Every so often, I feel like a total idiot. I’ve been reporting on the Macintosh industry for over nine years, and for the first few years, I vaguely knew there was a developer event called MacHack. At some point, MacHack was explained to me, and as I made more contacts in the industry, an ever-increasing number of people invited me to attend. I always demurred, begging off on the grounds that I wasn’t a programmer, or that I couldn’t justify travelling to yet another conference, especially one in Detroit, which holds no external attractions like relatives in the area. Last year, I even helped in a small way to find loaner machines for the conference’s public machine room; this increased the pressure to attend this year’s conference, and I finally gave in.
What a mistake I’ve been making! MacHack is, quite simply, the most fun a serious Macintosh geek can have legally.
Identification — Describing MacHack is like summarizing a zany movie – no retelling can capture the essence of the event. Still, let me attempt it.
A defining characteristic of a geek is the confluence of personal and professional interests. The Mac geek lives and breathes the Macintosh, checking email first thing in the morning, using a Macintosh at work all day, debating recent industry events with friends at dinner, playing games, making Web pages, or even writing programs at night. The details vary by individual, of course, but many people fall squarely into this category. For those folks, it’s tremendously enjoyable to be surrounded by peers, Macintosh geeks of roughly equivalent experience and knowledge. Conversations amongst Mac geeks range widely and hop nimbly between Macintosh topics, unhindered by any need to differentiate between RAM and hard disk space or explain every Internet reference.
Many of us have had a taste of such an event, though it’s usually limited to an evening user group meeting or a brief dinner party. But if a user group meeting is a taste, then Macworld Expo ranks as a light supper – the thousands of attendees make significant interaction with other Macintosh users difficult. There’s also a sense at Macworld that someone else is cooking, and we’re all guests who must maintain a certain distance and formality. In comparison, MacHack is a ten-course feast prepared in front of the several hundred diners by talented volunteer chefs who then remove their chef’s hats and join in the exuberant gastronomic celebration.
In short, MacHack is a conference of the geeks, by the geeks, and for the geeks. Started 14 years ago by Gavin Eadie and some colleagues at the University of Michigan, MacHack became independent in its second year and continues to be organized by a volunteer committee made up of members of the Macintosh community, ably aided by the staff of Expotech, who handle the logistical details. The committee finds a keynote speaker, organizes sessions, designs the t-shirts, and generally ensures that MacHack will happen yet again, while Expotech handles registration, conference materials, coordination with the hotel, and ordering hundreds of boxes of pizza.
MacHack is a developer conference, and there’s little question that developers find it tremendously useful. Where else can you ask a question of the best Macintosh programmers in the industry and get an immediate answer or spark a debate between the hotshot programmers and wizards from Apple’s Developer Technical Support division, some of whom also attend? That said, I’m not a programmer at all, and I enjoyed myself tremendously. Pondering why, I realized that for non-programmers, two things must be true. You must be a serious and outgoing Mac geek conversant with current technologies, issues, and events, and you must be willing to participate.
In my case, participation came in the form of giving a session entitled "Hacking the Press" (which I plan to convert to a TidBITS article). I also let myself be rooked into offering a technical journalist’s perspective in a session on industry terminology, and spent time helping a 12-year-old girl find the necessary software to use an old Connectix QuickCam to create her hack for the Hack Contest.
Education — My brief donation of time and expertise finding software on the Internet was nothing compared to what many others at MacHack did for the younger attendees. Collectively referred to as "yoots," the student attendees ranged from a seven-year-old girl to a college student interning at Apple. Everyone encourages and helps the students, 50 of whom attended this year and 19 of whom worked on hacks for the Hack Contest. For instance, AppleScript was a popular language for many of the yoot hacks, and AppleScript guru (and author of the AppleScript editor Scripter) Cal Simone lent his expertise to a number of the students.
This emphasis on education is one of the most attractive traits of MacHack, because it spreads expertise among the community and also to future generations of programmers. Perhaps even more important is the example set by the generosity of the older programmers – these kids are seeing people helping one another regardless of age or knowledge. All that’s required is a desire to learn and participate.
Hacks — I’ve referred to "hacks" several times already, and the hacks are an important aspect of MacHack. A hack, for the purposes of the conference, is a program that makes the Mac act in previously inconceivable ways. Hacks may modify standard Macintosh windows, replace the Mac’s graphics with ASCII characters, or, in the case of one that didn’t succeed this year, attempt to coerce the Mac OS to run on a 240 by 240 pixel monitor. Occasionally a hack may even become a commercial product, as with Leonard Rosenthol’s Finder-based Web bookmark utility CyberFinder. Hacks are seldom polished, since they’re usually created in the 72 hours before the Hack Contest, and they generally aren’t useful. The goal with a hack is to perform a technical feat that will impress the other programmers, not to write finished code with a sophisticated interface. This year’s entries in the Hack Contest were innovative and entertaining, and I’ll cover them in detail in a separate article.
