I attended my first NSConference this year after grabbing the first ticket that became available to people on the waiting list. The conference had sold out in record time before I was able to make a decision. So I jumped at the chance when they gave me a second chance.
NSConference is held annually in Wokefield Park in the middle of a golf course. Scotty, the conference host, informed us that the reason for this is simply to force the 200 attendees to network amongst each other if only because you cannot easily drive to town.
After the conference we were asked to provide feedback via e-mail, but I am a firm believer doing so publicly because this enables the valued reader to form his own opinion and whether he should attend NSConference 2013.
When I knew the dates I will be at the conference I booked my journey to include the day before and the day after simply for the fact that I don’t like to stress myself travelling to and from the venue. 5 days in total is about the duration that I can go with only a small trolley while still having fresh clothes every day. Travelling Pros swear by this technique of not having to give up their suitcase on the airplane.
You fly into London Heathrow. The most comfortable direct route involves taking a Railair.com bus from Heathrow to Reading (pronounced “Redding”) and a short train ride from there to Mortimer station. Though we did what most Apple fanboys would do shortly after release of a new Apple product: we took the underground to Covent Garden to visit the new Apple store located there.
A short time thereafter we had acquired several new Retina-iPads “for testing!”, Apple seems to get the hang of distributing their iOS devices, there where plenty available as we could see from several stacks arranged on the table behind the counter, sorted by WiFi/4G, size and color. I would have been nice to have a dedicated WiFi to restore an iCloud backup right then and there, but with only the overloaded free Apple Store WiFi available I left my iPad 3 in the box to perform the unboxing ceremony later in the hotel.
From central London you take the tube to Paddington station, but you should plan your route before starting your journey because London transport is frequently shutting down entire lines for work. We ran in to such a dead end once. From Paddington you again take the railway to Reading.
The event itself is organized in a single stream of talks interleaved with so called “Lightning Talks”. I was told that in previous years you had to go elsewhere to view the short talks, but this year you could simply stay put and only leave your seat around large round tables for lunch. Speaking of food, that was quite excellent as well, with a good sized buffet-style meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner was organized such for Monday and Tuesday with Monday set up as more luxurious gala diner and Tuesday being Casino night.
Casino as in gambling, though only with paper money. The person who had the most paper capital at the end of the evening would win an iPad. I would have loved to be able to re-buy more chips in the course of the evening because I lost all of my starting capital on the first Black Jack table I went to.
Scotty is always doing a charitable thing as well, this year one cause that aims to provide safe drinking water. The raffle winner go a MacBook Air that was donated by Marcus Zarra of Cocoa is my Girlfriend. I bought a couple of raffle tickets, but as I said before I would think that allowing me to re-buy on the casino evening would have increased contributions even more.
There is one trap that most conferencing beginners fall into. You stick with the organized program and thus you stay glued to your chair. But the videos of the talks will be made available later anyway. So if all you do is attend the talks you are missing out on more than 50% of such a conference’s value.
This I had already realized when I attended the 2011 WWDC, but found myself sucked into the single-stream just the same. With the brain turned into jelly with all this valuable information you find yourself mostly unable to make sensible human connections later in the day. Not even helped by strong coffee or lubricated by alcoholic beverages.
Away from the main stream there where several small gatherings that where titled “Labs”. I found myself drawn to the CoreData lab manned by Marcus Zarra and I stayed there for a major portion of Tuesday afternoon. On the Labs we’d know from WWDC you would bring your code and tackle individual issues one-on-one with an Apple engineer. The NSConference Labs work differently, more akin to a Q&A session where you learn just as much from other people’s questions. Mine revolved around background-updating a CoreData database and I found the differences between iOS 4 and 5 quite enlightening. (Yes, I’ll blog about that once I get a chance to)
Alex Blewitt did a series of excellent summaries on the 3 conference days:
The great opportunity for an NSConference-newbee is to get to know the European All-Stars and try to take on a bit of the wisdom of the likes of Aral Balkan, Matt Gemmel, Marcus Zarra, Nathan Eror, Ross Carter, Mike Lee, Jeff LaMarche, Daniel Pasco and Fraser Spiers. Naturally those where the ones with the best presentation skills as well. Again, the presentations can be seen on video, but only attending the conference allows you to also approach these guys and ask more detailed questions.
The main message that I got was that I realized that I am a “Subject Matter Expert” on CoreText. This is a topic that I know really really well through my work on DTCoreText and where companies have hired me in the past to help them with it. Daniel Pasco’s talk was the first time I saw somebody include pictures of himself doing the face-palm in combination of mentioning the Radars he filed for severe CoreData shortcomings.
