Philly CocoaHeads: History

Being the lead organizer of the Philly chapter of CocoaHeads, I always welcome the opportunity to chat with members of other meetups. It’s great to compare notes on how we run our groups, what’s worked and what’s failed. In particular I’ve recently chatted with the leadership of the Nashville CocoaHeads and was also able to attend an Atlanta CocoaHeads meeting while visiting Big Nerd Ranch. It was a great experience and has me inspired to capture some of my thoughts here on the blog. This first article is a walk down memory lane to document the history of Philly CocoaHeads.

Getting Started

The Philly chapter of CocoaHeads started out of IndyHall in 2008. IndyHall is a coworking space, a place for people who can work from home but choose not to; perhaps because they want a work/home separation or just to participate in the greater creative community. Back then IndyHall was still fairly young but had attracted together a strong tech following including:

  • Andy Mroczkowski and Far McKon who were working for the local company Neat, and their Mac software / scanner combo.
  • Jason Allum who was working on RipIt (which would later be sold to The Little App Factory).
  • Dave Martorana who had a few apps, including MultiFirefox and Multiplex (a media server app ahead of its time).
  • Joah Aas, who worked for the Mozilla organization and is now most known for his help with the Let’s Encrypt project.
  • Randy Zauhar, a local professor teaching Bioinformatics and Chemistry at University of Sciences. Randy had previous help run and host a group called: PHAD, Philadelphia Apple Developers.
  • And myself. I was a basic IndyHall member and was working on ProfitTrain updates at the time.

Philadelphia Apple Developers (PHAD) never grew to be anything very large but I remember it fondly. It would usually be about 4-6 of us sharing a pizza and showing each other our Cocoa projects. I vividly remember Randy showing off his spreadsheet app which listed chemical equations on one side and then had an OpenGL cell rendering the compositions on the other. I also remember doing talks on Subversion and then Core Data. Again, they were small meetings but having even a few people who were interested in or working in Cocoa back then to bounce ideas off was a huge win.

The early meetings of our group were ran by Andy Mroczkowski and actually marketed under the name PhillyCocoa and not CocoaHeads. The meetings were very demo heavy with lots of roundtable questions and discussions filling in the cracks. Some members took to working on a side project, a calculator, outside of the meeting. The project didn’t get too far but the remanence of it have been preserved on GitHub.

Early IndyHall

This is a photo of IndyHall, Strawberry Street Edition. The first “CocoaHeads” meeting was held in that back meeting hut.

As the iOS SDK (or iPhone SDK as it was called back then) was announced there was a serge in new members and interest in the group. The biggest hurdle seemed to be Objective-C itself so we planned and ran a workshop.

Over two Saturdays, mixing lecture time and coding exercises from Learn Objective-C on the Mac, by Mark Dalrymple, Scott Knaster we got 12 or so people a head start on iPhone programming.

New Leadership

Meetings continued, now at IndyHall’s new home on 3rd Street (or N3RD Street as it would come to be known as). Eventually a December meeting was announced and Andy let it be know that if you were interested in the future of PhillyCocoa to attend. At the meeting Andy announced his upcoming departure to head to San Fransisco to be apart of a startup. Two volunteers came forward to help organize the group in his stead, myself and Mike Deaven.

Meeting Format Changes

Over the next year me and Mike enacted a handful of changes we’d hope improve the group.

An Early IndyHall Meeting

One immediate change we did was move the website to WordPress. Previously Andy had a custom Ruby CMS / publish thing going and it wasn’t easily portable. I was able to get all of the old post converted into WordPress. The main goal here being enable multiple people to post and not have the code be machine dependent.

Another change was subtle, but I started to embrace the CocoaHeads brand in our naming and introductions. I always was aware of them and to me it seemed helpful to take the name and have our chapter listed on the main global site.

We also started to fiddle with the meeting format itself. Moving the pizza / social time to the front end of the meeting. This helped since we usually had a lot of stragglers arrive between 6:30 and 7:00, so by having the pizza upfront we could make sure to start the meeting with everyone present.

I also started to be a little more rigid in the introductions, making sure to repeat the basics of the group, who we were, what we did, when we met. I wanted new people to quickly get a sense of expectations.

Another IndyHall Meeting

The hardest thing back then was getting people to do talks. There were many meetings in the early days where we did not have a formal speaker and so it was on my shoulders to build a presentation to keep the group entertained. It was a lot of work but I think a major reason why we were later became more successful. I think it’s incredibly important to be consistent, to have that meeting every 2nd Thursday no matter what. Setting up that pattern and not giving into canceling meetings really helped solidify the group.

To help spur talks we started to request smaller commitments, show and tell time. A short talk or demo usually 5-15m in length. Much less to prepare and much less anxiety. It started slow but eventually kicked off a pattern of people coming forward to do talks, even “main” talks.

Adding Members through Meetup.com

Up to this point Philly CocoaHeads did not promote itself too much. You heard about it through word of mouth or via IndyHall announcements. Looking to grow the community we decided to join Meetup.com for more exposure. It took a few months to get going but eventually started to bring in tons of new faces. Meetings quickly grew from about 10-12 people, closer to 20-25.

As of today we have about 870 registered members on Meetup.com. Now most of them are not active members. I’d guess if you defined “active” as participated in a group event sometime in the last 12 months, you’d probably end up with ~200 members.

