Unite Europe 2017: The geek in wonderlands, through Unity Without Borders

Unite is the big conference event by Unity, you know, Unity? The game engine? Anyway. As a software engineer and a game developer, getting the opportunity to attend such an event was a bit of a big deal. Here’s how.

Since this might be long, I’ll break it down into parts, so you can just scroll to the part you might find relevant.

1 — Applying for UWB: did I even expect to get picked?

I think I was randomly browsing the Unity website (sometime I do just to check out what’s new, OR to read change logs, now that is something I enjoy) and then I find about a program called Unity Without Borders (or UWB) I thought it’s cool so I applied. Honestly I did not expect to be picked, because I thought they will be picking based on talent and such, and with only 50 spots, I didn’t think I would make it. I still applied, partly because I wanted to show a little plugin i made, just to see if anyone finds it interesting (maybe? I don’t know why I thought that anyway).

A while later, I get an email about me being accepted in the program, and paperwork and filling surveys is about to begin, while still surprised this is happening in the first place. We were told to be prepared to apply for Visas, and to be on standby, as it might take a while.

2 — The visa struggle: this is not happening to me.

Just to put you in perspective: I’m Tunisian, working in Edmonton, AB Canada, as an AIESEC exchange program participant. Which means to I will need to apply for a Schengen Visa to go to The Netherlands, which would be in The Consulate General of the Netherlands in Vancouver.

Around easter, we had a long weekend, so I decided to go on a road trip to Vancouver with friends (yay) which was also amazing. first day in there, I get a long Email, with steps to fix the visa. The email had many attached documents, and it says that I should apply for an appointment as soon as possible. You’d say, “how convenient!” since I’m already there.

I called my boss, told him how great this will be, and told him that I will be missing work for another couple of days, until I apply for visa.

Staying in a hotel for few more days, and booking a flight back home were some unexpected expenses, but it was so worth it, to attend a conference as big as Unite.

Anyway, thing is, UWB team sent SOME of the needed papers, but not all of them (such as flight info and hotel accommodation) but they said they will provide that ASAP. I asked the consulate on the phone if I can apply with missing papers, and send the rest later. It was a no go. About a day from the appointment, I email UWB to ask them about the papers. They said I might need to change the appointment, next week to be safe, because the full package is not ready.

It was not an option, because I couldn't afford to neither stay, nor fly back next week.

I was emailing UWB back and forth, he’s part of the conversation:

“… If I don’t get the invitation before the appointment, I will be missing one of biggest opportunities I’ve ever got in my life. Please do whatever you can to make this happen, as i’ve been waiting for years for something like this to happen.”
“… I won’t be able to afford to go to Vancouver again next week. This is pretty much my only chance at this, as non Canadians must apply in person.”

I know, I sounded kind of desperate at the end, but honestly, I was too hyped not to go now. Somehow, I wasn’t feeling good, because i knew my luck is going to betray me. I mean, I thought there will be a huge wait list for such sponsorship. If I can’t go, I’m pretty sure someone else will be glad to. Funny thing, visiting Vancouver was in my bucket list for years. Beautiful city. And i got to stay there a couple more days than intended! But I almost couldn’t enjoy it as I should have, because of the stress caused by the whole thing. I was walking in the streets, with a voice in my head saying this:

“So, you have been given the opportunity to go to THE Unite Europe, something that maybe you can’t afford anytime soon, for FREE, and with people to help you out with the visa. Guess what? You are going to miss it, and feel like crap about it. Also, you booked a flight and stayed longer in the hotel, couple more days off work, all for nothing. One more thing, You wanted to visit Vancouver for so long right? Well you will not enjoy it because this whole thing is gonna ruin it for you. HA!”

It felt like life was mocking me or something. Stressed out, I couldn’t help but let a few tears out.

“Ok — we’re going to try to make this happen for you.
Stay tuned. You may not get the personalized info for the travel insurance, but we should be able to get you a flight and invitation letter by end of day.”

That’s the email i got from UWB, a day before the appointment.

I was walking down the streets, in tears, when I got this. It was amazing how these tears turned into tears of joy. It felt like someone had my back. I was grinning like mad. I sent a thank you email, and later that day, I got the papers, that I printed, and everything was set.

