Presentation Redundancy

As a presenter, it’s hard enough getting up in front of a group of people and talking about a topic.  We run the risk of demo failure, disengaged audiences, and equipment failure.  Practice and preparation can help with the first and second, but sometimes stuff just breaks.  This week’s SQL Saturday Pittsburgh provides a good example of this.

As I set up for my early-morning session, I set up my laptop just like usual and put in my HDMI to VGA adapter.  The adapter worked…sort of.  It would make a connection but then disconnect within a couple seconds, and then re-connect.  This connect-disconnect cycle obviously wasn’t going to fly, so I needed to do something about it.  I checked my laptop out in another room and found that my VGA connection worked fine there, so I went to the help desk technician.  He and I tried to troubleshoot the setup, but somehow, during the process, things ended up getting worse—now I couldn’t connect at all with my adapter, even with a new VGA cable.  I didn’t have a backup adapter and most speakers are moving to Thunderbolt or Display Port adapters, whereas I’ve got HDMI.  But even when I tried a different, working adapter, I just got back to a flickering screen.  I had to use somebody’s laptop which didn’t have SQL Server installed—just Management Studio—to give my talk.  I was glad that I could give a talk, but honestly, I should have done better for the people who woke up early on a rainy Saturday and came to watch me speak.

To fix this, I’m going full-bore with redundancy.  Here’s what I have:

  1. VMs on a separate USB drive.  I had this before, so no major change here.  This means that if I have another computer with vmWare installed, I can swap PCs and be up and running without missing a beat.  Of course, I might need to reboot my VM and change how powerful it is if I’m getting some less-powerful equipment.
  2. Two separate computers available for presentation.  I have my presentation laptop, but I’m also going to start bringing my tablet.  The tablet is pretty weak but it can run SQL Server Management Studio and is powerful enough for me to do some of my talks.  I couldn’t do the Hadoop talk on this tablet, but I should be able to do the rest of them.
  3. Spare adapters and cables.  The failure on Saturday showed me that I have a single point of failure with respect to adapters.  If it were just a simple adapter failure, I might not have found somebody else who has the right adapter.  I ended up purchasing two HDMI to VGA adapters in addition to the one I have now.  I’m going to test my current adapter with a VGA projector I have at home to see if it’s still functional; if so, I’ll have three adapters at my disposal.  I also purchased two Micro-HDMI to HDMI adapters.  My tablet uses Micro-HDMI, so if I end up needing to use it, I need the right adapters.
  4. Portable projector.  This is an emergency projector, not something I’m planning to use very often.  For that reason, I decided to go cheap—I don’t get paid to speak, after all.  I picked up an AAXA LED Pico projector projector.  It’s about the size of a smartphone and fits nicely into my presenter bag.  It also has a built-in battery which should be good enough for a one-hour presentation with some time to spare.  The downside is that it’s a ridiculously weak bulb, putting out just 25 lumens.  This means that my presentation room would need to be more or less dark for people to see the screen clearly, but again, this is a worst-case emergency scenario in which the alternative is not presenting at all.
  5. Azure VM.  I have an Azure subscription, so it’d make sense to grab all of my code and have a VM I can start up before presentations just in case my laptops fail.  That way, I can at least run the presentation remotely.  That Azure VM will have Management Studio and look very similar to my on-disk VM, but probably will be a lot less powerful.  It should be just powerful enough to do my Hadoop presentation.
  6. Phone with data plan.  In case I need to get to my Azure VM and can’t get an internet connection at my presentation location, I need a backup data plan.  Fortunately, I already have this.  Unfortunately, the app I’m using for tethering requires installation on the PC.  I might decide to wait until getting a new phone before getting software which allows my phone to become a wireless access point.

With all of these in place, I’ll have redundancy at every level and hopefully will not experience another scenario like I did in Pittsburgh.  I’m grateful that my reviews were generally good and people I respect said I did a good job recovering, but I’d rather prevent the need to recover quickly.  This isn’t as important as protecting corporate assets, but the principles are the same:  defense in depth, redundancy in tools, and preparation.

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