Aardvark'd - 12 Weeks with Geeks

Written on December 2, 2006 in Technical, Review, Movies.
Adam Fortuna

Hey hey! I'm a developer who lives in Orlando, FL. Right now I work at Code School, listen to a lot of audiobooks, set way too many goals, write at minafi.com and tweet often.

What do Aardvark’s have to do with technology? Well that’s a question you’d have to ask Joel Spolsky, but it’s the codename for summer internship project from 2005 at Fogcreek.com where a team of college interns create a real world project from start to finish. What’s a little different about this internship is that it was documented on film is now available for purchase as a [documentary of the project] . Being a short time reader of Joel on Software, a Peopleware advocate and just generally interested in all things geeky I picked it up to watch.

I have to say though, the entire way the Aardvark project is done starts with amazing advertising and brand recognition associated with Joel. When you provide a good service or present useful information, people listen to what you have to say with such intensity it’s no wonder the Joel On Software Jobs Board is so thriving, as probably are the copilot sales. What’s Copilot? Well that’s the official public release name of Aardvark (all software projects need an internal codename don’t they?). Aardvark isn’t a bad name for an internship actually - gotta start at the beginning right? I sat down to watch the ~90 minutes of geeky filmdom tonight not knowing anything about the project going into it. I vaguely remember hearing about Joel giving a keynote for CF United ‘05, but that went over my head at the time.

The film documents the Project Aardvark team of interns as they come out to Fogcreek for the summer. Not everyone will find this funny. About 15 minutes or so in, the interns start discussing the plausibility of jumping over to a ledge on the next building over (from a high floor of a NY city highrise). Aside from being a good introduction of the people, it’s a hilariously geeky moment. They measure out the distance between buildings, find the distance they can jump from scratch to (it appears) find the angle of elevation and determine what velocity would be required to make it over. Now I was laughing out loud at just how in depth they went with this, but my girlfriend (she volunteered to watch it, i didn’t force her!) was slightly annoyed at how much it went on. Like I said, not everyone will find it funny. It’s both a natural team building activity that helped unite the group, and a problem that they solved and were able to rejoice in the solution as a group all in one. Although one of the interns ends it with “ok now that we’ve wasted an hour back to work”, the benefit from that hour was huge to the team.

Now the big question is was this activity introduced by Joel, or other fog creek developers. Many others there wondered if it was possible to make this jump, and introducing the new interns to it brings them into the group. The fact that they went up and beyond is an added bonus. In one of the chapters of Peopleware, there’s a similar example. A project manager is assigned to a team of random developers from a company. Some of them have worked together on various little projects, but for the most part they don’t know each other. The first week the project manager invites the team over to her house for a dinner get together. They all arrive and, surprise, there’s no food! They all decide to head out to the store and buy up some food, each suggesting dishes they can help make before eventually agreeing on a menu. They shop, prepare food and eat together, each one playing a part in the creation of the meal. The team hasn’t even starting working together professionally and they already have a relationship and just as important, a victory. What’s great about it is that no one knows it’s an exercise- - and it might not have been; it might have just happened like with the interns. It goes to show how important and useful those “off topic” activities can be for team building, which are often sidetracked due to their unmeasurable yields.

But I’m getting a little off track. Later on when they’ve developed a working version of the software they head out to CF United ‘05 to demo the product at a very targeted audience. Aside from being surprised and slightly filled with pride that they were at a ColdFusion conference, it was fun seeing the very recognizable hotel with it’s outdoor tables and odd-glass like mobiles. The project continues along, they do usability testing, face various little issues, try to settle in the for the summer and eventually finish up the project. Not a bad three months, and in the end the project is very easy to use too. What is it? Well you can head to one of the links on the site for that, but it’s basically a way of remote admin-ing into someone else’s computer to help them out with something (hence the name, Copilot). They also show the discussion when they decide on the domain name, and start in negotiations for the domain name. Very fun video, great marketing idea, and all the best wishes for Copilot.