Strange things happen when you let people choose their own name, part 1

One of the things that happens when you arrive at Microsoft is you are assigned an email account, and the name of that account becomes your identity. The IT department has a set of rules which they follow to arrive at your account name, but you can petition for reconsideration if the result of their algorithm produces something you don't like.

You have more flexibility with your display name. For example, you may commonly go by a less formal version of your legal name, or you may go by your middle name or your initials or you may choose to adopt an English name as your professional name. But even though you have flexibility here, you don't have total freedom. I doubt that a request for my name to show up in the address book as Raymond Luxury-Yacht would be approved.

There is a third component to your name, however, that you do have much more freedom with. The official name for it is the differentiator, and it appears in parentheses after the rest of your name. Here are some common uses for this bonus text:

Name Explanation
John Smith (MSN)
John Smith (NEW YORK)
To avoid confusion with other people with the same name.
Jane Smith (DOE) Maiden name or other name you once went by.
John Kennedy (JFK) Another name you are commonly known by.
Alan Smithee (MOBILE) To let people know that you are rarely in the office.

Originally, the differentiator also was submitted for approval, but the people who were responsible for approving them must have gotten tired of wading through thousands of boring requests for approval for this and other categories of personnel record changes that used to require approval. People are now simply trusted not to choose differentiators that are offensive or misleading.

Some people have used this new freedom for humorous purposes. One prominent member of the application compatibility team has a non-English name that people often pronounce incorrectly. For the sake of discussion, let's say his name is Lav. At first, he signed his email

–Lav, rhymes with Dave

After a few months, based on a suggestion from a colleague (who might have been me), he changed it to

–Lav, doesn't rhyme with "have"

At this point, things got silly pretty quickly. A few months later, the signature changed to

–Lav, rhymes with orange

The last step was changing the differentiator after his name in the address book. If you look him up, he is listed as "Lav Pivo (ORANGE)".

Comments (32)
  1. nathan_works says:

    One friend at MSFT was very proud about being able to put his own title on his business card.. So he has "Jedi Master". Unsure if it’s still there, and I wonder what he has in his differentiator.

  2. bahbar says:

    The only think I am wondering while reading this is: "how are you ending up picking the name of a Serbian beer for the sake of discussion?" I mean, you could have picked Gekkei kan (, that would really have been for the sake of argument (ok, really sorry for the pun).

  3. Nonnative English speaker says:

    I don’t get the pun. How can Lav rhyme with orange?

  4. roastbeef says:


    The joke is that nothing rhymes with orange

  5. Erzengel says:

    Nonnative English speaker:

    That’s the humor, it can’t. It’s silly, and it’s even more funny that a little joke became his diferentiator.

  6. Adam says:

    Is that where that comes from?

    Some of us who came in late found it strange, but not so strange as to investigate.

    Now I know how to pronounce Sav.

  7. Brian says:

    Interesting, I always thought the differentiator was the group they were working in, because every email I’ve ever gotten from a MS employee had their group in that field.

  8. LetsKillDave says:

    Interesting, I know exactly who you’re talking about. The really cool thing about him is that he’s a HUGE help with internal teams getting them engaged with dogfooding Windows and giving feedback. Personally, I think he’s actually a computer — his ability to respond to literally hundreds of email a day is legendary :-)

  9. Ryan Bemrose says:

    Some of the other cool differentiators I’ve seen are "Bob Jones (HIMSELF)", "Jane Smyth (OOF)", and "Jim Jonson (DEBUG NINJA)".

    My favorite, however, is "John Doe (NSFW)"

    (names are made up, but the differentiators have actually been used by people at MS)

  10. Tim says:

    Au contraire, Blackadder – the name perfectly acceptable English surname of ‘Gorringe’ rhymes with orange.

  11. At one point my team thought it would be fun to align ourselves with Sumo ranks, yes, there are a disproportionately high number of supersized people on my team. Therefore, those of us in the middle rank chose the differentiator Ozeki, the junior rank chose Sekiwake  and we left the title Yokozuna for the most senior of our engineers.

    It was fun for a while but it got kind of old try to explain to internal people that I did not work for a vendor named Ozeki. It did provide for a funny story to kill the time while working with customers in the middle of the night on the 30th hours of their critical situation. You’re already punchy by then and it seems even sillier.

    We have since abandoned this differentiator.

  12. dave says:

    Does anybody use "(NOT THAT ONE)"?

    If not, somebody should start.

  13. Jonathan says:

    There was a guy that used to work in the Haifa, Israel MSFT branch. Let’s call him "John Doe". Since there was already a "John Doe" somewhere in Redmond, he got to be "John Doe (HAIFA)".

    … And then he relocated to Redmond. I don’t know what his display name reads now. Maybe "John Doe (formerly HAIFA)"?

  14. Adam Bomb says:

    I use the differentiator (BOMB), because my first name is Adam, and I think it’s funny.

