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JDJ Editorial —Conference Presentations, Magic Shows, and the Five-Ring Circus
JDJ Editorial —Conference Presentations, Magic Shows, and the Five-Ring Circus

Having attended two conferences in the past three weeks and seen untold presentations, I've come to the conclusion that irrespective of the subject matter, each presenter invariably falls back on the same technique to impress the audience: to rely on the skills of a conjurer or circus ringmaster as they try to captivate, amaze, and hoodwink their audience.

The Magic Show
Magicians rely on a basic technique to dazzle and fool their audience. They set up the promise of something really difficult - "I'm going to make this rabbit disappear" - and then go ahead and perform the trick right in front of our eyes. The act can be repeated with silk handkerchiefs, coins, chopping people in half, but whatever the prop it basically involves doing something seemingly impossible. Having captured the attention of the audience, the conjurer then elaborates on the original trick by doing something to extend the theme and pushes the envelope to a further level of disbelief. This could involve removing the apparently lost rabbit from inside someone's hat, or finding a missing object inside an impenetrable empty box that was locked at the start of the act. The basic formula is to do something that looks difficult, and then surpass the act with a variant that uses the same props yet seems more impossible, the goal being to make the audience enthusiastically clap while exclaiming to themselves, "I don't know how he did that, pure magic!"

The Technical Presentation
At conferences the presenter typically has one hour to win over the audience and usually warms them up with a few jokes before launching into demo number one. This involves some kind of GUI appearing from an IDE. It doesn't really matter what the GUI looks like at this stage or for that matter what technology is being used, the key thing is that a few lines of code can be turned into a running GUI. There might be some applause, but this is just in anticipation of greater things to come. The presenter will point out a few flaws in the GUI, return to the IDE to make a couple of changes, push the save button, and wait. It's allowable for the presenter to hit some kind of refresh button on the GUI to have the change reflected, although more kudos is scored if this isn't necessary and the runtime update occurs without any obvious intervention.

Assuming nothing has crashed, the presenter is in full stride and after a few slides to tease and set the scene for the finale, a more difficult and risky change is made to the IDE code. It's possible the GUI was based on some kind of metadata such as a database schema or WSDL file, in which case this input definition will be swapped out. Doesn't really matter what rug is pulled, except that for this feat the expectation is for something more impressive than the first couple of acts. After the presenter nervously pastes in some magic line of code or takes a suspicious menu option hastily added for the demo, the original GUI is transformed. Like a frog turning into a princess, the GUI is more beautiful, has more color, and possibly some sound is played to hopefully send the audience into a chorus of applause.

The Five-Ring Keynote
In the late 1800s the troupe of Barnum & Bailey improved on the art of previous circus shows by having multiple acts simultaneously performing side by side in what became known as the "three-ring circus." Conference keynotes now seem to recognize this as the way to keep the show moving along. You now find multiple back-to-back podiums with different teams of engineers showboating their particular polemic using the same code formula - execute, change, re-execute with the GUI looking better, and so forth. To accompany this, an emcee introduces the engineer and adds narrative in the form of rhetorical and rehearsed questions: "That's great Thor, but it looks pretty ordinary, what can you do about that for us?" to which the engineer is cued to add some magic lines of code, too fast for the audience to see, question, or even appreciate, as the end game is just to refresh the GUI with gratuitous use of color, animation, and, for bonus marks, sound effects. After the applause the engineer takes his seat and the next act is called onto the stage.

During this five-ring podium act it matters little what alphabet soup of technology is being showcased or whether it's server- or client-side scripting, just whether or not the demo works and whether the IDE jocks can keep the magic alive. Often the emcee on stage is a senior development manager who outranks the engineer who, while trying to stoke the IDE into life, will remark on how his pay review is coming up or, when it unfortunately bombs, how he's lost his bonus. The clear analogy here is to the monkey who is desperately trying to perform some tricks for his master, the organ grinder. Only if the audience is amused will the monkey be rewarded with peanuts.

Back to Basics
Conferences are costly to attend, difficult to put on, and involve thousands of people travelling thousands of miles on either their own, or their company's expense. I love going for the people I meet, the discussions I have, and the concentration of like-minded technical talent in the same venue for a few days. However, I'd like to see the whole presentation format go way back to basics and rely less on being a venue for travelling technology salesmen and have instead education sessions that have more in common with a good physics lesson in a high school classroom than a Las Vegas smoke and mirrors conjuring act. The conference presenters are often the top of their class in terms of intellectual talent and ideas, and are at the cutting edge of implementing, deploying, or understanding technology. Let's try in the future to get the best from their presence, rather than resort to having them perform circus tricks on stage.

About Joe Winchester
Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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THANKS!

if i want entertainment, i'll watch TV ;-)




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