longest time. Somebody at Apple probably wishes back to the times when Apple employees were personally calling developers to ask them to attend WWDC. Those where warmer, more personal, more human times.

Just how can Apple transition from catering for 5000 elite developers to making a number two orders of magnitude higher happy? Oracle’s approach would be to have entire streets closed down and put up events that can handle 40,000 people. But those who have fallen in love with how WWDC always has been, are weary about this. They fear that this would give WWDC as we know it the death blow.

Sitting here in Central Europe we always felt a bit left behind by Apple. Granted there is an Apple subsidiary in our Austrian capital Vienna. But this is essentially a group of consultants who can only take your orders for large amounts of desktop hardware. Austria does not have an Apple Store. They left the playing field to “Premium Resellers” of the sort of McShark. It was only late last year the iTunes started to carry more than Music and Audiobooks.

Granted a small market like Austria might factor quite low in importance to big and mighty Apple. BUT hear me out, I believe this to be indicative of an endemic problem in Apple’s structure. Their headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop are bursting at the seams with more and more people stuffed into cubes there. All of R&D and steering is happening there. The startup mentality in it’s purest form. The reasoning being: “we can only control the information if we can geographically control where the secrets are harbored”. A Fort Knox of Apple Gold.

Apple does not have dedicated trainers. They have a couple of Evangelists who don’t talk to us common folk. There is only Developer Technical Support (DTS) but this is non-personal, chargeable (if you need more than 2 free tech incidents). And thousands of engineers. Those are the guys who man the tech labs and give presentations at WWDC. That’s also unique: you get to talk to the people who BUILT the stuff. But there’s a problem: again, this is not scaleable. 51 weeks a year (49 if you factor in vacations) these people are busy over their ears with working on Apple’s future. I imagine that WWDC might be a very welcome time for them as they get out of their golden cages then and only then.

The only realistic way how I see that Apple can get a grip on this is to split up WWDC into regional events. I keep saying that one WWDC per continent should about do it. I’m sure even the Antarctica one would sell out, Layton Duncan of Polarbear Farms told me that he would definitely attend that. Well, why the hell not? Even this year’s Mac Mania cruise had this spectacular continent as target, even though weather did not permit them to actually make it there. In the least an additional WWDC for Europe, Asia and Pacific Rim would be dandy.

Of course there is still the problem of having all the smart engineers sit in Cupertino. The logistics of moving the show abroad is even too much for Apple at this stage. Hell, they cannot even get sufficient amounts of iPad 2 made and transported to where they are needed. Though I think that most of these guys would jump at the chance of travelling to Europe for say 2 weeks, one week for the regional WWDC, one week to take in the locations and overcome jetlag.

Apple is aware of their problem at least since about this time last year when they abolished WWDC discounts in a desperate attempt to make it slightly less attractive to companies sending their best to learn from the best. Then after the event they made the session videos available in record time. I remember paying around $600 in 2009 to get the same that in 2010 I got for free. Canned video scales almost infinitely, as bytes can be duplicated for free. But look what it got them: people saw the videos and it made them decided even more that they wanted to see it live, increasing demand 19-fold, as mentioned above.

Again it seems that this is a solution that an engineer thought up. Wouldn’t it be quite inefficient to go to the WWDC if the videos can be had for free? Such reasoning does not factor in the kind of networking with peers, bouncing ideas off each other, fostering friendships for life and seeing those gods and godesses in person. And probably even Steve Jobs. The concept of WWDC is just too good as it is.

… but not nearly enough!

While far too many developers would be interested in attending the WWDC, good ones are far in between. Startups of all shapes and sizes are desperately looking to hire iOS developers. But it seems that Apple has made it too easy to make a living building your own apps. So why would anybody want to work for a company when you could be working for yourself?

The situation is desperate even in and around San Francisco as I have seen with my own eyes when visiting. Some startups even have a full-time recruiter on staff who doesn’t deal with the lowly tasks of HR management. Instead these are scouring the internets in search for new people to be hired. They bait with extraordinary salaries, relocation help and even sign-up bonuses that are unheard of. If you wanted to move to the US, you could do so on an H1B visa next week.

