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Interview: Dave Verwer

We talk about iOS Dev Weekly, app review times, developer health, and more.

Paul Hudson       @twostraws

There are lots of newsletters for Apple developers to read, but if there’s one that stands out above the rest – both for its longevity but also its enduring popularity – it’s iOS Dev Weekly. Behind that newsletter is Dave Verwer, but he also runs iOS Dev Directory and iOS Dev Jobs, while also traveling the world speaking at iOS events.

I caught up with Dave ahead of WWDC to talk about his iOS journey so far, what makes iOS Dev Weekly tick, and why the future is brighter than ever for folks building native iOS apps…

Hacking with Swift: Although I think you're best known for running iOS Dev Weekly, your first project for the iOS developer community was App Review Times. How do you think such public insight to app review helped shape our expectations?

“If you were working with clients it was almost impossible to manage their expectations.”

Dave Verwer: It’s sometimes hard to remember how frustrating that delay was in the early years of the App Store. It wasn't even the length of the delay that was the main problem, it was more that you could wait one week for several reviews in a row, but then sometimes it could take 3 weeks! That was frustrating enough working on your own apps, which is mostly what I was doing at the time, but if you were working with clients it was almost impossible to manage their expectations.

HWS: Do you think the site applied some pressure on Apple to do better?

DV: It’s hard to say. They certainly knew about the site, but the fact that review times stayed so long for years means they probably weren’t feeling a whole lot of pressure about it. When Phil Schiller took over responsibility for the App Store in 2015, review times dropped quickly so I think it’s probably more that he just thought that was a priority, and so he asked his team to fix it. Did App Review Times help him decide that was a priority? Maybe, but probably not.

I finally laid the site to rest a couple of months ago. I should have closed it down sooner than I did, but it was one of those things that was just chugging along without causing any harm. I finally closed it down because there was so little data coming in that even just a few anomaly reviews would cause the average to spike when the truth was different. It was nice to finally say “This is a solved problem” and switch it off.

Monitoring App Review Times was also a more interesting problem to solve than you might think. It looks simple site, and it is! But keeping it simple is what’s hard. Apple famously said that for every yes there are a thousand nos. I think App Review Times helped me perfect my ability to say no a thousand times, which has carried over well into the other software I’ve worked on.

“I resisted all of these suggestions, and I think it was the right move.”

When developers found themselves mid way through a long wait for a review, it was so tempting to feel like there was more to the process than the simple queue system that App Review Times assumed. Over the years, so many people pitched me with reasons why I should further segment the review times. People had theories like “app updates go into a different queue than new apps”, or “there are different queues for the different categories of apps”.

The proposed solutions were usually around adding more hashtags to the tweets so that the data could be broken down in different ways. I resisted all of these suggestions, and I think it was the right move. The average was never meant to be anything other than an indication of how long it might take. I believe that keeping that simplicity of just putting a number of days, and a single hashtag (#iosreviewtime or #macreviewtime) in a tweet was a huge reason for how successful I was in getting people to contribute for so long. I don’t know the intricacies of how reviews were queued up internally, but the number that the site produced was a “good enough” indication for many years.

HWS: iOS Dev Weekly launched only shortly after App Review Times, and has since grown to be the largest newsletter in our community. What goes into making an issue?

“I constantly tweak who I’m following on Twitter”

DV: The work of writing an issue normally happens on a Friday morning, which means that Thursday evening I usually have very little, or even nothing prepared! I do sometimes write up my “Comment” section in advance as that takes longer to put together and the ideas for it usually come to me during the week.

The other task that I do constantly is collect links. I am a Twitter and RSS completionist, but I’m primarily looking for links and keeping an eye on what the community is talking about. I constantly tweak who I’m following on Twitter and I actually created the iOS Dev Directory so I could better manage the list of RSS feeds I read. I subscribe to every feed on that page, and read (or at least skim) every post.

When I created Curated, I really baked my iOS Dev Weekly workflow into the product. It has a way to easily stash away a link ready for the next issue. It also has a way to bring those links into each issue, and write some commentary on them. I really just scratched my own itch in creating that product, but luckily it was a solution that many people found a use for.

So, during the week I constantly collect links to any post that is even a possibility for the next issue. On a Friday morning, I usually have about 40-50 potential links, and I start writing. As I look at every link again and start my commentary on it, it’s usually pretty obvious to me whether I want to include it or not.

