A Simple Approach For Presenting With Code Samples


I’ve been getting ready for a presentation and have been struggling a bit with the best way to show and execute code samples. I don’t present often (hardly ever), but when I do I like the presentation to have a lot of succinct and executable code snippets to help illustrate the points that I’m making. Depending on what the presentation is about, I might just want to build an entire sample application that I would run during the presentation. In other cases, however, building a full-blown application might not really be the best way to present the code. The presentation I’m working on now is for an open source utility library for dealing with dates and times. I could have probably cooked up a sample app for accepting date and time input and then contrived ways in which it could put the library through its paces, but I had trouble coming up with one app that would illustrate all of the various features of the library that I wanted to highlight. I finally decided that what I really needed was an approach that met the following criteria:

  1. Simple: I didn’t want the user interface or overall architecture of a sample application to serve as a distraction from the demonstration of the syntax of the library that the presentation is about. I want to be able to present small bits of code that are focused on accomplishing a single task. Several of these examples will look similar, and that’s OK. I want each sample to “stand on its own” and not rely much on external classes or methods (other than the library that is being presented, of course).
  2. “Debuggable” (not really a word, I know): I want to be able to easily run the sample with the debugger attached in Visual Studio should I want to step through any bits of code and show what certain values might be at run time. As far as I know this rules out something like LinqPad, though using LinqPad to present code samples like this is actually a very interesting idea that I might explore another time.
  3. Flexible and Selectable: I’m going to have lots of code samples to show, and I want to be able to just package them all up into a single project or module and have an easy way to just run the sample that I want on-demand.

Since I’m presenting on a .NET framework library, one of the simplest ways in which I could execute some code samples would be to just create a Console application and use Console.WriteLine to output the pertinent info at run time. This gives me a “no frills” harness from which to run my code samples, and I just hit ‘F5’ to run it with the debugger. This satisfies numbers 1 and 2 from my list of criteria above, but item 3 is a little harder. By default, just running a console application is going to execute the ‘main’ method, and then terminate the program after all code is executed. If I want to have several different code samples and run them one at a time, it would be cumbersome to keep swapping the code I want in and out of the ‘main’ method of the console application. What I really want is an easy way to keep the console app running throughout the whole presentation and just have it run the samples I want when I want. I could setup a simple Windows Forms or WPF desktop application with buttons for the different samples, but then I’m getting away from my first criteria of keeping things as simple as possible.

Infinite Loops To The Rescue

I found a way to have a simple console application satisfy all three of my requirements above, and it involves using an infinite loop and some Console.ReadLine calls that will give the user an opportunity to break out and exit the program. (All programs that need to run until they are closed explicitly (or crash!) likely use similar constructs behind the scenes. Create a new Windows Forms project, look in the ‘Program.cs’ that gets generated, and then check out the docs for the Application.Run method that it calls.). Here’s how the main method might look:

static void Main(string[] args)
{
    do
     {
        Console.Write("Enter command or 'exit' to quit: > ");
        var command = Console.ReadLine();
        if ((command ?? string.Empty).Equals("exit", StringComparison.OrdinalIgnoreCase))
        {
            Console.WriteLine("Quitting.");
            break;
        }
    } while (true);
}

The idea here is the app prompts me for the command I want to run, or I can type in ‘exit’ to break out of the loop and let the application close. The only trick now is to create a set of commands that map to each of the code samples that I’m going to want to run. Each sample is already encapsulated in a single public method in a separate class, so I could just write a big switch statement or create a hashtable/dictionary that maps command text to an Action that will invoke the proper method, but why re-invent the wheel?

CLAP For Your Own Presentation

I’ve blogged about the CLAP library before, and it turns out that it’s a great fit for satisfying criteria #3 from my list above. CLAP lets you decorate methods in a class with an attribute and then easily invoke those methods from within a console application. CLAP was designed to take the arguments passed into the console app from the command line and parse them to determine which method to run and what arguments to pass to that method, but there’s no reason you can’t re-purpose it to accept command input from within the infinite loop defined above and invoke the corresponding method. Here’s how you might define a couple of different methods to contain two different code samples that you want to run during your presentation:

public static class CodeSamples
{
    [Verb(Aliases="one")]
    public static void SampleOne()
    {
        Console.WriteLine("This is sample 1");
    }
    
    [Verb(Aliases="two")]
    public static void SampleTwo()
    {
        Console.WriteLine("This is sample 2");
    }
}

A couple of things to note about the sample above:

  1. I’m using static methods. You don’t actually need to use static methods with CLAP, but the syntax ends up being a bit simpler and static methods happen to lend themselves well to the “one self-contained method per code sample” approach that I want to use.
  2. The methods are decorated with a ‘Verb’ attribute. This tells CLAP that they are eligible targets for commands. The “Aliases” argument lets me give them short and easy-to-remember aliases that can be used to invoke them. By default, CLAP just uses the full method name as the command name, but with aliases you can simply the usage a bit.
  3. I’m not using any parameters. CLAP’s main feature is its ability to parse out arguments from a command line invocation of a console application and automatically pass them in as parameters to the target methods. My code samples don’t need parameters ,and honestly having them would complicate giving the presentation, so this is a good thing. You could use this same approach to invoke methods with parameters, but you’d have a couple of things to figure out. When you invoke a .NET application from the command line, Windows will parse the arguments and pass them in as a string array (called ‘args’ in the boilerplate console project Program.cs). The parsing that gets done here is smart enough to deal with things like treating strings in double quotes as one argument, and you’d have to re-create that within your infinite loop if you wanted to use parameters. I plan on either submitting a pull request to CLAP to add this capability or maybe just making a small utility class/extension method to do it and posting that here in the future.

So I now have a simple class with static methods to contain my code samples, and an infinite loop in my ‘main’ method that can accept text commands. Wiring this all up together is pretty easy:

 static void Main(string[] args)
 {
     do
     {
         try
         {
             Console.Write("Enter command or 'exit' to quit: > ");
             var command = Console.ReadLine();
             if ((command ?? string.Empty).Equals("exit", StringComparison.OrdinalIgnoreCase))
             {
                 Console.WriteLine("Quitting.");
                 break;
             }
             
             Parser.Run<CodeSamples>(new[] { command });
             Console.WriteLine("---------------------------------------------------------");
        }
        catch (Exception ex)
        {
            Console.Error.WriteLine("Error: " + ex.Message);
        }
    } while (true);
}

Note that I’m now passing the ‘CodeSamples’ class into the CLAP ‘Parser.Run’ as a type argument. This tells CLAP to inspect that class for methods that might be able to handle the commands passed in. I’m also throwing in a little “—-“ style line separator and some basic error handling (because I happen to know that some of the samples are going to throw exceptions for demonstration purposes) and I’m good to go. Now during my presentation I can just have the console application running the whole time with the debugger attached and just type in the alias of the code sample method that I want to run when I want to run it.

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