|I met Jim Hillhouse back in 2002, when he showed up at one of the GeekAustin lunches. Over the last year, I've watched him help put Austin's iPhone dev community on everyone's radar. Last weekend, I ask Jim to share a bit about iPhone development, the Cocoa Coders group, and the Austin tech scene.|
Lynn Bender: It was Whurley who first told me that we had a large iPhone dev community in Austin. I got to see that first hand last year at BarCampAustin III. How long has there been a formal group iPhone dev group in Austin?
Jim Hillhouse: CocoaCoder was birthed in March 2003.
Lynn Bender: How many members in the group, and how many at the weekly meetings?
Jim Hillhouse: As of tonight, there are 116 members. On average, attendance at the weekly meetings ranges between 5 to 15 last night. Our big monthly meeting can bring in over 25 and the iPhoneDevCamps, which we host with Andrew Donoho, can bring in 40.
Lynn Bender: How long has the group been meeting at Conjunctured?
Jim Hillhouse: I was one of the investors in Conjunctured at its inception, so before the paint had even dried, making it August 1st.
Lynn Bender: Do you have the Dev Camps there as well?
Jim Hillhouse: Yes. The Conjunctured folks, Dusty, David, Cesar, and John Erik have really rolled out the red carpet for us. They have even gone the extra distance to help us find supporters and donors for iPhoneDevCamp-Austin.
Lynn Bender: Do you have a date for the next iPhone Dev Camp?
Jim Hillhouse: Andrew and I are thinking about Feb. 7th but his schedule is a bit in flux, so that may change. However, I feel pretty sure that it will be the 7th.
Lynn Bender: Tell me about some of the apps the group has been developing.
Jim Hillhouse: We have three at this time that are being pounded on. First is a simple "Hello World" app that uses the unpublished video API for the iPhone that was discovered by Erica Sadun. The next app is a Game Show app that also uses the video-out capability. And the last one is the Game Show app, but instead of displaying questions on a video screen, it does so on the contestant's iPhone via Bonjour. That way we are trying to hit the beginner, medium and advanced levels.
Lynn Bender: So, the members are not each working on their own apps, but working in teams?
Jim Hillhouse: I would guess that between 1/4th and 1/2 of our members are working on their own apps. We've been pushing the group apps mentioned above to grow our membership's brains. Apps such as Reflections, an amazing Flickr app by Jason Moore, Flying Aces by Snakehead Software, and those by other members are really impressive.
Lynn Bender: Last time we were talking, you had mentioned that someone complained about the CocoaCoder domain name. Most folks know about the iPhone and iPhone apps, tell me about Cocoa.
Jim Hillhouse: The individual was trying to make the case that CocoaCoder was too specific to attract iPhone programmers. Cocoa is the API set that Apple has for the Mac, and Cocoa Touch is the API set for the iPhone and iPod Touch. They are built around the Objective-C language. Obj-C is inspired by Small Talk.
Lynn Bender: So, you pretty much have to know C in order to write an iPhone app?
Jim Hillhouse: Yes and no. But more on no. I barely knew C when I first learned Obj-C.
Lynn Bender: Had you been coding for the Mac environment before?
Jim Hillhouse: Really as just a hobbyist. I got into Mac programming as an undergrad in aerospace engineering. But I never learned to do anything more basic than throw up a window and type some text or multiply some numbers. Mac before OS X was really hard to program for.
Lynn Bender: using the Toolbox?
Jim Hillhouse: Stop it...you're bringing back some very bad and repressed memories. But yes, the Toolbox, ResEdit, Pascal (that was ok). Then Apple moved everyone over to C++ but life still wasn't much better.
Lynn Bender: heheh, ResEdit.
Jim Hillhouse: Love it, hate it
Lynn Bender: Ok, back to Cocoa. Let's say I'm a C programmer, and I want to get into iPhone programming. What is the difference between Cocoa and Obj-C.
Jim Hillhouse: Cocoa is written in Obj-C. So learning Obj-C is the first step and an easy, actually very easy, step for a C programmer. We are talking a day, max. The Cocoa API's will take a bit longer. An Apple programmer friend once said that 3-6 months was the usual time to master Cocoa.
Lynn Bender: You mentioned that the group was trying to appeal to folks at all levels. One of the good things about user groups is that they provide a way for folks together to work to hone their skills in a common area. But it's often difficult if someone is just getting started and needs basic instruction. Does the group have any basic classes or outreach planned -- especially since Austin has been such a Mac town for so long.
Jim Hillhouse: I agree. I know that in those settings I have always walked away having learned a lot. As we get our new CocoaCoder site onboard, we will have groups that people can sign-up for that are for Beginners on up. We will soon have our Subversion repository up for members' use and well as for groups. And we are going to get into instructional videos with text notes and code by March. I am shooting to see that this is a cradle to success group. That's one of the reasons we went from monthly to weekly meetings, so that people had more face time and chances to fix issues and ask questions.
Lynn Bender: It seems we've known each other about 5 years now. How long have you lived in Austin?
Jim Hillhouse: I first came to Austin in the Summer of 1985 for a Summer job that sadly ended early Summer. But fell in love with this then-laid back little town; at the time, I was living in New Orleans, the murder capitol of the US. I moved to Austin in January 1987 to finish my bachelors in history at UT. Apparently I liked it so much at UT that I continued on with an engineering and master's in engineering degrees. This town has been a life-saver for me and I really love it deeply.
Lynn Bender: It seems many of us came and decided not to leave -- even when it meant turning down opportunities elsewhere. During the 2001-2004 period, many of my friends in tech had to leave Austin, for Houston, Dallas, or some similar place -- just so they could continue to grow in their career. It looks like were facing such a period again. What do you think is the missing ingredient here?
Jim Hillhouse: Houston and Dallas have size in their favor. There are enough regular businesses needing tech services, whether that is software, IT, hardware, etc. that techies can make it there in a tough economy. I think the real missing ingredient in Austin is UT and the investment community. We have one out of three pulling their weight, that is we have an incredibly creative and capable technology crowd, but no feeder and breeder (UT), just as SFBA has Stanford and Berkeley, nor do we have a VC community pushing like Kleiner Perkins (iPhone Fund...wow).
Lynn Bender: Any suggestions for folks finding themselves faced with the tough choice of staying or leaving?
Jim Hillhouse: It's a tough thing to face... I would first say, join things like Conjunctured, CocoaCoder, the GeekAustin SQL group and others. CocoaCoder gets 2-3 job notices each month and we've lost members to Apple and other companies, I'm glad to say. But the groups need to get together, form an alliance, if you like, and work with and on the local politicians and UT. For example, Stanford and Berkeley both now have iPhone and Mac specific development courses as part of their CS program. UT? NOT!
We need our local VC community to innovate, not just copy what the VC's in the Bay Area were doing 5-10 years ago. A local iPhone Fund, a network fund, and so on.
If UT got into the game of incentivising students on new platforms and to be entrepreneurs, Austin would explode.
Lynn Bender: Are you going to SXSWi?
Jim Hillhouse: Yes, SXSW is an always for me. Been going to the Interactive off-and-on since it's very beginning. In fact, my start-up at the time presenting at the first Interactive.
Lynn Bender: Which talks and speakers are you looking forward to this year?
Jim Hillhouse: I've read 1 of Lawrence Lessig's books, so definitely want to catch him.
Lynn Bender: Heh, I'll be catching that one too. You better get there early.
Financial support for this interview provided by Smart Bear Software.