The approach of April Fool’s Day has me thinking of software industry pranks and other hijinks. Most of what comes to mind is verbal jousting of various sorts that doesn’t really fit the theme. But there was one case in which ongoing business competition got pretty prankish: mainframe-era accounting software leaders MSA vs. McCormack & Dodge.
Even today, a significant amount of marketing and sales is done at vendor-run seminars in medium-quality hotels. But in those days, before the internet and hence in particular before webinars, a huge fraction of all sales cycles passed through a physical seminar-attendance step. So if you could disrupt your competitors’ seminars, you could disrupt their whole sales cycles. So M&D and MSA salespeople did just that, routinely calling hotels to outright cancel competitors’ reservations and events. If I had to name offenders’ names, I’d start with Mary Kohler at McCormack & Dodge and Roe Henson at MSA, but I’m pretty sure the men were even “worse.”*
*Truth be told, I think the whole thing was pretty funny, or else I wouldn’t be sharing it. Further, I emphatically think Mary and Roe should be admired for succeeding in what was then an extremely male world.
That story has been confirmed multiple times, with minor variations (biggest disagreement = which side started doing it first). More dramatic stories are less confirmed. My favorite of those is MSA arranging for a McCormack & Dodge contract signing to be disrupted by the M&D salesman’s arrest for delinquent child support. (Ouch!) Other confirmed examples I can think of are tame by comparison, like the blow-up dolphins the MySQL folks decorated the Sun campus with after their acquisition closed.* E.g., sending trucks with hiring or marketing messages outside your competitors’ conferences or office buildings is not very imaginative, and actually happens in lots of industries.
*Sun apparently had a major tradition of MIT-style April Fool’s pranks, one of which featured Scott McNealy’s car being stranded in – or rather on – the middle of a pond. But that’s a little outside my purview.
But one I’ve always loved is the tradition of witty product code names. Some of my favorites were from the days of the Borland/Lotus spreadsheet competition, including:
- Conan, because Borland CEO Philippe Kahn prided himself on Borland being “barbarians”
- Crom, the god Conan prayed to (quite so – I’ve read the books)
- Buddha, because Borland wanted to assume “the Lotus position” (one of my favorite puns ever)
Another pair comes from when John Landry, then McCormack & Dodge’s R&D chief, was developing a proprietary programming language, which he planned both to use for in-house development and to expose to users for their own customizations. (I.e., it was a forerunner of SAP’s ABAP and PeopleSoft’s PeopleTools.) The first codename was GLOP (General Language for Ordinary People). That was eventually replaced by SLOB (Simple Language for Ordinary Bozos). To the best of my knowledge, those code names never made it into any actual product documentation.
I think I’ll stop there. I do have other stories of wise-assery I could add, but I think I’ll hold them back until I’m ready to take the time to wrap them in a bit of context …
Edit: Maybe I’ll add more here as I think of them.
- Larry Ellison, Mitchell Kertzman, and David Roux did a hilarious site spoofing the dotcom bubble. Unfortunately, it only persists in incomplete Internet Archive form, but that’s enough to show the key point.