09 Sep 2023

Fog Creek Software's Programming Documentary

If you are at all involved in writing software I would highly recommend watching the film Aardvark'd: 12 Weeks With Geeks. It's a documentary filmed in 2005 following four interns at Fog Creek Software, in NYC.


For those that don’t know, Fog Creek was the software company started in 2000 by Joel Spolsky and Michael Pryor. You’ve probably interacted with their software, especially if you are a developer reading this, as they created Trello and Stack Overflow amongst other products.

Film Poster

The Film Poster.

Core Story

The film follows the build and launch of the Copilot remote control tool (basically a mega user friendly VNC product). It is an enjoyable watch, I expect even if you don’t work in tech, partly because the film avoids diving into any deep technical content (though that would have been really interesting!).

It’s a fun snapshot in time for development in the mid-noughties. The interns are gifted books at the start, which is maybe still a thing some companies do, but feels particularly relevant then as the juggernaut of quick online programming help (aka Stack Overflow) hadn’t been invented yet, not launching until 2008.

There is a classic scene where the interns give the very first end to end demo to Joel and the software fails. Even super smart devs building software at a prestigious software company don’t always get it right first time. Making good software is hard!

Bonus Interviews

Paul Graham

In the second half of the film (circa 49 minutes in) some other famous faces are interviewed including Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston who co-founded Y Combinator. Bear in mind this was 2005 so Y Combinator had only just started. Hacker News didn’t exist yet though, not launching until 2007.

There are lots of quotable lines from Paul. I related to the hacker mindset, which I will paraphrase here:

We often think of a hacker as someone who is clever and sneaky and does things they're not supposed to do... which could also be a description of an innovative solution to a problem.

Also the insight around the drive he sees in hackers to start a business (1hr 5m). Noting that often the desire to ‘get rich’ is really because hackers want freedom to hack the things they want to, and not have to worry about money, rather than for them to make a load of cash to go and buy luxury goods.

Dan Bricklin

Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc Co-Creator) is also interviewed throughout the film. He has some words of wisdom around releasing software (54m), noting that “you’re never done” but you’ve got to figure out how to get it out the door and shipped.

Wrapping It Up

The film doesn’t talk about the success of the software built by the interns, but the wiki page for Fog Creek suggests that the product continued to exist from 2005 right up to 2022. I’d say a project is successful to survive for nearly 20 years as a going concern. There are some bits of progress on Joel’s blog, e.g. this post from 2007 about version 2.

Speaking of Joel’s blog, Joel on Software, if you’ve never come accross it before it’s full of great insight into being a developer and running a software business. Posts are pretty spaced out nowadays, but if you are arriving for the first time check out the top 10 lists on the home page. I’ve re-read a bunch this weekend going down a blog rabbit hole and there’s loads of great wisdom in there.

A closing note, I’ve recently discovered Michael Lynch’s blog, and if you’re interested in indie software development then it is well worth following. He posted about the film which is how I came to hear about it.

Reviews Dev
Back to posts