What WWDC 2018 Taught Me (About Choosing and Attending Conferences)

This year was the first time I attended Apple’s WWDC conference. It took 3 years of trying, but I finally got the golden ticket to attend this year, and was fortunate enough to have an employer to sponsor my trip as well!

This is the largest iOS conference in the world, and it’s the dream of many iOS developers to eventually attend a WWDC at some point in their careers. Given what a big deal WWDC is, was it worth it? More importantly, if you work for a company that will sponsor only one conference for you in a year, should WWDC be THE one? Or if WWDC is not in the cards this year, how do you select a conference to attend, and what’s the best way to get the most out of it? Come with me as I share my journey, and see!

I’ve attended 3 iOS conferences since transitioning from being a Titanium cross platform mobile developer to a native iOS developer: 360iDev (in 2016 on a scholarship, 2017, and 2018 will be my third time for attendance and first time as a speaker so I may be a bit biased here), try!SwiftNYC (on a scholarship in 2016), and finally WWDC in 2018. During my time at WWDC, I also had the chance to attend an IBM Swift workshop at Alt-Conf, the free community-driven iOS conference next door to WWDC. Here’s what I learned from attending these conferences.

Me at my first WWDC ready to conquer the world! (and wearing my try!SwiftNYC 2016 shirt)

First Criteria in Choosing A Conference: Talk Content and Access Afterwards

For the talks, are there different tracks? Are there management tracks, business tracks, different levels of technical tracks? Where are you in your career and what is your role? Are you coming from one programming language, and attending a conference to start learning about a different technology stack? Are there beginner level tracks for you? If you consider yourself to be more intermediate and above, are there more advanced tracks to help challenge you and help you grow? Are there any hands on labs, if that is something of interest to you? How soon will you have access to the content of the talks? For 360iDev, slides for the talks are available on the conference Slack team immediately after the talk, and videos are online and available to ticket holders within days, spread out over several weeks. At WWDC, you can stream the videos live or watch them within hours after the event whether you have a ticket or not. I don’t remember how quickly the talk slides and videos went up after try!SwiftNYC 2016, but all the slides and videos for all the try!Swift (including NYC) conferences in 2016 and after are online now.

Once you decide that the content is appropriate for you, let’s talk about another, arguable more important component of a good conference: the community. The next few criteria will go over different aspects of community.

Second Criteria in Choosing a Conference: Interaction with Speakers

Doing PDF research for SimplyE, the ebook reader app for libraries

What is the interaction like with the speakers? Sadly, WWDC fared the worst on this one. With the exception of some of the keynote talks (the most interesting one was with Danielle Feinberg, the Director of Photography for Lighting at Pixar) where there was a brief Q&A at the end of the talk, there was no interaction with the speakers at all. Perhaps this was to facilitate the recording and editing of the videos for the talks, I don’t know. You did get access to the Apple engineers during topic-specific labs if you had a technical question regarding your personal or work project, which is something you can only get at WWDC. For me, I had to get info on the roadmap for PDFKit for my job, in case it makes sense for SimplyE (an ebook reader app for public libraries), to move to PDFKit for our PDF book rendering (it does not 😦 — we’re going to stick with a commercial PDF rendering library to implement this feature). Also, I got advice from some Apple engineers for a personal project involving MLKit. You may hear me speak about this project in a future post, it’s kind of secret for now 🙂 . To be continued …

At try!SwiftNYC, there are speakers’ hours after the talk but no Q&A at the end. This may be due to the fact that the talks were done in a large auditorium instead of in a smaller lecture hall, making questions difficult. Speakers’ hours might be good for you if you’d like some one-on-one time with the speakers afterwards to answer your questions, but you don’t get the benefit of getting your questions answered as you think of them during a talk (maybe you should write them down for the speakers’ hours later?) and you don’t get the benefit of learning from other people’s questions and answers during Q&A.

360iDev is the clear winner in the “Interaction with Speakers” category, as there’s a Q&A at the end of every talk, and speakers are available via Slack and in person throughout the conference. Also, since attendees at 360iDev number in the hundreds and not the thousands, like at WWDC, it was actually possible to meet speakers in person multiple times.

Third Criteria in Choosing a Conference: Inclusiveness/Diversity

Inspiring presentation at a Women at Apple breakfast

Inclusiveness/diversity can be important to some people, especially if you belong to an under-represented group in technology, like women. try!SwiftNYC was most inclusive, in terms of gender, but also in the technologies people were using. Not all attendees were senior iOS devs, some were learning iOS and coming from other technologies. This can be important to you if you’re in the learning camp and need a supportive environment to encourage you to keep going. That being said, always assume that everyone attending X Technology Conference is a Practitioner of X Technology unless they tell you otherwise. One of the issues with lack of gender diversity is some people will assume that if you’re one of the few females attending, that you don’t really belong there. Some will make comments to that affect, and that can really make a person feel excluded. So here are some pointers on how to interact with ANYONE at a conference, regardless of gender.

