WWDC escalators

Packing for my 8th WWDC, I thought I’d note down a few tips for WWDC first-timers and USA/San Francisco first-timers, particularly ones from Germany or Europe, to take away the scariness:

  • Apple have Moscone open the Sunday before WWDC, pretty much all day (I think last time it was 7 to 7). If you’re there on that day, go and get your badge ahead of time. It’s much less hassle, whether you plan to queue for the keynote or just amble in later for the State of the Union after a leisurely breakfast. Be sure to bring some sort of ID, which they will want to see at pick-up.

    Also, later during the week (Wednesday or Thursday), you need ID to get the little wristband for the WWDC bash (the party in Yerba Buena Gardens where they serve free beer/wine/food and have a band playing). You need your badge to get in, but the wristband is how they see that you’re old enough to drink. If you find yourself in the corridors during a session, that’s a good time to beat the rush and get that wristband.

  • Lock down your devices. Turn on passcode lock, screen lock after inactivity, turn off auto-login etc. so if you lose them people can’t get at your data that easily. Make a backup before you leave (preferentially a full SuperDuper clone). Also turn off any file sharing and screen sharing services you may have activated (it’s fun to drop a 10GB file in someone’s dropbox during a boring session…). WWDC attendees are generally nice and well-behaved, but there’s no reason to tempt fate. Also, set up a unique lock screen image and put on a sticker with your company logo, name, or a Gelaskin or put it in a case so you can tell it from the dozen or so other devices around you during the conference.
  • Apple provides breakfast in the morning (croissants, bagels, coffee, tea, soft drinks, that sort of stuff) and boxed lunch around noon. The breakfast is fine, the boxed lunches are not horrible, but as you are in San Francisco, a city with great food, restaurants and culture, it seems like a shame to settle for boxed lunch unless you really don’t have time for a break.

    Often people just head out in small groups to the Westfield mall food court or other places nearby and have lunch there. You get a little bit of exercise, fresh, warm food (everything from Asian tofu to Mexican to real US-American hamburgers at the diner at the corner – and that’s just near Moscone, in the evenings you can head to Japantown or Chinatown for even greater food choices), and most importantly: Sunlight.

    If you choose to go with the boxed lunch anyway head across the street into Yerba Buena gardens (there’s a stairway to an overpass at the side of the Metreon). It’s much nicer to sit on the grass in the warm sun than in the cold lunch hall of Moscone.

  • A lot of communication happens via Twitter, Glassboard, and the likes. (The WWDC app and web site have the schedule, but no social networking) While you can usually wing it and just come up for breaths of Twitter or E-Mail in Moscone and your hotel Wifi, some people get a pre-paid SIM card and data package for their iPhone, so they can also check for messages at the various party venues (with 5000 nerds in Yerba Buena guardens during the bash, forget about even cell-phone reception at that time and just enjoy the music and conversations).

    People usually go for AT&T’s GoPhone cards. I heard rumors T-Mobile hads recently upgraded most of San Francisco’s city centre in a way that also works with European iPhone models, however I’ve also heard from people who had no reception at all. Whatever is true, you’ll only have EDGE reception outside of San Francisco with T-Mobile and a European iPhone (their 3G is on a frequency European phones don’t do), so keep that in mind when choosing a card. (planning to see the Apple campus in Cupertino?) I’ve bought a data SIM in the past for WWDC, but haven’t decided yet for this year.

  • If you decide to queue for the keynote, keep in mind that seats at the front are generally reserved for the press, team members and VIPs, and there are only a few front-line seats at the sides. The likelihood of you getting a good seat is low. About halfway back, there are screens, so if you end up near those, it’s often better to move back a few rows to at least be able to see what’s happening onstage on the screens. Best see queueing as an opportunity to meet and chat with fellow queuers, and get some swag from companies who know the queue is there and send their people.

    Here’s how queueing generally works: You get to Moscone, and the queue is already once around the block. Find the end and queue up, chat to the people there for a few hours. 3rd-party companies will arrive and start handing out stuff (in previous years there were people handing out issues of MacTech, T-Shirts from Fastmac, stickers, invitations to Nokia parties…).

    Near the end of the wait, Moscone’s front doors will open and people will be let into the bottom floor, where they will queue in the corridors in front of the elevators. This will cause the queue to appear shorter than it actually is. Then Apple will start opening floor after floor, so there will be a queue on each floor *and* around Moscone. On the top floor, there will probably be bagels and coffee for the people waiting there so you can have a quick snack).