Next day, literally 30 minutes before the appointment, I thought of something, that I should have thought about a while back:

I will be giving my passport to get stamped, and get it later by post, and since I didn’t have a Canadian ID yet (Yes, my Tunisian ID was not recognized in there…) How the hell I’m going to board a plane without an ID? (Since my passport is my ID) And there goes another freak out.

I was all over the place, calling my boss, the airline company and the consulate, looking for answers in such scenario. No one knew.

I had few options to check:

1-Can I ship my passport later? That was a no, I was told on the phone.

2-Can I get on the plane without a passport? YES, it needs to be either a photo ID, or two non-photo IDs, all government issued. I had none of that.

3-I had the safe option: to just go home, and miss this after all the struggle. But this is going to suck. So, no way.

4-To give away my passport in the morning, and have few hours to figure out how to get some sort of ID; the airlines customer support said that a fishing license for example is fast and easy to get (I swear this is true). The catch here, if I don’t get an ID by the time of the flight, I can’t go home, I’ll have no ID, and also I won’t be able to check at a hotel, because, no ID. I will be homeless in a strange city.

I thought, I pushed my luck so far, let’s go for it all the way. I went to the consulate, and I had even more bad news; I was missing a letter from my employer stating he is allowing me to leave, and that I will be going back by the end of the event (I did NOT know I needed this) and also missing pay-stubs (Now I didn’t think I needed this because Unity took care of all expenses). This did not sound good. I explained my situation, and I suggested I ship anything missing, along with my passport, as soon as I get back home to Edmonton. They said OK. Phew! we’re done! Went home, shipped what’s missing, aaaaaaand I realized i missed the apartment number in the address. Also, I lost the tracking number for my passport. Of course, after all this, I needed to make at least one more mistake! Anyway, I got it (By putting a sign on the front door telling the delivery person not to return it, and he actually called me to confirm this, thanks man!)

I also reached out to UWB and kept them updated, as I was the first to do this, I felt this info might be helpful to others (I basically made all the mistakes for them haha)

And there we go. Got the visa, filled all the surveys for the folks at UWB, and now we wait!

3 — Amsterdam! Oh boy, that city is gorgeous.

…Plane landed, it was a bit of a long trip.

As soon as I arrived, I was facing the famous I Amsterdam letters. Of course, I had to.

I shouldn’t take long to arrive to the Holiday Inn Express, but it took me an hour and a half to figure things out. I was just so in a hurry to check-in, leave my luggage, and just go discover the city.

There was some huge jet lag (it’s 10 hours difference between Edmonton and Amsterdam after all) So i thought i’d get a one hour nap to get me refreshed. I overslept. For 6 HOURS. It was time to discover the night life of the city. I walked for 8 hours straight, jumping from a place to place, and had a blast just admiring how beautiful the city is!

Of course, I had to pay a visit to some of the cultural places, such as the Red Light District (Well, I had to know what the fuss is all about, right?) Actually, it gets even cooler by 2 AM. It’s quiet, and just magical.

Next morning went for some more walking. The parks were so pretty and green, I’m still amazed by the number of bikes, and everyone seem to be nicer/happier/chill. Maybe It’s the weed? I mean let’s face it, elsewhere, you’d smell the weed, but you don’t really see where it’s coming from. In Amsterdam, you see the joint before you smell it! So since it’s very common, maybe that’s why.

Anyway, I had the morning, to enjoy, before I head to THE meetup!

4 — UWB: the meetup!

We were informed that the UWB participants will be having a meeting (with the education participants, Unity is paying attention to that field also). We had time to talk about game development, meet, play a little quiz, and stuff. It was really interesting, to see the different people of the UWB, from Iran, Turkey, Cameroon, and so on.

But before we get to do that, they gathered us for badging, and then they gave us money. Yes. I mean actual money, cash? As if this whole thing didn’t feel too good yet, It had to feel better than Christmas, eh? Anyway, right after that, we went for the meetup.

Over all, It was so much fun hearing about people’s stories, their background, and how they got here in the first place.

I got to meet Gosia Nędzi from Unity, who did a brilliant job at managing participants like a duck gathering little ducklings. She was very nice. There was a whole team behind UWB, which unfortunately I couldn’t get to thank them all, so, thank you guys, really grateful for your efforts!

I had a fun little chat with Alison Manel, also from Unity, such a sweetheart. I was talking a bit about “The struggle”, and she said “Yeah I remember that, how we had to rush it”. I got up, and said “I’m sorry, but i’m gonna have to hug you now”.

