Show vs Tell

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One of the cardinal rules when beginning an open source project is simple: have source. It’s not enough to have a good idea, you need to have something for developers to work with – a starting point. As Linux has put it in the past,

Don’t expect people to jump in and help you. That’s not how these things work. You need to get something half-way _useful_ first, and then others will say “hey, that _almost_ works for me”, and they’ll get involved in the project.

Besides the general human preference for immediate gratification, this is implicitly – in my mind – a barriers to entry problem. The barrier in this case is the distance between the conceptualization of a piece of software and the actual usage and construction of that piece of software. I use open source only as an example here – the problem is far broader, and afflicts most software in the industry whether it’s closed or open. It’s the show vs tell problem.

This is an area that that I can speak to with some authority, because I spend a substantial portion of most days listening to software vendors or open source projects tell me about their product. Occasionally, I’m shown a product – but frankly the typical mechanisms for ‘showing’ products – be they WebEx, LiveMeeting, or whatever – are often more trouble than they’re worth (I loathe WebEx). Not to mention the fact that the product ‘demos’ they facilitate are usually less than interactive.

The net net is that most of the pitches I receive with respect to software are about telling me something, rather than showing me something. It’s one of the reasons that I love firms that ship me the bits; I don’t get to install everything I’d like to, but I play with as much of it as I can. Unsurprisingly, those experiences tend to be infinitely more compelling than anything that can described to me in a Powerpoint deck. And if that’s true of an analyst, how do you think a developer might feel? You think they’d prefer to see how they can use your product to mashup Google Maps and NIPP RSS concerts feed, or look at a couple of slides describing generic web services?

Does this mean that telling is bad? Of course not. Whether it’s busy customers or reporters new to a beat, the art of describing your product succinctly and in the asbtract is and will remain an important skill. It’s also true that with some infrastructure software, there’s very little to ‘show’ because of the nature of the products. But I do think that more attention could and should be paid to ‘showing’ your product.

What do I mean? Let’s take databases, as an example. If I said that Derby can be used as a backend for offline, persistent browser based applications – how interesting is that really? No matter how I dress that up in PowerPoint or wordsmith it, it sounds dry and rather boring. But what if you showed that capability, live? You just might impress some very sharp people.

So the lesson in all of this is probably rather obvious: if you want to interest new audiences to your product – think about showing it to them. Or better yet, letting them show it to themselves. Because PowerPoint and press releases should be the fallback position, not the default option.


  1. Linux? Well, I *guess* Linus Torvalds could be considered the personification of the OS he started…

  2. Keith: Linux mostly b/c it began with working code, as opposed to announced intentions – make sense?

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