Microspeak: Pencils down

I'm particularly fascinated by Microspeak terms which nobody actually knows the meaning of. You can defend jargon by saying that it's a shorthand way of talking in order to improve communication, but if nobody actually knows what it means, the in order to improve communication part is completely turned on its head. The Microspeak that allegedly allows people to communicate better ends up making them communicate worse.

A colleague of mine introduced me to this new type of Microspeak. Our conversation takes place in an impromptu hallway meeting between the development manager and a few members of the team.

Team member: "What does this mean for our milestone? I'm assuming it means that our features are code complete."

Development manager: It means you are pencils down.

Team member: (confused) "What does 'pencils down' mean?"

— It means your features are done for the milestone.

"Where did that term come from?"

— A meeting with «senior executive».

"Okay, so what does 'done' mean?"

— It means you are pencils down.

"What exactly does that mean?"

— It means you don't have to write any new code for your features.

"Oh, okay. So it means code complete."

— No, that means something different.

"How are they different?"

— I don't know.

"Has anyone sent any email defining what 'pencils down' means?"

— Not that I know of.

My colleague has yet to find anybody who can provide a definition of the term pencils down.

This sort of confirms what my colleague Michael Grier mentioned in a comment: The intended purpose for this jargon is not to communicate with the people who work for you but to impress the people you work for.

Comments (37)
  1. Thom says:

    Pencils Down is easy.  That’s what middle and high school teachers say at the end of a timed test.  It means that your time is up and you can no longer work on the test.  Ditto a project.  Also that your senior executive has the mindset of a school teacher.

  2. Josh says:

    I have to ask, why isn’t there a captcha of some sort to block the incessant pingback spam?  Seems easier than scanning for pingbacks every hour or so and manually deleting them.

    [How do you captcha a pingback? -Raymond]
  3. Jon Grant says:

    What Thom said… total no-brainer.

  4. John Elliott says:

    My first thought was of LOGO, with a physical turtle. PENDOWN at the start, and PENUP at the end to stop the pen blotting the paper.

  5. Will says:

    I’d be more confused by someone telling me our features were code complete.  What does code complete mean?

  6. Jack V. says:

    In which case, it sounds like "Code complete" means "We’ve coded everything we need to (there may still be bugs)" and "Pencils down" means "We’ve stopped coding now".

    So there would be a distinction in meaning. But not a particularly useful one, under the circumstances :)

  7. John Houseman says:

    Like Thom said – "pencils down" means you’re completely finished (whether you like it or not).

    When the time for a test is finished and the proctor announces pencils down, you’re done regardless of if you’re proofing the last few items or you’ve only answered half the questions.

  8. Josh says:

    I meant not allowing people to post anything without captcha verification.  Why allow the mechanism that people use for pingbacks at all?  I wouldn’t mind proving I’m human to post responses.

    [Notice that there are no serious problems with spam comments, so adding captcha to comments is attempting to solve the wrong problem. And pingbacks are part of the way blogs interconnect. I guess I could turn them off, but then you would miss out on potentially interesting stuff, like Eric Gunnerson’s tribute to boredom. -Raymond]
  9. Nawak says:

    As I understand it, pencils down implies that somebody told you to stop writing.

    So, coders can be pencils down anytime the boss says so. Not very useful as a target milestone indeed.

  10. FWIW, before I came to Microsoft, I knew exactly what "pencils down" meant, but "code complete" was new to me.

  11. Mats G says:

    "To captcha a pingback…"

    Must sound like some obscure form of microspeak to the uninitiated too, I suppose ;)

  12. Roderick says:

    For a while after reading this blog, I would wince when I caught myself using microspeak.

    But then I thought, is it really any different from me subconsciously picking up and using the same slang term my friends are using?

    I dunno.  Hear something enough, and you’ll probably start to repeat it, especially if it comes from people you respect.

    I’ve never consciously intended to say "leverage", but it comes out every once in a while.

  13. Grant says:

    I actually like the sound of Pencils Down a lot more than Code Complete…  the latter seems stuffy, whereas the former seems kinda young and hip, to be honest.  That’s I think the primary function of Microspeak and nouveau corporate jargon in general; the goal is to make everyone feel like they’re still relevant and on the cutting edge.

    I do agree though that Pencils Down feels more forced, like you hit an immutable deadline rather than actually finished.  

    I don’t think we could start using Pencils Down in my workplace, as we have too relaxed an environment and lame dirty jokes would doubtless be made.  But then again, we don’t really use Code Complete as a phrase either…

  14. Grant says:

    Also, I just noticed that the Comments field is labelled as (required).  Does that mean if I have the nerve to scroll all the way down a post, I am (required) to leave some sort of comment?  ;)

  15. mph says:

    <i>How do you captcha a pingback?</i>

    With a machine-readable captcha, of course.

