11 things I learned at Mobile Central Europe 2016

Last week, along with a couple of colleagues I attended the Mobile Central Europe (MCE^3) conference in Kinoteka, a sprawling cinema complex in downtown Warsaw.

This year saw the third installment of the conference, focused on bringing designers, developers, and everyone in between together to share knowledge with people from around the world.

The number 3 in the name of conference had one additional meaning. There were three talk tracks, each one with a separate overarching theme: Engineering, Design−both of which we already know from prior editions of the conference−and a new one, introduced only this year, Product. I decided to leave my developer comfort zone and learn something new from all three tracks.

Day 1

Ash Furrow - iOS Checkup

Although marked with the Engineering tag to denote that was intended for developers, it turned out to be a very different kind of talk. Ash decided to touch upon the more human part of what we do. He spoke at length about responsibility and communication between developers and the people around us.

It's important to remember that the language we use affects our reality (something we at Macoscope found important enough to inscribe in our Core Values). Whatever you write will be perceived as either good or bad, since neutrality does not exist on the Internet. It's why we should take extra care with what we write to other people and try to be extra positive with our feedback.

In a world of asynchronous communication, GitHub issues, and round-the-clock Slack conversations, it's even more important to make an effort to engage in more direct interactions with people. Just use Skype or Google Hangouts (the latter has a recording feature, giving you the ability to review the footage later or even attach to your issue tracker), because talking with someone face to face conveys much more information than any email or instant message you can send. Especially if there's a language barrier between the interlocutors.

Boaz Katz - Prioritization is Hell

Boaz Katz, the product strategy guy from Bizzabo, spoke about the importance of and struggles with prioritization in any product you're trying to create. Lack of well-considered and transparent priorities causes chaos and interrupts the flow of shared knowledge inside teams.

Since most products have to satisfy the needs of very different people, it's rarely just one cause animating a company, one singular direction in which it’s heading. That's where priority buckets come in. Any task should have at least one "tag" assigned to it which should state the reason for the completion of this particular task. Is it an Improvement, something that brings in New Value, is it a Sales Enabler or part of a Crazy Experiment? This allows us to spend more time thinking about the business value of the task. Are you changing your infrastructure because it improves the experience of your end user or just because you want to?

The next step is to assign percentages to all those buckets, based on company strategy for a given quarter. Are you losing customers because your app is too buggy? Assign 40% to Improvements. Are your customers happy, but sales have been dwindling? Maybe 35% for the Sales Enablers bucket will help with that. Just don't make those percentages equal−concentrate on a clearly defined for this quarter and produce data that you will be able to analyze at the end of it to check whether the decisions you made were good.

Natasha Murashev - Practical Protocol-Oriented Programming in Swift

Most of us iOS devs still come from an Objective-C background. That means that we used a hammer for so long that now we tend to see nails everywhere. Even if some of them are actually screws and Apple gave us a swifty looking screwdriver in the meantime.

Natasha tried to demonstrate how some everyday problems we used to solve by banging classes with categories in Objective-C can be solved in a clearer and simpler manner with protocols, protocol extensions, and generics in Swift.

Jonathan Flint - What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand

Jonathan told a story of two projects that he was involved with in which he examined where does making a product intuitive and really understanding how everything works meet.

The first project explored the potential of using drones in different social, political, and cultural scenarios of our everyday lives. Jon spoke about how along with figuring out the concepts behind using drones in different environments the company organized workshops with different groups of people to bring both concepts and actual, physical drones closer to people and to observe how they see and work with that technology.

The second case told the story of the BuggyAir prototype. An Internet of Things device, BuggyAir was a small suitcase furnished with with GPS and a bunch of sensors that made it possible to monitor the air quality in areas where people wanted to take their children for a walk. This was supposed to give parents new valuable information and allow them to change routes on-the-fly in order to to decrease exposure to elements like nitrogen dioxide or particulate matter.

Matteo Lai - Making a Medical Wearable End to End: Empatica War Stories from the Trenches

Empatica is a company that released two wristbands allowing people to track their activity and stress levels, and therefore their mental and physical wellbeing, in real time and to find patterns based on that data. Empatica concentrated on people suffering from epilepsy and tuned their hardware and software to the point that they were able to predict upcoming seizures allowing to user to prepare for it.

But the company didn't plan on this from the very beginning. Matteo Lai, the co-founder and CEO of the company, spoke about changing directions and adapting to the realities around them in order to get to where they are today. A long journey from a software and data company to one developing the innovative and well-designed hardware products they’re offering now.

Todd Lombardo - Organizational Dynamics of Innovation

The talk started with 3 sheets of paper and a question whether we would invest our money in a company that sell pairs of sock in which 3 socks make up a pair. Almost none of us in the audience would and our reluctance would lead to us losing a shot at a $25M business.

