At AltConf speakers focus on code, hearts, and minds

AltConf speakers impart best coding and consciousness-raising practices

Much of AltConference, which happens at the same time and almost in the same place as WWDC 2014, is focused on technical information and labs to assist developers with coding problems. But it's not all about the code. It's also about the people.

AltConf is happening across the street from Moscone West, where Apple's putting on WWDC. AltConf includes speaking sessions and panels as well as practical labs, where developers can hear from subject matter experts on issues ranging from code to politics.

To that end, speakers at AltConf have encouraged attendees to adopt a more humanistic, even spiritual approach to their work, while others have tackled stinging social issues that plague the tech industry. It's this focus on social awareness that imparts such a unique flavor to AltConf.

On Tuesday Mike Lee led the charge with a session called "Being Better." Several years ago Lee moved from California to Amsterdam before founding Appsterdam, a non-profit focused on helping app makers (developers, designers and others) based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Lee talked at length about the challenges of the world today - bigotry, intolerance, social inequity, poverty. "[What does] any of this have to do with technology, or programming, or code, or anything?

Speaking to developers, Lee said, "We forget that what we do is empathy as a build a better future, we can and must be better."

Andrew Stone continued that theme later in the day when he gave a talk entitled "Reflections on device addictions, the big data state and alternative futures." He weaved together a narrative that reflected on his own problems as a parent regulating device usage with his own children, our collective cultural obsession at plugging in to our devices, and what we've given up as a society because of it.

Stone, whose talk delved deeply into the mystic, shared an epiphany about interconnectedness - about the network we ourselves create between us as conscious beings. "Our minds together make up the ultimate computer. It is alive and is greater than the sum of its parts." You don't have to connect with phones, game systems, tablets and computers, Stone suggested - humans have shared for millennia what he termed an "indranet."

Stone may have delved into the numinous, but on the following day, Revolution 60 CEO Brianna Wu brought the discussion straight back to earth. She pulled no punches in a presentation entitled "Nine ways to stop hurting and start helping women in tech."

Wu, like many women with high public profiles in the tech industry, is frequently the subject of attacks on social media. She said that she's received multiple threats of violence just since the beginning of the year. She offered nine common sense solutions like "show basic empathy" and "stop making women in tech issues all about men."

It was a dose of strong medicine, but Wu got the message across that men need to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

There's also a lot of practical talk to help developers do better. Dave Wiskus and Brent Simmons shared their experiences making the note-taking app Vesper, while Big Nerd Ranch founder Aaron Hillegass talked about Mac networking. Sally Shepard delved into Accessibility. Jean MacDonald, formerly of Smile Software, offered a session on "Communicating across the geek divide," where she implored developers to remember who they're creating products for.

MacDonald suggested that developers think hard about communicating information in a way that's more easily digestible for the unexperienced and unsophisticated technology users — that words and phrases common to developers and engineers can often be misinterpreted or not understood at all by the layperson. To that end, MacDonald offered up concrete, real-world examples of what not to do, including some culled directly from her own experience at Smile.

I was even part of an AltLabs session at nearby Jillians', where I joined several other journalists and gave indie developers an opportunity to pitch us on their products and get a better understanding of what we look for in appealing press releases and other content.

There's been a lot more, too, and Friday holds even more, for those lucky enough to be part of it. If you're in town for WWDC and you haven't made it to AltConf yet, make sure to. Some of the most interesting and insightful stuff going on at the show is happening there, not across the street at Moscone West.

Have you attended any of the AltConf sessions or watched them on the web site? Let me know what you think.