For example, here are some good ice breakers you can use: What company do you work for? So you’re an X developer? (this is really more of a statement, instead of questioning if they belong there). What brings you to this conference? (some answers might be: my company sponsored me, I’m really interested in X technology, I got a scholarship, etc.)

Don’t say, “Are you an engineer / developer?” (subtext: “really?”). And Don’t say, “So are you a designer?” (subtext: “you don’t really belong here”)

I’ve gone to meetups where some people (males and females) were designers or recruiters. Sure, when there’s a free tech event, you might see recruiters there, and designers / developers may go to each other’s meetups to network, why not? But not at a conference that’s worth $1600 a ticket (cost of golden ticket to WWDC). I can’t think of any company that would send an employee to a developer’s conference unless that employee was a developer. Do the math!

Here were just a few of the many tweets discussing the diversity issues at WWDC, below:

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And how can you tell if a conference is going to be diverse, gender and/or technology wise? Sometimes their diversity scholarship program, if they have one, will give a clue. If the scholarship is diversity- and need-based and offers companies/individuals the chance to contribute to said scholarships, that is a good sign. This was true for both try!SwiftNYC and 360iDev. Apple, on the other hand, had scholarships that were need- and merit-based (you had to build an app using Apple technologies, this year scholarship applicants had to build an iOS playground), which meant you had to be the “cream of the crop,” so to speak, in order to win a scholarship. So, those interested in learning about Apple technologies or coming from a different technology stack, even if they belong to an under-represented group, had less of a chance to win. Also, scholarship winners represented only a small portion of WWDC attendees. try!SwiftNYC, at least when I attended in 2016, had a large percentage of scholarship attendees, enabling a larger proportion of those typically under-represented in tech, to be able to attend.

Fourth Criteria in Choosing A Conference: Engagement with Other Attendees

Are there scheduled activities in the evenings? Opportunities to meet / engage with other attendees in a more intimate setting?

I enjoyed the Night of Meat at 360iDev

Once again, 360iDev wins in this category. In 2017, 360iDev featured the Night of Meat, Karaoke, Board game night, Pizza night, etc. Sometimes there were multiple events happening on the same night! Also, are the activities themselves inclusive? In other words, are there different activities that appeal to different types of people besides just the stereotypical white male developer? This of course, overlaps somewhat with inclusive/diversity, but it’s hard to separate the engagement with other attendees from diversity entirely. For example, for 360iDev’s Night of Meat, if meat wasn’t your thing, some people went to a popular vegan restaurant that night instead. While video games may be popular with many programmers, that is not necessarily true of all programmers. I heard try!SwiftNYC in 2017 had bowling night, which I would have gone to had I been able to attend last year. Bowling night could be a nice alternative to video games for some folks.

Also at the social activities / events, are there non-alcoholic beverages as well as alcoholic beverages? I’ve been to some meetups/tech events where the only thing to drink was beer. Some people may choose not to partake in alcohol for any number of reasons, and they should be able to exercise that choice. While WWDC and try!SwiftNYC were both great at providing a variety of beverages for everyone at their events, 360iDev stands out as not only providing non-alcoholic beverages for pizza night, etc., but also stating it explicitly in emails and other communications, so people know in advance that that’s an option.

Why does this matter? Because if a person does not drink alcohol, or eat meat, or play video games, and those are the only social activities available, this could affect that person’s ability to engage and therefore, network, with other attendees at those events!

I was lucky to make lots of new friends at try!SwiftNYC

Finally, try!SwiftNYC 2016 had pizza night at a popular restaurant one evening, but it was super crowded so I went with a much smaller group and ate out somewhere else. But honestly, it was fine for me that try!SwiftNYC didn’t have a lot of scheduled evening activities at that time, because the gender diversity and smaller conference group made it so much easier for me to meet people anyway. 🙂 The best things for me at WWDC were the Women’s Breakfasts, where I finally made some new friends, and (ironically) the IBM workshops at Alt-Conf, which was not even an activity sponsored by WWDC! The IBM workshops had a good mix of both WWDC and Alt-Conf folks, and I was lucky enough to catch up with some old friends completely by accident too.

Fifth Criteria in Choosing A Conference: Engagement With Hiring Companies and Recruiters
There were company recruiter booths and opportunities to interact with recruiters (on Slack and in person) aplenty at try!SwiftNYC and 360iDev. At WWDC, there was no Slack and no vendor booths, it was just Apple Apple Apple all the time. If you were looking for a job, there was no easy way to find out who was hiring or how to meet them. Once again, for a free conference, the networking was easier at Alt-Conf. The sessions were smaller, there were recruiter/company booths everywhere, and no ropes!

