Pranks at Microsoft

Hans Spiller, Nov-Dec, 1996

Part of working hard is playing hard, and to a lot of us at Microsoft, a good way to play is with pranks. This is a reminicsence of a number of pranks that took place at Microsoft during the early and mid 1980s, many of which I was involved in

Bouncy Balls

Raymond Drewry brought Bouncy Balls to Microsoft. To Raymond, Bouncy Balls are a mystical, gentile presence. He told me his dream is to be walking down the streets of some big city, Manhattan or London, for someone he's never seen before and has never seen him walk up and hand him a Bouncy Ball. He always carries a pocketful, and gives one to people when it strikes his fancy.

Bouncy Balls started for Raymond when he was a student at Yale, and one of his friends found the address of the distributor in one of those 5 or 10 cent vending machines. $10 for a bag of 250....well worth it. The Bouncy Ball Cult (BBC) was born. When he came to Microsoft in 1983, he brought Bouncy Balls with him, and it caught on like wildfire. Everyone who worked here at the time has memories of Steve Balmer hurrying down the hall, bouncing a Bouncy Ball off the wall as he went.

Bouncy Ball Wars

The first Bouncy Ball war was an accident. We had a ping pong table, and it was in use in the lobby of the Northup building one evening, perhaps 8pm... A few of us were sitting in the lobby, talking about something. As one of the ping pong players went up for a big smash, 500 bouncy balls were dumped from the landing above. For several long seconds, nobody understood what had happened. Then everybody did. Bouncy Balls were everywhere, Raymond was in the upper floor elevator landing, and he was a Target! Soon a dozen people were involved, occasionally traitorously switching between below, where most of the ammunition was, but with virtually no defenses, and above, with good defenses but little ammo. People wandered through and immediately got caught up in the action. Everybody had a great time.

The second big war came about when after many years of no security, the company finally decided to get a security guard. A bunch of us got together and decided that we needed to break this guy in. On his first night, we monitored his schedule for a few cycles, and when we knew he'd be sitting in the receptionist's desk for a while, we struck. The guard, who was named Ted and turned out to be a really good guy, sat there and watched with amusement, occasionally tossing a bouncy ball back out into the dump when it came his way.

Balmer's Relite

Just about everybody who ever saw a big bunch of bouncy balls suggested that it would be cool to completely fill an office with them. A little measurement and calculation showed that this would cost more than anyone was prepared to spend, but we quickly realized that with a mere 8000, we could fill the space behind a relite sufficiently to make it look like the office was completely filled. (a relite is a window between an office and the hall, which lets a little extra light pass into the hallway and inside offices. Nearly all offices at Microsoft have one.) So about 10 of us pooled our resources and bought 8000... In those days people who had a secret machine in their office had a locked door and a big piece of masonite in their relite to keep un-non-disclosed people from seeing the secret. There were always secret machines coming and going, so there were inevitably a lot of these pieces of wood around. So the night before April 1, we Duct Taped one of these to the inside of SteveB's relite, and sta rted to fill. Before we got more than a few feet deep, we knew we hadn't thought the problem out sufficiently.

It turns out that Bouncy Balls are coated with an oily substance, which I think is both mold release and helps keep them from drying out and sticking to each other in storage. This stuff also serves as a pretty good lubricant. In large quantities, bouncy balls behave essentially like a liquid, and 8000 definitely qualifies: an 8 foot high column of liquid exerts quite a bit of force at it's base. Our masonite board bulged dramatically and pulled it's mooring Duct Tape loose.

So we got a second board and screwed some slats between, making the board rigid. But duct tape still wasn't strong enough. So we put Balmer's bookshelf against it, filled with books. Still not enough. Another bookshelf, pulled from an adjacent office and filled with books was still not enough. Finally, we wedged a desk against it, and it more or less held. By morning, the desk, shelves and board lashup had crept substantially.

