On Genuine Demo Jam Awesomeness
I’ve been a regular SAP TechEd attendee for over ten years, and ever since it first came up, DemoJam was the absolute highlight of the event for me. If you haven’t been in the SAP space for, say, six years or longer, chances are you don’t remember the bleak times where “innovation” and “innovative” were bad words in the enterprise workplace. Using them too often could seriously diminish your standing as a serious professional who could be listened to and whose judgment could be relied upon. Displaying too much of an interest in innovative and new technologies could get you written off as someone with too much interest in playing with dubiously immature, unproven software and too little interest in creating actual value while avoiding risks at all costs.
Proving geekdom as a value-driver
In those long-gone bleak days, when the enterprise software world was dominated by gray men in gray suits doing things as they had always done before, Demo Jam was a spring day in the winter. It had an underground feeling, like a secret convention of people who felt that there must be more out there, and found confirmation in each other’s presence. While TechEd as a whole felt a lot less geeky in those days, DemoJam was definitely and unexpectedly super-geeky from A to Z. It had that conspirative feel because geek culture was already there but it hadn’t yet been acknowledged as a value-driver by most in the enterprise software world, so it had to stay in hiding most of the time. But the projects presented at Demo Jam were so amazing that there could be no denying that being geeky, being a hacker, approaching new technologies playfully and with out-of-the-box thinking could generate incredible value even in the eyes of the gray men in gray suits. Demo Jam really drove it home that accepting and nurturing an innovation-friendly, passion-driven, playful geek culture was the key to unlocking real business value for the enterprise. The geeks understood this and began to carry their geekitude with pride rather than be ashamed for not being “corporate gray” enough. (Think of the “enterpriseGeeks”, the famous group of innovators around Ed Herman and Thomas Jung, who are still at the core of enterprise geek pride.)
Some DemoJam projects that really impressed me:
- majority desk (Minority Report style user interface using Wii controllers)
- SAPlink (extensible open source upload/download framework for transport objects)
- new ABAP editor (at the time, a state-of-the-art ABAP editor and much better than the then standard editor)
- ABAP in Eclipse
These and other Demo Jam projects were so inspiring to me that I still consider being on the Demo Jam stage as one of the pinnacles in the career of an SAP developer and perhaps the highest honor that can be achieved by the hands-on people in our field. Every year, I dream of submitting an entry, but there are always so many other things to do and the deadlines always approach too rapidly. But my Demo Jam dream is still alive.
In the past two or three years, there has been some unrest in the SAP community about the course Demo Jam has taken. (Here’s an excellent blog by SAP Mentor Michael Koch a.k.a. @pixelbase: http://www.pixelbase.co.uk/?p=637– please see the comment section, too.)
Some contributors to the discussion argued that the playing ground was not level enough – and wondered why so many contributions from SAP employees had qualified. Others feared that product marketeers would hijack the Demo Jam stage and use it to pitch commercial products. Concerns were voiced that if Demo Jam would be turned into a marketing platform to highlight projects by SAP and partners, the spirit of the event would die.
Many people I know have complained that the original spirit of Demo Jam is lost. Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint it exactly but people agree that something essential is entirely or mostly gone. However, everybody who thinks so wishes that the original Demo Jam spirit would reemerge.
Pinpointing the Demo Jam brand core
Apparently, Demo Jam has moved too far away from its original brand core, thus alienating its followers. I tried to figure out how this original brand core might be defined, and this is what I came up with.
Demo Jam awesomeness is created :
- by people driven by immense passion (as opposed to driven by their bosses or their KPIs or annual targets)
- withscarce resources (two or three people carving out the time for the project out of their precious spare time, after a demanding day job, perhaps after bringing the kids to bed until late into the night)
- against all odds (achieving something that was previously deemed impossible or way too difficult to be worth the risk and effort)
- with an element of subversion (secret submarine projects, no management attention or support)
- with an ingenious hack (the best ideas appear obvious in retrospect, but if they were truly obvious, then the people on the stage wouldn’t be the only ones in the world who thought of them; think of the Egg of Columbus anecdote http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_of_Columbus).
If, say, four of these points are true for a Demo Jam entry, then I would say it’s a genuine Demo Jam entry in the spirit of the early days.
Here’s another way to put it:
The best Demo Jam entries are the ones that make you think: “D’uh! If only I would have thought of it, I could have done it with the scarce resources (money, time, programming skills, hardware, software, collaborators) available to me for a private after-hours project. Too bad I didn’t come up with that brilliant idea – and kudos to the people who did! I want to be as smart as they are!”
The bad Demo Jam entries are the ones that make you think: “Nice idea, but having come up with the idea wouldn’t have helped me, because I wouldn’t have been able to put five people on this project full-time for four months. Some company’s management team invested 300,000 USD and now I’m being demoed their project: Thanks a lot.”
Yet another way to put it:
In a good Demo Jam entry, the ratio between the resources that were invested and the outcome is extremely good – mostly thanks to a truly ingenious idea and breathtaking pragmatism, expressing itself in the relentless use of kludges and hacks. It’s not enough to achieve a highly desirable outcome – it must be achieved with an improbably low investment, or with a high personal investment that is only possible with a degree of passion that borders on lunacy.
Back to Demo Jam core values: InnoJam
In order be saved, Demo Jam must find back to its core values. I believe that the audience wants to see projects that have match my above interpretation of the Demo Jam or they will become alienated and stop attending or contributing to the event.
Where do we find such projects? One place to look for them is in the SAP open source community (Code Exchange). The most active source of Demo Jam goodness, however, is the SAP InnoJam series of events, where people form teams on the spot and have at most 30 hours to complete their project. Sometimes, the ideas the teams pursue are made up on the spot and the outcomes are truly amazing, inspiring the familiar olden-days Demo Jam awe. Having participated (but not won) in several InnoJams, I can tell you that it requires a lot of hard work, lack of sleep, skill, ingenuity, incredible pragmatism, and soft skills to not become a victim to any of the pitfalls and produce a winning InnoJam entry. The contestants are real people and not companies or corporate project teams. What they do is hard and honest work, driven by the desire to build, learn, and collaborate. Playfulness and creativity play a major role in InnoJam.
Allowing the winners of InnoJam to compete in the Demo Jam event was a great move because it adds weight to InnoJam while adding some much-needed new blood to Demo Jam, which I mentioned earlier has become a bit stale.
Let’s have a dialog about Demo Jam
So currently, many of the Demo Jam core values are implemented in InnoJam. (The major difference is of course that the time constraint limits InnoJam entries to much smaller projects in scope and depth.) I hope that this influx of fresh playfulness and hacker spirit will help Demo Jam find back to its core values or live up to its brand core, however you wish to see it. One step would be to adjust the selection criteria, whatever they currently are, by adding the criteria I outlined above, thus favoring underground, hacker projects more strongly.
Whether or not you agree, I hope that we can have a dialog about Demo Jam and help it find back to its status as an undisputed source of pure awesomeness.