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I’ll write this week about demos and presentations, based on a terrific software demo I saw Thursday.

It was delivered by Joel Spolsky, the brains behind Fog Creek Software and a brilliant thinker about various computer issues.

To set the scene, he and his team were doing a roadshow tour of Fog Creek’s new releases, the unfortunately named FogBugz 8.0 and Kiln. FogBugz is a terrific software-project-management tool, and Kiln is geekware beyond what I want to write about here. (It looks like pretty good geekware; if you develop software for a large team, you might want to check it out.)

For the 30 minutes preceding the scheduled start of Joel’s presentation, the screen showed a cartoonish countdown timer with a Fog Creek logo. Right on time, Joel heads up to the rostrum, the timer goes to zero… and it crashes/bluescreens!

Joel looks at it as the crash result fills the screen with white-text-on-blue-background gobbledygook. He says something to the effect of “Sorry, it shouldn’t do that. I’ve seen this before. Let me just enter a bug to make sure it gets fixed.” He does, and starts his presentation.

A minute later, he gets a popup EMail “toast” — that blue ghost-thing that Outlook pops up at the lower right of your screen until you get smart and turn it off — saying it’s already fixed. We all can read it, and he too gets distracted by it. He looks at us and says, “I don’t think it’s fixed. At least the developer’s on line and working today. Sorry, let me just see what he’s talking about.” He goes into FogBugz, pulls up the referenced “fixed” code, and says — to an audience made up mostly of programmers — “That doesn’t look fixed to me. Sometimes, you just have to do this stuff yourself.” Now totally distracted — but with the programmers all staring at the buggy code, of course — he changes a line of code and says, “That’ll probably work now.”

Anyway, as you’ve probably figured out, it’s all staged. He keeps interrupting his talk to look at the bug, fix it, check his fix with another programmer, and so on. Meanwhile, he’s demonstrating key features of his product in a context that couldn’t have been attained in a straight demo, the audience rapt with attention. (Every programmer has had the experience of his or her code crashing during an important demo.)

He pulled it off superbly. He never winked at the “joke,” nor did he ever acknowledge that it was staged; rather, he trusted his audience to figure it out and go for the ride along with him.

Wednesday, the idea of demoing-without-demoing… which isn’t some Zen concept, but an occasional opportunity from which we can take away lessons for more quotidian demos.

2 comments to Demo of the Month

  • Joel is creating conflict and using the perfect foil when your audience is full of devs. What’s StackExchange’s devil? Experts-exchange.com. It doesn’t matter if the conflict is real or not. See Head First books or any Kathy Sierra talk. However, The Wire’s Slim Charles says it best:

    “Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war and there ain’t no turnin’ back. I mean, sh*t, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight…”

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