Now in its fourth year, AltConf has become the place to be if want to be in San Francisco but don’t have a ticket to WWDC.
AltConf 2015 is something to see. It remains absolutely free to attend, but has grown now to occupy three movie theaters at the AMC Metreon in downtown San Francisco. Two theaters show live talks from dozens of speakers on a range of topics that span the gamut from programming to social issues to business development. A third theater shows video highlights from many other technical conferences.
Apple has made strides to include developers outside of WWDC by streaming sessions live on the web, but that only addresses the material. One of the biggest advantages of WWDC is the networking: Meeting all the other developers who have also come to town, spending time together, and learning from each other. That’s where AltConf comes in.
“We’re doubling our capacity every year.”
“The first year we had, maybe max, 50 people. More often just five or so. It was a coworking space. Since then it’s become a force of nature,” says Rob Elkin, who co-founded AltConf with Judy Chen.
“It’s become a real conference,” adds Chen.
“I think there was a legitimate need for this,” says Elkin. “People want to be here for this. But it’s harder and harder to get WWDC tickets, and there’s less of a justification now that Apple is putting so much of the event’s content online.”
AltConf does encourage people to register if they’re comfortable doing so, but it remains free, and no one is turned away. This year, over 2,000 developers registered, up from 1,500 last year, and about 1,000 the year before.
“It’s not doubling every year, but we’re doubling our capacity every year,” said Elkin.
As a result, AltConf’s planners have sought new venues that can accommodate the growth. In 2013 AltConf (then AltWWDC) took place at the downtown campus of San Francisco State University. Last year it moved to the Children’s Creativity Museum located at the Yerba Buena Gardens overlooking the Moscone Center. This year AltConf is taking place in theaters 11, 14 and 15 at the AMC Metreon; each theater seats hundreds.
Elkin isn’t saying where AltConf will happen next year, but he agrees that the Metreon’s seating and setup are well suited for the event.
The Keynote controversy
AltConf was in the headlines of tech blogs the week before WWDC because of a controversy involving Apple. The organization had announced plans, like last year, to stream Apple’s WWDC keynote live in its theaters, using the publicly available stream from Apple’s Web site.
Apple’s legal counsel served AltConf with a cease and desist letter ordering them not to do. Elkin explained that this was in part because of a misunderstanding.
For the first time, AltConf sold a limited number of $300 tickets. Attendees who purchased them are guaranteed early seating to speaker sessions, a swag bag, and perhaps justification for their employer to foot the bill for their trip.
Elkin says that Apple took that to mean that AltConf would be charging for the privilege of watching the keynote. That wasn’t the case — you don’t even need a ticket to come into AltConf — and so Apple ultimately removed its objections.
Going forward, Elkin hopes to keep a better channel of communication with Apple and avoid any future confusion.
Diverse speaker topics
AltConf emphasizes no particular theme for its talks, but people are increasingly interested in becoming part of the event. The topics being discussed this year run the gamut from Swift programming tips to information on open source projects, best practices, accessibility, social justice issues, and more.
One complaint I’ve heard from AltConf visitors is that there are often two talks going on simultaneously that they’d like to attend.
“This is a good problem to have,” says Chen. “Not only are we livestreaming but videos are being recorded, so you’ll be able to watch them all in a couple of weeks.”
“There were so many amazing talks that were submitted,” says Elkin. Over 200 applications to speak were submitted this year. Unfortunately, AltConf had to whittle that down to about 50. Hopefully, it’ll give them an excuse to expand the venue next year to additional theaters to accommodate even more talks.
A community-driven effort
“We’re enabling other people to make their own events happen.”
A rising tide raises all boats. Elkin thinks a key part of AltConf’s mission going forward is to help other organizations get their events off the ground. That includes everything from logistics to sponsorships, and more.
“We already know a bunch of vendors and everything around the city and we have sponsors that help us out,” says Elkin. “We’ve introduced sponsors to parties and events that were happening. We don’t want other people to have to worry about this logistics stuff. They should just worry about putting on something awesome for the community.”
“We’re enabling other people to make their own events happen,” Chen adds.
“That’s why we put on the AltBeardbash with Jim Dalrymple, of The Loop, that’s why we sponsored WWDCGirls, that’s why we helped out with CocoaPods’ State of the Union. All these things are ways to make San Francisco a really interesting place to be for WWDC,” says Elkin.
I’ve been at AltConf all week, and I certainly believe it.