View from Alt-Conf, Looking Wistfully Back at WWDC

There were ropes to separate Alt-Conf from WWDC. So WWDC people could go to Alt-Conf, but not the other way around.

That being said, although it was a challenge for me to meet people and there could have been some improvements gender-diversity wise, I’m glad I went to WWDC. Don’t know when I’ll have a chance to go again, but if I do, there’s some things I might do differently next time. So finally, here’s my list of lessons learned from attending my first WWDC and how YOU can get the most out of your experience!

How to get the most out of attending WWDC (for first timers):

  • Even if you’re lucky enough to go to WWDC, spend some time at Alt-Conf. No, really: Attend a workshop held at Alt-Conf for part of the time. Maybe volunteer at Alt-Conf part of the time just so you can meet people early on in the week (especially if it’s uncomfortable for you to just go up and talk to random strangers all day, like it can be for me)
  • Find out who else is going to WWDC from your local meetups and slack teams you’ve joined. I caught up with Jeremy from the Denver iOS meetup there because he tweeted that he was going!
  • Attend the Women at WWDC breakfasts (which are open to everyone, and sponsored by Apple). There you can hear inspiring presentations, like the one where they interviewed female scholarship winners, and yes, meet some people in a smaller setting. And if you’re a woman dying to meet other women at WWDC, that’s where you need to be!
  • Don’t fill up all your down time by looking at your phone. In between sessions, you can see a lot of people looking at their phones while hanging out on the couches and on the grass outside. I caught up with Jade, whom I met at last year’s 360iDev, just because I
    happened to be looking up while she was looking down (and possibly looking at her phone) while scurrying off to the next talk session. I called out to her like, “Hey, you look familiar! Where have we met before?” and even though I couldn’t remember her name right away, she recognized me instantly.

Took a selfie with a celebrity and didn’t even know it!

I also met Mitchie, who approached me to talk about SwiftLadies, a group she’s trying to start for female iOS devs, similar to PyLadies for Python. Perhaps I seemed approachable because I was looking up while chilling out on a couch in between sessions. While scrolling through her Twitter feed later, I discovered that she was a two time WWDC scholarship winner (including 2018) and is the Director of Women Who Code in Manila, Philippines. You never know who you might meet! Maybe put the phone down sometimes. The cruel irony of attending the world’s largest iPhone developer conference is that it’s actually hard to connect with other people because they’re all looking at their phones!

  • Follow / check up on people with Alt-Conf and WWDC in their Twitter name. Especially without Slack, Twitter may be the only way to “easily” connect with other people online at WWDC when you’re physically there with 6000 other people. And unlike LinkedIn or Facebook, you can follow someone on Twitter without needing them to invite you to their network or friending you first, and you don’t need to know their email address to connect.
  • Also, change YOUR Twitter name by adding @WWDC or @Alt-Conf at the end, so you can be easily found by other attendees, in addition to using the appropriate hashtags for the event. Don’t change your handle, just your name. I realized this much too late! So for me, my handle would still be @sunfishgurl, but for WWDC, my name would be “Vui Nguyen @WWDC”
  • Follow influencers like @NatashaTheRobot on Twitter, as there may be bonus talks / conferences going on that Apple’s not going to advertise and you might not know about. I found out about try!Swift San Jose after the fact! Aargghhh
  • With the help of IBM engineers, I built this ML app!

    Allow yourself downtime – pace yourself and prioritize things you can’t do when you get home. For me, that was attending the IBM Swift workshop, where I learned about their IBM Watson ML server and built an app that identified hardware cable connectors. Perhaps I could have done the workshop at home, but at Alt-Conf, I had direct access to the IBM engineers and could ask questions easily and get help.

  • That being said, don’t just spend all your time going to talks. Many of them will be available online later anyway. Avail yourself of the expertise of the Apple engineers during the coding labs. And if you don’t have a project you’re working (personally or for work) where you need help, think of starting one and talk through your idea with an Apple engineer.
  • For the must have talks, go to the ones that will NOT be available online later, ie the keynote talks on the other days besides the BIG ONE on Monday. Trust me, they are awesome!! (see above, Pixar talk)
  • Go to the Bash. This year, Panic! At the Disco played and while I didn’t consider myself to be a fan before, they were amazing live.
  • Enjoy the opportunity – who knows when you’ll be able to do it again?
  • Put WWDC on your resume and LinkedIn – it’s a good discussion point and a great way to meet like-minded people to say you were there.

Hope this article helps!

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