Maria Keenan

How to Build a Successful WWDC Conference | Jessie Char from Layers

Jessie is the co-founder of Layers, a three-day conference where people talk about design and technology.

As a former Apple employee and current enthusiast, speakers specializing in iOS design and development are among the highlights of Jessie's Layers each year. It's become a very popular WWDC event each year. In fact, iMore listed Layers as their "hands-down favourite" event of WWDC (and not just because of its famous snacks).

If you're not familiar with WWDC, it's the veritable Mecca of Apple developer conferences. 6000 people go each year. It's kind of a big deal.

Jessie's going to be joining our line-up for Admission, our conference for organizers. As such, I caught up with her to find out some more about what makes Layers a successful WWDC conference:

1) Where did the idea for Layers come from? Where do your conference ideas come from, generally speaking?

"In general, the idea for Layers came from the thousands of people who came to town for Apple’s WWDC, many of whom didn’t even hold passes to the event itself. WWDC is wonderful for developers and important for networking, but I thought there was room for a more meaningful way for designers to engage with each other during the week.

Layers Conf

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"The specifics of all our events are inspired by many different things - we let our venue inform a lot of decisions around schedule, layout, and tone as we like to the play to the strengths of the space we’re in. The more playful aspects of the event come from painstaking analysis of what we enjoy doing and what makes things feel fun and effortless, from simple activities like spending time with close friends to more staged experiences like Disneyland."

2) You and Elaine organise Layers together. What's it like working so closely with someone on something so big? How do you split up tasks and stay friends in a high-pressure role like event organising?

"Elaine and I both got our professional starts in retail environments and we used that as a sort of model for how to work together. I lead 'back of house', which includes speaker booking, scheduling, and all things stage/theater-related.

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"Elaine handles 'front of house', attending to tasks related to things like registration flow, catering, and being a general point-person for vendors while the show is running. We each enjoy what we do so much that the high-pressure aspect of it is pretty thrilling for us. For the more tedious activities like bookkeeping and poring over website copy, we share the tasks and slog through them together."

3) What's the most challenging part of putting on an event like Layers?

"Layers is a totally independent operation, and the challenge for us is always in the first month of registration. It’s a stressful tango of watching ticket sales slowly tick by while we kick production into gear, and we never really know final budget and order quantities until the very last minute. Just typing this out makes my skin crawl, but I try not to worry too much as always sort themselves out in time for the event!"

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If you'd like to judge how well the Layers team deals with these stressors (hint: the answer is "very"), previous presentations from Layers Conf are available here.

4) Why do you do what you do?

"I come from an agency background, with the bulk of my work being in project management for design projects. I love working in a field that combines pragmatism and structure with creativity and aesthetic, and as a PM I was able to contribute a lot of ideas and direction for projects. Working on Layers gives me a chance to fully exercise my skills as their own creative medium.

Rather than working in pixels, I get to express ideas through a combination of voices, words, snacks, music, and art.

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"Being able to watch everyone react as the event unravels is so motivating; every year we watch a new community form before our eyes. I am very lucky to have found a profession I love that has the power to make a difference in peoples’ lives, and that’s what keeps me going."

5) What lies in the future for Layers?

"Next year will be our fifth Layers, so we’re trying to cook up some fun milestone elements for the event. Beyond that, we’d love to expand the event and be able to produce it in multiple cities!"

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And finally, tell us a bit about what you'll be presenting at Admission.

"Creating Delightful Events from Any Budget: An examination on the minutiae of happiness, and how to nail it at any scale."

(NOTE: A huge thank-you to Andy McNally for allowing us to share his sketch notes from this year's Layers conference throughout this post. I highly recommend following his illustrative journey around the conference circuit on his website.)

You can find more details about Jessie's talk and the other speakers who will be presenting on the Admission website: 

Admission, a conference by Tito