    Then, shortly before the keynote starts, they will let people into Presidio, the big hall on the top floor where the keynote takes place. Once that is full, the remaining people will be redirected into ‘overflow rooms on the second floor, where they will see the keynote on big screens. As a first-timer, I recommend you try the whole keynote queueing thing just for the atmosphere, but I haven’t done it in quite a while and instead had a nice breakfast with friends watching bootleg streams and/or live text feeds.

  • In general, the value of the conference is in the people you meet. Since all the sessions become available for download after the conference (and to all appearances, this year even during the conference, though nobody knows in what way and with what delay), if you have the choice between attending a session or talking to a person, pick the latter. The only exception might be the lunchtime talks, which are usually held by people from outside Apple, sometimes even celebrities, and in the past weren’t recorded. If you care for one of those, you’ll be queueing.

    To be able to quickly connect with people, it helps to have business cards that you can give to them (Moo mini cards are very cool for this, but really, a few prepared slips of paper with your Twitter handle or web site address on them work just fine). Some people also have some stickers printed. Again, Moo makes stickerbooks that are nice and small and can contain different motives, or otherwise you can also get nicer, bigger stickers from Sticker Mule. And some people take along adhesive paper and use that to write their Twitter handle on their badge in an empty spot. I’ve also seen people use marker to do this, but I’m reluctant to irreversibly modify my badge.

    In general, try to hang out in the hallways and find interesting conversations going on and try to politely wiggle your way in. In general, that’s what you’re expected to do. Also, if you are part of such a conversation and you see someone slinking about the periphery, open up the circle and let them in. There are some really smart, really interesting, and really shy people in this community, and it would be your loss to cut them out.

    In a similar vein, don’t just go home and stay at the hotel when there are no sessions to attend. Find a party (there’s a 3rd party WWDC Party List app every year) and go there and meet people, or just look for people that look like they’re WWDC attendees in the pubs and diners around WWDC and try to hang out. That’s the best way to get something out of WWDC.

  • Go to Stump The Experts, which is a weird, skewed, unbalanced ‘Apple quiz show’ where people from the audience prepare questions and former and current Apple employees on the stage try to answer them. It’s fun, it’s irreverent. You can win a T-Shirt and other swag (often useless, or at best of nostalgic value for Apple historians). But keep in mind that anything you can look up on the web or in Apple’s internal support databases is easy pickings for these people. And if you prepare a question, you better have the answer. Prepare some fun questions at home, drop them off before the show, and see if they pick yours.
  • The labs are a great resource. You can walk up to the desk and make a short-term appointment with Apple employees to ask them questions. It is like a DTS incident, just with faster back-and-forth, and with the chance of you just showing them your app and having them poke around in it, without having to send Apple the entire source code. Also, Apple employees know the innards of their code, so if you get unexpected behavior from an API, they might know what internal call to set a breakpoint on to find out what’s causing your problems.

    It’s your right as an attendee to queue up and try to get time with an employee, but please do everyone a favor and come prepared. And don’t ask basic questions just because you’re too lazy to finish reading Aaron Hillegass’ book on Cocoa or get a basic idea of how Mac/iOS programming works. Do your research, prepare your code, try to get a simple test app that reproduces the problem, phrase the actual question you’re asking beforehand.

  • Bring a Mac laptop (+ USB/Ethernet adapter if it’s a MacBook Air) and an external hard disk. That way, you can download and install any new OS, developer tools, iTunes and Firmware versions Apple includes, but don’t have to nuke your internal install. If you’re an iOS developer, also bring a spare iOS device so you can install a new OS without the risk of bricking your only cell phone.
  • There’s a lot of fun things you can do in SF, particularly if you’re there a week early or afterwards. A few suggestions: Ride the cable car, see Alcatraz (reserve a week or 2 in advance on their web site!), rent a bike and bike the Golden Gate Bridge, go to the comics shop near Market and Kearny, have hot dogs on Union Square, buy iTunes gift cards and open a separate US iTunes account.

    If you’re a student, the HI Downtown is a cheap, nice youth hostel to stay at and meet many other WWDC students, if you get one of the renovated rooms with in-room shower/bathroom. But lock away your valuables (they sell padlocks for the lockers).

  • San Francisco has unusual weather: During the days, it is hot and often sunny, but also often cloudy. So take along sunscreen and apply it when you’re outside. Even sun behind the clouds can burn you, and you don’t want to be one of the red WWDC-first-time-lobsters. In the mornings and evenings, SF gets really cold. So also bring a sweater.

    In general, I recommend long slacks, not shorts. Especially since the AC inside Moscone usually cools it down quite a lot (particularly inside the lunch hall where the labs and the Apple swag store are). Also, of course, have a raincoat and keep an eye on the weather report, but that’s just common traveling sense. The cold goes double if you’re planning to queue for the keynote. It gets cold in the mornings when the fog rolls in. Hoodie and jacket.