Thoughts — Of all the conferences I’ve attended over the years, MacHack stands out as the most unusual. A few examples:
Time loses all meaning. Although some programmers stay up almost the entire conference, I wimped out every day between 3 AM and 5 AM, and got up sometime between noon and 3 PM. I found after a day or two that looking at my watch was pointless. Normally when you see that it’s 1 PM, you think, "Hmm, maybe I should have lunch." At MacHack, you can glance at your watch, see that it’s 6 PM, try to remember if you’ve eaten breakfast yet, and decide that it’s less important than talking to someone about future Mac OS directions. To get a feel for how time passes, read Dave Johnson’s chronology of MacHack 1996.
Everything caters to the programmer lifestyle. The keynote starts the conference at midnight. Free soda is provided at all times, and it’s tricky to find any that doesn’t have caffeine; Jolt Cola (with all the sugar and twice the caffeine) is always available. Except for the final night, when most people go to a late movie and come back to an ice cream social, boxes of pizza arrive every night at midnight. The conference’s contract with the hotel reportedly states that the housekeeping staff won’t knock on any doors before noon. This year, that fact wasn’t properly communicated, and the first morning the housekeeping staff walked in on groggy geeks who had forgotten to put out Do Not Disturb signs.
Although MacHack has a full program of useful sessions, MacHack’s focus is the hotel lobby. Picture a standard hotel lobby with small tables and chairs clustered around them. Then imagine four or five PowerBook G3s on each table, plugged into that table’s Ethernet hub and power strip. People drift in and out of the lobby constantly, and a free chair is all the invitation you need to sit down, plug in, and start chatting with whomever is at the table. No one bothers to use a modem to dial out to the Internet, since the conference always has a dedicated Internet connection (256 Kbps ISDN this year) and internal Ethernet network.
Everyone at MacHack is technical, and the standard marketing and PR fluff that goes on at other conferences has little place at MacHack. No one at MacHack will try to sell you anything, and the attendees appreciate the low-key corporate sponsorship that helps cover the costs of the conference. Discussions take place at many different levels, and if you find one that’s over your head, you can listen in and try to learn something or move on to another conversation.
Most conferences plan their locations carefully; witness the way Macworld Expo has moved to New York from Boston to focus on the New York media market. Other professional conferences pick exotic locales where attendees can happily golf or play tourist instead of attending the conference. MacHack remains in a hotel outside of Detroit where the only places you can walk to are a pair of fast food joints and a CompUSA. The point of MacHack is to be at MacHack, not to venture outside. Housing almost everyone in the same hotel helps this focus; no time is wasted commuting from and to other hotels or coordinating places to meet.
This year’s keynote was given by Andy Ihnatko, a long-time Macintosh columnist and the self-described "42nd Most Popular Personality in America." Andy’s keynote turned out to be essentially two hours of unparalleled Macintosh stand-up comedy. The MacHack organizers videotaped the keynote and hope to be able to make it available for sale, since any Macintosh fan will appreciate the humor. Andy also garnered serious points from the attendees by being one of the few keynote speakers to stick around for the entire conference and only the second to submit a hack in the Hack Contest.
There’s a certain joy in the air at MacHack that’s difficult to describe. Everyone understands that they’re at MacHack to have a good time. The conference might prove extremely useful in other ways – ranging from job hunting to general education to being able to talk with an Apple DTS engineer for an hour about a specific problem – but fun is paramount. As one programmer whose code many of you have used put it, "It’s my vacation. And it’s a business expense."
Emulation — It would be easy to recommend that everyone should go to MacHack, but that would ruin MacHack because the conference can’t get much larger without losing its charm. Recognizing this, the conference organizers put a cap on attendance and, although they didn’t quite hit it, they came close with 289 attendees this year. So for next year, when MacHack will once again be held near Detroit, from 22-Jun-00 to 24-Jun-00, I would encourage developers and serious Mac geeks with technical bents and outgoing personalities to attend.
The people who have organized MacHack have created something truly special, but I don’t think it’s necessarily unique. Other niche groups, from desktop publishers to database developers to independent consultants, could all learn from MacHack’s example and create their own conferences that focus on letting the attendees interact with one another, rather than trying to shuttle them around between sessions like high school students. The best way to understand the secrets of what makes MacHack special would be to experience it firsthand, especially as a volunteer helping behind the scenes.