C4 in Retrospect
Volume Number: 25
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Industry
C4 in Retrospect
by Edward Marczak
The C4 conference is a bit of a mystery: at once not terribly well known and yet filling to capacity in hours. Perhaps this isn't quite so much of a mystery, as it's run by one of the better-known people in the Apple development community, Jonathan 'Wolf' Rentzsch. The conference also aims to bring together some of best and brightest speakers and attendees. Once you find out about it, why wouldn't you want to attend?
This year's show, C4 ran for three days, beginning Friday, the 25th of September, and running though Sunday. The entire weekend is packed pretty full, morning through night. Held in Chicago's Doubletree Magnificent Mile hotel (Jonathan is a Chicago native), you won't see much else of the city unless you plan for some personal time on either end of the conference.
As a relatively young show, C4 is still forming and malleable. Jonathan originally had the idea for a conference after the demise of MacHack, an all-weekend all-hours code-writing fest. C4 did away with its IronCoder homage-to-MacHack portion of the show in favor of more presentations. However, presentations were broken into standard, full-length talks, running between a half-hour to hour plus questions and a Blitz-Talk format. The Blitz Talk is inspired by O'Reilly's Lightning Talk: A talk that runs for 5 minutes with no Q&A. Better still is that the speaker's Keynote presentation is actually served up by Blitz.app (http://github.com/rentzsch/Blitz) which enforces a 15-second limit on each slide before automatically moving on to the next one in the deck. It even super-imposes a small countdown timer in the lower-right portion of the slide.
The use of the Blitz talk worked magnificently. No one felt as if they had been watching presentations in the same room for 9-ish hours. Rather than have back-to-back hour-long talks, where your attention may end up drifting after a period of time, you were constantly woken up and challenged. Furthermore, the people presenting the Blitz talks were clearly well-practiced, as they condensed their subjects to the necessary parts and then moved through the material deftly.
Registration and Identity
Show registration on Friday was smooth and run by volunteers (Daniel Jalkut and Victoria Wang). Badges and T-shirts were dispensed, making the show 'official.' Twitter plays a large role in the show, as a Twitter "reflector" is set up for @C4. A direct message to @C4 is picked up by the reflector and resent to all attendees following. This creates a back-channel of communication, often allowing people to set up meal plans or even discuss the presentation in progress with all attendees.
Thanks to this Twitter tie-in, badges contained the attendee's full name, Twitter handle and Twitter icon.
As people lingered around the registration area, determining who is who and interacting with those one may already know, the dining area's doors were opened and dinner was about to be served. This allowed new introductions and familiar faces to come together. After dinner, attendees switched to the main room for Wolf's Keynote.
The kickoff Keynote stressed community by connecting with your peers; constantly sitting with new people and avoiding cliques. (I loved that this was brought up. I've recommended the book "Never Eat Alone" in the Media of the Month section in my Mac in the Shell column. It was nice to hear this re-iterated). This is sage advice as we *are* a community. We interact all of the time: on mailing lists, at WWDC, through Twitter, Facebook and the like, via publications and now at C4. We can help each other in so many ways, and we're often seeing communities losing patience with the brilliant-but-arrogant developers so well looked upon in the past. The fantastic speakers at C4 all took their own time to create a presentation paid their own way to be present and gave up their time to enlighten the rest of us.
The Keynote followed along by highlighting a community project: Gus Muller's JSTalk (http://macte.ch/jstalk), an application scripting interface akin to AppleScript. Discussion followed that debated the relative merits of JSTalk vs. AppleScript.
After the Keynote, the first Blitz Talk was delivered, followed by a full-length talk. By this time, it was relatively late, but the night wasn't over yet. Like the dinner meal, which furthered the community context, people were invited back up to the lobby for drinks, which most did.
Code (and more)
The presentations on day two ran a wide gamut: from tips on giving a good presentation to security. Most presentations did have the indie developer as a target and common theme. The bulk of attendees at C4 are independent software developers (ISVs), so, this made perfect sense. Some are long-time independents while others are just starting off on their own. One thing that's for sure is that presentations covering tips on running your independent business or managing your time were welcome as good initial lessons or reminders from the seasoned pros. Many of the lessons that MacTech's ISV-focused "Inspired by Life" column have been tackling were presented in one way or another through the course of the day. There was plenty of code, too, of course.
