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My Short But Unsuccessful Life As A Corporate Spy

January 7, 2014

I thought I was being clever.

A year later my manager informed me that I hadn’t been nearly as clever as I thought, but it didn’t really matter.

Yesterday I talked about how Novell, shortly after buying WordPerfect tried to rebrand the email product “Symmetry. . .Sounds Like Cemetery. . .You Know, The Dead product.” In hindsight, the name probably would have worked. I discovered years later that I was really bad at naming products. My friend Danita was a beta tester for WordPerfect/Novell’s email program.

One day a set of 3.5″ floppies showed up and they were labeled “Novell Symmetry.” Two weeks later, the next update showed up and the name was gone.

The issue wasn’t that Novell changed their minds. Instead they changed the name for the most fundamental of reasons: Someone else already had the name. In fact, they still do. Symmetry Software was founded in 1984 and started using the name “Symmetry” in 1989. This was 6 years before Novell bought WordPerfect and decided on the same name.

It might sound crazy to people today to think that a major software company would pick a product name without checking to see if it was already in use. What you have to remember is that this was 1994, ancient history, probably 2 or 3 B.W. (Before Web.) Symmetry is located in Scottsdale, AZ. WordPerfect and Novell are located in Utah. And to those of you living in the Eastern United States, while Utah and Arizona might LOOK close on the map, it’s a long ways from Scottsdale to Provo. (Actually, it’s a long way from ANYWHERE to Provo, but that’s a story for another day.)

So, here’s where my brief stint as a corporate spy comes in. Before the Internet, most IT people got their news from weekly magazines. The two that I followed the most were PCWeek and Network Computing. PCWeek had a column written by Spencer Katt. It was a computer gossip column. Yes, it sounds geeky. It was geeky. But, geeks like to gossip too. Spencer Katt was famous for breaking stories before they appeared in the mainstream publications.

When I found out that the name Symmetry was being dumped and replaced with GroupWise, I typed up an email and sent it off to PCWeek’s tip line. It may have been a CompuServe or an MCI account. I honestly don’t remember. I was still a couple of weeks away from starting at Microsoft. I wrote the text myself. As near as I can remember it said something like:

Novell Symmetry was short lived. The company realized too late that the name was already in use. The owners of Symmetry failed to be swayed by Ad Rieveld’s charm and Novell made a quick switch to a backup name that looked like it had been pieced together by the words left over after writing a ransom note: Novell GroupWise.

Ad Rieveld was the president of Novell at the time. Just before Eric Schmidt who would later go on to fame and wealth at Google.

Well, I was thrilled when PCWeek came out and my tip was included word-for-word. I cut it out and pinned it up in my cubicle at Microsoft. I never told anyone that I was the one who supplied the tip. At least I never meant to tell anyone and don’t remember telling anyone.

I’m sure the editors at PCWeek were thrilled to get my submission. I worked for Microsoft and I was willing to share secrets! I became very popular for about 2 months. I would get calls, weekly at first and then less frequently as time went on from a reporter asking about Microsoft products in development. I wasn’t going to tell them anything anyway, but it turns out I didn’t have to. I was working as a support engineer. I basically answered the phone and talked to people about Microsoft Mail, an ancient product that Microsoft was going to kill as soon as Microsoft Exchange was ready. I was new to Microsoft and had no insights into any of the development areas.

So, I’d get a phone call and questions about Windows or Office, or some other product that I had no connection with. Sometimes I didn’t even know the name of the product I they were researching. I answered each question honestly and told them I had no idea. Eventually they quit calling.

Of course, I didn’t tell anyone about the phone calls either. I didn’t want to start my career off on the wrong foot. But, I did keep the Spencer Katt column on my wall. After a year, my manager was moving to a different position. I felt like I could finally let him in on my secret.

I was the one that gave that tip to Spencer Katt last year.

Yeah, I know. Kind of cool to see your words in the press.

And that was it. Talk about a letdown. I thought I was being so clever. I kind of wish I’d kept the clipping. I’ve had my name in print many times since then, but after that I decided to hang up my corporate spy glasses. It clearly was not my area of strength. . .thankfully!

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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