Thoughts on developer presentation audiences

So after the WWDC 2015 keynote, reading Dr. Drang (via Six Colors) and generally agreeing with his take sparked some reflexions. In particular, as a software developer myself, a side reflexion about what (if anything) is particular about software developer audiences, so that people like Drake and Jimmy Iovine, in the unlikely case they read this, don’t think of software developers as a mean crowd; and who knows, it could be applicable to other show-biz types in case they present at events like Build or Google I/O.

But to being with, whose bright idea was it, honestly, to have Apple Music be the “one more thing” of a WWDC keynote? Especially of a keynote that was one of the longest, if not the longest, in recent history (I’d check, but http://www.apple.com/apple-events/ is currently redirecting me to http://www.apple.com/live/2015-june-event/)? Only one of those (“one more thing” or “WWDC keynote”) would have been fine, but not both. You can have, at the end of a long presentation, at a time the attention of the crowd (which, if it needs to be reminded, was up very early and spent a lot of time in line, because otherwise you end up in an overflow room) may be waning, a “one more thing” about something outside of the theme, for instance new hardware announcement, on condition that this announcement relieves some pain points (e.g. new hardware that makes a previously impossible combination now possible, easing the life of developers who use one and develop for the other) or otherwise has elements that can spark the audience’s specific interest so that you can be guaranteed some cheers and applauses and keep the crowd interested. Apple Music, even if it materializes as a good product, does not have that.

Don’t get me wrong, software developers like music just as much as the next guy. And heck, we’ve seen worse, including at WWDC or iPhone SDK events (Farmville, anyone?). In fact, software developers are not a tough crowd; they will almost alway give at least polite applause when cued: I remember the Safari kickoff presentation at WWDC 2010, with an audience therefore presumably dominated by web developers, and Safari extensions ended up being introduced, with one of the presenters presenting… how they ported their ad blocking extension to Safari. To an audience at least in part making a living (directly or indirectly) from web advertising. Even then, he got polite applause at the end of his presentation, like everyone else. And outside of very specific, preexisting situations (it was at Macworld, but could just as well have happened at WWDC) software developers will never boo a presenter offstage. Why is that? Well, an important part is that software developers have been in the presenter’s shoes before; not to this scale, most likely, but they know it’s a tough part, either to have a demo that works (hence why the applause even for incremental features that were even seen on other platforms before), or worse, if there is no demo, to be able to convey the importance of the software you are talking about without being able to show it. And even if the presenter is mediocre, contrary to a mediocre artist, software developers know that applauding the presenter will not make him stay longer, and his script will end soon enough anyway, so might as well politely applaud.

Software developers, as tech enthusiasts, are more generally interested in anything that moves the state of the art forward, even if it has little relation with any technology they will actually make use of in their job, on condition they can see what is new or specific about it; or at least, they want to be able to take the announcement apart, as we’re going to see. Plus they are heavy users of the platforms they are developing for, so anything that makes user’s lives easier makes theirs easier, too, and they will react to that.

But software developers are also a wary bunch. All of them have been burned before; doesn’t matter whether they trusted a company they shouldn’t have or whether they couldn’t have foreseen anything but were betrayed, they all got a past experience of betting on something (a platform, an API, a service, a tool, etc.) and losing their bet. So in presentations they don’t want to be given dreams of an ideal future where the product magically does what we expect of it, but rather they want demos, or at the very least material claims that can be objectively evaluated as soon as anything concrete is provided. Triply so for Internet services. Everything else is just a setup to get to a demo, as far as a software developer is concerned. Also, as a result software developers take apart everything that is being said to try and figure how it works, in particular to foresee any eventual limitation; yes, to an extent it does take out the magic to dissect everything that way, but remember that for software developers this is a matter of survival. Again, triply so for Internet services. Do I need to remark that the Apple Music presentation, even the demo from Eddy Cue, provided little in the way of these material claims? He did show how the user interacts with the service, but, being an Internet service, this does not show how it works, really. Also, this means that the crowd may be too busy trying to make sense of what you are saying to react to your quick quips.

Software developers are also extremely good at math and mental arithmetic. It goes with the job. They will double-check everything you throw at them, live, so don’t ever expect to be able to assert claims that don’t literally add up.

As with any recurring event (as opposed to, say, a concert date, where this is less the case), there is also a lot of lore and unsaid things that are nevertheless known from both the regular presenters and the audience. If you’re not a regular presenter, it’s not something you can tap into (so yes, you will be at a disadvantage from the regular presenters), but you better be briefed about those to avoid running into them by accident. I remember a high school incident where I had an exchange with a classmate that the class couldn’t miss: it was about silex/stone blades, and I can’t remember what the root of the problem was, but I was countering that this was no way to build a hatchet that could chop down trees, to which my classmate countered that chopping down trees was not the guys’ aim. I think I let him have the point at the time; this was presumptuous of him to assume this, but at the same time it was presumptuous for me to assume this use case, this was just something I came up with as a use case for a hatchet at the top of my head. Fast forward a few months, but still in the same year, the class was making an outside trip to a place where they studied stone age tooling, and during his presentation the guy explained that following the methods from these times: preparing and carving the stone, pairing it with a wooden handle and attaching with then-current methods, he got a tool that worked very well, taking as an example that he had been able to chop down a small tree with it.

After maybe a beat, the whole class erupted in laughter.

My classmates had clearly not forgotten; the poor presenter was all “Was it something I said?” (I was tempted reach out to him, shake his hand and thank him profusely), and our teacher fortunately came to his rescue by promising to tell him later. There was of course no way he could have been briefed for this, but this is not the case for an event such as WWDC.

And, as a “one more thing”, I think I should close with a mention of the other WWDC keynote audience, those who watch the live stream, and react on Twitter instead. This is not exactly a developer audience, but pretty close. However, the reactions tend to be all over the place, in particular you always get the complaint (that ends up trending each time!) that no new hardware (or no new hardware the poster was interested in) was announced, even though this is a silly expectation to have: you can always hope for some, mind you, but given there is always a lot to say about future OS updates at WWDC, especially now with three major Apple platforms, it’s better for Apple to make these announcements at other times. So it’s hard to get a feel for the WWDC live stream audience.