  • This is a flight to the USA. It will take time, so get yourself in a zen mood. This begins at check-in, where you have to be 2 hours early and go through US customs, with all the security theatre that entails, including taking your shoes and maybe belt off when directed to do so.

    Also, remember to drink any water and other liquids you have *before* you enter security, and not to have a pocket knife in your carry-on luggage (you can stash stuff like that in your checked luggage, that’s fine). Just walk through, smile at any jokes the customs people make, but don’t joke yourself. On the other side, keep in mind that while they’ll happily sell you new liquids, you won’t be able to take those through any additional customs checks if you change planes unless you can get at your checked luggage and put it in there.

  • Make sure your passport is current even a while after your return flight, and that you have a Visa, or if you’re a European, that you’ve filled out the ESTA form on-line so you can go under the Visa Waiver Program. Also, make sure you have planned your whole trip before you fly. I once bought a flight to the US, and a return flight from Canada, and thought I’d take the Greyhound in between. They pulled us out and asked us a lot of additional questions. So make sure you have a continuous plan how to get into and back out of the US, and they’ll be happy.
  • Print out all information you’ll need on the flight. You won’t have Wifi there, and data roaming costs an arm and a leg, so you’ll have those off. Have a printout of: Your full destination address in the US (i.e. the hotel you’ll be staying at – customs will want this), BART or other bus/train stop for it, and if you arrive late in the evening where not many trains go, the train times. Also your ESTA number, if applicable.

    Printouts of Google Maps are useful here, or get the neat OffMaps 2 app and download the relevant maps to your iPhone before you leave. However, keep in mind that you’ll have to save battery if all that info is on your phone. I’m paranoid enough to want to have a printout anyway, and a copy on every Mac and iDevice I have with me.

  • Once you arrive, you will want to get from the airport outside town into San Francisco proper. For this, you can use BART, the San Francisco subway. This works like many other subways in the world: You have tickets with a magnetic strip, which you top up with a certain amount of money. There are vending machines for those right at the San Francisco airport's BART station.

    The trip into SF, last I did it, was about $10, so I usually put $20 on it so I have everything set for the way back. You just pop the card into the front of the turnstiles, it comes out at the top, you grab it and walk through. Same when you exit the destination BART station, where it will then subtract the charge for this trip and print it on the card. You can re-use this card on your next visit to SF, or look up the exact charge and make sure there’s nothing left on it once you return to SF Airport.

  • Changing money from foreign currency is generally a better deal in the destination country than in the country you’re coming from. So get enough cash for the train/cab fare from the airport, but withdraw the majority of the money from a cash machine at a local bank when you arrive in San Francisco. You may want to give your bank a heads-up you’ll be in SF, though. Some banks are suspicious about foreign withdrawals and might deactivate your credit card for fear of theft or fraud if they see there’s a charge on your card from a foreign country. Particularly since, most US banks don’t use chip-and-PIN, but only use the magnetic strip, which can be copied to a blank card easily.
  • Once you arrive in SF, make sure you have a credit card. The US are a very credit-card centric country to begin with, and hotels get your credit card number on check-in so any charges you incur (mini bar, room service, breakfast, TV sets you throw out the window during your rockstar party) can be charged to your credit card. Often they will ‘put a hold on’ the price of your stay on the card as well. Anyway, even if your company pays for the stay, they will want to see a credit card for the rest.
  • There are crazy people in San Francisco. Mostly the good kind ;-), but also others. While many cities in Germany have their mentally ill citizens safely under the care of the social system, you will see the odd homeless mentally ill person walking through the street, or sitting on the sidewalk panhandling, or urinating somewhere against a building. They’re usually harmless, though they take some getting used to. Your best bet as a newbie is probably to just ignore them and head on to your destination. If you’re curious, I recommend you solicit the opinion of a US-American at the conference. It might not be the most fashionable conversation-starter, but it is one.

    Also, while San Francisco is a safe city, there are two things to keep in mind: First, every big city has pickpockets, be it Munich, Prague or SF. Put your valuables in inside pockets with zippers. In your bag with a flap over it (and your hand on it for safety) or in a fanny pack is not sufficient, particulalry in crowds where you get jostled and will not notice. Second, stay out of the Tenderloin district (roughly the start of Eddie Street and a few blocks behind it). It’s where people get mugged and attacked.

  • Bring chargers, plug adapters and a power strip. North America has its own electrical plugs, giving you 110 Volts. Most power supplies these days can take both 110V or 220V (all Apple chargers do, for instance), but you’ll still need the right plug adapter. Also, many hotel rooms have few power outlets, so a good trick is to use a plug adapter to attach a German (or whatever you use) power strip to the outlet there, then plug all your chargers into that.