I also asked her about Aras Pranckevičius, the guy who did the graphics plumbing at Unity. I wanted to let him know that I enjoy reading his blog so much that I usually do so after bring chips or popcorn. She asked him on Slack, he couldn’t make it, but she took a picture of me and sent it to him, just so he knows (told you she was a sweetheart haha)

When I come to think about it, I mean I have almost no experience in event organization, but I know for sure that bringing a guest to your event from just another city is a big hassle. You need to plan the transportation, schedule everything, book hotels, taxis, and so on. Even with the financial and human resources, it is a big challenge! You know what these guys did? They were bringing 50 guests, from countries all around the world, paying for all their expenses, and organizing every aspect of their trip from start to end. And they brought THE HARDEST PEOPLE THEY CAN BRING THERE. We’re talking people from countries where it is extremely difficult to get a Schengen visa from. I’m pretty sure that most participants — me included — are just happy to be there, and don’t even realize how amazing and how much effort it took to make this happen. I mean sure, over 10 people got their visa rejected and couldn’t make it, which is a bit sad, but still, the whole thing is mind blowing.

I asked Alison “Holy crap, how did you pull this off?” And she immediately answered, almost like a reflex “I have no idea.” I think she mentioned that making it happen involved some tears, (same for me haha!) and then I promised this will be mentioned in a “big-ass blog post” that i’m going to write about this, and the whole experience. So, voila!

It was also a nice surprise to meet with John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity, walking around the participants introducing himself and getting to know them (Yes, some people didn’t know who he was, which is funny if you ask me)

And to see this from a different angle, I was asking myself, “WHY?”, why did Unity do this? And I get it, it’s about supporting the community. Most major companies do this, build a community, and be generous to them. Because they day you make a mistake (and everyone eventually does, no one is perfect) you will have a community to back you up and keep you in the game. But this is on an other level, it was really hard to pull off, meant a lot to these people, and let’s be honest, it was done with style. Hat’s off. And honestly, it’s because they put so much effort in this that i’m writing this article. THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW.

5 — Unite Europe 2017: IS THIS REAL

The event was broken down into 3 days, first it was THE keynote, and then a couple of days of showcases, chatting with the experts, networking and watching speakers showing us how it’s done.

After reception, there was the keynote, which got me super excited, with many awesome announcements, from The Unity Connect platform, to the cloud builds, and all the other awesome features added to Unity 2017, such as the cinematic timeline, and kick ass performance optimizations. It was the biggest tech event I’ve ever been to, so you can imagine the hype on a geek like me.

The party was pretty cool, plenty of tasty foods and drinks, nice music and great atmosphere overall to meet new people from the gaming industry, or just to kick back and relax, so your brain can absorb all the info it gathered during the day!

The next couple of days were also amazing, jumping from track to track trying to catch the most interesting talks. It’s pretty awesome that they had food trucks IN THE VENUE, so you don’t have to take a break and go look for food. Everything from burgers to hotdogs, milkshakes, fresh fruits, you name it, just jump from track to track, grab something to eat, but don’t take a break! And of course, navigating the space was very easy, and deciding what to see next was pretty straightforward thanks to the Unite mobile app (which sometimes did cute little announcements, like “come to the reception for a shirt and goodies and stuff”).

The talks were pretty awesome, and there is material for everyone, from artists, who want to learn about better pipelines, to programers and how they can squeeze more juice out of the GPU, or even bleeding edge tech in the AR/VR/MR worlds.

The venue had booths for every major player in the gaming industry, from Nintendo, to Sony, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Samsung, and many others. Unity Also had booths for different purposes, to ask about specific features, the Editor, Unity Connect, Collaboration, Education, Careers, and so on. Basically they have everything you need, just in case you had questions. And if that wasn’t enough they had a dome full of experts that you can ask questions, next to a couple of domes where they had a Made with Unity showcase, with awesome games. It was really nice talking to Lucas Meijer, Technical Director at Unity, and Joachim Ante, CTO at Unity, about a couple of technical choices Unity made regarding their engine. I learned a trick or two for sure!

The event was so great, that it made the shitstorm I’ve been through fades into nothing. It was my first Unite, and I sure hope it won’t be the last.

Thank you everyone, who made this experience possible.