Sure there are those amongst us iOS devs who would not want to have the hassle of dealing with customer complaints. After some success on the app store many people find that apps are business after all, including all the negative sides. There we see another reason for the general shortage. The iOS development market has matured sufficiently in the past 3 years that those who gave up on self-employed ambitions have been gobbled up by major companies and big startups.

Some notable exceptions are ex-Applesians who left the mothership once more to do their own thing. Matt Drance, previously developer evangelist turned book author. Another is Matt Monday, who was key in establishing the app review team, he’s now into consulting for non-profits. Then there’s the guy who tried to get gaming to be taken more serious, I don’t remember his name, he presented the Game Development workshops at WWDC 2010. Same story. But I have not yet heard of a single Apple alumni who left to be employed by another company.

Amongst these companies that are hiring are the likes of Scribd, who on their job page are looking for several iOS developers, one specifically tagged “No iPhone experience required”. Could it be any easier? I don’t think so. If you think you have what it takes, then let me refer you, so that I can reap the big bonus …

Let me tell you from my own business, which I have been driving by myself for 3 years now, 1 year full-time. I now have 3 major clients: ELO in Germany, ICS in Phoenix, Arizona and Scribd in San Francico, California. Each of these could be a full-time engagement by itself. Just today I informed 2 people contacting me that I have no available capacity for at least the next 2 months.

It still pains me a bit having to do that, although it gets easier.  I wish I could somehow freeze-dry this work for times when there might be less to do. But I think I am somewhat lucky as my brother in law is a Jack-of-all-trades developer with a strong interest in iOS. His current contract ends in April and then I am confident that he can take on one of my clients full-time.

I wonder if this situation might be specific to our iOS universe or the same is seen in other industries. There is only one company left that has a higher market valuation than Apple. But I hear of no shortage in petroleum engineers.

One of the big differences between Apple and Microsoft is how they deal with professionals and partners. Microsoft actively pursues partnerships and certifies partners with golden plaques and special training programmes. In their development communities they actively seek out individuals who help peers and evangelize on Microsoft’s behalf. The best get special access and can call themselves MVP, most valuable professional. A whole industry has formed around people wanting to get certified in using and developing software with Microsoft technologies. Having such certifications look good in your CV if you try to get hired. “Developers! Developers! Developers!” as a certain corporate monkey ones screamed hopping up and down a stage.

Apple on the other hand does not seek this kind of community involvement. Feedback can only be given by the Radar bug reporting system. Technical help can only be gotten if you spend a tech incident (a $75 value, 2 free per year per developer account) or if you are lucky on Apple’s own protected developer forums. In no way I can achieve any sort of certification by or affiliation with the company. The only way how Apple knows to thank people who further their business for them is to hire them. As example, Bill Dudney comes to mind.

Hey, you’re doing a great job. Want to work for Apple? No? Then bugger off. There are tons more people who do.

Or do they? Again this sort of treatment worked for Apple while they were small. People you employ you own and control. But at this point it ceases to be a realistic endeavor to hire all good people globally. Unfortunately there is no incentive to change anything as the iOS developer base continues to grow exponentially. In any group you will find a couple of outstanding individuals who others more “average” group members look to for guidance and to learn from. So one valid strategy might be to lean back and let human nature solve the problem.

Is it Apple’s problem? Again the engineer mindset there might be like: Problem? What problem? We have no bug report for that! You might be holding it wrong. I am arguing that it is. I think we are beyond Fart Apps and other crap that was hacked together by beginners. But unfortunately that’s exactly the kind of quality that you will get from single-person development teams. Today the most money is made by development teams with budgets in the millions. $41 Mio for a social, location-based photo-sharing app. While the usefulness of this app is questionable the investors know exactly that a big budget buys you an amazing team and amazing teams build amazing (read: lucrative) apps. In contrast somebody recently calculated the expected lifetime earnings to $5000 per app on average. But this still does not deter anybody from writing apps.

Maybe waiting really is the solution. The harder it gets to make a living on apps alone, the more experienced developers will throw in the towel. This will open up their minds to the idea of being employed as iOS developer. And once the reality comes knocking on your door (in the form of creditors) many will budge and to let themselves be hired after all.

I have no answer except to keep doing what I am doing now. Writing about the situation, bringing together people with compatible interests. Elevating knowledge as good as I can. Building a network of developers looking out for each other.

