Don’t show this article to your boss if you’re trying to get approval to attend MacTech Conference 2013 next year (6 November 2013 through 8 November 2013). Simply put, if it’s anything like this year’s conference, the bean counters may cast a jaundiced eye on your request to travel to Los Angeles. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re in IT, or you’re a Mac or iOS developer, the days are packed with high-quality technical talks by a host of experts in the community.
What’s different from any other conference I’ve attended was the evening entertainment, most notably a post-dinner trip to Disney Animation Studios for behind-the-scenes discussions of how Disney’s animated movies are made and a pre-release screening of the upcoming film “Wreck-It Ralph.” This wasn’t a canned tour — the Disney employees who donated their evening to chatting with conference-goers were the actual people who worked on the animation, did the storyboards, ran the servers (I heard snatches of conversation about 1000 cores and 5 petabytes of spinning disk storage!), and more. No photography was allowed, and cell phones were confiscated temporarily before the screening, so I did the adult thing and left my iPhone in the hotel — I had to keep reminding myself that the lack of the iPhone’s weight in my pocket wasn’t reason to panic. And yes, if you remember the 1980s video games fondly, go see “Wreck-It Ralph” — it’s great even if you don’t get an introduction to it by Disney Animation’s director of IT. With his encyclopedic pop culture memory, my buddy Andy Ihnatko has written the definitive description of the evening.
The second evening’s after-dinner entertainment was less structured — the entire conference traipsed up the hill to Jillian’s in Universal City. Here I wasn’t much of a social butterfly, opting to play pool and old video games (the wonderfully abstracted Space Invaders and Asteroids and Donkey Kong in original cabinets) with Andy, with whom I seldom have a chance to spend time at larger shows like Macworld Expo.
But don’t assume that there was anything but full mingling among the speakers and the attendees. MacTech Conference included eight catered meals, and at each one I ended up sitting with a different group and discussing everything from the importance of interpersonal skills in IT to the effectiveness of iPad trials in K-12 education to doping in world-class cyclists and triathletes (Mac users are nothing if not eclectic!). Equally interesting and useful were the hallway conversations in between the sessions.
In short, much as with the late lamented MacHack and C4 conferences (which were focused solely on developers), Neil Ticktin and his MacTech crew went to astonishing lengths to organize the kind of events that build a sense of community among the attendees.
The sessions themselves were a bit harder for me to evaluate, given that I’m neither a developer nor an IT guy, so I have to admit to glazing over slightly during a detailed discussion by Ben Levy, Phil Goodman, and Steve Leebove about how to use Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility, Apple Configurator, and Profile Manager in OS X Server. But I thoroughly enjoyed the IT Labs discussion on scripting led by Ben Waldie and Armin Briegel (who was kind enough to whip up a simple AppleScript script for Calendar that solved a problem I’ve had). Also, Andy Ihnatko gave an inspired talk exhorting developers not to ignore edge cases, pointing out that if the developer of an iOS app ignores even 1 percent of the potential audience as an edge case, that could be millions of potential customers lost. For the truly geeky, Sandy Krasner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shared all sorts of technical details about how JPL communicates with the Curiosity rover on Mars — perhaps that’s not exactly useful to most of us, but it was a revealing look into what “rocket science” really involves today. And lastly, my own “Working with the Press” panel, with Andy, Victor Agreda and Kelly Guimont of TUAW, and Seth Weintraub of 9to5Mac, brought together great advice for developers trying to get coverage for their apps — as always, I wish we could have gone longer.
I’m writing this in the airport on the way home, and I’m both exhausted and exhilarated, since the conversations I had during the conference (plus pre- and post-conference visits with TidBITS and Take Control stalwarts Michael Cohen and Matt Neuburg) left my mind racing with possible TidBITS articles, Take Control ebooks, and other things we might be able to do. That’s the real win of a conference like MacTech — leaving the everyday routine for a few days of immersion with smart, interesting people opens all sorts of mental doors, regardless of what it is you normally spend your days doing.