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Racist Programs and Assaulting Servers

April 19, 2013

“The Master Domain will control the entire organization. An email system never has more than a single Master.”

“So, where do the user accounts reside?”

“They all go into various Slave Domains. You can have as many Slaves as you want.”

Dead silence. . .

“What?”

Masters and Slaves

The year was 1989 and along with other members of WordPerfect’s elite email support team, I was being briefed on the architecture of the next version of our email program. (WordPerfect Office 3.0.) The developer who was explaining the design to us honestly had no idea why we were stunned to silence. At WordPerfect, like many software companies, programmers didn’t talk to customers. That was the job of Support.

In software development, especially in the late 1980’s a “master/slave” relationship was well understood and really not noteworthy. It simply defined a one-to-many relationship, where the “one” was the dominate system. However, what the developer was explaining was not just the architecture, but the nomenclature that our customers would need to define. He was suggesting that we tell our customers to create a system that they would see as resembling the Antebellum South.

It was actually Richard Bliss, who readers may remember as the one who told me “Now Would Be a Great Time to Shut Up,” who came up with the terms that ultimately got adopted.

Master => Primary
Slave => Secondary

It conveyed the same relationship without risking alienating our customers, and inviting lawsuits.

Assaulting eMail Servers

An insensitivity to racially charged terms wasn’t our programmers’ only gaffe. Once we got the system set up and running in our lab we noticed that the Connection Server (CS), a kind of “traffic cop” for routing email was committing lewd acts on our other servers. The CS had to check if a destination server was online before it attempted to move files. Naturally it “probed.” And it had to log this information to the screen.

That may not sound bad until you realize that email administrators often gave their servers personalized names, such as cartoon characters. So, the CS log screen showed

>>Probing Bambi

Again, this might not have been catastrophic if the CS server didn’t try to restart an offline mail server.

>>Probing Bambi
<< Bambi is down
>>Upping Bambi

I don’t remember what we got them to change it to. I think it might have been

>>Checking Bambi
>>Restarting Bambi

You can read an excellent history of GroupWise, written by my friend Willem Bagchus here. I’m not sure Willem ever forgave me for leaving WordPerfect and going to work for Microsoft.

I love working with developers and engineers, but they do sometimes need a filter between them and customers. That filter is supposed to be the Program Managers. But, even PMs can be guilty of picking the wrong name.

Microsoft’s Beavis & Butt-head?

After leaving WordPerfect in 1992, I went to Microsoft to support Microsoft Mail as they readied the first version of Microsoft Exchange. Microsoft, like most software companies, uses codenames for their products while they are in development. Apple, for example is famous for naming their new versions after big cats. Microsoft has been through many themes. “Chicago” was the code name for Microsoft Windows 95, for example.

The PM typically gets to pick the name. Microsoft Exchange server and the email client were codenamed “Beavis” and “Butt-head, of MTV fame. Developers could talk about working on “Butt-head.” Testers could report, “I’ve got a problem when Beavis loads and there’s not enough memory.”

The concept worked great. . .

. . .

. . .You know there’s a punchline here, right?

The concept worked great until we got close to the release date. Microsoft invited in the IT world press to show them the early versions of their new email program. They naturally wanted to showcase the cool stuff that the product would provide and keep people from switching to Lotus Notes, or WordPerfect Office (shortly before it was renamed Novell GroupWise.)

Imagine their embarrassment when they had to endure press stories talking about Microsoft’s new email system “Beavis and Butt-head.” (Not surprisingly I cannot find links to any of those old stories. This was before the Internet really took off, and Microsoft, I’m sure would be happy if that chapter never makes it to the net.)

That was the last time PM’s got to pick their own names. Microsoft designed an internal tool that all product names had to be vetted through. But, the damage had been done.

The real lesson is don’t let the developers name things customers will read and always vette your codenames.

“Temporary” names seldom are.

15 Comments
  1. Rodney – great story. I still find some of the “programming” terms in logs of GroupWise humorous, so not all of it got removed (and actually some have been added since 1989 for certain!). For example, the POA gets SLAPPED frequently by clients and processes, and then the POA gets upset and starts “terminating workers” 🙂

  2. Kyle permalink

    We had a similar situation with a Visual DB app back in the 90s. The app was named “Iris” (which actually stood for something relating to the app’s purpose). Unfortunately, to launch a VDB app you typed in: do .

    After numerous successful installations, we were called to task by one indignant client about our “disgusting, sexist application.” No one in our office had ever taken the command “DO IRIS” to mean anything other than to start the app, but this lady wasn’t having any of it!

  3. In defense of the programmers, you’ve got to have a way to remember what you’re talking about, and you use the menomic help where you can. Primary and secondary is a little confusing, and you have to remember which way is up (difficult in some programming situations). When I say master and slave, you NEVER forget which is which.

    stop thinking dirty and trying to be offended and let us keep building stuff for you instead of quibbling over our terminology.

    (this is not to say antebellum slavery is ok or not a big deal. Its to say the word has meanings other than 19th century american slavery and we’d like to use them as mnemonic devices)

  4. I love these inside stories, Rodney. Please write more. It’s very interesting! Thanks!

  5. Derrick,

    Part of the reason I enjoy working with programmers and engineers is they have your attitude. “I didn’t intend it to be offensive, so it shouldn’t be!” And, for the most part, I want the developers to do exactly what you describe. They shouldn’t have to worry about the marketing stuff.

    But, it’s still surprising to sometimes realize how much they think differently.

  6. Willem, keep reading and I’ll keep writing! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Ewan Marshall permalink

    I think certain Unix variants wins with their mix of shell commands:

    Unix is sexy: who | grep -i blonde | date; cd ~; unzip; touch; strip; finger; mount; gasp; yes; uptime; umount; sleep

  8. Reblogged this on Rodney M Bliss and commented:

    Best of 2013. This is the 2nd most popular blog entry from last year. I explain why it’s not a good idea to have programmers name things that customers will see.

  9. D'mon Jones permalink

    Beavis and Butt-head lol! Hey Rod, mind if I start sharing your blogs with my friends on Facebook and Twitter?

  10. Love the blog Rod! I have to admit Microsoft is the all-time winner in ‘unfortunate’ name choices. Chicago was pretty cool. Windows CE (WinCE) was, to put it kindly painful. Microsoft Active Directory was fine – until the next line when they capitalized it. (They’re MAD, I tell you, jut MAD!) And who can forget BOB?

    But there was an initiative long ago whose name escapes me at the moment – it was in the Windows for Workgroups 3.11 days, and Microsoft was already trying to push ‘Windows Everywhere’. The basic idea was that everything in the office would run windows – your fax, your printers, even your modems. The world wasn’t ready for such heavy hardware (1 Mb ram was expensive) and it quietly died amid general laughter. After a decent interval the product was purged from the public pages of microsoft.com and it, too appears lost to time. Too bad, in retrospect it was an OK idea – just about 15 years and a robust OS early. Of course, we see the concept buried in the developer section and it’s really been linux that ran with the idea successfully, but the vision was there.

    • I got to try my name at picking project names a couple of times. It can be harder than you think. I think that’s why companies pick a theme and stick with it. Windows for a long time was cities. Not just Chicago, but Cairo and I think Memphis might have been one. Windows also used bars in Wisler, BC. Longhorn is a bar name, for example.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How I Saved The EPA. (Don’t Tell Pete!) | Rodney M Bliss
  2. Greatest Blog That No One Has Ever Heard Of! | Rodney M Bliss
  3. Instructions on Accessing Your New Mailbox Have Been eMailed To You | Rodney M Bliss

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