Conferences Condensed

Conference Condensed: NSNorth 2019

A look back at my weekend in Montréal

Two weeks ago, I stepped on stage at the St. James Theatre in Montréal to deliver my talk, Growing Pains, to the audience of NSNorth. Before that, I had the opportunity to spend the weekend learning and socializing with a delightful group of independent iOS app designers and developers in this beautiful, old city.

Matt outside the conference, in front of a sign that says NSNorth 2019.

Matt outside the conference. Photo by Kate Sloan.

NSNorth is the spiritual successor to Çingleton, the conference that led us to turn Lickability into a business. And just like Çingleton, it’s run by two lovely Canadians, Dan Byers and Philippe Casgrain. The conference was a blast — here are some of my favorite moments.

Friday: Happy Hour & Ken’s Keynote 🍻

Attendees of NSNorth waiting for the next event.

Attendees of NSNorth waiting for the next event

Friday night kicked off with a happy hour to get to know all the new faces and catch up with old friends. We gathered for a keynote by one of my favorite speakers from past WWDCs, Ken Kocienda. Ken, who built the keyboard on the original iPhone, talked in-depth about the “elements” and “molecules” that combined at Apple in the mid-aughts to give birth to the most successful consumer product of all time.

He gave me and the whole crowd lots to think about:

  • How do you build an engineering environment that allows for rapid feedback but doesn’t encourage interruption?
  • How can engineers and designers collaborate to solve really thorny problems like building a multitouch keyboard with autocorrect?
  • How do you decide what to build in the first place?

I’m looking forward to reading Ken’s book Creative Selection to go deeper into his thoughts on how the original iOS team tackled these and other questions.

Saturday: Talks, Tears, & Wheels 🎡

Attendees of NSNorth lining up for La Grande Roue de Montréal.

Queuing up to ride La Grande Roue de Montréal

Saturday, a rainy day in Montréal, was spent learning from some of the titans of the iOS software community. James Thomson of PCalc fame kicked off the morning with an impeccable walkthrough of the history of software easter eggs. We heard from Alaina Kafkes about how the Medium iOS team has prioritized and implemented accessibility features for their reading experience. Everyone’s favorite reverse-engineer Gui Rambo gave a great talk about practical advice for approaching privacy and security in iOS apps, reminding us to consider data protection, logging, API security, and user consent and control of data handling.

In the afternoon, I also saw my favorite presentation of the entire conference, Small But Mighty by Huda Idrees. Her energy was infectious as she described the social mission of her company and how small teams can solve big problems. She also reminded the audience that, as engineers and creators, “We need to be looking at falling in love with problems, instead of falling in love with solutions.”

At lunch, we took a break from learning to ride La Grande Roue de Montréal, a large Ferris wheel in the old port, and to get to know our fellow attendees better. Afterward, Daniel Steinberg delivered an emotional talk that had the entire audience in tears. He talk about the deaths of his wife and daughter, and how “the best move on the board” is often figuring out how to spend more time with those you love and finding the balance between work and the life you want to live. I’m getting choked up just writing about it.

We capped off the evening with a delicious banquet dinner. Good wine, new friends, and connections across the table led to an evening of board games that I sadly ducked out of early to rest up for my talk on Sunday.

Sunday: Swift, Subscriptions, and Speech 🎙

Matt onstage at NSNorth in front of a slide with the Lickability logo.

Matt mentioning Lickability in their talk. Photo by Kate Sloan.

Most of my Sunday was spent pacing around mentally rehearsing my points, but I did catch Chris Eidhof’s virtuosic talk on Type-Driven Development in which he live-coded for an audience of hundreds, flawlessly as usual. Continuing on the theme of accessibility, Leena Mansour explained how she used her phone on VoiceOver exclusively for 7 days and taught us all about how cool and useful the VoiceOver Rotor can be for accessibility power-users. Rene Ritchie walked us through how Mobile Nations has used tools and a remote-first culture to shape their success with iMore and other media brands. And Ish ShaBazz shared his experience with subscriptions in his app Capsicum.

My talk, Growing Pains, covered the things I’ve learned in the last 10 years building Lickability: the things that get harder as you scale and what you can do to stay sane as your team or company grows. I covered topics like how we found our own office space, how we hire engineers, and the mental health challenges of running a small business. I’m glad the talk resonated with many folks, including a few that came up to me after the conference was over, as I was exploring the city’s speakeasies, to tell me how helpful the they found the specifics I shared the tools and processes we have used to scale the business.

Finally, the conference ended with a closing keynote from Kate O’Neill that called us all to think more deeply about the humanity and ethical considerations of the products and algorithms we make. Kate’s also written a book on the topic, Tech Humanist, that she generously gifted to every attendee.

Au Revoir 👋

The Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.

Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. Photo by Kate Sloan.

NSNorth is on an indefinite hiatus, but it definitely went out with a bang. I’m so honored I got to attend and present at its 5th iteration. I hope Dan and Phil enjoy a well-deserved break from the hectic life of conference organizing and that someone starts up another Canadian iOS conference soon. I’ll definitely miss the maple syrup, the bagels, and the brilliant developers and designers that made my weekend in Montréal great. 🇨🇦