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NSNorth 2016 Conference Highlights

Check out some of the best talks and highlights from this year’s NSNorth conference in Toronto, Canada!

I recently got back from the fourth annual NSNorth, a popular Canadian mobile development conference.

This year the event was held at the the St James Cathedral Centre in Toronto, and organizers Philippe Casgrain and Dan Byers were joined by Adrienne Marshall in presenting another successful conference for designers and developers.

There were 160 attendees registered for the conference, with companion tickets bringing the attendance to over 200. It felt like just the right size for connecting with past acquaintances and making new life long friends.

In this article, I’ll share some of the highlights of the event so you can get a taste of what the event was like, and see if it’s something you might want to attend next year. Let’s dive in!

Note: We will update this post to add video links as they become available.

Tech Workshop – Start Thinking in Swift – Daniel Steinberg

Daniel Steinberg

Author and podcaster Daniel Steinberg kicked off the conference with a day long workshop geared to towards intermediate developers looking to level up their Swift skills.

Daniel walked students though intermediate level Swift concepts, assuming that the basics were covered. For example, he explained how the Swift compiler will treat objects and types, how errors are handled in Swift 2, and how we now have the ability to ask for the “first” element in a collection.

One thing Daniel said in his talk really stood out to me:

“We should pay attention to what Apple tells us at WWDC, because they are telling us about what’s coming without telling us.” – Daniel Steinberg

Consider these examples:

  • Auto Layout led to larger iPhones, size classes and Adaptive Layout.
  • ARC wasn’t just about automatic memory management, rather it was preparing the way for the Swift language.
  • App Thinning was getting our code ready for the Apple TV and Apple Watch.

Daniel’s mix of clear explanations, humor and industry know-how was a great help for budding and experienced developers looking to enhance their understanding of Swift.

Keynote – What Does the Future Look Like – May-Li Khoe

May-Li Khoe, Adrienne Marhsall, Phillipe Casgrian & Dan Byers

May-Li Khoe, Adrienne Marhsall, Phillipe Casgrian & Dan Byers

The keynote for NSNorth was presented on Thursday night. It was followed by a reception sponsored by Shopify.

May-Li Khoe, formerly with Apple, Microsoft and Leapfrog and now with Khan Academy, led off the conference with a talk about reshaping the future. She prompted us to consider the putting the user first when designing our apps, where are they when using the apps, and how they feel about the technology.

“Like a fish in water, we can’t see the water.” – May-Li Khoe

She illustrated her arguments with the story of Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogata who shook things up by firing the corrupt police department. He hired mimes to mock litterers and jay walkers. He also gamed the system by instituting white and red cards popular in sports. Like offensive soccer players, bad citizens would get presented red cards by fellow citizens. Good and kind people would get a white card.

She also gave great examples people who successfully shaped the future:

  • Douglas Engelbart gave “the mother of all demos” in 1968, discussing the augmentation of the human mind with technology.
  • Steve Jobs, described the computer as the bicycle for the mind.
  • Grandmaster Flash invented DJing, allowing hip-hop to break out of the debris and poverty of the Bronx.

She left us with an insightful question: “What do you want the future to be?”

Keep Calm and Type Erase On – Gwen Weston

Gwen Weston

Indie developer Gwen Weston gave an interesting talk on type erasure.

She began by asking us to consider what is a “type”. She then went on to explain the differences between concrete and abstract types, the former representing data and the latter representing behavior. With the use of Generics, we use types represented by T or U, we can use type reification to make abstract type concrete.

Protocols present a exception, where we cannot directly instantiate abstract types. In this case we can wrap an abstract type in a concrete type, also know as type erasure.

Gwen took a topic that could have been dry and made it fun by injecting humor: all of her examples were Pokemon based. A great talk all around!

Clean View Layout with iOS9 Features – Ayaka Nonaka

Ayaka Nonaka

The delightful speaker Ayaka Nonaka is looking forward to iOS 10, however she wanted to look back at some new additions to iOS 9 that we may not have implemented yet.

Stating that she preferred to work in code, she likes the new layout tools that empower clean layout:

  • NSLayoutAnchors allow users to create layout settings and constraints with as few as one line of code (which is great compared to the Visual Format Language, which often involves a lengthy set of commands).
  • UILayoutGuides are similar to adding padding in web design – “designers like padding,” she adds. Ayaka showed plenty of code examples during her talk, and noted that Apple had not added UILayoutGuide in storyboards, yet.
  • UIStackViews aren’t just for Interface Builder: they can be used in code too! She also showed a series of slides to demonstrate where stack views are used. “When you start using stack views, everything looks like stack views”, she concluded. For those still supporting iOS 8, Ayaka pointed out TZStackView on GitHub, which is interchangeable with Apple’s UIStackView when developers eventually switch to iOS 9.