Todd spoke of how different companies try to fuel their innovations. What works, what doesn’t and why. And, finally, how we should all be designtists - people who can not only design and innovate, but also apply the scientific method to experiment and test our hypotheses.

Day 2

Kyle Fuller - End-to-end: Building a Web Service in Swift

When Swift was open-sourced a couple of months back, a handful of companies and individuals got really excited and started working on tools that would allow developers to write backend software in this new, exciting language. Kyle is one of those individuals and in his talk he went through the whole process of creating a backend in Swift, from writing the server code through testing, deployment, and up to monitoring it.

The bottom line of the presentation is that the interest is there, even from big players like IBM, but choosing to wait a few more months for the stable, 3rd version of Swift before doing some real production work would be the wisest option. Now, however, is the perfect time to create libraries and tools. Just remember to think in Swift, rather than just port solutions and ideas from different platforms and languages.

Ramzi Rizk - Everything Breaks, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Change

Starting off with a Dr. Strangelove reference, Ramzi, the CTO of EyeEm, spoke of what he learned from running his photography community and marketplace. He discussed the ideal times for finding and hiring people, ways of organizing them, and working with products in a world where there wasn’t even a Facebook a mere couple of years ago. How important it is to adapt to the ever-changing realities of the market.

Ramzi threw some cold water on the engineers assembled in the room when he stated that the technology stack doesn't matter in the long run. In a world where everything changes all the time, you can't prepare for what you do not know. Speaking from his experience, Ramzi claimed that it might be more efficient to deal with an imperfect setup, by commenting code, disabling features, just to handle a difficult situation in the future, rather than to try and cover every possible case ahead of time.

Stefaan Top - Innovative Technologies and Bright Ideas. Now What?

Stefaan from AllThingsTalk tried to demystify the Internet of Things to people not interested in the subject. He also explored the path which the IoT ecosystem may take in the near future, both as a large movement and within each company.

The subject is bigger than just the hardware itself. That data collected by IoT devices is basically meaningless without proper context. That's something which ties in with what Mateo Lai spoke about the previous day−all your data is meaningless if you aren't able to use it properly. The whole IoT movement will make sense only when all those small devices, built by different manufacturers, can interact with each other.

That's the problem which the AllThingsTalk team tries to tackle with their SmartLiving platform. It brings that communication, connection, and interaction between devices closer to developers. The presentation concluded with a demo in which I played a major part. Who said that having a QR code reader on your iPhone is useless? ;)

Naren Shaam - PODs - New organization to optimize your team, improving autonomy and alignment

A couple of months ago, the GoEuro management realized that handling over 100 engineers and their everyday work is a task more difficult than it has any right to be. That's when they decided to split their teams into separate, mostly independent and self-sufficient PODs, a concept originally laid out by Facebook.

Each POD is responsible for one main goal, a feature to improve or implement. Instead of having a backend team, a product team, and so on, the company is split into separate groups with each responsible for things like search or international connections. Each of the PODs has a complete set of people required for the task laid out before it, so there are no excuses and finger pointing when a POD fails to deliver on its promise.

The new setup works better and yields higher responsibility and ownership of the end product inside the PODs. But the approach is not without its limitations and challenges, including the emergence of a sort of silo mentality due to increased strength of individual teams.

Steli Efti - If you don't understand your user/customer, you're fucked

A very spirited presentation from Steli covering the basics of creating and maintaining a product or service. Basics that a lot of people, even seasoned entrepreneurs, tend to forget or ignore, which in the end may cause businesses to fail.

The bottom line is that you always need to remember that whatever we do as a business, we do for our clients, not just to satisfy our need to create. Talking and working with existing and potential users to find a better way to fulfil their needs is absolutely essential. The ideal way would be to do it in person, because it gives you much better feedback than studying analytics or reading survey results. Focusing on a small group of people, satisfying their needs and then making that group bigger is much better (and more sane) than trying to solve the problems of 8 billion people all at once.

Day 5 - My summary

This year I went to talks from all three tracks and loved it, I managed to learn a lot of new stuff from outside my area of expertise. The new Product track was really strong, with stories ranging from good business practices to retrospectives of real products and challenges faced by teams behind the most interesting and innovative solutions on the market.

From what I heard, the talks I haven’t seen were at least as interesting as the ones I attended, so I’m planning on watching footage from all of them to squeeze even more from this 2-day-long journey. Truth be told, I can't wait for the 2017 edition of Mobile Central Europe. Hopefully, it will once again take place in the warmer months, so I will be able to meet even more interesting people−on stage as well as in the crowd−with beautiful sun shining down on us as we leave the conference hall, tired but inspired.