Apple Yeah... who are you?

Unknowable

Each year, the race to get a ticket for WWDC is on. Even with early warning, the window of ticket availability shrinks with every passing year. 2013 being no different: 2 minutes.

Capping the number of tickets is a classic Apple move: we’re going to create a sense of exclusivity by creating an artificial constraint. Moscone Center is huge. Apple could blink and triple the size of the event, but I can’t think of the last time the ticket ceiling at WWDC went up. 5000 attendees – that’s it.

WWDC is a great event. I’ve been going for years without a ticket and I still have amazing nights spending time with dear friends debating the state of Apple. Logic would dictate that increasing the number of tickets would increase the “product”: the army of foaming-at-the-mouth fanboys’n’girls who, I believe, are one of the best (and cheapest?) organic marketing assets in the industry.

Nope. 5000. That’s it.

This type of constraint reeks of Steve Jobs. The rumor at Apple was that Steve capped many of the teams in Cupertino. Mac OS X and Marketing Communications being two successful teams that had their headcount capped. During the 2000s, while Apple was gaining traction across the planet, the team responsible for getting the word out, Marketing Communications (“MarCom”), was allegedly capped at 100 heads. The reasoning I heard was that Steve wanted to keep the teams feeling small, but, more importantly, I think he wanted to keep them knowable.

Of course, with the amount of work they had to produce supporting WWDCs, MacWorlds, product launches, and all the other advertising, they relied on expensive external vendors to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. While back in Cupertino, the 100 represented a small, well-understood group where I believe Steve could not only easily understand every single story being told by Apple, but, more importantly, the 100 could know each other.

When you talk about change or optimum team sizes, Dunbar’s number is usually thrown down as scientific evidence of something you already know in your bones. Shit gets weird somewhere between 100 and 200 people. You can no longer keep the individual state of each of the other people in your team or company in your head. Which means communication becomes more taxing. Rather than walking up to Fred and saying, “What’s up?” you cautiously walk up to a person you don’t know and sheepishly ask, “Yeah… who are you?”

What was easy becomes hard. What used to be maintained in your head now involves an extra email or an additional meeting. What was familiar becomes unfamiliar and frustrating. Culture is diluted, communication becomes taxed, and people start saying, “I remember when…”

Capping the headcount of a team necessary to shaping the story of an increasingly successful company seems counter-intuitive. We’re doing well, we should invest more. This type of thinking puts a big discount on the taxes associated with rapid team growth with, in my opinion, being able to easily discern what is going on in a team of people being number one.

Apple’s MarCom department being capped at 100 achieved two very different objectives. First, it made the work the team was doing knowable – you could discern who was doing what because there just weren’t that many full-time people. This allowed for dictatorial control that has given Apple clear and consistently messaging. Second, the constraint meant that every single person counted. While I never worked on the team, I’m certain they were much quicker in dealing with low performers because you could still discern the difference one additional high performing person would make. While this could certainly be viewed as a constant threat of being fired, it could also make for a high performing team.

The effects of capping WWDC tickets are different because you’re talking about a larger population, but some of the effects are the same. Each year, WWDC is held in Moscone West. You know that the big Apple logo will be emblazoned on the side of the building. You know the names of the conference rooms, you know where the snacks will be. But, for me, I know who will be there. I end up in the same bars with the same dear friends and we get foamy at the mouth about Apple because we feel like we know it.

The cap on WWDC tickets means it won’t go the way of SXSW – a wildly successful conference that has grown consistently since its inception. I used to go every year until one late night we looked around a huge sea of strangers and decided that we no longer knew this conference. The experience had become diluted. It had become unfamiliar, full of strangers, and unknowable.

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9 Responses

  1. Your reasoning for capping team size is valid, how is linked to WWDC ? “Easily tripling” the attendee size would make the sessions, usually given by Apple engineers on the team, into unsupportable mobs. Lot of the sessions are full to begin with. The theory also doesn’t hold up when looking at Google. Google, who could easily argue has the opposite philosophy on focused development and community inclusiveness, caps Google IO held in the same building as WWDC, at 5500.

  2. Um, I help a bit with organizing Google IO, also in Moscone West, also capped at 5K-ish, also an instant sell-out.

    You say “Moscone Center is huge. Apple could blink and triple the size of the event” and I really disagree. Once you get over 5K you move from Moscone West to Moscone N/S, which is a vastly higher level of commitment, financially and logistically. On top of which, Moscone W is a nice light airy space, while N/S are basement shit-holes.

    Now, your argument concerning exclusivity is probably valid, but I think the amount of work/money involved when you bust out of Moscone West, coupled with the quality of the attendee experience, are very significant factors too.

  3. @tbray My point was there was space there not that it’d be a good event – they’d have the option if they wanted.

    And, yeah, Moscone N/S are basement shit-holes.

  4. This would be an entirely academic discussion if attendance at WWDC were not for all practical purposes the only way to get answers to thorny iOS/OSX development questions once you’ve given up on the black hole that is Radar.

    I get the motivation for keeping it small, but this is far from an unalloyed good. The “Tech Talks” roadshow is at least a step in the right direction, but frankly they should be duplicating WWDC itself: California in May, New York City in October, London in February? It’d be a start at least.

    (Or, I guess, they could actually fix Radar and let internal engineers kibbitz regularly on forum threads, but now we’re well into the realm of science fiction.)

  5. Steven Fisher 3 years ago

    For what it’s worth, Doctor Memory, I’ve got excellent responses out of DTS Incidents.

  6. Ryan Gray 3 years ago

    So, capped attendance is good because it keeps it many people from enjoying it and doesn’t clutter your field of view with people you haven’t met it forgot you met.

  7. As it was explained to me once, it was Phil, not Steve, who enforced the cap, 7+ years ago. I was not involved, so could easily be wrong.

  8. Peter 3 years ago

    So, Doctor M., once Apple’s engineers are prepping for multiple WWDCs per year, or kibbitzing regularly on forum threads, who will be left to write the software?

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