Macworld Expo rocks for software developers

I noticed a post on The Unofficial Apple Weblog that is contemplating the uncertain future of Macworld Expo.   My friend John Welch offered up his dissent. For me, as a software developer, I'm with John: MWSF is very much worth my time. As I said in the comments there, the one-on-one time that I get with my users at MWSF, whether they're asking me how to do something, telling me how they want to use my apps, or showing me an issue, is worth its weight in gold. But there's much more to it than that, at least for me in the course of doing my job as a software maker.

Before I begin, I will say that I know nothing about the cost side of MWSF for my organisation. I'm on the technical team, and all of the magic of putting together our presence at MWSF is done by our marketing folks. I have neither the information nor the expertise to be able to do a cost-benefit analysis. This is my view from the trenches, and I don't claim to speak for anyone other than myself.

MWSF gives me networking opportunities that don't exist elsewhere. It's only at MWSF where I get such a broad range of people together. MWSF is for everyone, whereas the other venues are specialised. Sure, I get to talk to other developers and IT folks at WWDC. I get consumers at MUGs. I get feedback from universities and big companies via internal mechanisms. But it's MWSF where we all come together, and we all talk to each other. 

While I love MUGs, and I talk at MUGs whenever the opportunity presents itself, they're a very different beast. MUGs are heavily weighted toward consumers.  When I'm there, I'm giving a presentation. It's not a two-way discussion, they're there to listen to me talk and give a demo. And when I'm there, I'm usually by myself. So if I do get to have an interesting discussion with someone, it's only me who hears it. I take what I hear back to the team, of course, but secondhand information isn't as compelling as hearing it firsthand.

Working in the booth is one of the things that I love to do. I learn a lot as a result of the questions that are asked of me, especially when I take a step back and consider the aggregate. I also learn where the holes in my knowledge are, and so I get an opportunity to fill them. I learn more about my team, too, when I get questions for applications I don't work on. I walk away from every MWSF with a deeper understanding of where the expertise on my team lies, so I now know that if I've got a question about pivot tables in Excel, this guy is the one who did the original development work on them. If someone comes up to me in the booth at MWSF and asks me a question about Word, I try to walk them over to the right Word guy and then hang around to hear the answer so that I learn about it too.

The conference tracks are likewise important to me. The folks at Lynda do great online training (in fact, their stuff is so awesome that we include it with Office 2008 Business Edition). There's other venues for training, too many for me to list. But I come to MWSF and I get it all together, all in one place, and all at one time. There are plenty of sessions that are only produced for MWSF, that I'd never be able to get anywhere else. I get more information, from a more varied group of people, than is generally available elsewhere. Plus I get it all in one week, instead of having to pick up one piece of information this week, another piece of information three months later, and a third piece of information several months after that.

For me as a presenter, the conference track is still important to me. I learn a lot from my audience in the Q&A -- I often tell people that I get more out of the Q&A than the questioners do. I learn what matters to the people at my session, and I get a lot of detailed information about it. I also usually get contact information for them so that I can follow up with them in the future.  I usually end up spending a few weeks after MWSF following up with contacts that I made at the show to learn more about their experiences, and I've been able to use my contacts to conduct additional in-depth research that impacts the products that my team makes.

I think that some overstate the importance of online communities. I do love online communities, and you'll see me taking part in plenty of them. (I'm a long-time poster to the MacRumors forums, after all, and of course there's twitter and other forms of social media.) But the interaction that I have online is different than that in person. Online, it's more focused, and it's more formalised. In person, it's more casual, and the conversation is more likely to go off on tangents. Those tangents are important, both to them and to me.

This conversation about the importance of online communities is one reminds me strongly of conversations that I've had asking about why I travel up to the mothership so often. MacBU is distributed across multiple countries. We've got people working on our products in California (including me), Washington, China, Japan, and Ireland. We rely on email and IM for every facet of our day-to-day lives, not to mention video conferencing and phone calls. But we also make it a point to get together in person. One of our goals is to be one MacBU across multiple sites, to have everyone strongly identify with our group. You get a stronger connection in person than you do online or on the phone. When I'm in Redmond, I can run into my manager in the kitchen and talk about our cats, whereas I would never email her from my office back in Mountain View to ask her how her Abbys are doing. That's not relevant to our work, but that relationship-building helps us have better communications and overall feel like we're part of a team.  I'm more likely to do a favour for someone I know in person as opposed to merely via email, and I'm more likely to ask someone I know in person for something when I need it.  In-person communication makes subsequent online communication so much easier. 

After every conference that I attend, I write up a trip report to share with my team. I take some time to reflect on what I've learned and how to best share that with others, and I always read the other trip reports that my colleagues produce.  Our experiences at the conference and our reports about the conference spark ongoing conversations when we're back in the office, and I often hear us referring back to our MWSF experiences throughout the year.

I don't claim to know what the future holds for MWSF. I do know that I hope that it continues so that I can continue to take part in it. I'm proud to be a part of both the conference and the expo this year. I look forward to seeing y'all in February.