Apple WWDC – The Worth of Being There

In this era of travel budget crackdowns and higher than normal oversight into technology budgets, the iOS software engineer can get lost in the shuffle when it comes to training time and opportunities to talk with other members of the iOS development community.

Due to the rise of the popularity of Apple’s iOS platform, Apple WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conference) has become the central rallying point for iOS developers. It seems that the entire iOS community gathers in San Francisco over the week of WWDC. Many developers go to San Francisco over the week of WWDC even if they don’t have a ticket to the conference.

A ticket to WWDC costs $1599. Since 2014 you only get to purchase a ticket if you get picked during the lottery phase of enrollment. In my opinion, this is a very fair system considering the high number of developers who wish to attend.

Due to the high number of people going out to San Francisco over WWDC week, the hotel prices during WWDC week have almost tripled since 2011. John Siracusa,  of Mac OS X Review and Accidental Tech Podcast fame, has equated a night of sleep in a hotel during WWDC as $ equivalent to an Apple Watch. You sleep 1 day, that’s 1 Apple Watch (Sport). You sleep 2 days, that’s 2 Apple Watches… From Sunday through Friday you may have to plan on spending $1600 just to sleep.

The airfare remains affordable. Well, as affordable as airfare can be from your home location to SFO.

Before you have so much as sipped even one $7 Blue Bottle coffee (totally worth it, just do it!), the conference has already cost around $5000 dollars.

To a cost conscious manager $5K as a baseline price for a week spent at a conference can seem like a pretty steep price to pay.

I would submit that the $5K cost is a really good value if you know how to attack WWDC.

Summary:

  • WWDC is not anything like Microsoft Build.
  • You get insight into the hierarchy at Apple that you can’t get anywhere else. Especially the relationship between you (the developer), the Apple Evangelist, and the Apple Engineer.
  • The all-day technology-specific labs that Apple runs at WWDC may be the only way you are ever going to get face time with Apple personnel that have specific knowledge in your app subject area.
  • You get inspiration and insight from the special lunch sessions.
  • You can take advantage of the 1 to 5 ratio of Apple personnel to attendees.
  • You agree to a Non-Disclosure Agreement regarding session content. This turns out to be a great thing because you get exposed to stuff that you never experience otherwise.
  • There is now plenty of good content presented at other nearby venues at the same time as WWDC.
  • Sometimes you are at the epicenter of a major shift in Apple’s technology stack.
    • Those who attended WWDC 2014 got the boost of being at the center of the Swift rollout. The Swift rollout surprised most Apple employees, not to mention many attendees.

Note: During this blog post you may notice that I am being completely vague and only giving you an impression or insight with no detail. When you attend WWDC you agree to a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This means that you can’t talk about details or technical information related to content presented there. Because of this, I can only give you my impressions of my experience at WWDC.  This NDA has loosened in recent years, but I think it is still good to keep the attitude: ‘What happens at WWDC, stays at WWDC’.

 

WWDC – General Structure

WWDC starts with a day 1 keynote. This is a classic Apple keynote.

The keynote is usually at 10AM Pacific Time.

For WWDC attendees who want to be ‘in the room’ this means that you may have to line up at about 7AM. You are let in the building around 8:30AM. Then you wait. For almost an hour and a half. In a hallway with no chairs.

They open the doors to the main keynote area, everyone finds a seat, and the keynote begins.

The keynote ends about an hour later. Everybody leaves for lunch. Then the remainder of the first day is spent on a more engineering focused deep dive set of talks called ‘State of the Union’.

The rest of the week has standard conference tracks scattered around the many rooms all grouped by technology.

Many of the sessions are repeats of sessions from previous years with a little more content added and/or clarified.

I am pretty sure I am not divulging too much info here as all of these sessions and the schedule are available via the WWDC app.

 

WWDC != Microsoft Build

In order to really ‘grok’ how Apple’s WWDC is dramatically different from other technology conferences you really need to attend. I have been extremely fortunate in that I have been at 2 WWDCs and a series of Microsoft conferences. I would also point out that the WWDC differences also show how Apple is a dramatically different company (especially from Microsoft).

Apple WWDC is dramatically different from Microsoft conferences in so many ways.

  • Degree of Preparation
    • WWDC is highly polished. Every session. All the time. It feels like all the session speakers have rehearsed their material for weeks. It feels like all the presented material in all the sessions has been vetted by the Evangelist (and possibly marketing) hierarchy at Apple.
    • Microsoft Build has well polished keynotes, but the per-session material can feel a little ‘slap dash’. In this way Microsoft Build sessions feel more genuine but aren’t as watchable as Apple WWDC sessions.
  • Openness
    • Contrary to the initial impression you may get, WWDC is fairly open. It is more open once you understand the role of the Apple Evangelist as a gatekeeper. Do not try to get the time or attention of a presenter at a given session. Go to the labs. The labs are largely a free zone where engineering conversations flow freely between attendees, Evangelists, and Apple engineers.
      • Apple presenters do not usually hand out their e-mail or contact information as their public exposure seems closely regulated by the Evangelists.
    • Microsoft Build is completely open with engineers and members of the Microsoft hierarchy handing out Twitter handles and work e-mail addresses.

