Last weekend I attended Swift & Fika conference in Stockholm.
‘Swift’ is an iOS development language and ‘Fika’ is roughly translated from Swedish as a “coffee and cake break”.
In Sweden, fika is a concept very much baked (excuse the amazing pun) into the culture. For many people, it’s a day to day ritual by which it is important to take time from your schedule to pause, sit with friends or colleagues and catch up over coffee. This is thought to freshen the brain and enhance relationships.
Fika sets aside some time to appreciate the important things in life. Somewhat different to London in which drinking coffee is usually done when I get to work to attempt to wake myself up…
Anyway, the ethos of fika was very much at the centre of the organisation of the conference. As well as a brilliant collection of speakers sharing their knowledge on different aspects of Swift development, plenty of time was made for getting to know other conference attendees.
Apple open sourced the Swift language, which means that the public can make suggestions and contribute (it may or may not get accepted). As a result it is important that there is a strong (online and in person) community around the language so that it can be built and used in different ways in order for it to grow and improve. Conferences are a great place to make connections with and learn from other people using a language, therefore the fika breaks and social focus were really important, so much so that the whole of the first day was dedicated to social activities.
The social activity I signed up for involved a trip to Enterspace VR, Sweden’s largest virtual reality (VR) centre. As part of the conference ticket you could choose from a range of activities. There were also the options to go on a bike tour around the city, learn how to take portrait photos at Photografiska and then see a photography gallery, go bouldering, visit a museum or go to a theme park.
Enterspace VR was amazing! We were put into groups of three and took part in two VR experiences. If you haven’t used VR before; you wear a headset (and in this case a back pack) and are immersed in a 3d / 360 virtual world that responds to its environment.
VR is probably best known for its use within gaming, but at the moment VR technology is still a bit too expensive for the masses to have in our homes. However, if you have a smart phone, you can actually use it with a Google cardboard (can be bought for around £2) and try out different VR experiences. I would recommend Google expeditions. In these expeditions you can witness the northern lights, ice glaciers, safari, caves, coral reefs and even outer space. It is actually marketed to be used in classrooms to allow students to go on virtual school trips, making it a way for people to see other parts of the world, even if they are unable to go physically.
This experience was especially fun, as not only could you walk around a world, you could also pick up objects in the world and play games. This is known as ‘mixed reality’. If I wasn’t immersed in another world but objects were added to the real world then that would be AR (Augmented Reality – think Pokemon Go). So mixed reality is a combo or AR and VR. We then went to an amazing arcade bar called Hey sthlm and then I had nice dinner (Pizzahatt) with 5 people, we were put together at random by the conference organisers.
The next day I arrived at the conference venue, the very grand Norra Latin. I walked around the sponsor stands collecting free pens. The talks kicked off with a ukulele performance (21 mins in) with a parody of Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’ along the theme of mentoring (“So your app is going to run forever, or it’s going to go up in flames…”).
As I work as a back end web developer day to day, I wasn’t sure how much of the talks I would understand given that I have been learning Swift (mobile development) in my own time and I am new to it. I wasn’t too worried about this as I believe that if you are new to learning something, it is still very beneficial to go and watch talks about that subject.
Sometimes it is useful to know that concepts within a language exist even if you are not going to be implementing them yourself yet, as it helps you to understand the terminology. Also if there are things that you don’t understand, you can write them down and then either ask someone else from the conference or look them up online after. Always good to throw yourself into the fire if you are learning something new.
Fortunately I understood more than I expected as many concepts crossed over with things that I have learnt from Ruby and more recently Java. Daniel Kennett’s talk was about adventures in API design. Daniel has built an app called Cascable, used for working with wifi enabled digital cameras.
He spoke about weighing up where to put the API boundary, aka how much do you want the user to implement themselves vs how much work do you want to put into making it as simple for them as possible. These concepts were very much applicable to web dev.
Same with the security talk by Anastasiia Vixentael, a crypto library author. She advised to use out of the box solutions aka ‘boring crypto’ in which you do not need to worry too much about the details of how it has been written, again very much applicable to web development.
Some talks were more iOS specific, Janina Kutyn’s talk analysed how common iOS technologies performed and Meghan Kane spoke about a variety of machine learning tools for iOS. Both talks made me aware of libraries and tools to experiment with, one of which being CoreML which Meghan teaches a Udacity course on.
After the conference there was an after party at Spotify HQ. I go to a lot of tech companies for events but Spotify had by far the best office I have been to. It had roof terraces with amazing views across the city, centre to the view was the Royal Palace of Stockholm… doesn’t get much classier than that.
There was a bar, great sound system, karaoke, but the best part was watching Lula XYZ perform. Lula is a multi disciplinary artist and creates stunning audio/visual performances. I was intrigued to see her perform with mi.mu gloves. These gloves are fitted with electronic sensors and allow music to be controlled through expressive movement as opposed to sliders or buttons.
The opener ‘North Star Fading’ was exceptionally powerful, layering rich textures of sound over moving visuals (meaning emotionally moving, though of course the animations also moved) and a poem written by Lula, inspired by the true testimonies of 4 Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe.
Attending Swift and Fika was made possible for me, as I was awarded a diversity grant. This meant that my flights, accommodation and conference ticket were all paid for. It is amazing when conferences offer grants as it shows they are actively welcoming under represented people to attend.
Offering grants alone is not enough if the conference is a hostile environment when under represented people arrive, but Swift and Fika took this into serious consideration and it felt like a safe space.
I would urge people eligible to apply for diversity grants as they can give you the opportunity to attend events, meet people and get more involved in the development community. In my case Natalia, an iOS lead at iZettle (a diversity sponsor of the conference), met me the morning after I arrived, took me for coffee and showed me around. I felt really welcomed and from the outset, I knew I had someone I could contact if I needed help with anything.
I left feeling really inspired and excited to continue learning Swift. I now feel like I know a lot of people that I could turn to for help or advice. I will be writing about some of my ventures into learning Swift so keep an eye on this blog for more.