HWS: Lots of companies are now lining up to sponsor the newsletter – it must feel great to know that you’re making such an impact!

“Self promotion was certainly something I considered would come from it as I wrote that first issue, but money wasn’t on my mind.”

DV: Taking sponsorship was never my intention with iOS Dev Weekly. I enjoyed reading similar digests about other languages (for example, Ruby Weekly) and I wanted to do the same for the iOS community. It was really that simple. Now, I’m not saying that I started it for purely selfless reasons! Self promotion was certainly something I considered would come from it as I wrote that first issue, but money wasn’t on my mind. Sponsorship wasn’t anywhere near as prevalent at the time either, even though it was only 8 years ago it was quite a different time in terms of blogging and producing content.

However, I started getting enquiries from companies on whether I took sponsorship fairly quickly. I said no to these enquiries for what seemed like a long time (about 18 months) but finally decided that it was something I should do. I was so nervous that people would unsubscribe, or that I’d lose some of the good will I had built up, but in fact I received the opposite. People knew that putting together the newsletter took work and realized that now that I was getting compensated for it, the newsletter was far more likely to continue in the future.

HWS: How do you help ensure a broad range of issues are covered – is it just your gut instinct, or is there a process?

DV: Ultimately, it’s just my gut instinct what links make it into each issue. My newsletter has always been from “Dave Verwer”, not from some anonymous “iOS Dev Weekly” entity and that was an intentional choice from day one. So it’s really just what I find interesting, which I’d find hard to change because if I didn’t find an article interesting personally I’d struggle to find a reason to suggest you read it.

“There is bias in everything we do, even if we are trying to avoid it, but I do my best.”

That said, I constantly try to find content from new, and diverse sources. One of the reasons I made the iOS Dev Directory is so that everyone gets to put their RSS feed there and get it in front of my eyes, or anyone else’s eyes.

One thing I like about my RSS feed reader, is that the post title is emphasized much more than the title of the blog it’s from. This means I read everything without necessarily knowing who wrote it. There is bias in everything we do, even if we are trying to avoid it, but I do my best.

HWS: You've often said that your "And finally…" link is the most popular each week – what do you think makes the perfect "And finally…" story?

DV: Part of it is that I deliberately don’t put a lot of text underneath the “And Finally…” link and the title I give it is often vague too. I do that mainly because it’s hard not to give the joke away with the description of the link and jokes don’t usually get funnier by being explained.

The other part of it is that it’s Friday when my newsletter arrives in people’s inboxes, and there’s no better way to end the week than with something that’ll make you smile!

HWS: Last year you launched iOS Dev Directory – do you think that has also helped folks read a wider range of opinions?

DV: The iOS Dev Directory has been a huge benefit for me personally, and potentially to the other newsletter authors too. I’ve never been subscribed to as many feeds as I am right now, and I feel like it’s an almost perfect way for me to manage who I subscribe to. I basically crowdsourced my reading list. There’s huge churn of course, but the beauty of RSS is that an RSS feed can site inactive for years and then when a new post pops up, suddenly it’s right there waiting to be read! I love that.

“I have some ideas here, and I’d love to move forward with some of them, but I also have a lot of other projects I’d like to work on.”

That said, it is of limited use to others because by itself, a list of blogs just isn’t that interesting. The OPML files are the useful bit, but subscribing to those is not something that most people want to do as it’s more than most people would want to read every week. I think the next step for it might be to start pulling in the RSS content itself and linking to some of it from the page, and maybe even allow visitors to vote up particularly interesting articles. I have some ideas here, and I’d love to move forward with some of them, but I also have a lot of other projects I’d like to work on.

HWS: Now you're launching iOS Dev Jobs, which is your third launch that helps spread information and connect people. Why do you think this is the right time to launch a site dedicated to iOS jobs?

DV: I’ve known that there was a huge potential for a site like this for a long time, ever since companies started using full blown sponsored links in iOS Dev Weekly to advertise a single job. I added job listings to the newsletter when companies started doing that, but at the time there were several other job boards catering to the iOS market and I didn’t want to step on toes!