  16. John says:

    Has anybody ever actually seen a non-spam pingback here?  I can’t remember seeing a single one.

    [See the aforementioned tribute to boredom for an example. -Raymond]
  17. I’m sure I’ve seen a few.

    As for automatic removal of trackback/pingback spam, a bot that checks the page that ostensibly sent the ping (disguised of course as a regular browser) can grab the page. Then it can see if there actually is a link to the page being pinged, and maybe run a few other tests similar to what search engines do to check for spam sites. If it comes up all clear, greenlight the ping, otherwise greylist or blacklist the sending site and delete the actual ping.

    This of course is best done before actually showing the pings, but doesn’t actually have to be done that way.

    [Feel free to suggest this to the people to run the site. I can’t do anything except delete them. -Raymond]
  18. Philip Rieck says:

    You can call it Microspeak(tm), but at some point -long past – the usage turns away from increasing communication and becomes shibboleth.

  19. Poochner says:

    I’ve known "code complete" for years, but I have to admit it was from the title of a book of that name published by Microsoft Press.  Pretty good book, too.  "Pencils down" is obvious to anyone who’s gone through the testing mill.  At some shops you get immovable deadlines; you can’t delay elections, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, etc. like you can a product (or shuttle!) launch.  The software that comes out may be, shall we say, feature-poor, but something has to be delivered on time.

  20. alegr says:


    Can you ping the blog server admin? It gets worse and worse. Like it’s a never patched NT4 system.

  21. Clinton Pierce says:

    Agreed on "pencils down".  It’s from timed tests.  Once "pencils down" is called, that’s it.  

    Pencils down:  if you forgot your fill in your name, didn’t fill in the bubbles all the way, didn’t dot-your-i’s and cross-your-t’s, didn’t make it to all of the questions — that’s really too bad.  All writing has ceased.  

    In some exams failure to heed "pencils down" can get your test thrown out.

  22. mike says:

    A corollary question is whether you should be throwing around idiomatic expressions if you don’t know what they mean literally, as seems to have occurred in this hallway-conversation scene. The initial thought might be to say "of course not," but we use more phrases than you might think for which the literal meaning is obscure — "the whole nine yards," "pull someone’s leg," "fly off the handle," "chip on his shoulder," "at loggerheads," etc.

    As long as both parties understand the (metaphoric) intent of the phrase, it doesn’t really matter if the literal meaning is clear. In this case, if both parties understand that "pencils down" means "deadline," there’s no loss of communication.

    PS Probably this has been clarified, but very few of the terms listed by Raymond here under "Microspeak" are in fact specific to MSFT.

  23. Wolf Logan says:

    I usually don’t pay much attention to Microspeak, but there’s one word that I just can’t stand: "ask". Used as a noun.

    It’s used as a direct replacement for the perfectly good word "request", and I just don’t know why. In common English, "ask" is a verb, and "request" can be either a noun or a verb. So instead of using "request" in both cases, at Microsoft people use "ask". No one seems to know why.

  24. Scot Boyd says:

    "Pencils down" sounds like "Code Complete" without the requirements of actually passing any code tests.  "Code Complete" in my day meant that not only were you done implementing features, but that you actually passed the build verification tests.

  25. In some exams failure to heed "pencils down" can get your test thrown out.

    (Student comes to the front of the class to turn in his test after ignoring "pencils down" warning.)

    Teacher: I’m sorry, but I can’t accept your test, because you kept going after "pencils down."

    Student (haughtily:) Do you know who I /am/?

    Teacher: I have no idea, and it doesn’t matter.

    Student: Good.

    (Student sticks his test randomly in the middle of the pile of turned-in tests and walks away.  Teacher stares blankly at the pile, taken aback.)

  26. Peter says:

    As has been said, pencils down reminds me of running out of time at the end of an exam (clearly this never happened to me, of course) whereas code complete is more just "it’s finished".

    So yeah, pencils down sounds more like a boss of some sort saying "you’re out of time, we’re shipping now" whereas code complete sounds like it’s really done.

    Hence I prefer the latter.

  27. Ellen says:

    There’s also the more recent variant associated with the writer’s strike in Hollywood, which may account for the apparently recent vogue for the term.  "Pencils down" in that context was "I’m not using the strike period to create things I can sell immediately after the strike is over".  The point being, in that case, that the studios would feel the pain of not having anything new in the pipeline for a period after the strike.  The term got picked up in lots of unrelated contexts.

  28. Rob Kennedy says:

    The first time I ever saw the term "pencils down" used in relation to software projects was this weekend regarding the Google Summer of Code.