    Many Microsoft employees, however, appear to have had their sense of humor removed as part of new employee orientation, because I frequently have to explain the joke to them.


  15. Tony Cox says:

    My favourite one is my current boss, who had some sort of maiden-name / married-name fight with the address-book folks a few years ago (details I won’t post here), ended up being called something like:

    Jane Smith-Doe (I’M REALLY JANE SMITH)

    A differentiator which has stuck to this day.

  16. Cheong says:

    Changing Engligh name is quite commmon here actually… at least it’s officially approved that you can rightfully change your name printed on ID card (i.e. changing the legal one)with no additional charge when you’re at 18 and need to change your ID card to "Adult" version.

    Also note that things can get a little more complicated when you take "Net Nick Name" into consideration. Additionally, I’ve seen some couples exchange their Engligh name to his/her boyfriend/girlfriend (this happens usually in school-age), so don’t be suprised that you see someone have a name of girl but happens to be a boy. :P

  17. Kaenneth says:

    And here I thought it would be techincal effects of usernames…

    back in ’99 I breifly worked for a e-commerce web site development company, and found what I thought was a bug. A new user signing up could put ‘<‘s and ‘>’s in their name, and put the word ‘script’ between them…

    So a user could make arbitrary scripts, like message boxes in loops etc. run whenever their name appeared.

    The response from Dev/Managers : "Why would anyone want to hack a website?", and a refusal to fix the issue.

    I left there for a lower paying job elsewhere, rather than risk being infected by whatever brain parasite they had.

  18. Sven Groot says:

    I used to work at a place that had a public address book app (it was a custom app, it wasn’t in Exchange).

    I had the good fortune of being the only Sven in the entire 800+ people company. That made me quite easy to find. :)

  19. TristanK says:

    I always thought "lozenge" was an acceptable rhyme with "orange".

  20. Worf says:

    Ah, now it makes sense… I did wonder about that, since my list of Microsoft contacts gets longer and longer each day. It seems all the public-facing people don’t have differentiators, but as I get more and more CC’d people into my threads… (Stump the Microsoft guys – ask a technical question that forces them to find the answer by looking at the source code…).

    The question I have left is why most people have addresses, while others have more decorated ones, like, and are the two equivalent…

    (I know I can query DNS and find out, but the official reason and answer would be better than "reverse engineering" it (and lead to a Microsoft IT compatibility issue).)

  21. Worf says:

    Have you studied how to manage multiple domains with Exchange servers?

    There are rules you can set to "Update email address domain list according to Organization Unit". If you happens to be in one of these OUs, you’ll be given additional email address bond to the domains assigned to the OUs.

    When I was working in my former company, I have the company’s email address, plus a local one, a global one, and the email with domain in 2 of the affiliated companies because I have to send emails on behalf of those entities.

  22. Cheong says:

    The above message is sent by me instead of Worf… I just reflex-typed the name of people who I’m refering to in the "name" part…

  23. Will says:

    One of the more useful things I learned in college was that the phrase "door hinge" can rhyme with "orange", depending on the speaker’s accent.

  24. Doug says:

    If you send mail to, it pretty much always arrives (to my knowledge). However, depending on which servers your account is on, your outgoing email will have a different reply-to address. Mine is There doesn’t seem to be any functional difference, but I’m guessing that using the longer address bypasses one level of indirection.

    It seems that nearly all problems can be solved by adding one more level of indirection, except the problem of having too many layers of indirection.

  25. AndyB says:

    Why would anyone want to hack a website?

    Tell them the tale of little Bobby Tables:

  26. Playing with the free-form-text field.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Funny, when I first saw that particular person’s name in some DLs, I thought that he worked for a contractor called "Orange".  :-)

  28. Joe says:

    Tom Lehrer, the comedic singer (, has always had a knack for difficult rhymes.  When asked to come up with a rhyme for orange, he produced the following verse:

    Using an orange

    while making love

    makes for bizarre enj-

    oyment thereof.

  29. Worf says:

    @Cheoong: Actually, I don’t know anything about Exchange – my work deals with Windows CE. However, one of my contacts on Windows CE has an return address.

    @Doug: Are those just the server naming convention, or based on where you started first? I.e., if someone had, at one point in their career at Microsoft, they worked on Exchange. Ditto with your Or is it just whatever server the IT guys felt like creating your account on?

  30. Yeah, whatever says:

    Actually at MS a differentiator is not needed, because you are borg –

  31. KC Lemson says:

    Worf: The return address means his mailbox is hosted in the exchange dogfood forest, which has about ~5000 mailboxes of people in exchange, office, mobile, etc and other partner teams. It’s a fun forest because you get to see the bleeding edge stuff sooner than everyone else, like 10gb mailbox quotas.

    MSIT does have some kind of process to move people out of the exchange forest if they no longer work in a related team, but historically they haven’t been very rigorous about keeping it up. That seems to be changing, though.

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