What Have You Been Working On?

In one week a huge number of Apple nerds will convene in San Francisco for the Worldwide Developer Conference and related festivities. As I did last year, I’ll be traveling for the event but whooping it up outside the walls of the official conference.

Around WWDC time, whether I’m attending or not, I always find myself taking stock of recent achievements. As my own worst critic, this usually isn’t very pleasant. Some of this introspection is rooted in the historic, vain hope that some of my work might one day be recognized by Apple in the form of an Apple Design Award. It’s not uncommon for developers to ramp up work schedules in January or so, in the hopes of putting the finishing touches on, and shipping, a major release in time to be considered for the prestigious honor. By the time WWDC comes along, you are either happy with what you have to show, or, well, you’re normal.

The truth is I have never expected to win an Apple Design Award, but I have often used it as as a kind of productivity hack: “Let’s see what I can get done by WWDC.” Until a few years ago, Apple required developers to nominate themselves for the award, so engaging in the process was a way of bringing into focus what kinds of achievements one might like to make by a specific deadline. These days, Apple simply selects from the vast selection of App Store titles (though I’m sure that private lobbying can’t hurt), so there isn’t as much of a concrete sense that one’s work is in the effort of qualifying for an award.

But even without an overt application process or a vague sense of possibly winning an award, I still find myself taking stock of recent achievements. Why? Because in San Francisco next week, five to ten thousand Mac and iOS nerds will be plucked from their usual, typically introverted lifestyles and given the opportunity to socialize with one another. And I will be among, and one of those nerds. When people who don’t know each other at all make uncomfortable small talk, the question of choice is often “What do you do?” For us nerds who know even a tiny bit about one another, it’s the more precise “What have you been working on?”

And that’s the kicker. What have I been working on? The answer is never any of the things that an outsider might admire and celebrate: a best-of-class blog editing app, a popular podcast or two, a job board, raising two beautiful children, or trying to be a good husband. Those are all things I have worked on, and continue to work on. And I’m proud of them. But in the context of this question, posed at a professional conference where I’m taking stock of what I’ve done and what I plan to do, none of these qualifies as what I feel I’ve been working on.

Because what I’m really working on is never ready to share. What I’m really working on may never ship. What I’m really working on is what gets me out of bed every morning, willing to bang my head in vain for hours in the hopes of chipping away at this monumental task that seems impossible and amazing, but maybe more the former than the latter. And when and if this thing does finally see the light of day, I will celebrate for a moment before quickly relegating it to the list of boring things I’ve already done, and set my sights on something else.

So when someone asks me again next week what I’ve been working on, I’ll be hard-pressed to think of anything interesting. I’ll hem and haw and reflect upon the year’s dubious achievements before muttering, “Oh, just the same old stuff. What have you been working on?”