By Deane Barker on December 4, 2005

We talked about this film way back when Project Aardvark was announced. Fog Creek Software had an idea for a piece of software, and they recruited four college students over the course of one summer to build it. And they filmed them doing it.

(They may claim to have made this film to document the software creation process, but the truth is more sinister. Fog Creek commissioned this film for one reason and one reason only — to show you that they have bigger monitors than you, and more of them. I’d estimate that fully 40% of the shots in this film include an example of Fog Creek’s much-vaunted dual 20” LCD screen set-up. I had trouble getting past that. My envy got the better of me. But anyway —)

Aardvark’d is a good film, but it’s not what you think. If you’re a fan of Joel Spolsky’s writing (and who isn’t? Wink, wink), you’re used to hard and fast practical information about how to build software. This movie isn’t the same thing.

Rather it’s about the human side of a bunch of people working together to create something in a set amount of time. In that sense, it’s quite good. You learn about the four interns and the personalities that surround them at Fog Creek, and how all these people had to collaborate to do this project.

There’s not much in the way of development advice that you don’t know already. You get to see a usability test (conducted by TechSmith, with their testing product’s box perfectly displayed in the background), listen to Joel talk about not worrying about being second-guessed, and you watch the developers go pitch their product at CFUnited. But, other than that, it’s not about the code or the process.

I’m going to escape to bullet points here, because the film jumps around, and it’s tough to come up with a cohesive description what happens.

  • You see quite a bit of the geeks being geeks. They spend an inordinate amount of time one day trying to figure out if they could jump to a ledge on the next building. They go so far as to go down to street level, measure the distance, and do some physics to try and determine if it’s feasible.

  • The entire film is intertwined with the saga of a tomato plant on the balcony. In one of the commentary tracks, someone says that this was meant to symbolize the passage of time, since the film is subtitled “12 Weeks with Geeks.”

  • Speaking of weeks, at one point, you see “Week 2” at the bottom of the screen, so you figure you’re going to go week by week. Week 2 seems really, really long, then you see “Week 12.” Did they forget the intervening 10 weeks?

  • In the beginning of the film, Joel hands out books to everyone. I was gratified to see “Code Complete” among them. I consider this one of the best books ever written on programming. Interestingly, later in the film, one of the developers has a copy of “Practical Common Lisp” on this desk. Dying to know what part that played in Copilot.

  • Copilot, it turns out, is just a really user-friendly version of TightVNC. They built an big infrastructure around it, and made it run through a firewall, but it’s otherwise a great example of leveraging a good code base to create something more.

  • They had a love-hate relationship with a bunch of people on some forum they hosted. I followed the blog, but I don’t remember a forum. Anyway, all of their decisions, it seems, got slammed by people on the forums. They seemed to take it personally in some instances.

  • In several instances, the director re-orients you to place by showing the outside of the Fog Creek office building. I kept expecting to hear, “Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice…”

    They’re in a very tall building in the heart of Manhattan. Emporis has a record on the building, with a picture. Fog Creek is on the 18th floor, as the building starts to step back. It’s very cool.

  • At one point, Joel talks about how Fog Creek has grown. He says something that surprised me: they had about four employees as of Spring 2005. This is much smaller than I thought. Apparently they’re up to about a dozen now.

  • There’s an interesting bit in the film about naming the product. They really wanted the copilot.com domain name. It was taken obviously, and the owner wanted $20,000. They negotiated a bit, and ended up buying it for $10,000. Other possibilities: “Side Pilot” and “Glass Door.”

  • Dan Bricklin and Paul Graham make interview appearances in the film. There’s an extended aside in the middle about Graham’s Y Combinator project, since it’s sort of the same thing. What appear to be a bunch of high school students produced Reddit during this project.

In the end, I got the same feeling about this film that I got about The Building of Basecamp workshop Joe and I went to last year. I came away from it thinking, “They’re not much different than us. If they can do it, why can’t we?” It’s very motivational (even more so if you worship the ground that Spolsky walks on…like, uh, some guy I know).

The fact is, you don’t need a huge infrastructure to build something great anymore. Copilot was built by these four guys. CitiDesk and FogBugz was apparently built by an office of four. Add Basecamp which was built by another four guys…four must be a magic number.

It’s a good movie. It runs just over an hour, and has three commentary tracks — one by the director, one by two of the interns, and one by the other two. If you want to see the trailer, it’s up on Google Video. You can order the film here.

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  1. I have three 17″ LCD’s and a 15″ HDTV all mounted and proudly displayed using Ergotron monitor stands. I’m hoping to upgrade sometime next year to three 20″ wide screens rotated ;-)

    The stand for the three monitors almost cost more than two of the monitors… I couldn’t go back to a single or event dual display just not enough space.

  2. You forgot to note how awful the soundtrack was. The music itself wasn’t bad, but truly horrific lyrics.

  3. You forgot to note how awful the soundtrack was.

    I thought it was kind of funny. According to one of the commentary tracks, it was all written just for the film.

  4. How did you guys get this movie so quickly? Did you get a promo copy or something, is it available for legit download?

  5. I must say that while I was really looking forward to this movie, it was nothing special…at best it was mildly entertaining although I fell asleep midway through my first viewing. As a software developer and startup vet, I’m a big fan of Joel’s, and would have loved to see more of his philosophy/presence in the film; instead, I don’t think he comes off particularly well and perhaps seems the opposite of the process-oriented mentor that we see in his blog. The whole atmosphere of the film has a random/arbitrary feel…let’s throw a bunch of interns into a room and see what happens (one assumes they are mentored behind the scenes but we see none of it), let’s actually hire one of the interns but not explain why or really show the reactions of the other interns to this fact, etc. The ‘climax’ of the product launch is so ho hum that there is no feeling of closure, and the character/personalities of the interns are also not very well distinguished to the point where they are almost interchangeable. I know this sounds very negative; again it is mildly entertaining but overall a weak showing and a shadow of what it might have been.

  6. I was also very disapointed with this movie. It was very slow moving and random, and even though it was touted as a movie about people it didn’t reveal much about the people at all. Apart from where they lived we didn’t learn anything about their backgrounds, their future ambitions, or anything at all really. Joel talked about his hiring philosophy and these amazing shining resumes and made it sound exciting and interesting but that was the last we heard of it. I could go on about this movie but I think I’ve said enough.

    On his website Joel compares this to startup.com and another film which I haven’t seen, and how they pale in comparison, but in my opinion startup.com was a hundred times better than this film.

    Very disappointed :(

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