Matt Gemmell

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Thoughts on Appsterdam

tech, development & community 3 min read

I recently read my friend Mike Lee’s initial and follow-up posts regarding handing over the reins of Appsterdam. I was recently in Amsterdam speaking at mdevcon with Mike, and the following week we were both speaking at NSConference in Reading, England, so we had quite a bit of time to discuss both the Appsterdam initiative itself, and also his intention to alter his role there.

I wasn’t terribly surprised to read (in Mike’s second piece) that some people were either confused as to his motive, or concerned for the future of the organisation. I had a couple of similar comments from others who had read the news. I want to share a few thoughts of my own on what Appsterdam is, what it has the potential to be, and what I think about Mike’s decision.

I had the opportunity to visit the Appsterdam premises when I was in Amsterdam, and to meet many of the people who are part of the movement, and I can understand the confusion of those outside - because it’s a difficult thing to define. Indeed, I think that clarity of identity must naturally become a priority for Appsterdam as it continues to grow.

Investors, local government and even those interested in visiting or participating in Appsterdam are understandably eager to contextualise it as something familiar. Maybe it’s a social club for developers and their families, or an incubator or accelerator for app start-ups, or an adult education facility for software makers. I can’t deny that it’s any of those things, because they’re all part of its focus and goals, but none of those titles characterise it.

For me, Appsterdam is a grander (and slightly woolier) thing than that. It’s an attempt to answer a question that many of us in the software/technical industry have asked ourselves, usually in the aftermath of a particularly engaging, educational, motivation-refuelling conference or similar meeting of minds: why can’t it be like this all the time?

That question, to me, is at the root of Appsterdam’s identity - with everything around it being simply the multiple means to that end. As Mike will be delighted to tell you should you ask him, the kernel of Appsterdam was formed at the 2011 iteration of NSConference, which I’ve written about previously. That particular conference affected me, and Mike, quite profoundly. It was a perfect storm of multiple factors (some organisational, some social, and some personal) that crystallised the value of conference-like situations in the modern age. Not the dissemination of information (we have the internet for that), but rather the human aspect: the mutual interest and motivations, the sense of cooperation and shared trials, the networking, the experience of other perspectives, and the psyche-refuelling quality of being with dozens, scores or hundreds of like minds, for a single purpose.

That description trivially applies to a good conference; Appsterdam is an effort to make it apply to a community at all times. Appsterdam is an effort to distill the essence of our best (temporary) social and professional interactions, and make them persistent. The somewhat Stephen King-esque idea of a conference that goes on forever, and you can attend whenever you’d like.

For that very reason, it’s a misunderstanding to think that a single person taking a step back from organisational and directional responsibilities is somehow the death knell of the movement, because Appsterdam is as decentralised in ethos as an organisation can be. Its membership is fluid, its calendar is multivariate, and its goals are general and founded on a sense of community, rather than a budget, a fiscal year, or a release schedule.

You can’t talk to Mike for more than five minutes without realising that he has a gift for incisive analogies when speaking, and metaphors when writing. Perhaps in this case, the suitable analogy is that of the Lernaean Hydra.

The other side of Appsterdam is Mike’s own role in it, and here lies the crux of the matter. For the very reason that Appsterdam is intended to be broad, to be environmental and ambient rather than corporate and specifically-embodied, there comes a time when every individual must step back from it. In a sense, indeed, that’s Appsterdam’s ultimate function: a nutrient-rich growth culture from which other things can sprout. Not to contain, but to influence and to enable; it’s the greenhouse, not the garden.

Appsterdam can, and should, have milestones and goals, but by its nature it’s not something that can be considered to ever have “shipped”.

Mike has two primary strengths, in my experience: he has an almost unmatched ability to focus, through any degree of distraction, and he’s a master of the possible. He sees the seed of value in an idea (or lack thereof), and he intuitively understands when and where to compromise (or not). He’s a product person; indeed, he could scarcely be moreso. Mike requires a context in which he can ship.

Appsterdam has benefitted from his energy and vision, but now it requires to benefit from his example, instead - and there’s no greater legitimisation of a fundamentally social movement than to see a success story. I believe that Mike’s next venture - that of educational software for iOS - will be both of those things.

I also believe that Appsterdam is not only multi-headed enough to survive and benefit from his stepping back, but that a successful spun-off software business can only serve to fully legitimise the movement, and attract the next generation of app makers to do it all over again.