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Hidden Dimensions - WWDC Secrets You'll Want to Know

by John Martellaro
July 31st, 2006

"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes, this makes planning the day difficult."

- E.B. White


Whether you're preparing to attend Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) for the first time or you're doing an encore visit, or if you're just wondering what the fuss is all about, it's always nice to hear about other people's experiences that can make for a better trip of your own. Even if you're not attending this year, you may be thinking about attending soon. Actually, there are some very good reasons to attend even if you're not a developer.

Clearly, if you're with an even a modest sized company developing Macintosh software, you need to send someone to WWDC. That's a no-brainer. But one of the side benefits that not many people realize is that this is the one week of the year when a seriously large number of Apple engineers and managers are all hands on deck in the Moscone Center. If your organization has a serious investment in Apple products, WWDC is a great opportunity to get your management connected to Apple's management.

For example, Fortune 500 companies as well as the State and Federal Government send both support people and senior managers to WWDC to engage Apple engineers and executives. I've seen a show of hands in sessions in which support people are responsible for well over 1,000 Macintoshes. When they bring their company's executives, Apple notices.

In many ways, WWDC is becoming an important IT support event. The explosive growth of Mactech magazine attests to this.

Behind the scenes, there are oodles of private meetings, closed-door briefings, some non-disclosure briefings, and some nice dinner engagements. The way to handle this is to work with your Apple account manager to work out the details of such meetings, and then present the opportunity to your own management. It's true that if you are a good-size end user organization, an Apple account manager can brief your executives on-site, but there are only a few ways to sit in the same room with an Apple vice president or two, and WWDC is one of them. (The other is called an Executive Briefing at one of Apple's presentation facilities.)

Anyway, not many commercial or government executives will turn down a trip to San Francisco, so you probably won't find it difficult to persuade your senior managers to come along on the trip. It may be too late now, but next year, ask your Apple account manager about VIP tickets for the keynote for your C-level executives.

Regarding the Keynote, there is no such thing as getting up too early to get in line. No matter how early you drag yourself out of bed and stagger to Moscone West, you'll find an appalling number of people already in front of you. The night before a Steve Jobs Keynote is no time to stay up late at the bar. (Get your badge Sunday afternoon.) You'll want to set your alarm for about 6:00 am next Monday.

Pay close attention to how the Keynote waiting line is formed and what the intentions of the ushers are. History has shown that Apple ushers typically don't enforce rigid protocols. Lines that were once neatly formed can become messy and merged. If you arrive early enough to camp out inside, make sure you and the people around you pay close attention to shifting currents in the organization of the lines, or else all your efforts to arrive early could be wasted. If you arrive too late, or don't manage your early arrival positioning, you won't even get into the main hall to watch live. You could end up in over-flow seating -- having flown many miles only to watch the keynote on a large projection display.

If you run into the hall (cinch up your gear and be prepared to run), and it looks like there are not many seats left, try to sit in front of one of the projection screens placed around the hall. Then you can enjoy the stage action from a distance and still see the details of what's happening on the big screens. At the distance you'll likely be sitting, forget about getting pictures of the stage with a pocket digital camera. You'd need a DSLR with a 1,000 mm Maksutov lens to photograph anything decent.

Make sure you reserve Tuesday evening for Stump The Experts. This is an event not to be missed. Trust me. Rush out of your last session that day, grab a sandwich, stuff cookies in your pocket, forget about a sit down dinner, and arrive early for the Apple Design Awards. This will give you a good seat for Stump The Experts that follows. You may be able to shift seats between the sessions to move farther forward. In fact, always have food and a bottle of water with you so you don't get hungry and be tempted to miss these events. Go to dinner some other night, Monday or Wednesday.

Also, the Stump The Experts session is not available on the Post-WWDC DVDs. You can imagine why -- the show can get get fairly raucous.

Pay close attention to the music played during the 10 minutes before Stump the Expert starts -- while people are getting seated. That's all I'm going to tell you.

On Thursday, you'll be bussed to the Apple Campus, about an hour bus ride away. While the lines in front of the Moscone Center will be long, there are plenty of busses, and you'll have no trouble getting there and back. But if you can, leave the last session early and catch one of the earliest busses. That way, when you get to the Apple campus, you'll be first in line to visit the Company Store. If you catch one of the later busses, you may never get into the store because of the crowd and long line. Or you could might miss the entire beer bash standing in that line.

