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Eight do’s and don’ts for product demo environments

Sometimes sales engineers joke about appeasing the “Demo Gods” before doing a demo. There’s nothing wrong with a little divine assistance, but you should also take steps to prepare and make sure your demo environment is reliable and thoroughly tested before going live.

To deliver effective software demos that convert into sales, you need at least three things: a clear understanding of your target audience, a compelling story that resonates with users, and a reliable demo platform for presenting demo content. A rock-solid and versatile demo platform gives you more control, reduces errors, and is easier to adapt to new use cases.

You may be tempted to build your own demo or training platform from scratch. Here’s some advice from someone who’s spent hundreds of hours creating tools for managing sandbox environments: Don’t build it yourself. You will run into myriad challenges when trying to conduct a workshop or technical training, especially with enterprise users. Here are a few of the lessons learned when building these environments:

Do Not: Install Software on Laptops

01 installer failed

Don’t do this to your users

Any time users want to do a training session on their own laptops, you are asking for trouble. There are countless ways this can go wrong. Restrictive corporate policies, VPNs, odd software configurations, insufficient hardware specs, untested OS versions, and dozens of other factors can throw a monkey wrench into your carefully crafted training curriculum. One of the first things I realized when teaching training workshops was that we needed to get full control over the student’s workstation. Fortunately, this is a lot easier in the cloud because you can provision everything on demand.

Do Not: Use a Shared Cloud Account for Training

02 bitcoin farm

Shared cloud accounts can easily get hacked

When you invite outside users into your cloud environments, you put your organization at risk. Most students are not malicious, but they may be careless and accidentally expose their cloud credentials on a public repository. Cloud workstations with weak passwords (such as Training123) can be compromised and cause a mess in your account.

In a worst-case scenario, you can get your entire shared cloud account suspended or shut down, which has far-reaching implications for all the other teams using the same account. So at the very least, you should have a dedicated training account, or even better, an entire sandbox account per user.

Do Not: Create a Shared Demo Environment for All Users

03 messy kitchen

Messy communal kitchen demo environment

Here’s another common pitfall – the ‘shared’ demo environment. This can lead to all sorts of problems like multiple sales engineers trying to do a demo and stepping on each other’s toes. Or someone breaks something in the demo environment, and now it’s down for all users.

Generally speaking, it’s much better if you can spin up a fresh demo environment, on-demand, every time you need one. This ensures that you get a clean, tested version of your sandbox that is isolated from all other users and instances of your application.

Do Not: Try to Build Your Own Training/Demo Platform

04 diy demo platform

Do It Yourself Demo Environment

Many sales engineers and solutions architects come from sysadmin or developer backgrounds. We tend to take the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach when creating demos and workshop content. While this may solve your problem in the short term, it creates technical debt that has to be paid off later as your teams grow and expand.

Let me give you an example – suppose I build “Sean’s Custom Workshop” and publish it with some minimal instructions. This may be fine for a small team of three or five customer engineers. We can each have our own copy of the demo and all its idiosyncrasies. Now try expanding that team to 30 or 50 members spread across multiple time zones, regions, and management structures. You will now have to support the demo and workshop framework, which can become a full-time job in itself.

Alternatively, imagine that we just toss our code out there and let the rest of the organization figure it out for themselves. This leads to splintering and different methods for doing demos and training in each team. Instead of having a single standard across your entire pre (and post) sales organization, you have regional silos of teams each building their own tribal knowledge.

Do: Buy Instead of Build

05 take my money

Sometimes it’s better to buy

Building and maintaining a demo or workshop platform is *not* an easy task. Cloud accounts are not configured out of the box to work as an effective classroom or demo sandbox. All you get is a set of API keys and an empty cloud account with zero security or compliance built-in.

You will have to create a complex infrastructure-as-code system that can stand up and tear down lab environments on-demand. You will also have to make sure your cloud accounts stay secure, and that you have cleanup or janitor scripts that can clear out unused or orphaned cloud resources. In addition, you will have to create documentation and ensure good testing is in place so your content continues to work. Finally, you’ll need to provide live support for instructors who take the content to their customers and prospects and run into issues.