    In that article, the term is used to describe a period, not a specific moment. I took that to mean the time during which participants are supposed to finish things up and prepare their projects for evaluation or submission. Make sure everything’s checked in, for instance. Confirm it compiles from a fresh checkout. Document known bugs. Make sure the to-do list is accurate. But no real coding.

    Once I followed the links, the Summer of Code timeline gives a slightly different definition: "Take a week to scrub code, write tests, improve documentation, etc."

    Pretty similar to what I thought, but I’d consider "pencils down" to be too late to write tests. (What if they fail? It’s too late to fix anything.)

    Then there’s a firm "pencils down" date at the end of the period. "Mentors, students and organization administrators can begin submitting final evaluations to Google."

  29. Worf says:

    I dunno. "Code complete" here means all the major coding is done – the software is feature complete. However, it isn’t bug-free, and may not pass the system/integration tests. But it’s done, and new feature checkins are prohibited unless there is a very good reason – all checkins are to fix bugs and issues, cleanup, etc. Fix all the little things, documentation, etc.

    "Pencils down" looks like a drop-dead date – only serious issues get checked in for they trigger an entirely new build cycle that goes to QA. It’s thus a few days before release to the cuatomer. Issues are release-noted away for fixing at another delivery, or during warranty.

    As for pingbacks – they’re automated. Some blog  writes about a post, and the blog software tries to see if the link supports pingbacks, and does so if it is. There is no security, and probably is/was by design of the SixApart folks (MovableType) (who hired some black-hat hacker as ransom payment to keep a security flaw private).

  30. Sascha Katzner says:

    I’m not a native english speaker, so excuse me if my explanation sounds stupid but I think ‘pencils down’ means the end of the specification phase. Which was usually done with a pencil on paper when I had computer science in school. Hence ‘pencil down’ at the end, when the coding would start.

  31. Leo Davidson says:

    What’s the best way to send suggestions to the people who run blogs.msdn.com? I clicked “Help” at the top-right, then “Contact Us” at the bottom but that returned:

    “We are sorry, the page you requested cannot be found. See below for search results close to your request, or try a new search.”

    Same problem with the blogs.msdn.com front-page.

    I was going to send something like this:

    The problems with pingbacks, at least here, are that they look just like comments, they only show a very short part of the post (cut off mid-sentence), and they tend to tell us what we already know: Most blog posts that link to other blog posts start with a line telling the readers of the linking blog that someone has written something at the linked blog. As readers of the linked blog we already know that.

    The “in praise of boredom” pingback that Raymond mentioned as a positive example contains just the name of the other blog and this:

    “Raymond wrote an interesting post about the erosion of the car trip experience. Along with the desired”

    Unless you recognise that Eric Gunnerson’s C# Compendium is worth reading there’s no way to know that the pingback is worth clicking on. If you do recognise that Eric Gunnerson’s C# Compendium is worth reading then the pingback line is still not doing anything useful.

    Most of the pingbacks that I have followed have had nothing interesting on the other side (often just a summary of the thing I just read, reproduced for another audience) so I don’t tend to click on them. Even if I did, they’d be better off as a simple list of links, separated from the comments.

    Maybe they’d be more useful it they reproduced more than just the first line. Even then, it’d be better if they were separated from the other comments by colour or layout.

    [The blog software is Community Server. -Raymond]
  32. Richard says:

    Sounds like "pencils down" is just a less clear way of saying "code freeze".

  33. fred says:

    I agree with the commenters that associated this with test taking in school.

    When I encountered this term at Microsoft I knew exactly what it meant: "stop doing <work of type X>, no exceptions".

  34. slimpie says:

    I’d like my boss to say something like "stop doing your work, no exceptions" sometime -_-‘

  35. MSDN Archive says:

    Wow – I’ve heard "pencils down" used exactly the same way before.

    Except it wasn’t by a manager – it was by an architect as an indictment of management.

    We were on a project that was a real trainwreck. All the right words were being used, and the right phases seemed to exist, but they had no relationship to reality. We had a fixed deadline (invented by management)

    Requirements analysis for two weeks, then on to use cases. Use cases for two weeks, then on to architecture….

    One of the lead architects told us we were "pencils down" on use cases:

    "It’s like when you take the SAT exams. You get a certain amount of time for each section, whether you’re finished or not. When the time is up, the proctors say ‘pencils down.’"

    And I would be really interested to hear what the "pencils down" manager thinks of the term after reading this description of it.

  36. My understanding:

    Pencils down means you’re done writing code, but that you don’t necessary have your last changes fully reviewed / tested / checked in through XYZ submission queue and into your branch.

    Basically, it’s saying "everything between this point and the end is buffer for overhead / process tasks."

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