The talks of the above mentioned experts all where amongst the creme de la creme of presentations. One example was the one of Fraser Speirs who provided insight into developing apps to be used in schools. Fraser is one of few Apple Distinguished Educators for his efforts in being amongst the first schools in Great Britain which established a program providing one iPad per pupil. This was the talk for which I took the most notes for.
In between those presentation giants you would also find the occasional gem of a newcomer for whom a lightning talk would be the first time speaking in front of 200 people. Given these circumstances most did a good job, in particular I would like to highlight Peter Steinberger – who I know from Cocoaheads Vienna – whose presentation about selling iOS components contained much valuable information for myself, selling components too. For one thing – thanks to Peter – I am now pondering automating the sales process with Fastspring.
Other take-aways included an NSConference T-Shirt and a mug. And about 70 new followers for me on twitter.
With all the greatness there were a couple of things I didn’t like. The 3 design talks would have been brilliant by themselves, but next to each other they were a bit redundant. Seeing pictures of real-world UI-failures is funny the first time, but much less three times in a row.
Then there were some talks where you would watch and wonder where they are supposed to go to. For one design talk the speaker employed a keyboard to show at great length how a certain melody of a Guns&Roses song would be constructed. Puzzled faces all around. Yes, nice idea, but much too long and much too little relevant for iOS development. Other speakers would blab on without aim making me wish I would possess the guts to stand up and walk out.
In the future NSConferences should maybe split off the design stream into a parallel stream. As I mentioned above I am not a fan of the single-stream concept. Having to pick which talks to attend from two streams would give people more reason to mingle and chat and ask for each other’s opinions. At the same time you wouldn’t watch all design talks in a row – unless you are totally into it – and thus avoid the feeling of redundancy.
The “Labs” are also great to loosen it out a bit. If you know that a conference is offering these then you are usually wise to come prepared and have some concrete problem and/or questions. We didn’t know that there would be labs and so some of their value were lost to us.
Just like designing a compelling app requires you to choose which features not to implement, you should also chose times when you don’t sit passively in a talk but rather use the time to mingle or go to a lab. This keeps your mind fresh and will also give your conversations more spice.
Though at times I felt a bit embarrassed when going for such a mingle-break (and coffee) but almost all other attendees having other plans. I cannot say whether this was because of the single-stream concept or because almost all talks where appealing to the mainstream audience. Or because most people didn’t know that they are not doing themselves a favor by slavishly attending all talks. Or because of a sudden addiction to playing “Draw Something” that made people forget that there are actual new friends to be made instead of playing with virtual ones.
NSConference seems to be failing in mixing Design, Business, iOS and Mac development all into a single concept. They don’t really have an answer yet how to deal with the booming popularity of iOS while at the same time offering something that’s just as compelling for the Mac veterans.
With so many people attending NSConference for the first time it would be welcome to have more information on how to prepare yourself ahead of the conference. The only information we got in advance was a Google calendar with the talks and what information we could glean from the conference website. They seem to think that they still are mostly catering to the “old crowd” when really there is a major infusion of fresh blood underway.
As for all conferences it pays to be prepared. Thought his preparation shouldn’t be simply to chose the talks to attend to, but rather have some topics that you are interested to explore given access to an appropriate expert. It certainly helps if you have source code to discuss. But if you don’t have any code project you can have them look at then you should at least try to have a few good questions to ask.
It also helps if you put your apps and demos on the iPhone and iPad you are carrying around at the conference. You could see groups of people form around people who were showing off BETA versions of their current work in progress. By the same token your apps are sort of your calling card. “Oh cool, YOU are the guy who made this app I love?”
If I had only one suggestion to give, it would be to intentionally break up the single stream concept. I’d love to attend some afternoon-long workshops to work with like-minded developers on actual code. Many iOS developers are interested in expanding their horizon towards also developing for the Mac app store, but lack an introduction on how to approach this transition.
A few other conference attendees suggested that Scotty should be doing a live taping of the iDeveloper podcast. With all the conference audio equipment already set up it would probably be any easy thing to have the moderators sit around a round table on stage and record the show. Maybe even include Q&A from the audience.
As design is stressed more and more it would have also been nice to have sort of an NSConference design award open for apps by developer who attended the conference. The audience could be voting on their iOS device and thus have participation in the appreciate of good app design.
Scotty seems to have understood that the need for networking and access to experts is beginning to outweigh the need for a single-stream talk-show. Hopefully I am not alone giving him this sort of brutally-honest feedback so that he can avoid NSConference losing its status as the premier European conference for developers on Apple’s platforms.