 

Insight into hierarchy and roles – You, Apple Evangelist, Apple Engineer

The Apple WWDC session structure is very rigid. If you analyze a series of Apple WWDC session videos you start to notice this rigid structure:

  • Speaker shows title slide of session with their name on it for about 5-15 seconds. — No e-mail address, Twitter handle, or other contact info of the engineer will appear on the slides.
    • Note: Sometimes the presenter exposes some contact info, but it is incredibly rare.
  • Speaker proceeds through their material.
  • Last slide shows links to online Apple SDKs, additional WWDC sessions, and the name of an Evangelist for the technology stack that the session was about
  • If the session has a Q&A you will notice that the Evangelist does triage of incoming questions from WWDC attendees. The Evangelist will usually do their best to answer the incoming question, frame the scope of the answer, then will either trust an engineer to answer on stage or redirect you to a lab time to talk more.

The well coordinated Developer to Evangelist to Apple Engineer communication path is unique. The role of Evangelists as gatekeepers to the time and energy of the Apple Engineer leaks through in almost every session you attend at WWDC. Once you understand the rules of the Apple hierarchy in regards to exposure of Apple engineer face time to the developer community,  you are now ready to head into the lab spaces at WWDC get your questions answered and have great conversations with Apple personnel.

 

The Labs are invaluable

The per-technology lab areas at WWDC are invaluable. If you have had electronic contact with an Apple engineer at any time the previous year, you should be able to get face to face contact with that engineer in a lab space. WWDC is, most likely, the only time that you will ever get real face time with an Apple engineer throughout the year.

If you are signed up for any of Apple’s side programs (i.e. Made for iPhone/iPod [MFi], AirPrint, …) then the labs are the one safe space for you to talk engineering specifics in and around that program. The NDAs you sign in order to participate in those programs may largely preclude you from even talking with your peers about what you are really working on. At the specific lab times, and only at WWDC, can you get one-on-one time to talk about the proprietary NDA’d specifics of your application.

When I was at WWDC 2010 there was mention of a series of technologies during the keynote that seemed to overlap with a non-Apple project I was working on. I went down to the labs to talk with Apple people about their project, and related my experience on my non-Apple project. From that experience I  gained a ton of insight and validation regarding my project that I never would have received otherwise.

 

Go to the lunch sessions – They are the hidden gem of WWDC

You just spent a whole morning attending hard technology sessions. You have a numb brain. You have some messages and work to catch up on. A lunch to get eaten. The last thing you may want to do is go to a session over lunch.

The WWDC lunch sessions are where Apple invites people from outside of the company to come in and share how they are applying a specific technology stack to a given creative problem. Every lunch session I have attended have been the best sessions I have attended at any conference. The speakers are engaging, the content is insightful and inspirational. Don’t miss the lunch sessions.

 

There is a 1 to 5 ratio of Apple personnel to attendees

This is one of those stats that I heard then just kind of dismissed. I mean: How could I ever possibly be able to pick out Apple personnel from the 5,000 other attendees at the conference?

It turns out that Apple gives employees specially colored badges which stand out. In addition, most of the Apple employees wear an ‘Apple Store’ like t-shirt. You do end up seeing and talking to quite a few Apple employees. Many Apple employees seek out and engage with developers at WWDC because that is one of the very few times that they can engage with the developer community.

Over breakfast one morning I had struck up a conversation with another engineer about App Store policies. An Apple employee responsible for App Store policies, and some of the technology, overheard our conversation and joined in. The conversation that was sparked was great. In this case the Apple employee had a series of questions that he asked, and largely listened as we talked about a series of things. The feedback we got was invaluable regarding how and why Apple has the App Store policies that they have.

At each session there is a roped off area at the entrance: One side where Apple employees line up, the other side where non-Apple employees line up. All non-Apple employed attendees get into the session first, then the Apple employees get any remaining seats.

I mention this because when you combine the waiting lines in front of a session with the specially colored badges + t-shirts you can get insight into which sessions may be the most interesting.  You get immediate visual feedback for what the Apple engineers think the most important technology topics are just by looking down a wide conference room hallway and looking for clusters of colored t-shirts.

Way back in 2011 I was at WWDC and I was waffling between 3 different sessions being held at the same time. One was about Bonjour networking, one was about Xcode enhancements, and one was really out there (for me at least): LLVM / Clang compiler futures. I walked past the networking and Xcode enhancement sessions and there were people in line, but only 1 or 2 Apple employees. Then I went past the LLVM / Clang compiler futures session, the line of Apple employees waiting to get in was down the hallway and had practically turned the corner. I immediately ducked into that LLVM / Clang compiler futures talk.

 

Non-Disclosure Agreement – Not a bad thing

I hope that I am allowed to tell the above story, because you sign an NDA that states that you cannot talk about any session content from WWDC. This actually turns out to be a good thing.

Apple has relaxed the NDA in recent years. However, that NDA still applies for some sessions, labs, and conversations that you have with Apple employees. If you are under NDA for other Apple programs, then those NDAs are fully binding in the lab areas as well. You may be asked by an Apple employee in a lab area if you are under NDA before they can talk about certain technologies.

I can’t get specific, because I signed an NDA when I attended WWDC 2011, but I think I can dance around enough stuff to give you insight into why that NDA was a good thing.

Over lunch Apple has special sessions given by people from other companies that highlight how they use certain Apple technologies. These special sessions are skewed way more to practical application of technologies for specific businesses or creative endeavors.

At one lunch session we were able to see unreleased creative content, as well as how technology enabled that content to be created. The speaker stated outright that without the NDA we agreed to at the beginning of WWDC that there was no way his management would have allowed him to show this special content and inside info during his presentation.

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