Breaking down the remote WWDC experience

You can separate analysing whether WWDC worked better as a remote ‘conference’ in two stages:

  1. How did various aspects of it compare to previous years?
  2. How do you weight the importance of each of those aspects?

Thoughts on the second point are highly personal and likely vary widely. In this post, I’ll set that aside and delve into the first point by breaking the experience down into several aspects.

Networking and fun 👎

Let’s get this one out of the way. In previous years developers from around the world have made new friends, found jobs, and had ever so much fun. This aspect scores zero for the remote WWDC. There’s no comparison. This loss makes me sad.

At PSPDFKit we’re a remote and distributed team, so conferences are also a welcome opportunity for us to see each other in person.

Keynote 👍

I’ve been in the room for the keynote a few times, and while there’s certainly excitement with that, the novelty wears off and I’m happy enough without it. I’ve only ever sat near the back, so I enjoyed better video quality watching at home. It was more comfortable on my sofa. Also no queuing: not even a little bit.

I found the presentation was more varied and better paced than previous keynotes, so overall this is a win for the remote WWDC.

Sessions 👍

The sessions were more to the point compared to previous years. Without timetabling constraints, each session was only as long as it needed to be. The production quality was higher. It seemed that there were fewer advanced sessions this year, but nothing about the format precludes that.

When I’ve been to WWDC in-person, I usually skip sessions except for a few ‘What’s new in…’ sessions at the start of the week. They were recorded so it’s not the best use of precious California time. Last week due to short sessions and 2× playback speed, I was able to nearly keep up with all the main sessions I wanted to see in only 2 or 3 hours a day.

The sessions appeared each day at 18:00 for me. This was very annoying on Tuesday because it meant I had the whole day with access to the next Xcode but little guidance on where to start. This was less of a problem as the week went on.

Maybe the Apple presenters miss the thrill of being on stage, but I think they produced better material and that’s the main thing.

With its pre-recorded sessions, remote WWDC is the winner again.

Labs 👍

Before the week started, I had dismissed labs. Apple is renowned as being anti-remote work, and I presumed they wouldn’t put in the effort. I guessed that demand for labs would be so high that submissions would be unlikely to be accepted. I feared questions about existing bugs rather than shiny new features would be more likely to be declined. During in-person labs, it’s typical to bounce around between Apple people as they try to find someone who knows the answer to your specific question. I assumed that if you did get an appointment it may be with someone who doesn’t know the best answer to your specific questions, and then you would have no way for them to move you on to someone who does.

How wrong I was.

By Wednesday, I’d heard people were getting lab appointments confirmed, and I had digested the initial announcements, so I started submitting questions, mostly around best practices. I applied to six labs over the last two days. All were confirmed. All were with the right people. The people I spoke to were exceedingly nice. Because the lab confirmations came by the start of my day and the labs didn’t start until my evening, I had the whole day to prepare as much as I wanted. In some cases the developers from Apple had done a little preparation too. This led to focused and productive discussions so I came out with answers to everything I was looking for.

The tantalising aspect of the labs is how this format could be improved even more. With pre-recorded sessions and no week where a few thousand developers are in town, I see no reason not to shift the labs a week or so after the sessions. This would give us all a bit more time to dig into the new stuff and verify whether old bugs are resolved. What’s more, remote labs don’t need to be this monolithic occurrence. The overhead is low enough that topic-focused labs could be done at any time of year.

While there are some benefits to an in-person discussion that you miss with a call (especially since video was not allowed), overall the fact that Apple opened up labs beyond a relatively small number of ticket holders and in some ways they worked better than before is the single part of WWDC 2020 I was most impressed by.

Hear it Apple: remote working can be extremely effective.

Coding and installing betas 👍

There was no need to try to find free space in the convention centre to sit down and wire into the (fast as lightning) network. While my home download speeds can’t compete, they’re still more than adequate. Poking around in Xcode 12 is best on my large external display. So yes: digging into the new stuff was easier with the remote WWDC.

Twitter

Of course, the Twitter experience is a key part of WWDC. People are sharing cool stuff they’re discovering and trying out. Twitter is already remote, so this is a tie (except fewer Odwalla and dogsofdubdub tweets).

Environmental impact 👍

I would be very interested to see a basic estimate of the difference in CO2 emissions for the remote WWDC. With all that flying cut out, must have been way lower remotely. Plastic use would also likely be down from the boxed lunches and many other small contributors.

Fitting in with work 👍

There is some amount of regular work our iOS team needs to do even during WWDC week. The main part is staying responsive to our customers on support. This was easier to keep on top of with a remote WWDC, and was distributed more fairly.

We were somewhat confused how to handle our conference allowance for a remote WWDC because our policy was not written with this in mind. I’m sure other companies have similar challenges deciding how to apply conference policies.

Health and stress 👍

Compared to WWDC in California, last week I ate more healthily, exercised more normally and slept more normally (although last year at WWDC I also slept very well). My latest lab ended at 23:30, which — while not ideal — is a lot better than going through an eight hour time zone shift for one week. I didn’t even adjust my sleeping times.

I do miss the fun of a week of the American gastronomical experience; I don’t miss the conference boxed lunches.

Overall the remote experience was less stressful.

Cost 👍

For ‘attendees’ there was zero cost. That’s a lot cheaper compared to a trip to San Jose.

Whether the cost would be lower for Apple would depend how closely the ticket sales match the cost of the conference venue and so on. I don’t know about this.

Conclusion

The pros and cons of a remote WWDC are very similar to the pros and cons of remote work. It’s efficient and inclusive, with lower environmental impact and cost — at the expense of social interaction. Since WWDC only happens once a year, it was a great shame to lose out on seeing friends and making new ones. That said, I feel that every other aspect of the week was improved.