March 28, 2010

Software industry hijinks

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:

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.

Comments

5 Responses to “Software industry hijinks”

  1. Pranks of the past | The Monash Report on March 28th, 2010 11:14 pm

    [...] thinking about this post, I recalled and posted about some software industry pranks. The MSA/M&D ones still boggle my mind, but I couldn’t think of much else to match them. [...]

  2. Steve Weinberg on March 29th, 2010 9:36 am

    Correction: Mary Kohler worked for McCormack & Dodge and Roe Henson for MSA. Roe later worked for Dun & Bradstreet Software, the merged company and went on to Peoplesoft. I do not recall Mary ever canceling any reservations, but know she was a victim a couple of times. I have never heard the store about a contract signing interruption for child-support and doubt its veracity. Then again, McCormack & Dodge did have contract signings.
    Steve

  3. Curt Monash on March 29th, 2010 10:04 pm

    Steve,

    Ack!!! I had a typo in which I called both firms “M&D”, then corrected in the wrong order. Fixing now.

    The child-support story is supposedly about Don House (MSA’s sales chief himself), calling in the cops on an M&D salesman. I agree that that one is dubious.

    As for who did what to whom — I’m not surprised that your memories are a little different from what I recall being told by Roe. ;)

    Thanks,

    CAM

  4. Ramon Chen on April 1st, 2010 1:11 am

    One more for you Curt http://www.ramonchen.com/?p=2854
    (sorry couldn’t resist)

  5. Jim Kirk on April 25th, 2011 9:37 am

    My recollection, which may be faulty after all these years, was that John Imlay was the author of many of these stories. John had the ability, skill, to take virtually anything and turn it into an engaging and humorous story. Each year I was with MSA..some of my most memorable, period…there was an animal theme. Such as our competitors are a bunch of monkey’s. Someplace, I still have a photo of myself and my date and the monkey between us. I wonder if Roe remembers going to to C/U for a Fighting Illini football game with me.

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