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Demo catastrophes: you live, you learn

After having been in the industry for over 20 years now, and with 3Sharp being over 16 years old – you can bet that we have our fair share of horror stories. We figured it would be fun to share some of them with all of you in the hopes that you can learn from our mistakes.

The setup

IEarly on in my career, I was set to present at the Microsoft MEC conference; a conference focused primarily on Exchange and messaging. I was asked to present on SQL Server Security…on the last day of the conference…at 8 in the morning.  Oh, and did I mention that the night before there was a giant party where all the alcohol was free?!

As you could imagine, I was not expecting many attendees. And naturally, I had no demo backup plan.

I knew that I had to make things fun, so I built out a large Virtual Machine environment using, at the time, the brand new and cutting-edge VMWare product. I rehearsed and rehearsed all week until I had everything down cold. I even built out this really cool themed website we were going to hack live in the conference.

Instead of going to the party the night before, I stayed and rehearsed a few more times. (Obsessive anyone?) I had a bunch of VMs in a bunch of virtual networks all running on my laptop. Back then, I was definitely pushing the limits of the technology! When I knew everything was working perfectly, I left it alone for the night feeling confident that the next morning would be a success.

The presentation

The next morning, I woke up early, grabbed a cup of joe, and headed over to the conference. I quickly got mic’d up and plugged in my laptop. The good news? Audio and visual were both working great! The bad news? Not ONE of my demos were working, and I couldn’t figure out why. What made it worse was, despite last night’s party, the attendees were streaming in! I guess everyone was sick of hearing about Exchange, because my room was filling up – and fast.

My body instantly broke out in a cold sweat. Anecdotally, I heard people talk about this, but always thought the stories were apocryphal. Nope, I can attest first hand, it’s a real thing!

After some quick troubleshooting, I realized that none of the virtual networking was working. What do I do now? I thought to myself. I can’t reboot everything – there isn’t enough time to get it all up and running again before it’s time to start!  In the end, I tried my best – restarting as many virtual networks as I could and presenting only 1/2 of my demos, while just talking through the other half. It was a massive bummer for me.

What could I have done differently?

  1. Wake up even earlier: I did all my pre-config the night before. With a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time product. I should have woken up earlier in the morning to check all of the environments one last time.
  2. Have a backup environment: I would have loved to have a backup environment. In this case, it might have saved me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on two laptops that had enough power to run all of those VMs.
  3. Utilize the Cloud: Nowadays, I’d have a cloud option as a backup (or probably my primary). I was pushing my laptop a bit too far. It’s an easy thing to throw some VMs in the cloud with a high-level of success.
    Unless you lose networking! This is a real concern, especially on the first day of a conference, before all the gremlins are worked out.
  4. Create a click-through: I should have made time to put together a click-through environment to back up my demo.
  5. Screen capture: This was in the days before Camtasia, but a rough screen capture video would have also been better than nothing.
  6. And when all else fails: Pack up my gear and dash out of the room to start an inn in upstate NY that’s only open during holidays.

The session wasn’t a total failure and people generally liked it. I’m guessing they may have still been under the influence of the prior night’s free beverages. However, it wasn’t what it could have been if I had simply taken some precautions.  C’est la Vie!  You live, you learn.  Hopefully, my experience gives you a chance to learn, without having to live through it.

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