Part of my role in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies is to provide advice on how our students and researchers can make the best use of ICT in their work, and that includes software. Recently I’ve attended a couple of “free workshops” covering first Matlab and then LabVIEW, both of which the University has a site license for.

They were both run for free by the vendors of the software in question: the Matlab workshop by Mathworks and the LabVIEW one by National Instruments. The experiences couldn’t have been more different.

The Matlab workshop was a whole-day affair, gathering several hundred researchers from across the university. A succession of Mathworks employees whizzed through feature after impressive feature, clearly caught up in the shining brilliance of their own product.

Because of the diversity of the audience, the examples chosen to illustrate different features could only really appeal to a fraction of those watching at any one time. The presenters each chose to focus on developing a small number of examples in detail, and rushed head-over-heels to try and show off as many features as possible.

The net effect was leave much of the audience somewhat non-plussed. I know Matlab to be an excellent piece of software even for very basic analysis such as plotting a graph or two (though it can be a little annoying to a certain type of snobbish coding geek; i.e. me). The chemistry PhD students I was sitting with, though, were left with the strong impression that it was a very complicated piece of software, only useful for engineers and financial analysts.

The LabVIEW session was quite different. National Instruments had planned several shorter workshops to keep audience sizes small. They’d put together a workbook with some tasks and provided enough laptops with LabVIEW installed for every two people to have one.

A little bit of standard marketing speak was followed by an interesting session of putting together a ‘virtual instrument’ to analyse data from an interesting little USB thingy with an LED, a microphone and some other bits and bobs soldered to it.

We had complete freedom to experiment, so we were soon taking the task in interesting directions related to our own backgrounds. Much more engaging, and I had soon got to understand some of the power of an application that I’d never really even heard of before.

So, it seems it applies as much to selling as teaching: you can’t “just tell ‘em”.

Please, please, please. If you’ve got a great product that you’re proud of, let it speak for itself and don’t ram it down my throat.

And that goes for teaching too.