What are you going to build?
On hearing Michelle Obama speak at WWDC17
Prior to attending, the only thing that really came to mind when I heard “WWDC” was the keynote presentation. It’s the presentation that anyone interested in, or working in, technology watches to find out what Apple has built that year. I have fond agency-day memories of when my team would project the keynote in our office while we worked at our machines — when we gushed over the updated look of the Mac Pro, and nerded out over the latest OSX features and how they would help our workflow.
I always wondered what it would be like to be around all of those leaders and developers. And this year, I was lucky enough to find out.
The first morning, I woke up early, excited and eager, not entirely knowing what to expect. I wore the black WWDC17 Levi’s jacket (including a few of the-most-popular-over-night WWDC pins) I received at check-in the day prior, and my attendee badge was around my neck.
The street adjacent the convention center was closed off. Security officers guarded the area, and Apple Staff in red t-shirts herded the crowds into an organized line that snaked around the building. Camera crews and media trucks were scattered in the street and ambient electronic music filled the air. I felt a sort of anxious-nervous-excitement. Looking around me, I wondered how we could all possibly fit into a single auditorium, and suddenly wished I would have arrived sooner!
As 10:00am approached, the line of attendees went from being completely motionless to a steadily-flowing procession. We cornered the building, zig-zagged through the line, straight into the secured area and up the entrance stairs to undergo a quick bag-check before entering the building by the front-doors to a badge-scan kiosk with a screen that displayed our names in teal blue. Red t-shirts were everywhere, guiding us up the stairs on to circle the perimeter of second-floor hallway toward the far-end of the building. They assured us that there was enough seating for us all. Thousands of people were ushered into a single auditorium within under and hour — to say it was organized is an understatement.
I found an empty seat and looked around me. The immensity of the room and the crowd is something that cannot be translated to everyone watching on screen.
For the next two hours, we watched Tim Cook and Apple’s leaders present updates to their software, new pieces of hardware, and announcements on industry decisions.
Technology aside, I was particularly struck by Tim Cook’s recognition of diversity and the demographic of his developer attendees: 5300 in total, from 75 different countries around the world, the youngest of which was 10, and the oldest being 82. What a testament, I thought, to the impact Apple has had to the world. And what an inspiration, I thought, to those who simply think they’ll never have the skills to program or build an app.
But the most shocking surprise was that Michelle Obama would be giving an unreported interview the following morning.
The next day, I made sure to arrive earlier in determination to get a closer seat. After the same type of procession from the day before, we entered the large auditorium to two large sofa-chairs facing one another for the interview between Michelle Obama and Apple’s Lisa Jackson. Tim Cook emerged to introduce her, and the former first-lady entered stage-left in a knee-length, black wrap dress smiling brightly. The crowd stood to welcome her in applause, and she took her seat on the couch to the right.
“We’re good,” she assured us. “Everything’s fine,” she began.
“We are decompressing from what has been a decade-long journey, that has been unbelievable, so we’re breathing a bit.” The Obamas are planning to do some traveling — to actually see and enjoy and take-in the cities they were working in while in the White House. She spoke about how important it is to travel and experience the country and the world in a different way. She also shared that she’s planning to write a book — and that it’s been a great way for her to process everything that has happened and what this means for their new platform in the future.
The conversation then veered back to technology and leadership, and she took to a more serious note. She specifically addressed the college students who have been blessed with the good fortune and opportunity to be here, the most desirable place in this field, “What are you going to do to pass those blessings on? And I think business owners are no different, […] how are you going to replace yourself? How are you going to pull somebody along?”
Silent nods stilled the auditorium.
“Because, here’s the thing, we need you,” she continued. “This nation, this planet, is going to be facing some of the most tremendous challenges. And we are in a room full of problem solvers. We’re in a room full of creators. And we’re going to need your minds working on some of the toughest issues that this nation faces. So are you ready for that? Are you preparing your business, at some level, to be involved in creating those solutions that will save this planet? That will get those girls educated? That’ll make sure all our kids have healthy food? Our problems are so huge, and they require the best minds. So my question is. To what end are you working? Is it just about making money? Is it just about making a cool app? Is it just about what’s trending? Or is there a place in your heart? In your soul? In your business? To be a change-maker for the world?”
For the remainder of the event, I attended talks and read through the source code of the demo applications created with ARKit and CoreML. But my perspective and motivations had already changed. The wild drive to create a cool, new app had been replaced with something far more serious as I stood under the 18-foot display wall that read:
“This is for everything humanly possible. A place where technology meets the liberal arts and the humanities to create new ideas that push us all forward. Where the moments you’ve lived, the songs you’ve heard, and all that inspires you find their application. This is where people unleash technology’s full potential. And vice versa.
This is WWDC.”
“So, what are you going to build?”