When a token changes its meaning mid-stream

The project leader for the initial version of Internet Explorer was well-known for wearing Hawaiian shirts. I'm told that the team managers decided to take one of those shirts and use it as an award to the team member who fixed the most bugs or some similar thing. What the team managers failed to take into account that nobody actually liked having a Hawaiian shirt hanging in their office, especially not one that was worn by somebody else. If you happened to be the person who fixed the most bugs, you sort of reluctantly accepted the shirt even though you really didn't want it.

And then a wonderful thing happened: The meaning of the shirt flipped.

I don't know the details. I suspect at one point, somebody who "won" the shirt just left it in somebody else's office as a way of getting rid of it. This simple gesture was the turning point. The shirt became a symbol of disapproval. I believe the unofficial rule was that in order to get rid of the shirt, you had to find somebody who messed up at least as bad as whatever you did to earn the shirt in the first place.

It took a while before the team managers even realized what happened to their "award".

Comments (11)
  1. So? What happened then? Did the shirt mysteriously disappear in the dead of night? Was there a new anti-prize?

  2. jeffdav says:

    We had a similar "prize" on the MSN Explorer team. The dev manager bought a singin’-dancin’ James Brown as a reward. It was cool but incredibly annoying to have people stop in, press the button, and have to listen to "I feel good." After about the 20th listen the trophy instantly metamorphisized into something you got when you broke the build, etc; just like the Hawaiian shirt.

    The team was re-org’d and James Brown came with us to the shell team where it continued its duties for awhile. Eventually I ended up with it when the guy across the hall from me moved offices and left it in my office rather than pack it, the sneaky jerk. So I found a nice home for it off campus where it can do no more harm.

  3. I worked at a startup where the anti-prize for breaking the build was a banana yellow hotjobs.com hat. The implied (joke) threat was that you’ll need to find a new job if you keep breaking the build. Plus the hat was butt ugly. :)

  4. SuperBK says:

    I worked at a company where there were two prizes for breaking the build: First a box that said "I broke the build" hanging above your cubicle, Then second prize was a topless half of a plastic manaquien with a light in it.

  5. Tim Smith says:

    We had the pimp hat until one of the programmers liked it and would break the build to keep it.



  6. Francis says:

    The manager in question did lead the IE effort for the three versions, but the Hawaiian shirt incident took place on the next team he ran- the Microsoft Virtual Machine for Java. He was on vacation when we spontaneously changed the meaning of the "shirt award."

    People who had previously won the shirt had already asked sarcastic questions like "Does this mean I have to wear it?" There was also some concern about whether the shirt had been washed anytime recently.

    When our group manager came back from vacation, he was more than a bit surprised at the new reward system we had instituted for the devs.

    I can’t recall who’s idea it was, but I’m pretty sure the turning point was someone’s build break. It just seemed natural to stick the offender with the tacky shirt of shame.

  7. Marc Bernard says:

    We’ve got a CD (probably an AOL CD) with "You Screwed Me!" written on it. The lucky winner of a broken build, or a bug, gets to display the CD prominently, and can only get rid of it when someone else screws up.

    I like the idea of the Hawaiian shirt though – much more noticible.

  8. Bob says:

    At my last startup, we had a large Godzilla model tat we called it Brozilla (see http://www.brozilla.com). You got Brozilla when you screwed up the build. You passed it along when someone else screwed up.

  9. Anthony Bowyer-Lowe says:

    At one videogames company I worked at, we had a laminated dollar bill which would be placed on the desk of the last build-breaker…

    "The buck stopped here."

    Such a publicly visible indicator has several functions. One is to signal to the entire team who’s responsible for either fixing or chasing a fix. Another is to ensure that the person responsible is constantly aware that their major priority should be to get it fixed – no web-surfing for you, matey.

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