If you ever get a chance to see Ayaka Nonaka speak, you won’t be disappointed!

Note: We are quite passionate about Auto Layout, Adaptive Layout, and UIStackView at raywenderlich.com. If you’d like to learn more about these, check out our Auto Layout video tutorials, Adaptive Layout video tutorials, UIStackView video tutorials, or our brand new free tutorial Easier Auto Layout in iOS 9 which covers layout anchors and guides.

Safety, Fun, and Learning – Liz Marley


Liz Marley likes to play. She’s a heavy duty character in World of Warcraft, taking on all foes while sending instructions to her companions. Putting a twist on the gamer put-down “Learn to Play”, she renamed her clan “Play to Learn”. This positive attitude extends to her work in App Camp For Girls.

Empowering young girls to become developers is the mandate of App Camp For Girls. It provides a safe environment presented by other women, whom the girls can identify with. Praise is not given for appearance or for being smart, but rather for working hard.

Relating her talk to the audience, Liz argued that Apple reset the clock with Swift. All developers started off fresh on the same footing, and they even gave us Playgrounds making it easy to get started and experiment.

Liz wrapped her talk up by saying we are invited to play – so go pick a topic and play!

Note: The app created by the App Camp For Girls attendees is on the App Store: App Camp Quiz Compendium.

Lightning Talks


One of the cool features of NSNorth are lightning talks. These are short 15 minute presentations given by attendees, selected from proposals ahead of the conference. They are a great way for new speakers to get experience and for those who want to impart a bite size bit of knowledge.

As an example, one talk I really liked was by Zev Eisenberg, discussing his open source library BonMot, which allows you to take the pain out of attributed strings.

In essence, it allows you to layout type like a typographer. He developed the library out of necessity for some projects he was working on.

BonMot allows for the creation of attributed strings through the use of BonChain arrays, where effects can be applied and the sent to BonText. The resulting output is an attributed string with the format added to each individual BonChain item.

Very slick and worth checking out for your typography needs!

Carving out a Space in the Continuum of App Store Success – Jon Edwards


Another fascinating talk was given by watchmaker and iOS developer Jon Edwards.

Building on Charles Perry’s talk at NSNorth 2014 on finding your niche in the App Store, Jon started out by reminding us that only 0.01% of app developers are successful and happy with their App Store results.

By analogy, Jon also used the example of the surfing mecca Mavericks, where some of the biggest waves exist. In the movie Chasing Mavericks, the protagonist learns that careful observation can lead you to find the best waves. Rather than fighting things head on, a keen observation of the laws of nature offers better results.

Steve Jobs suggested that one should zoom out and see what is really going on. Jon said that in the world of watchmaking, the ratio of watches to watchmakers is 5000:1. Currently, 50% of watchmakers are of retirement age or close to death. Last year, just around 50 watchmakers graduated from colleges. With that insight, it seems to be no wonder why watchmaking is a lucrative business!

Jon went on to discuss the hedgehog concept, where unlike a fox that knows many things, a hedgehog knows one big thing. The key is to discover your sweet spot. As Jim Collins explains in his book Good to Great, it’s critical to determine what you passionate about.

The takeaway is to find out what you can be the best in the world at, and also find out what can drive your economic engine. The intersection of these is the sweet spot.

Tell Your Story – Jonathan Rhyne


Jonathan Rhyne began his talk with a definition of story: an accounting of incidents or events. He explained that one of his favorite films, Forrest Gump is an example of great storytelling. It’s about destiny versus coincidence, and overcoming obstacles.

Jonathan argued that we are all storytellers. We form our identities and understand life through stories. Most of us have vivid memories, and memories are often attached to emotions.

We can remember where we were when significant events happened, but sometimes we remember the emotions at the expense of details. For example during the events on 911 the first plane crash wasn’t broadcast until the next day. Many of us can remember that as if we experienced it live. We have changed our memories with emotion.

We as developers are also in the people and emotion business. He suggested that you don’t just give a feature list: instead, ask many whys. Why can’t I do that, and why does my app do this?

Here are some examples of focusing on the why’s:

  • Toms Shoes donate a pair of shoes to impoverished children with every pair you buy. People embrace that idea.
  • Apple commercials demonstrate how their products are used, rather than discussing the features. They ask us to consider what we will create with them.
  • Lego teaches us that making things is fun.

Get to know your target audience and ask how your product feels. Make people the center of your story and make your app have a supporting role. The take away is to ask yourself: why it is that you do what you do?

The Value of Platform Tourism – Michael Gorbach


Michael Gorbath talk invited the audience to consider where we place our values in the platforms we choose to work with.

Beginning with conference name, NSNorth, he reminded us that the name and many Apple frameworks came from NextStep. Founded by Steve Jobs after he was ousted from Apple 30 years ago, NeXT and values that the company contained still matter today.

