Friday, May 14, 2021

Getting started in "app" development - what do you need to know from a conference session?

Recently, I've been critical of conference sessions that say they are focused on "app" development without saying what type of app they mean.

If someone only works with "mobile apps," that's what they assume when they hear "app."
If someone only works with "web apps," that's what they assume when they hear "app."
If someone only works with "desktop apps," that's what they assume when they hear "app."
And so on for other types of "app."

I first encountered this many years ago when I had a version of the following conversation:

Me - I build apps.

Them - You mean web apps?

Me - No, mobile apps?

There are now so many kinds of "apps" that on its own, the word "app" doesn't mean anything. Or rather, it could mean one of many things. It needs clarification.

Going back to conferences. In the past, I've attended sessions that I thought were going to be about one type of app that turned out to be another. I know many others have done the same, and they have been rightly vocal about the misrepresentation of what the session would be about. This ambiguity doesn't benefit anyone and can end up wasting the time of lots of people.

This year I've encountered a new, related idea. A conference session for people building any kind of app and with any level of experience to share their knowledge so attendees can learn from each other.

I'm a big fan of developers learning from (and with) each other, but this type of session raises lots of questions and concerns for me.

On paper, this seems like a good idea from an organizer's perspective. It can be seen to empower attendees, it has the potential to give people the information they're after, and it doesn't involve a lot of preparation.

Sounds good in principle, but what about the attendees?

Who's going to come?
I think there are three groups of people who might come.

  1. Those wanting general, broad information. For these people, they may learn something useful.
  2. Those coming with specific interests and questions. These people may or may not get what they want (or expect) and have a large potential for being disappointed.
  3. Those wanting to come and share their knowledge (most probably in a specific area.) These people may need careful (skilled) moderation to stop it from being a session driven by them. Plus, how do you balance what the more experienced attendees want to talk about or share and what the less experienced attendees want to learn? These may match up, but it risks being a waste of everyone's time if they don't. The broader the number of types of "app" being included, the greater the chance of a mismatch of reality and expectations.

So, lots of opportunities for it to go wrong, but could a better alternative exist?

What would a good/useful session for ANY app developer look like?

Let's start by thinking about what makes someone an "app developer". There are many different kinds of developers but for simplicity, let's divide them into two categories: those that build software with a UI, and those that don't.

Of course, there are edge cases and exceptions, but  I think it's broadly true to say that any software with a UI could be considered an app.

Now we have an idea of what an app is, there's a key factor that we must remember. For the most part, only a small part of any software with a UI is comprised of the UI. Most of the code and development effort goes into things that aren't the UI.

Yes, the UI is important and may be created from multiple technologies, but these are only a small part of the overall app and what a developer needs to know.

In terms of the broad topics that an app developer needs to know, these are the same as what any developer needs to know.

These include:

  • The languages, tools, and frameworks they'll use.
  • Structuring/architecting a codebase.
  • Testing.
  • Good development practices. (however you define them)
  • Understanding the user
  • Understanding the business
  • How to work as part of a team
  • Support, maintenance, and updating software.
  • Packaging and distributing software. (Yes, even non-apps need this.)
  • and many more...

These are all massive topics, and there's no way to get into any level of useful depth in any of them (let alone all of them) in a single session.

This is all to suppose a conference session covering all the things a developer needs to know is a useful and a good use of attendee's time. It's little more than "here's a list of things you need to know."  Is this a good use of 30-60 minutes as part of a large conference? I don't think so. It sounds like an outline of a curriculum that could take months or even years to cover.


Now, I've never run a massive conference with thousands of attendees. I don't know what the goals and aims of the different sessions are. I just hope there are some excellent reasons for including a general-purpose session that gets lots of different developers with different experience levels in different technologies together to talk. I just don't know what they could be.

The goals and desires of the organizers and attendees must always be considered when planning sessions.

I have organized and spoken at many (>100) smaller events and have recently been thinking a lot about what these will look like once the pandemic is over. Seeing the above-mentioned session has seemingly touched a nerve with me, and I wanted to write something to help process my thoughts. More of my thinking will likely follow...

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