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Reverse Q&A

I’m a half-day late with my iDevBlogADay post… sorry.

So I was thinking about conference panels recently, something I don’t often attend or participate in. Panels to me seem like something that should work better than they usually do. You have smart, interesting people, but unless they know to “play ball”, to go out of their way to find ways to dig deeper or draw out conflicts and differences between each other, you tend to end up with a lot of head-nodding and personal pet theories that the rest of the panel doesn’t really have a stake in.

It’s not clear that the audience gets a lot out of it either. At Cocoaconf, I was on an iOS developer panel and the first question we got was the hopelessly played out “how do I get my app noticed” one. Ugh. You don’t need a panel for that, we’ve all been griping about that for three damn years now, and if we don’t have good answers yet, we’re never going to. Moreover, I’m not sure that attendees have a good sense of the potential of panels and how they can draw that out.

So here’s a solution. It comes to us by way of the fine folks at Harmonix, makers of Rock Band, Dance Central, the new iOS novelty VidRhythm, the rare iPod nano/Classic game Phase, etc. At their last two panels at PAX, they did a “Reverse Q&A”, which works like this: the panelists either ask big poll-type questions of the room, ask followup questions and get shouted-out responses from the crowd, or they ask “man on the street” style questions to whoever is at the front of the line for the mic. Either way, the topic is then followed up by the panelists and whoever from the crowd happens to be at the front of the line for the mics.

It still seems like a work-in-progress on the Harmonix podcasts, but there is a gem of a great idea here. Anyone who’s working in iOS and attending conferences has something interesting to say, and probably some unique real-world perspectives that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to the kind of people that get picked for panels. We’re all self-employed hipster indies and authors, so we likely have little if any idea how iOS is playing out in big enterprises, how well or poorly it rubs shoulders with other technologies, etc. So in a Reverse Q&A Panel, I could ask these kinds of questions of whoever is first at the mic: “what do you use iOS for… how’s that working out… what’s missing that you think should be there…”

The responses we would get from the attendees would drive panel discussion, and in a sense, the person at the front of the line for the mic becomes a temporary member of the panel. In this, it’s a lot like the “open chair panel” that I’ve seen pulled off only once (at the Java Mobility conference in Jamuary 2008, where I saw the last gasp of the old world prior to the iPhone SDK announcement a few weeks later).

And I still like the format of both the Reverse Q&A and the Open Chair Panel more than I like straight-up open spaces, which at the end of the day are just chats, and chatting is best done over food and drink, like at the end of Cocoaconf where Bill Dudney, Scott Ruth and I grabbed two guys from Ohio U. that Bill had met and headed down to Ted’s for some bison burgers. That’s chattting. If you’re going to schedule a time and a room, it’s already more formal, and a structure helps set expectations.

I’m inclined to talk up Reverse Q&A as a format to the Cocoaconf and CodeMash organizers… would like to give this a try in the next few months.

And speaking of which, let’s practice. Here are some questions I’d like to ask of Reverse Q&A attendees. Feel free to answer any of them in the comments. I’d like to know what you guys and girls are thinking:

  • Do you learn new platforms, languages, and frameworks from books, blogs, official docs, or what? (I want to know so I can figure out whether I should bother writing books anymore… signs point to no)
  • What do other platforms do better than iOS?
  • What’s the one App Store policy that pisses you off the most?
  • Do you sell your own apps, write apps for someone else (employer, contract clients, etc.) or something else? Which of these do you think makes the most sense for you?
  • Do you want more or less webapps in your life?

OK, you guys and girls talk for a while…

Comments (7)

  1. Nice post. I have answers to some of your questions! I love the reverse Q&A idea, btw.

    To your first question: I came to iOS dev in early 2009. To that point in my career (20+ years) I had done mostly Unix- and Linux-based backend server development in C and C++. No GUI. Nothing with MVC. I realized quickly that learning how to write iPhone apps the right way was not going to happen by using Google (although there is certainly a ton of useful info out there, once you know what to look for and how to apply it when you find it!). I decided I needed to buy some books! I bought 3 books: “Learn Objective-C on the Mac”, “Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X”, and “Beginning iPhone Development: Exploring the iPhone SDK”. All of these books were excellent. Reading them and working through the examples was incredibly valuable and got me to the point where I could say, “Yeah, I have an app idea and I think I can actually write it!”. And I did! Since then, I have 5 of my own apps on the App Store. To your real question about writing books: Keep writing books! I’ll admit that I have not read fully too many more books about iOS topics, largely because I don’t have a ton of time (see below), but also because I feel I am beyond learning the basics from a book. That being said, there are topics (e.g. Core Data, Core Animation, Core Audio….) for which I would shell out money for an authoritative tome of well written, well exampled, information. Books are an important resource for developers, as much as blogs, forums, and conferences, I think.

    To your 4th question: I write my own apps, I have a full time job where I write apps for someone else (as part of a larger platform), I am involved with a small startup group for which I wrote the app we have for sale, and I have some other clients for whom I do iOS work.

    And no, I never sleep. 🙂

  2. dwsjoquist

    Chris,

    So have you submitted a “iOS Reverse Q&A Panel” session to CodeMash yet? (Please do!)

    Doug

  3. Oh, and I just came up with the perfect description for the conference catalog: IN SOVIET RUSSIA, PANEL QUESTIONS YOU!

  4. […] mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of panels at developer conferences, and whenever I’m in one, I […]

  5. […] the Harmonix Reverse Q&A Panel at PAX East 2011. I wondered aloud about the idea of doing this in an earlier blog, and I’m glad we’ll have a chance to give it a shot. Hopefully, this will prove to be a […]

  6. […] my talks include the iOS 5 Core Audio talk I’ve done a few times now, another round of the Reverse Q&A that went over so well in Chicago, and a new talk on HTTP Live Streaming. HLS is something […]

  7. […] that was where attendees wanted to go, rebuffing my first attempt to change topics). I still think the format is superior to the regular panel, at least with a manageable number of attendees (doubt I’d […]

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