We still weren't out of the woods. The oily substance turns out to smell, and in the quantity we had, it made the offices in the immediate area uninhabitable. We received word that while Steve appreciated the humor of the situation, he'd like his office back. I still have a plastic product box (remember those?) filled with bouncy balls that were involve in this, as a souvenier.

Something like a third of the developers in the company, including most of the senior ones, were involved in this prank in one way or another. It occurred to me at the time that if Balmer had been really mad and had fired everyone involved, the company would have promptly collapsed.

This Bouncy Ball is Your Ticket to Entrance and Refreshments

A few days before the company meeting a memo with a name tag stapled to it appeared in everybody's interoffice mailbox. The memo closed with the line "Please wear the name tag to the meeting. It is your ticket to entrance and refreshments." (In those days, we didn't have badges. Everybody had a key--a conventional one with teeth--to the building.) Todd Newman and Raymond had an inspiration. The composed a memo which was nearly identical to the name tag memo, but it was changed in a few crucial ways. It concluded "Please wear the Bouncy Ball to the meeting. It is your ticket to entrance and refreshments". Raymond, Todd, Terry Lipscomb, and I distributed these and a Bouncy Ball to every IO mailbox in the company, all 500.

And people did it. Most of the speakers wore a bouncy ball. TandyT used a pushpin through his lapel, into the ball. SteveB put a paper clip through one and hung it from a buttonhole. Perhaps 30 percent of the audience wore one, too. The most impressive was Kim Jenkins who also used paper clips...and wore a pair of them in place of her earrings.

I talked to a lot of people. Most of them thought it was a good prank, and appreciated the bouncy ball. A few thought it was an insidious test of their ingenuity run by the company. All in all, one of the most gratifying pranks I've ever been associated with.

Pass it Around!

About a week before another company meeting, this time to be held in the University of Washington's Meany hall (and we filled it), Dave Norris sent me an email message

"There's a rumor going around. At the first words that SteveB speaks at the company meeting, he is going to be pelted with bouncy balls. Pass it around"

I did pass it around, and within a few days everybody in the company, including Steve himself, had seen it many times. It quickly became clear that thousands of bouncy balls would be flying at that moment. Dave and I were starting to fear a little for Balmer's life. Individually, they're pretty harmless, but by the thousands they could get pretty dangerous.

Nevertheless, I showed up for the meeting with a pocketful, and when Steve approached the stage, I was prepared. But so was he. He put up a slide that said "I cannot speak", followed by others that showed Dave's message and commented that it could be dangerous, please don't do it. A chuckle went around the room. When Steve did speak, he was ready to duck behind the podium. But he didn't need to, only a few balls were thrown.

The Editors of the Microsnooze.

The bouncy ball ticket was the first prank by what came to be "The Editors of the Microsnooze".

The week before the next company meeting the Micronews had a drawing on the front page of a bunch of happy Softies in a car. A little sign pointing in the direction of the car showed that they were headed to the meeting. In those days we had two meetings a year and they were even more boring than they are now. So we decided to put out a prank Micronews. A person who has asked to remain anonymous had recently referred to the Micronews as "Microsnooze", so we borrowed the name.

A little hacking with a pen and scissors and the cover drawing showed happy Softies leaving the meeting. And we came up with many more funny stories, mostly referring to various things that had happened in the previous year or so.

Again, a midnight dispersal (by the four of us, with the help of one of Raymond's friends, Michel Jackson).

For some reason, a whole bunch of people decided that Karl Schulmeisters and Dave Perlin had done it. While they were good friends of ours, they in fact had nothing to do with it. One of the articles in the next issue was adamant about this point...which of course merely convinced those people that they'd done it all the more.

We did a second issue timed for April First, which was preceded by a press release announcing it. SteveB had liked the first issue quite a bit, so we made even more fun of him in the second one. Apparently we pushed it too far, although I think most people still enjoyed it. But we decided that we should quit while we were ahead. About a year later, Raymond and Todd left the company. The Editors of the Microsnooze were dead.

