The Çingleton Experience

In the year 2007, I was taking my first baby steps into the Cocoa development world. I was attending the C4 conference, and it was an experience with equal parts terror and enlightenment.

BadgesConference Badges, past and present. Left: C4[1] dog tags from 2007. Right: Çingleton 2012

I was a tourist: a web developer with pretensions towards Cocoa development. All the guys I met there were seasoned developers, whose examples were exciting, if not out of apparent reach. Thanks to a fortunate intervention by Dave LeBer and Karl Moskowski, I joined Tacow, and that regular exposure to actual, real developers became my motivation to push on.

Fast forward five years, and my goal is closer. In 2010 I put my first app in the Store, and that experience propelled me to this week, when I expect to launch Tiberius, my first “real” app, if you will. It’s an exciting time, and I hope a solid step towards my ambition to be running Xcode during the day. After 18 months of part-time development, I’ve come to associate Xcode with the nighttime.

I give you this history lesson as a way to bring you to Çingleton, an annual symposium for Apple developers. Despite a couple previous C4 conferences, and last year’s SecondConf (I do love me some Chicago, it seems), I couldn’t shake that feeling of being an interloper; a sense that I didn’t belong. There wasn’t a single instance of another developer giving me that feeling: fellow attendees have proven unfailingly kind and generous in their enthusiasm for where I’m from. Yet in my heart, I knew I hadn’t attained a level to think of myself as their peer.

That’s over now. For the first time, I looked onto the crowd of nerds milling about in this beautiful space, and I thought to myself: “these are my people.”

C deux 01 audience 02Photo by Rene Ritchie, originally published on iMore.com

The Lessons Learned

This isn’t a reckoning of what happened at the conference — Rene Ritchie did a terrific job of that, covering days one, two and three — but an account of what this conference did to my general mental state.

I actually go to these conferences to meet my kind, of course. But the net result of those talks, and those drinks, and uncomfortable chats in circles while a hundred conversations roar around you, is a shift in perception.

In my day job as a web developer, my thinking is consumed with tactical issues: how to make a certain thing work in a certain way. Put together enough of those tactical solutions, and I have a successful day. Fail enough at those tactical issues, and you get added stress in your life. In point of fact, my day life is consumed with the avoidance of stress, my head down, my brow furrowed. I’m basically a nerdy marionette, my strings pulled by circumstance, and the business needs of my employer.

Çingleton was like having my eyes opened to a universe of better possibilities. When Michael Lopp talked about the certainty of your career changing every three years, I was relieved! When Marco Arment talked about seizing your own authority — you want to be a developer? An editor? Make yourself one! — was empowering, and inspiring, and true.

And when Serenity Caldwell talked about her struggle making Macworld’s ebook publishing workflow functional, it reminded me of my own life. It was a vivid duplicate of my own circumstances, a tactical life struggling to bend tools to my will without a chance to sit back and figure out the big picture. That talk in particular was like cold water: that’s me, up there, banging around between Word, InDesign, Calibre, Pages and back. While Caldwell is trying to string together a publishing workflow, I’m struggling to push a mountain equally obscure and thankless.

Stepping Back

When I had the chance to step back from my tactical existence here, I took that time to think strategically, about my career. On the five hour drive back to Whitby from Montreal, I dictated a half dozen solid app ideas into my iPhone. I thought big thoughts. I composed poetry in the silent car. I swore breathlessly that I would always be like this.

But like a dream, that feeling is slipping away in a tidal wave of tactical issues. Monday morning came with a storm, and all my happy thoughts are being pushed away.

Can we build for ourselves the kind of work life that emulates — no, encourages — the type of thinking that conferences like Çingleton inspire? I don’t know, but I want to find out.

In broad terms, the formula seems pretty simple:

  • I want to work on building great things
  • I have significant authority in deciding what makes the thing great
  • I have the time and space to practice my work; without artificial deadlines
  • I also have the time to not practice my work, but instead to research, play, and think.

It seems like a crazy list. I know this kind of environment can exist; I want to create it here.

I’m going to leave comments open on this post. If this makes any sense, I’d love to hear from others about what this conference (or others like it) do for you.

In the meantime, I definitely plan to head back to Montreal next year, if they’ll have me.

My deepest thanks to the brilliant organizers of the event: Guy English, Luc Vandal, Scott Morrison, and Petra Mueller.