    At WWDC, Apple set up power strips in most of the rooms and some hallways. However, you’d do well to pack the cable that comes with your MacBook’s power supply, not the little duck-head. That way, you get a smaller footprint on the plug, and aren’t covering up valuable outlets for others in the audience with your power brick.

    BTW, the plug embedded in the duck-heads (and also the little corner piece at the end of the cable) of Apple’s power supplies is a standard plug, a IEC 60320-1 C7 coupler, which you can likely buy at many electronics stores. It won’t look as nice without the white corner and little “hook” Apple has on it, but it’s a cheap way to get a small, US-compatible plug without needing a second plug adapter when you’re on the go while your devices are charging in the hotel.

  • A few tips for the flight there, which for many of us is 10 hours or worse: Bring snacks (avoid meat, fruit or dairy, you might run afoul of import restrictions), make sure you have a current checkout of your Git repositories on your Mac so you can work if you want to, and load as many podcasts, audiobooks, Kindle/iBooks books, Comixology comics, movies or TV episodes as you can on all your fully-charged devices (Remember, you can fit more episodes on it if they’re SD).

    If your airline provides power to the seat, get a Magsafe to Airline power adapter, if needed, otherwise get an external battery so you can avoid running down the internal battery during the flight. Many airlines these days have in-flight entertainment and even show fairly recent movies, but it’s always nice to have your own preferred selection with you, for when you get bored. Also, the headphones they hand out are horrible and un-shielded, so you might want to get an airline-to-headphone adapter to use your own in-ears (two mono jack connectors to one stereo).

    Also keep in mind that an airplane seat is still a public place. Only watch movies that won’t traumatise a little kid next to you. I’d draw the line at CSI. That’s gory but still OK, but I won’t be watching Hannibal or Spartacus on the plane, that’d be rude.

    You will have Jetlag, so don’t arrive too close to the start of the conference, leave a few days to adjust. What helps me is to have a flight that arrives in the evening (local time). Then I just force myself to stay awake during the flight (most planes serve food on the source country’s schedule, so switching to destination time right away rarely works), and am then sufficiently tired to sleep through the night and not wake up too early. If you are tired, don’t go to sleep in the afternoon, that’s the worst thing you can do when you’re jetlagged, you’ll just be awake all night.

  • Shoes and clothes are comparatively cheap in the US (at least compared to Germany). Now don’t go overboard, but if you wanted to buy new shoes anyway, or new jeans, this is a good opportunity to pack a little lighter or take along those ratty old shoes, then buy new stuff in SF and throw the old stuff away there. Just look up what your size is equivalent to in the US system beforehand.

    The same works for electronics, but there you have to be a tad more careful: Make sure it comes with a power supply that can take 220V and that you can buy a version of any power cables with the correct plug later at home, and avoid equipment that uses radio of some sort, as certain frequencies in one country are used for e.g. the police band that are used for e.g. Wifi in another. You could get fined for causing interference, or customs could confiscate a device because it doesn’t have the required certifications for use in your country (e.g. the ‘CE’ logo).

    Also, photo cameras require knowledge on your part, as many of them are manufactured in European and US versions which then don’t do PAL and only do NTSC for TV output. On top of that, many manufacturers use different names for the two versions, so it’s harder for tourists to find the cheaper equivalent.

    And of course, keep in mind that getting electronics from the US serviced in Europe may be difficult, and warranty times may be shorter. And ensure you’re familiar with customs regulations and maximum weights for airline luggage before you make a bigger purchase.

    Finally, buying MacBooks is a bit hard to do (unless you order in advance and get it delivered to a friend in the US) if you don’t want a stock configuration with a US keyboard (which most programmers prefer anyway).

  • Last, one plea: If you’re tired, walk out of the session, find a bean bag on the top floor and have a nap. It is disrespectful to the speaker and prevents other attendees from understanding him if you fall asleep and start snoring. And while that might sound funny, so far I’ve had an attendee do that in a session every year. It’s understandable, the rooms are dark, you’re jetlagged, you’ve been partying late and are maybe hung over. But if you notice your eyes are flagging, walk out. It’s less of an annoyance than being that snoring guy spoiling it for everyone.

Note: All of the things I say Apple does here are from previous experience. Apple changes and adjusts WWDC every year (e.g. sometimes food was served at the end of the first day on the second floor), so don’t bet on it being identical. There might be less food, the food might be fantastic, it may be in-edible, it may be Soylent Green. Who knows.