He argued that values should be a top priority. NeXT valued well designed UI, ease of use, and power. Values are about the choices we make and many of the NeXT’s values are still with us, especially given that NeXT was the seed that led to OS X and iOS.

Michael worked at Apple for a time and recalled attending C4, an early developer conference. A speaker from Appcelerator gave a talk on using Java instead of Objective-C. Following the talk, the questions from the audience were very negative – Michael being among the naysayers! The C4 conference organizers were very upset because of the attendees xenophobic behavior. The takeaway was that we shouldn’t criticize someone just because they use a different stack.

The reaction was caused by a conflict of values:

  • Appcelerator sought to democratize development. They valued accessibility to tools and reducing time to market.
  • The C4 audience responded negatively because the speaker didn’t belong to their tribe of Objective-C users.

In this talk, Michael invited us to become “xenophilic” – to be more open to ideas and new platforms.

“We need to become Xenophilic.” – Michael Gorbach

For example, recently Micheal was asked to work on Xamarin project, that is built using C#. He found that working with C# had certain advantages over the tools he was familiar with.

Even exploring Android development opened his eyes to some interesting features; such as a built in annotation system, collections of components, different ways to manage resources and animations with built-in tweeting to name a few.

In conclusion, he suggests that we all should become platform tourists and be inspired to explore other mobile stacks.

Journey to the East – Rob Segal


Rob Segal of Get Set Games, makers of the Mega Jump series of games, was the first game developer to speak at any NSNorth conference.

Get Set is a small company, initially just 2 designers and 2 developers. Mega Jump benefited from early App Store success, often featured by Apple and in the early days was able to sell characters by In App Purchases. They also had come success working with Pixar and Disney with re-skinned versions of their games.

With the assistance of the Canadian Trade Commission, they were able to find more success selling their apps in Asian markets. They were introduced to companies that would take their code and adapt their apps to burgeoning markets, such as India, who are the latest target having just jumped into smart phones.

Working with social networks; Linc, Kakao, WeChat and others also provided larger audiences. In China, working with Tenyu, Yoda1 and Takweb Games they were quite successful. Notably one of their games managed to get 100 million downloads in one day.

The takeaway here is to reach out to other development companies – they can hep you access markets you might not be able to otherwise.

Keynote Karaoke


One of the most entertaining talks took place during Keynote Karaoke. Organizer Phillipe Casgrain wrote an algorithm that would play 5 slides in random order. Participants were invited onto the stage and given 3 minutes to present their talk on the fly.

Many of the conference speakers took part and some attendees volunteered to be in the spotlight. Once on stage they realized that they had got more than they bargained for!

Notable Karaoke talks were given by Janie Clayton, Paddy O’Brian, Jonathan Rhyne and one of the most entertaining was by Joe Cieplinski of the Release Notes podcast.

Hockey Hall of Fame

Ray Wenderlich team members Janie Clayon, René Cacheaux and Tim Mitra.

Ray Wenderlich team members Janie Clayon, René Cacheaux and Tim Mitra.

Aside from poutine and beaver tails, what would make a Canadian conference more complete that a winter related activity!

In 2015, we were able to experience Curling at rink at the Chateaux Montebello, where the conference was hosted. This year, we had a private night at the Hockey Hall of Fame, just around the corner from St. James Cathedral.

We were able to see exhibits of all the stars of the game, from around the world. We even tried our hand at the interactive exhibits; shoot out and goaltending. Of course we all got to hang out with the Stanley Cup, awarded to the top team in the National Hockey League.

Children’s Coding Workshops

NSNorth has offered companion tickets for designers and developers who wanted to bring their families to attend the events.

This year they took it up a notch and had two tech workshops for kids on Saturday. Toronto’s Ladies Learning Code presented a gaming workshop, and Daniel Steinberg ran an afternoon workshop on for kids on making iOS games with Swift.

Where To Go From Here?

NSNorth is great conference and one of my favorites. I would definitely suggest that you try to attend it in the spring of 2017, where hopefully it will be held in Toronto again.

There are some other great iOS conferences you should consider too:

  • Like to learn via hands-on tutorials?: You should consider RWDevCon 2017 in the DC area early next year. If you’re curious how it went last year, check out our recent post-mortem.
  • Like the idea of NSNorth but in the US?: You should consider 360 iDev – it’s very much like NSNorth but bigger: it has three tracks you can choose from.
  • Want something more business focused, or from an indie perspective?: You should consider the Release Notes conference in Indianapolis or IndieDevStock in Nashville Tennessee.

As a proud Canadian on the raywenderlich.com Team, I hope to see you next year at NSNorth and keep your stick on the ice!

Photo Credits: Martin Reich, Tim Mitra, Lucas Chang, Jacob Gorban, Anluan O’Brien




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