Maybe this’ll help.

Categories: Apple


  1. Nice insight. I just started with iOS development last year to go along with my 19 years of experience in SW engineering. I’ve been trying to get a job with a company, but having hard time because most of my 19 years (especially the last 10) has been spent doing software test, integration and system support. Would love to help you out with a bonus from scribd, but unable to relocate at this time.

  2. Great article. As someone who is still learning the ropes when it comes to iOS developing, it was very interesting to me. Thanks!

  3. I like your post, just a couple of comments.

    We’re experiencing a bubble in mobile development. We get a technology bubble every so often and this is a classic example. It could pop, it could deflate, the dev market could just slowly catch up to it and it could get even bigger before any of that happens. When the bubble is inflating it feels just incredibly interesting and urgent. It’s hard to hire people, salaries jump to dizzying heights and it feels like the sky’s the limit.

    Bubbles are dangerous, though, and anyone in this market should be keeping an ear out for popping noises.

    I don’t think the app store has all that much to do with contract dev availability. It’s probably pulling a few developers out of the bigger pool, but it’s also drawing in a whole lot of new devs with dollar signs in their eyes. It’s tempting to think of the indie app developer as being the majority, but I very much doubt it. There’s just too many contract houses out there doing ios development. Indie devs talk to indie devs and contract devs talk to… clients mostly, so it may seem like everyone’s an indie dev.

    It’s the overall demand for ios development that’s causing the scarcity. Look at it this way, any company with an interactive network app now needs to consider iPhone/iPad development, something they hadn’t even thought about 3 years ago. That’s a lot of people doing a lot of hiring and a big shift in engineering resources. It’s bound to feel like a storm from our end.

    A really fun storm, mind you.

  4. Well thought out post. I agree there does seem to be a lot of developers these days trying to make apps, and it seems harder and harder to make it since the “top 100” list where the money is doesn’t scale with more apps :] Plus the larger teams like you mentioned entering the game. It will be interesting to see how things develop over the years – and an exciting place to be :]

  5. Doing iOS contract is indeed lucrative, but it doesn’t scale well (like every service type business). There’s an exploding market in front of all our eyes and it’s just getting started. I don’t wanna spend my time doing work for other people with such an opportunity ahead.

  6. Oliver,

    Great post.

    Not sure the logistics on having a regional WWDC conferences since Apple would want to control every aspect of that, but what I would settle for is having somewhat of a simulcast. Convention Centers around the world would have the same type of setup as Moscone, but all the sessions would be streamed. One could argue, why would someone want to pay for that when you know that Apple is going to publish the same session videos free.

    First, attendees of these regional events should receive the same shawg and perks as those in San Fran (food, advanced copies of software, etc). Second, one of the best aspects of the WWDC is the networking and rubbing elbows with fellow developers, which one would still get to do, just in their region. (I am sure that someone would come up with some group/social app that would connect everyone to “network” and share experiences). One of the other big selling points of the conference is for developers to meet one-on-one with Apple Engineers and get assistance with our apps. In these regional events there has to be “lab” rooms where you would do the same thing just virtually. Put your name in a queue and then facetime + screen sharing with Apple engineer.

    Since I live in Memphis, TN, USA I would be willing to buy, at a slightly reduced amount since I am not at the main conference, a ticket to attend a regional in Atlanta…for example.

    It isn’t a perfect situation, but it does get as close to the experience in San Fran. without being there

  7. Fascinating read.
    I was with Apple in Europe in the mid-90ies doing developer relations. Interesting to read that things are still the same.

    I managed to get my WWDC ticket. I agree with you that the conference selling out in one day is not good. Repeating WWDC on other continents is logistically very hard. During the Java haydays at Sun we had the same problem. It’s too impactful on the engineers and the product schedules to send them around the world for conferences. It’s not just the travel time but it’s more so the preparation time. Eventually this was solved by having an evangelist team doing roadshows. The main issue then is to make sure those evangelists are of enough calibre that the local developer finds they get almost as good a value out of attending as going to WWDC itself.

  8. We’re not in a bubble in mobile dev. The market is in its very early stages. Don’t let the media brainwash you 😉


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