A few years later, Dave Norris and I found out that the company had paid an enormous amount of money to some logo designer for an astonishingly bland new logo. We got some buttons made, and made a memo showing the history of the Microsnooze logo (6 of them!), with some sarcasm attacking the need to change logos and various other silly labeling and packaging things, and signed it "The Editors of the Microsnooze", even though Todd and Raymond were gone. One Sunday night Dave and I and several others (for the first time including the maligned Karl Schulmeisters and Dave Perlin) distributed 1000 of these memos and a "Save the Blibbet" button to every office chair on campus. We ran a little short, so we had to have a few more made and distributed them a few days later. Apparently a lot of people knew who'd done it, as one old timer pointed out to me one of the logos we'd missed.

April Fools Day


The first big April fools day prank started when a number of us were at someone's apartment one evening, preparing for the Easter Egg Hunt a few days later. Someone noticed that the next day was April first, and a whole bunch of pranks were suggested. It clearly needed to be done, after we were done dying eggs, we headed over to work to do it. I probably can't remember all the things that were done, but here's a start

For several years, the company had hired plant professionals to have large potted plants (perhaps 5-8 feet tall) all around the lobbies and hallways. These ended up in the bathrooms. It was quite a jungle in there! Somebody noticed that there was a call back feature in the phone system which would automatically return a call as soon as the phone was picked up, and that by cascading these callbacks, they could, in principle, make every phone in the building ring at once the first time anyone picked up the phone. It turned out that there was a bug in the phone system that only allowed about a dozen of these to be active at once before the system slowed to it's knees, so they only did it to a few select people.

In those days, about half of Microsoftees used a DEC 20/60, running Tops-10, named "Gonzo", as their mail and development machine, and the other half used one of several DEC PDP-11/70s, running Xenix. The login prompts looked and worked quite differently for the two systems, but in fact were functionally identical. BobP made a Xenix login program which looked and worked exactly like the one for Gonzo, except for giving the correct machine name. He asked me to do a code review of it...and to the best of my ability, he'd gotten it right. In the end we chickened out, for fear that we'd get our root passwords taken away.

John Pollock had a parrot in his office, the sort that imitates whatever sounds it hears. (Unfortunately, rather than repeating interesting things, it imitated John's whistling, and the clackety noises of the floppy disk drive on one of his machines.) I put a dyed easter egg in the bottom of the cage.

In those days, we had free soda pop and coffee and tea just as now, but there were little dormitory sized refrigerators around the building, and we were individually responsible for filling them: moving flats of soda from the storage area, and then keeping the preferred flavors in the fridges. None of us knew anybody that drank Diet Mr Pibb, so we went around the building removing all of the other flavors and filling the little refrigerators with Diet Mr. Pibb...including the secret one in the private kitchen between Bill Gates and Paul Allen's office.

Tsunami 386

Everyone that knows me knows that I tend to get really worked up about some issues, and I've earned a reputation as quite a flamer over the years. In late '86 and early '87, Microsoft had decided to get out of the Xenix (unix) operating system business by farming the work off to other vendors, and merging the product with AT&T's offering. I still believe that Xenix is the best operating system Microsoft has ever sold (even though I was also heavily involved with the development of OS/2, OS/2 2.0, Windows 1 through 3.1, and NT/OS) and it frustrated me greatly that we were dumping Xenix in this ignoble way. On April 1, 1987, several of the xenix developers, most particularly Dave Perlin and Paul Butzi, decided to see if they could get me to go really wild. They cooked up a story about a deal that had been worked up with some company over a machine called the Tsunami 386, which involved giving them extrordinary rights to the xenix sources, and most particularly, the sources and support of the xenix 386 compiler, which I had written, and was in no way coupled to any of the usual AT&T licenses. My bosses and their bosses were all informed of the prank, and everybody played along beautifully. It must have been quite a sight, as I went storming around building 2, explaining why this contract was so terribly outrageous. I don't think I've ever been so angry about anything. Finally, when I'm getting ready to escalate to Bill Gates, Dave suggests that I check the date.