A favorite talk by many was a surprise design tool called Opacity (http://www.likethought.com). Opacity is a developer's graphic tool. An artist can design their graphic in Opactiy just like other graphic design tools. However, from this point, Opacity fits smoothly into a developer's workflow. It can write out the source code to use the graphic in your project or even work with variants of a graphic at build time by providing shell tools that can be integrated into a project's build phase. It really needs to be seen in action to be appreciated (which, the attendees did see. You however, should go download a trial from the Like Thought web site).
MacTech's own Dave Dribin also presented on the importance of unit testing. Likening unit tests to source control - as in, it's something you should feel uncomfortable if you're *not* using - Dave made a great case and some converts along the way.
After the very long day 2 (but it didn't feel long at all, really!), dinner brought out some Chicago culture as everyone traveled to Gino's East Pizzeria. This is another way the group gets to bond and individuals get to meet and 'talk shop.' The dinner was followed by a pool-side bash back at the DoubleTree hotel.
Well, ok, "Canadian Bacon" may or may not be the fourth C, but there is a meat-lovers bias throughout...in a fun way. That mostly gets taken care of at Gino's on Day two with the serving of "meaty legend" pizza. But we're on to day 3 now, the final day. Day 3 dealt mostly with code. There were two presentations that were eye-opening for the primarily Obj-C only crowd, but would be familiar ground for MacTech readers: a Blitz Talk on Python and PyObj-C for scripting and development, and a longer talk that closed the day out on MacRuby. Another non-code talk separated these two again dealt with ways to be more effective as an ISV (and again, similar to what Oliver Popisil has been writing about in his monthly "Inspired by Life" series).
Four C Material?
The C4 conference is open to anyone that can purchase a ticket, however, the 170-attendee limit is reached in mere hours, making this a difficult show to attend. There is a ticket pre-sale that goes to prior attendees first, and then the public at large. Tickets for C4 sold out in 8 hours from the time they went on sale to the public. While I hope everything I've written so far is inspiring, you may or may not want to attend. The question is, "are you C4 material?" It boils down to this: are you a developer? Are you willing to expand your horizons by hearing new ideas? Can you give these alternate views a chance? Can you (respectfully) stand up for your own ideas? Are you willing to meet new people and alter your typical routine...at least for the time frame of the show? Can you break out of the echo chamber of advice that seems to permeate most Mac communities?
Jonathan Rentzsch is hoping to put on more than a conference that teaches developers some new coding tricks. It's clear that he has something special in C4 that's enabled by the Mac community, for the Mac community, and for the good of the community. Some of the best-of-the-best were present at C4 and past C4 conferences. I had a chance to ask him if there were any plans to expand the size of the show, seeing that it sells out so quickly and a good-sized wait list builds up. For now, the 170-attendee cap stands. Jonathan is worried that increasing the size will change the dynamic of the show too much. After attending myself, I'd agree: he has a wonderfully successful show that is wonderful itself. Until that dynamic changes on its own and needs a kick in the butt, control what you can and watch the evolution.
The final day of the show is only scheduled out until 2pm, but what actually happens speaks volumes: people tend to keep hanging around. That says a great deal about the experience. There were many current and former Apple employees that were in attendance, which also says a lot about the caliber of people that attend. In sum, it's a group that can be fairly pedantic about technology, but for a good reason; it's because they care. And this group has the opportunity to all come together in one place. It's an excellent show in every respect—one that every independent Mac developer should try to attend, at least once.
I was happy to see many of the trends we've identified in MacTech in line with what was taking place at the show (PyObj-C coverage, information for ISVs, etc.). Overall, I was happy I could attend. Judging by the Twitter back channel, I'm not the only one who felt this way. Comments from returning attendees like, "This was the best C4 yet!" and talk of presentations that "blew my mind," are assurance that C4 has a long life ahead of it.
Ed Marczak is the Executive Editor for MacTech Magazine, and has written the Mac in the Shell column since 2004.