Film documents software creation, the fun way

It's not quite Harry Potter, but "Aardvark'd" captures the ups and downs of programmers' lives.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
5 min read
When Lerone Wilson saw the ad for a director interested in doing a film on software development, he was skeptical, to say the least.

The 23-year-old director had already made films on the effects of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" policy, and on the death of his own father. The idea of documenting a project at a small software company didn't sound as immediately striking, but after thinking about it for a few days, he applied anyway.

Wilson's resulting "Aardvark'd: 12 Weeks with Geeks," the story of intern programmers at New York-based Fog Creek Software creating a product from scratch to shipping, is now finished, one of the first films to delve wholly into the life and culture of coding. And though it may not be the next Harry Potter, it's an engaging film that focuses more on the personalities of the people than on the technology, bringing to life a process ordinarily wrapped in geek mystique.

"Initially I felt like it was a good idea, in that it hadn't been done before, but probably for a reason," Wilson said. "But I think we addressed the whole culture around development in a way that not only software developers can appreciate, but a general audience looking for a good time."

So how much of software development, with its painstaking hours in front of a computer, counts as a good time?

A surprisingly large part, it turns out, at least in the edited version. But that wasn't the initial idea of the film.

Aardvark'd was originally conceived by Fog Creek Chief Executive Officer Joel Spolsky, who also funded the $15,000 production, half as educational tool, half as a promotion for his company.

Early in 2005 he was trying to attract high-quality interns for the summer, competing against Amazon.com and Microsoft, and hit on the idea of assigning them to creating a product from the very beginning, and taking it all the way through shipping and marketing.

Spolsky also moonlights as an evangelist and educator in the process of software development, keeping a well-read blog that outlines good practices and principles. A filmed version of the interns' work might make a good adjunct to his blog articles, he thought, and so began advertising for a documentary filmmaker.

That was news to the interns themselves. Duke University senior Benjamin Pollack, one of the four interns who went on to star in the film, said he remembered hearing about the project first by reading Spolsky's blog and then instant messaging one of the other interns in surprise.

"I first thought that was pretty weird, to be honest," Pollack said on Friday. "It's weird to think, 'My entire summer is going to be filmed, and then shipped to a thousand people.' But my second reaction was that it was really neat."

The students arrived in New York in the early summer. Their goal turned out to be the creation of a piece of software later called Fog Creek Copilot, which would help techies fix customers' or relatives' computers by giving them remote access to the ailing machines.

Wilson interviewed the programmers throughout the process, catching them in brainstorming sessions, critical user tests, at the launch party and at other moments. He talked to other software developers outside the company too, eager to broaden the scope of the film beyond what could be perceived as a commercial for Fog Creek.

The cameras weren't initially an easy part of the process. Pollack said he and the other interns tended to watch what they said at first, unsure of how it would sound on film. But they warmed up over time, and by the end of the summer, most seemed comfortable with Wilson's lens on them as they worked.

The cameras ultimately caught coding, brainstorming and lighter moments too, which Wilson says illuminate the working process of the native programmer better than would a deeper focus on the techie side of life.

The bulk of one day, for example, was spent on the deeply important question of whether the team could escape a fire by using Ethernet cables or some other mechanism to help them reach a nearby roof. The cameras captured that brainstorming session, complete with a full physics analysis on a whiteboard.

(They decided they could reach the roof, Wilson said. But nobody tried to prove it.)

Pollack said the movie captures the experience of the project well, even if it does leave out some parts of the process.

"You can't make a movie about a 45-minute discussion on encryption protocols," the student said.

For his part, Spolsky said the picture far outstripped his expectations as a semieducational tool.

"What we really wanted is that the movie not turn out to be totally geeky, with a bunch of stand up conversations about lambda calculus," he said. "Lerone came in as an outsider to software development and was able to focus on the human beings, not just the software."

Just a few days after shipping, "Aardvark'd" is also close to making back its budget. Readers of Spolsky's blog have already ordered more than 2,500 copies, he wrote on Thursday. It will also see a wider release, accepted to the New York Independent Film festival, and premiering at that event's Los Angeles date in March, the filmmaker said.

Wilson, who briefly majored in computer science in college before turning to film, said he thinks there are more overlooked stories to be told in the technology world. He said he might consider a similar subject in the future, although doesn't want to get pigeonholed as the tech director.

"You don't get many good tech stories in the mainstream media," he said. "When you see tech in the news, you often get the sense that the media doesn't understand it, or the people that make it."