A Review of "Aardvark'd: 12 Weeks With Geeks"

This afternoon, I wound up more fried from project-switching than I’d been in a while, so I sat down with Aardvark’d:12 Weeks With Geeks, which arrived in my mailbox this week. A documentary about a group of interns developing Copilot, a new software product, at New York’s Fog Creek Software — would that be like watching paint dry? or Revenge of the Nerds V? or Apollo 13 Takes Manhattan? or Deliverance II: The Golden Master? Just the sort of question I was equipped to answer today.

The film is definitely more interesting in concept than actuality — any one of the essays from Fog Creek CEO Joel Spolsky’s blog, Joel On Software, will tell you more about software development, or Joel or Fog Creek, than the movie will. (In fact, Joel’s relative distance is one of the film’s biggest faults, since he is the most engaging interviewee in it. Maybe, as the company financed the movie, this was a deliberate choice, a sort of modesty, or a desire to make a movie more about the interns than him, but I wound up wishing for more.) As a result, the film isn’t really for fans of Joel On Software and its author’s point of view on development. The opening title sequence shows views of New York reminiscent of or directly mirroring Joel’s photography, which he often uses on his blog, but you don’t hear about photography as an interest of his, or for that matter anyone else’s interests outside of work. While I’m sure Joel had the interns coding on a whiteboard during their interviews, we don’t see that, nor any of the other Joel On Software tactics that might make this software project different from other software projects. The topic isn’t discussed, but it’s interesting to see Joel’s “bionic office” in everyday use (though the stars of the film, the interns, apparently don’t rate private offices). You get some good hints and clues about what makes software development interesting, though, and a few of the sequences are either directly engaging as documentary or useful as engineering practice.

As a film, it’s a clumsy and poorly-crafted piece. The sound, lighting, editing, and music are all anywhere from uneven to terrible. Some of the interview segments are very well shot and lit, but other sequences feel more “home movie” than vérité. The worst directorial decision is including three re-creation segments (actually, two re-creations and one total fiction) that, if intended to provide light moments or synthetic drama, fall completely flat instead. (If anything they make it seem like the filmmakers are laughing at the audience, trying to see what they can get away with.) A very heavy-handed interlude, showing a Fog Creek developer growing tomatoes on the balcony in time with the growth of Copilot, made me want to throw tomatoes.

The best sequences for software developers show the product becoming a product live on screen. A usability test segment winds up making the product real; we really see it for the first time as the test subjects fumble through it. The engineers’ conclusion — “I thought we’d see the bugs we already knew about, but we wound up finding a bunch of new problems” — is the same reaction every engineer has when first going through a good usability test, but still brings the product development (however briefly) to life. Of course finding a good domain name is enormously frustrating; of course the product crashes during the first demo for Joel; of course the trade show doesn’t bear enough fruit; how many interns, though, see all of that in a summer? A betting pool for how long it will take for the first paid order to come in after launch is another great moment (though, unless I missed it, they don’t tell you who won nor how long it took!).

For the general audience, the rewards are much more thin — this probably won’t tell a non-developer much about making software. We do meet the interns and get to know about their decision to come to Fog Creek; one turns down a competing offer from Microsoft in order to join the Copilot team. Unfortunately, their character development from there is pretty homogenous. With the exception of Ben, cast as the argumentative team member, it’s hard to tell what is different about the interns, their contributions, or their experiences at Fog Creek. We do hear that one of them (I won’t spoil the surprise by saying who) gets a full-time job offer, but we don’t see why, nor why he is any different or better than the others. One great set of interviews talks about the relationship between the developers, their work, and the Joel On Software Forums, which all of the characters read and naturally react to. You almost hope that some of the more vituperative forum posters wind up watching the film and — could it be? — learning from it. Perhaps most lacking, though, we don’t have a sense of how the team grew or changed through the experience. They came, they built, they left — and that’s that.

A short trip up to Y Combinator tries to draw a contrast between Paul Graham’s and Joel’s approach to their summer programs, and fails to elucidate what it might be — but the contrast is interesting to consider nonetheless. The Y Combinator partners are explicitly trying to cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs; Joel explicitly is not, but instead wants to catch the best recruits during their only trip to the job market. Joel, after all, already has a company to run, and isn’t out to create more founders. As Y Combinator’s Jessica Livingston (like Paul, an O’Reilly author) points out, though, many of these insecure, unformed interns are likely much the same as today’s successes were at that age. Just as Joel’s experience at Microsoft gave him fodder for essays and business strategies for years to come, these interns likely got plenty of the same good training.