It’s the right time to launch it because I finally made time to get it out of the door! I’ve been wanting to do this since the other job boards closed up, but I’ve also been in quite intensive, full time work for the last three years and it’s challenging to to find time for side projects. I’m now fully independent again, so I can give it the time and attention it will need to be successful. I’m really hopeful that the community will value the direct connections to the companies that are hiring, and I hope the companies will see that reaching developers who are engaged in the community provides them with great people to help them build their apps.

HWS: With iOS Dev Weekly, iOS Dev Directory, and iOS Dev Jobs, you're obviously very focused on iOS. At the same time, for many people Swift has pushed the focused from platform to language. How do you think that's changing the conversation?

“I would be quite happy writing iOS apps in Objective-C, or Ruby, or Go, or JavaSc… well, I probably have limits!”

DV: My love of software development, and iOS development specifically is much more about the end result of the apps I make, rather than the intricacies of a language. That’s just the way I’m wired. Of course, I love Swift, but I love it because it lets me make apps, not for a pure love of the language. I would be quite happy writing iOS apps in Objective-C, or Ruby, or Go, or JavaSc… well, I probably have limits!

I really like Swift as a language, but I don’t find myself particularly drawn to the intricacies of the compiler or the language development process. If we could make amazing apps with Objective-C (and we could) then we can make amazing apps with any language, as long as it can access the native SDK. That’s not to say that you’re wrong if you do find that side of the community interesting, but it’s not necessarily what drives me.

Swift has certainly captured the attention of many developers, and while that’s a good thing it does mean there’s slightly fewer posts about building native apps. As Swift becomes more stable, and the pace of language development slows down a bit, I hope that the community finds slightly more posts on the apps side of things, and less about the language. But that’s just what I’d like! The community will sort itself out, as it always does.

HWS: More broadly, developers today are increasingly expected to have a range of skills – do you think there's a future in just being an iOS developer?

DV: I hope so! I’ve never been happier in my career than I am developing with UIKit and the native iOS SDKs. Cross platform mobile development will continue to be a hot topic, and the need for it is real. I completely understand why companies (or individuals) make the decision to use a cross platform framework. Undertaking completely separate code bases for multiple mobile platforms is a hard pill to swallow. It can certainly be the right choice for some apps, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for me.

“I hope so! I’ve never been happier in my career than I am developing with UIKit and the native iOS SDKs.”

If you’re thinking purely about your career though, it certainly seems like there’s enough work in native development to keep everyone going for a while and I can’t see that changing really. Flutter is the latest cross platform framework to be getting interest, it’s fine, but I can’t see it killing native development.

It’s always good to be broadly aware of other technologies though. For example, it’s a great idea to know enough about web technologies to know what you’re talking about (or to be dangerous!). I’m no expert in HTML/CSS, but I know enough to put a simple website together using modern techniques.

I think the best thing I can say here is that no language or technology lasts forever. I was quite happy writing Object-Pascal with Borland Delphi (one of my first programming jobs) because I was making an interesting product. I was also quite happy writing web applications in .NET because again, I was passionate about what I was creating. That’s how it tends to work for me.

“I think the best thing I can say here is that no language or technology lasts forever.”

HWS: You've been at the center of our community for so long now, and even have a hashtag of people taking pictures with you! In your opinion, what are the most important changes our community has seen?

DV: That’s a really hard question! Certainly the biggest change we’ve seen is the introduction of Swift, but the most important? I think the most important change really happened quite early after the App Store launched. Real people started being aware of, and even started caring about software again. For many years, people thought of software as something that was for other people. The App Store made regular people download, install, and enjoy apps! That has to be good news for us.

Oh and I’ll be available for #picswithdave all week next week in San Jose!

HWS: And finally(!), more recently you've been doing conference speaking about health. For folks who haven't seen you speak yet, what's your best advice for helping developers make a positive change to their health?

DV: For years I ignored my health, and I regret that hugely. It doesn’t matter if you need to lose weight (I certainly did!), or whether you need to exercise a little more (again, I definitely did!), or whether it’s just a case of being more aware of what’s happening with your body. Ignoring it is never the right approach. For me, it took a serious incident to snap me out of it, but it really did that very effectively!

It’s way too easy to get tied up in life and never make time for the things that will allow you to ultimately live a happier, and healthier life. The positive effect of regular exercise, not only on my physical, but also my mental health is something is amazing.

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