Blogging Friday demos.

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For a company that’s only been around since 2008, VendAsta has a pretty strong sense of tradition. Since we arrived in our current office space two years ago, we’ve all gathered in the boardroom for lunch every Friday. Each week a different person is responsible for ordering a meal for the group. Last week it was Allan, who provided schnitzels from the German Schnitzel Meister.

Another Friday afternoon tradition is Demo Time, where someone from each team shows what they’ve been working on for the last week. Demo Time used to come at the end of the day, when everyone was sleepy and eager to head home for the weekend. Friday, for the first time, we had our demos just after lunch, when we were all sleepy from eating schnitzels.

As an experiment I thought I’d try blogging Friday’s Demo Time.

I neglected to take photos, so you’ll have to visualize the scene. Twenty or so developers seated around tables in the boardroom. In front of each one, a paper plate oozing grease. Blair and Tavis lounging on beanbags by the supply closet. John leaning in his customary place against the window, coffee cup in hand. Guy rings the Demo Bell with uncharacteristic gentleness (seeing as how we’re all gathered already) and we get started.

Demo # 1. Phoenix projects a few screens of the application she and her team, the Scrumdog Millionaires, are building. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to blog about it before the product is officially announced, but we’ve already formalized a partnership deal with a couple of Canadian directory companies and we think the product has a lot of potential.

Phoenix gets into some back-end stuff that I don’t understand. I manage to scribble the words “PayPal API call” and “transactional task queue” before my brain falls asleep. I guess it has something to do with how the website will process credit card transactions.

As Phoenix wraps up, Brendan interrupts to say that Ches is on the phone from the west coast. Ches is on the highway near Whistler (I guess it’s still legal to talk on cell phones while driving in BC?) and he’s eager to describe a possible partnership opportunity for StepRep. So we listen while Ches shares his story over the speakerphone, interrupting himself every few minutes to ask “Can you still hear me?” It’s a good story, but again I’ll have to keep it secret as it involves one of our competitors.

Demo # 2. Shawn and Blair have been working to decrease page load times on StepRep. Shawn throws some code up on the projector and starts talking in technicalese. He mentions something about “asyncifying queries” to optimize pages – I gather this is a reference to asynctools, VendAsta’s great contribution (so far) to the world of Google App Engine development.

Someone asks how much quicker StepRep will be after Shawn and Blair’s improvements take effect. Shawn isn’t sure, but Jason (our Chief Technical Officer) speculates that certain pages that used to take 1.5 seconds to load could now load in half a second. That’s a pretty huge jump, percentagewise.

Demo # 3. Nicole, Mike, and Jeff are making changes to the Visibility tab in StepRep. That’s the tab where you can see all the places where your business listing appears. The changes involve how listings are “scraped” and compared with the “anchor data” in StepRep’s database. Sorry for the jargon; the gist of it is that the Visibility tab will soon be showing more accurate results.

Demo # 4. Before his demo, Chris takes a moment to promote his band Sexy Mathematics. “Just thought I’d mention that there’s a really good band at Amigo’s tonight,” he says, “and we’re opening for them.”

Chris and Krystian have been working on improving StepRep’s partner tools:

A search form for the Partner Admin screen, which will make it about a million times easier for administrators to search for users.

A custom signup URL field, which will permit partners to send new customers to a page of their choice rather than using StepRep’s default signup form.

A welcome field that partners can use to define a customized email message to send to new customers.

Demo # 5. Jason provides a summary of his visit last month to Google headquarters for the exclusive App Engine Developer’s Summit. This was a big opportunity to get face-time with the guys who built the system our software runs on.

While he talks at length about everything he learned down in Mountain View, I allow myself to be hypnotized by Jason’s emphatic hand gestures. Periodically he pauses to apologize for the dryness of his presentation, though I suspect for the geeks in the room it’s the highlight of their day.

Jason describes his visit to the famous Google cafeteria for lunch, with its multiple mini-restaurants featuring different types of cuisine. He says you can distinguish new Google employees by the way they load up their plates with heaps of food, while the long-time Googlers, accustomed to the superfluity of options, take more modest portions; or, as Jason puts it, “You can tell how long they’ve worked there by the size of their plates.”

Since he got back from the summit, Jason has been periodically testing the developers with App Engine trivia challenges. The winner of Friday’s challenge was Nicole, who correctly identified “the function you call to set the default multi-tenancy namespace for the current HTTP request”. Nicole got a Google App Engine t-shirt and the rest of us went home jealous.

Corrected July 14, 2010: Jason emailed to point out that I’d originally written, “Shawn and Blair have been working to increase page load times on StepRep.” Down, up, less, more; who pays attention to the details?