There is something brilliant about the film, after all of this: like Joel On Software, and in a way like Copilot itself, the film connects you with the people behind the product. Seeing the interns going through development, getting the product to launch, and taking pride in their work, you can’t help but be more interested in what they’ve built. It’s very hard to get me to spend an hour and a quarter learning about a product — I usually consider even thirty seconds an absurd intrusion — and yet I watched the whole thing — even paid for it — and came away more interested in Copilot than before. For all of its faults, the film succeeds in making the product more real and interesting than any of the standard marketing tactics Joel could have used. If that was the purpose, the film succeeds at it.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/~reubgr Reuben Grinberg

    I agree with most of what you’ve written about the DVD. Here is a message I sent my friend Yaron, who is the marketing intern from Yale:

    I watched the Aardvark DVD yesterday. Looks like you guys had a great time and made a great product. I’m sure it was an awesome learning experience for you. Joel seems like a great boss.

    I wasn’t impressed with the DVD itself, though; it was like 10 times too long. BTW, did you know that Paul is the guy who gave Emmett and Justin their initial funding for kiko.com?

    I think there was a lot of relevant information that could have made it into the DVD but didn’t and there was a lot of irrelevant stuff that did make it in. That part about the cockroach? Not so relevant.

    I really liked that he interviewed Paul Graham and the guy from Visicalc, though.

    There were some parts that made me want to gouge out my eyes. Like it felt that 1/4 of the movie was devoted to a tomato plant.

    In addition, I wish there was more info about the technical process. I mean it was like – oh look – all of a sudden we have a product!

    Some more details on the marketing side would have been good too.

  • http://nick.matsakis.net Nick Matsakis

    [A private review I sent some friends. It seems to mesh well with the original post, but I wouldn’t add the positive bit at the end—I found this film wholly unimpressive]

    I received the _Aardvarked_ DVD this weekend and found it disappointing. Something can be disappointing either because it wasn’t what I expected or because it wasn’t good—in this case I think it was both.

    Let’s begin with what I expected. A software pundit with small software firm hires four interns to completely implement a product from scratch from a detailed specification in three months. Said software pundit is also known for writing long articles about what a software spec should look like, what a programmer’s office should look like, and various other aspects of software development.

    It seemed that the basic angle of the documentary was clear: will the interns be able to complete the product in time or not and what unexpected obstacles would they face? Does the final product look like the spec or not? Is Joel full of hot air or do his ideas have merit? I expected it to basically be like an episode of “Junkyard Wars”, but focused on software development.

    Instead it was more like a “what I did on my summer vacation” montage. There were a series of losely-related clips, some tours of the intern’s apartments, some footage of their first meeting and their celebration at the end. In the middle, there was this segment with an interview of Paul Graham which was good, but had no context in the film. There was some discussion of software development, including the tracing of one bug and how they did their usability testing, but it was very shallow and the product itself wasn’t a focus at all.

    Maybe I was expecting too much. I knew it was filmed on a shoestring basically as a publicity stunt, but I figured that as long as he hired someone who went to film school there would be _some_ attempt at telling a story with the piece. It’s not painful to watch, or anything, but its just not a good documentary or even ethnography; At the end you don’t really feel any connection with the subjects or feel like you learned anything about their growth during the summer; There is no story or hook that makes it interesting as a whole.

    I was probably spoiled by a video-ethnography I saw as an employee at Sun on java developers. The video had been sponsored by Sun as a way of giving their own java platform developers a concrete image of their customers. I thought the person they hired did a very good job and I came out of the film feeling like I learned something about the lives of developers, which wasn’t true of Aardvarked.

    To be fair, it’s not clear the interns were particularly excited about the prospect of a movie being made; it sounds like they didn’t know about it until after they accepted their job offers. Also, Joel might have felt that depth would risk making Fog Creek look bad.

  • John

    Every since Joel announced his search for a documentary film maker, I was planning to buy the DVD. Then as soon as the product was launched, I started scanning the Fog Creek site for a release date. I ordered it immediately and have anticipated its arrival ever since.

    I got it yesterday, paid another $9 in duty (I’m in Canada), and just finished watching it.

    What a disapointment!

    The only reason why I even finished watching it is because I paid so much for it and anticipated it for so long. If I rented it, I would have fast forwarded through most, then shut it off.

  • http://www.caropepe.com Joe Caropepe

    At work we’re all on Joel’s mailing list and when he announced the DVD my boss went ahead and bought it – hoping (like many others here) that we’d find some beneficial insight in developing software.

    I brought it home the other night and just couldn’t get past the music. It’s all original and probably very meaningful, but my wife & I kept comparing it to Van Morrion’s Contractual Obligation Album from the late 1960’s

    All in all, it was pretty painful.

  • Stewart Whaley

    I have to agree with most of what was said above. By far one of the worst DVDs ever created. Absolutely NO insight into the world of software development or for that matter anything. Well MAYBE you might learn how far the office building next door to Joel’s is. Maybe.

  • http://www.palmit.com Cale Bruckner

    I purchased a copy of Aardvark’d thinking it would reflect the same kind of quality information I find over and over again on Joe’s Web site joelonsoftware.com – actually, we bought two copies at the office. The movie sucks – it was a waste of money. Zero (two thumbs down) for substance – it was a total waste of time. It’s a coming of age movie for geeks. Joel calculates the DVD P&L http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2005/12/01.html.