I swear, I'll get them back some day. I just haven't thought of how, yet.

Fun with offices

Filling offices

This has been done a number of times, with many things. The first that I know of was Barry Shaw, with balloons, for his birthday. We blew up a tremendous number of balloons, and realized we were barely making a dent. Somebody got the bright idea to inflate plastic garbage bags to fill the bulk of the office. I've seen this trick applied several times since.

Back in the days that we all used tractor feed impact printers, we tended to have pretty substantial recycle barrels full of printer paper. Crumpled up printer paper has been used at least once.

Several victims have received "Tape Jobs", which involve using tape (usually scotch or packing tape) to attach every object to every other in various ways. Sometimes the office is still usable, although the furniture has been frozen by the tape. At least one tape job used 9 track tape, wrapped around everything.

Covering Surfaces

Microsoft has always offered free soda pop, in cans, to it's employees. When you're done with the can, you're supposed to recycle. Until the last few years, they didn't have office recycling, and some people tended to let the cans build up. Some people build artistic pyramids or walls with their cans. On occasion a person has had every horizontal surface of their office--desk, floor, chair, monitor top, bookshelves, etc--covered with empty soda cans, claimed from the recycling bin by their friends.

Paul Butzi liked to keep his office barren. No desk, just a bookshelf, a stand for his terminal or computer, and a chair. One day he arrived to find that the usual carpet floor had been covered by a carpet of grass. One of his friends had wound up with a little leftover from red-soding is lawn, and Paul's office proved too good an opportunity to resist.

Ed Fries wrote a program to display tropical fish on the screen, which eventually evolved into a popular screen saver (see Bogus Software, below). To commemorate this, one day, Ed arrived at his office to discover a giant fish layed out on the floor with paper cups filled with water.

Where'd it go?

Ed Fries went away on vacation for a while. His office was at the stub end of a corridor. The other side of the corridor there had no doors. His friends built a new wall with sheetrock, completely closing off the stub corridor, and which blended perfectly into the adjacent walls. Unless you knew that Ed's office was back there, you'd never even notice that it was missing.

Bogus Software

Many programmers like to do it so much that they write their own programs. I've written a number of video game clones, for example. Dave Norris and I were talking about Taipei (played with Mah-Jong tiles) one day, and we decided that we really ought to have a copyright notice. We thought about crediting it to Microsoft, but we'd written it about half at MS and half at home and it was (at that time) definitely not part of the MS product line. One of us (neither of can remember which it was) suggested giving the copyright as Bogus Software. We invited a number of other people who had written recreational programs to play along. And Todd Laney even took to putting it into the diagnostic tools he'd written.

Not terribly long later, we discovered a bona fide company called Bogas Software, writing stuff for the Macintosh.

One day, Ed Fries came to me wanting to take the name "Bogus Software" to use for his shareware company for his fish program. This seemed kind of cool to me, as long as the real core of Bogus Software--the occasional recreational hack--would remain intact. So he and Tom Saxon called their company "Tom and Ed's Bogus Software"

One day a marketing type approached me about my games. He said that microsoft was interested in marketing a recreational package for that christmas. There would be no development support at all, but anything we wanted to do could go in, presuming it met the legal and testing standards. He was going to all the Bogus developers, seeing if they were interested. Sure enough, almost all of them were. It turned out that the state of most of the games was inadequate, so we wound up doing quite a bit of illicit development work before shipping. In my case, while space invaders was obviously a clone and the lawyers killed it right away, my spacewar/asteroids game is on much stronger legal ground, and they lawyers let me do quite a bit of work on it before killing it just a few days before we went golden on Windows Entertainment Package Version 1.