Why the Apple Company Store? The hardware selection is not that great. But it's currently the only place to get Apple branded clothing: T-shirts, polo shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, and so on.

San Francisco in August in the daytime will be nice. But make sure you take a light jacket, preferably waterproof with a light liner, to the Apple Beer Bash. The nights in SF are damp and cool. You'll be in for a chilly evening, even in August, in the Bay's sea breeze if you're just wearing a T-shirt.

Cameras are officially discouraged on campus. Don't go around taking flash pictures of the Apple buildings, or an Apple security guard may confront you. But, hey, everyone has a camera in their cell phone right? Be very discreet.

Make sure you take business cards to the Campus Beer Bash. You never know who you'll run into. An Apple employee or VP you've always wanted to meet. Or a colleague from another company.

The Sessions

It's always best to attend WWDC with at least one other colleague. That way, you can each go to different sessions, depending on your interests, and have notes covering the different sessions each of you attended.

Don't feel bad about getting up and changing sessions. One time, I was sitting quietly in a very technical session with a rather low key speaker, and the room next to us kept erupting with laughter and applause. I got up, left, went next door and saw some fabulous demos in a QuickTime presentation. If a session doesn't seem to offer what you had hoped, bolt to your second choice.

I have never found it possible to take notes on a PowerBook. The speakers go too fast, and a PB battery won't last the whole day. I always take along a 100 page spiral notebook, and I can scribble as fast as the speakers can talk. Plus, typing doesn't handle those cases when the speaker is presenting diagrams. I type up my notes on the flight home. (Note: all the sessions at WWDC are covered under Apple's NDA, except, typically, the Keynote.)

Having a second, charged Power/MacBook battery in your backpack (and charger of course) is a very good idea. Bring the three prong extension cord because the two prongs on the charger base will seldom fit the power strips provided.

On the top level of Moscone West, there will be various lounges dedicated to, for example, digital media, science, gaming, and so on. These are good places to hang, sit quietly and have a conference with a colleague. They are also good places to get a strong and under-utilized WiFi signal. There are also some very good daily presentations in these topic lounges. Check the announcement boards.

And the end of each session, there will be a slide showing contact information for that Apple team. It's your way to communicate bugs and, in general, develop a relationship with that product team. Be prepared to write some e-mail addresses very fast -- or snap a photo with your cell phone camera.

You won't need to worry about lunches. Apple will feed you every day in the huge dining hall, and the food is generally pretty good. It's been better in the past, but it's still fairly good stuff. And you can eat all you want. Drink lots of iced-tea because you'll spend the afternoon in some warm, dark presentation rooms.

Final Thoughts

In the old days, hotels got the idea that an Ethernet jack in the room was a good thing to replace the need for dial-up. But soon they discovered that pulling wire is expensive. Then they got the bright idea that WiFi is cheaper. The added benefit is that they don't have to explain why a dedicated wire has such crappy bandwidth. With WiFi, they can just blame it on wireless overload and shove everyone through a cheap 128 Kbps line. Remember, you'll be packed into a hotel with hundreds of other Mac enthusiasts. Don't depend on the WiFi in your hotel to work very well. Take care of e-mail before you leave the Moscone Center.

Don't pack your suitcase too full. Leave plenty of room for all the goodies you'll be coming home with.

There is a flagship Apple retail store a five minute walk from the Marriott or the Argent. It's worth a visit if there's no Apple retail store in your town. Note that like all Apple retail stores, they don't have Apple clothing. You can only get that on campus.

Don't plan to spend much time on other activities, like Fisherman's Wharf or the wine country. You'll be too busy, dawn to dusk, in sessions, meetings, events, and a party or two.

Developers always take their code to WWDC because they get a chance in the labs to do interactive debugging with Apple engineers. However, even if you're just a customer, if you have special software you're working on, say, some scientific code, take the source and compiled along on a DVD (for portability). Chances are, some new hardware will be announced (Mac Pro?), and you may have a chance to compile and run that code on prototype hardware in the labs. Then you'll be able to compare performance, go back home, and make a convincing argument why you'll need these new systems. And look very good to your boss.

WWDC is an incredible event. I attended thirteen in a row, and I'm planning to be there next year. It's highly addictive and provides both developers and customer organizations with an incredible opportunity to meet Apple engineers and executives, develop those relationships, test code, hatch business deals or partnerships, and better understand Apple's vision and directions. It's just plain fun.

And, in time, you will find that, just like some of life's other pleasures, once is not enough.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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