Alfie joins us from NY via a Double

Alfie joins us from NY via a Double.

New Events and Expanding the Leadership

When iOS 7 was announced we decided to do a special hack day to celebrate. We sold tickets to help buy a nice catered lunch and gathered at IndyHall on Saturday to hack on new iOS 7 APIs. The event was a huge success.

One newer member wanted to help do this more often and so Tom Piarulli joined the leadership to help run what has now become known as Side Project Saturday. SPS is typically the last Saturday of the month, starting at 10am and running until about 5pm. People come and go, work on their side projects, ask questions and otherwise socialize with their fellow geeks.

Tom at a SPS right after the WWDC announcements.

At around the same time the leadership also welcomed Kotaro Fujita to help run our website and Twitter account.

Kotaro talks about his favorite tool.

Moving to the Apple Store

We are fortunate enough to have a very nice Apple Store here in Philadelphia. Sometime in 2013 I was approached by the business relations manager from the store. He came to a few meetings and introduced himself. He was really impressed with our group and offered to help us out and possibly host the meeting.

I was kind of torn. We had our start at IndyHall and while we were definitely starting to outgrow the space I didn’t want to leave. Me and Kotaro took a trip to the Apple Store to checkout the Briefing Room. The room is incredibly nice. It’s on the second floor of the store, not open to the public. It’s kind of a VIP area for larger demos and meetings. It had 5 mounted TVs, all wired up for AirPlay and sound. A huge wood table with 16 swivel chairs but plenty of space around the edges for fold up chairs. Fully laid out we could host 40-45 people and have a great AV setup to help support the speakers.

We made the move in November 2013 and it’s worked out great. The space is extremely accommodating and many of the members certainly enjoy the prestige of getting to meet in such a private venue.

Apple Store Meeting

Workshops, Suburb Side Project Saturdays, and CocoaLove

In 2014, Curtis Herbert who had already been very active in the community as well as doing some talks for us joined the leadership team and started multiple new projects.

Curtis teaching his ObjC Workshop

Firstly was CocoaLove, which started out best as I can recall as friendly outburst during my “Industry News” section while reviewing upcoming conferences. “Why don’t we have any conferences here in Philly?” — and so it began. CocoaLove is not an official child of CocoaHeads but we obviously share a lot of the same goals.

Curtis also helped spur new educational events we came to call Workshops. Typically one day, 5 hour events with paid for tickets (most money going to the speaker to help compensate them for prep time). We ran about six or so over the last year and a half, covering introductions to Objective-C and then later Swift, App Marketing, UX design, and more. Workshops are incredibly loved by our members and sell out quickly. The hardest part about running them is the custom content creation. We have some ideas on how to improve that moving forward and hope to offer more Workshops in the year ahead so stay tuned.

Marketing Workshop

And finally we have our “Suburb” edition of Side Project Saturday. The city of Philadelphia is very flat and wide, with an extended suburban layout. We have many members who live outside the city and can not always participate with our center city events. To help, we started running a “Suburb” edition of our Side Project Saturday event. These are held at the Apple Store in King of Prussia. We’ve been able to host a few and hope to do more. Again, Curtis has been very helpful in organizing this.

Videos

In 2015 we continued to evolve and expand what we offer, this time with recordings. We’ve been talking about recordings for awhile but in 2015 things started to fall into place. I’ll go into detail as to how we record in a future blog post, but put simply it’s capturing what video we pipe to the monitors and then using a lapel microphone for the speaker to capture their voice. After the meeting we match the two together and then publish to Vimeo. During the fall we also added a custom AppleTV app which streams the content as well (search for “CocoaHeads” and you’ll find it).

Video Capture Setup

Apple TV App

Book Club

Another new endeavor for 2015 was the Book Club. We started it over the summer reading through Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X and then restarted it this winter with HackingWithSwift.com. Book Club basically has members work through chapters and then meet online to discuss how it went. Over the summer we met every other week, while the winter edition has been more aggressive doing it every Monday. A big thanks to Michael Mayer for helping to run the latest Book Club season.

The Future

So it’s 2016 and things continue to look good. I’d say the biggest problem we have is that we occasionally max out of room occupancy at the Apple Store but not enough to really justify a new venue. We also recognize our website could use a lot of work to meet our high standards but it remains a fairly low priority overall.

As the main organizer I’m extremely lucky to have such great support from the members and the rest of the leadership. There is no way we could do this much work if it wasn’t for the many volunteers we have. I’m extremely proud of the community we’ve made and continue to run.

Recommendations

To those running similar meet ups a few closing recommendations:

  • Be consistent with meeting dates and locations.
  • Be willing to do a lot of personal presentations and/or MC of roundtables when other speakers are not available in the early days.
  • Don’t be afraid to shake people down for talks. Also remember it’s much easier to get them to sign up for a talk a few months from now than in a few weeks. Take advantage of that.
  • If meeting after work try to have some food and drink available. We do pizza cause it’s relatively cheap and easy. You want to feed them but remember they aren’t coming for the food. In the early days a donation jar can usually cover most of the costs, later you might need sponsorship. I’ll have more to say on that in the future.
  • Help spread the responsibilities. Even smaller things like handing the food, taking meeting notes or running the group Twitter helps turn “the group” into “our group”.
  • Have fun.