Before you embark on the difficult journey of building your own workshop or demo platform, take some advice from seasoned veterans — you do not want to get into the business of maintaining your own training environments. At best, you’ll end up with a new part-time job, on top of your regular responsibilities; a labor of love. At worst, you’ll end up completely overwhelmed and burnt out and receive no credit for the work you put into the demo or workshop platform.

Do: Regularly Test Demo/Workshop Content

06 automated testing

Test your code like this IKEA chair tester

Your demo or workshop content is not done until it’s receiving regular functional testing. And I don’t mean spinning up the demo once a month to see if it still boots. You need step-by-step walkthroughs of exactly what a human operator will be doing during a live presentation.

Imagine a robot that acts as a student or demo user and goes through every single step of the demo in detail, including errors and fixes. You can even implement nightly testing to ensure that everything still works as expected.

Now when your users spin up a demo or training lab, they feel confident that the content was tested less than 12 hours before and that everything was working. Random issues and edge cases are much easier to detect once all of the standard scenarios are accounted for and included in your test cases.

Make sure you have automated nightly testing for your critical demo and workshop environments!

Do: Use Browser-Based Sandbox Environments

07 browser logos

Browser support is essential

Want a quick way to lose 90% of your prospects? Ask them to install something to test drive your software. Any time you require a user to install something, it creates friction.

Now they have to download your installer, but maybe their corporate policy doesn’t let them do that on their work laptop. Or maybe they’re just busy and give up because it looks too complicated. Maybe they already have a bunch of stuff installed on their laptop and don’t want to add yet another program.

There’s one thing that all of your users and prospects have in common, and that’s a standards-compliant web browser. No matter what OS they are using, I can practically guarantee you they have a web browser that they can use to access the internet. Keep the bar to entry as low as possible! If all your user needs to access your content is a web browser, then you’ve removed significant friction from the process.

Browser-based sandboxes can be accessed anywhere on the internet, even from inside restricted corporate networks where traditional training labs are challenging to set up because of firewalls and traffic restrictions. The browser-based sandbox can be secured with TLS so it’s safe and isolated from the public internet.

Browser-based sandboxes can also be embedded into Learning Management Systems (LMS) so that your technical content can be incorporated directly into the LMS, including completion rates, scores, participant data, and more.

Do: Make it Fun

08 having fun kid

Have fun with your training and demos!

Technical training and demos can sometimes be really boring. Have you ever sat through a demo where it was just someone sharing a terminal and typing commands?

Ok, a few of us will find that really cool, but the other 99% of our audience will just fall asleep watching you type commands.

So get creative and tell a story around your demo or training content. You can use a mock company name or spice up the training with some images or a web application. I’ll sometimes even use emoji in chapter headings to make them stand out a bit more.

You don’t need an entire fantasy universe to keep it interesting. There needs to be just enough story to hook your users and begin to reel them in. Help your users see themselves in the driver’s seat and understand what problems you can solve.

The most important thing in a self-guided introductory demo is to keep it simple. Your user needs to feel, “Hmmm, this isn’t hard, I can do this.”

One of the toughest parts of working in cloud technology is that nothing is ever finished. We rarely get to stand back, look at a completed project, and give each other high-fives. Instead, it’s just an endless slog of agile sprints and point releases with little of that ‘job well done’ satisfaction that we so desperately crave. Give your users a break from the grind and invite them into a world of imagination.

Make your demo tell a story. Keep it short and meaningful. Help your user solve a real problem in less than 15 minutes. Give your user a hearty congratulations and maybe even a shiny badge. People love achievement badges!

Next Steps

Thank you for making it to the end of this post! If you want some help in your search for a reliable demo/lab platform, check out the Top 12 features to look for in virtual IT labs. 

Your demo environment should be a revenue driver and not an engineering challenge. 

Experience the new way of selling and Test Drive Instruqt for Free.

Sean Carolan
Sean is the Head of Presales at Instruqt. With over 10 years of experience as a technologist and sales engineer, Sean understands how to take complex concepts and simplify them for customers to understand. For Sean, nothing beats engaging your customers with fun, interactive product experiences!

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