Letting the boss think your project is classier than it really is


Once upon a time, there was a team developing two versions of a product, the first a short-term project to ship soon, and the other a more ambitious project to ship later. (Sound familiar?) They chose to assign the projects code names Ren and Stimpy, in honor of the lead characters from the eponymous cartoon series.

Over time, the two projects merged, and the code name that stuck was Ren.

When the project came up in a meeting with Bill Gates, it was mentioned verbally but never spelled out, and since Bill wasn't closely tuned into popular culture, he mapped the sound /rɛn/ not to the hairless Mexican dog but to the Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul's Cathedral. In follow-up email, he consistently referred to the project by the name "Wren".

The Ren team liked the fact that their name gave the boss the impression that the project was going to be a masterpiece of architectural beauty, so they never told him he got the name wrong.

Even though it has nothing to do with the story: The project in question is the one that eventually became known to the world as Outlook.

Comments (16)
  1. Joshua says:

    The cathedral has cracks in the foundation.

  2. 12BitSlab says:

    Thanks, Raymond!  I love hearing these back stories of how things came about.

  3. Mark says:

    Or a small passerine bird?

    Nice work on the over-10-years-backref.

  4. Brian says:

    Did Stimpy eventually become Outlook Express or was that something different?

    [As noted in the article, the two projects merged, so Stimpy became Outlook, too. -Raymond]
  5. Jack B Nimble says:

    If you believe Wikipedia "Ren and Stimpy" were Exchange Client and Schedule+. I would have thought it was Exchange Client and Microsoft Mail though. I remember in 1998 training for my MCSE and having to learn the Exchange Client because it came with Exchange Server 5.5.

  6. JJJ says:

    I suppose there's more back story as to why he assumed Christopher Wren and didn't just assume the project was named after a type of bird?

  7. Paul Williams says:

    Thanks, Raymond!  It's great to hear these behind-the-scenes stories.

  8. MNGoldenEagle says:

    @Jack B Nimble: Exchange Client and Schedule+ makes much more sense.  Schedule+ was going to be an enterprise-ready calendar and task management solution, while Exchange Client would serve as an e-mail client companion to the Exchange Server.  Outlook, the resulting program, ended up combining the featureset of both programs into a single solution.  Microsoft Mail was the precursor software to Exchange, so it doesn't make any sense to develop that in addition to Exchange Client and then merge them; a much more sensible solution would be to add backwards compatibility support in Exchange Client (which they did).

  9. Fleet Command says:

    Just for the clarification: Which Outlook? Outlook.com"?

  10. Kai Schätzl says:

    Exchange Client (-> Outlook) was part of Windows 95 (mainly as Fax solution) and Mail and News, too. Mail and News was later renamed Outlook Express because of the success of Outlook and to give an impression of an Outlook Light. Actually, it wasn't. The two programs were developed independently. Outlook was developed by the Office team, and Outlook Express was developed by the IE team.

    So, yes, the "other" being Schedule+ fits perfectly.

  11. Project Moon Unit says:

    This one time, I wrote a proposal to daboss@Microsoft to support esoteric programming languages to assist in porting a project. Never heard back :(. But now come to think of it, I wrote the proposal in Whitespace (en.wikipedia.org/…/Esoteric_programming_language) and sent it via Outlook. I bet Outlook was configured for html messages or something and corrupted my proposal! (blogs.msdn.com/…/9443404.aspx) Stupid Outlook: getting in the way of my campaigns since the 1990's.

  12. bzakharin says:

    Hmm, I've never heard of Christopher Wren, and, although I *have* heard of "Ren and Stimpy", I expect that if *I* were working at Microsoft in the 90s and heard of a project codenamed "Ren" in isolation, I would wonder why a mail client was codenamed after a command used to rename files.

    Also, I didn't realize that Outlook was only introduced in 1997. The first version of Office I used was 98, and I kind of assumed Outlook has been there for a while, it was quite mature for a 1-year-old project. That explains why Outlook Express wasn't called that until 1997.

  13. Engywuck says:

    Outlook is one of the (few) reasons my company will buy new Office and Exchange versions – another is the sheer amount of legacy office documents with macros and complex pivot tables. We searched for a suitable replacement a while back, but either the alternatives hav not all functions or cost even more…

  14. Seph says:

    Raymond, on the topic of Outlook could you do a post discussing on the Office file formats (specifically Msg format) and compatibility considerations (and maybe mention a few mistakes) made over the product lifetime. I am curious as to the decision process that resulted with the different MIME properties being used for the same data by various Outlook versions and how minor decisions for the msg format point early in the development (at a time when file size and memory requirements had considerable performance implications) continue to have to be worked around.

    If possible could you also allude to why Microsoft has yet to make the transition to a newer message format (say msgx, akin to docx and xlsx). I understand that such a new format would require providing of a free viewer / translator to msg format (but I seem to recall that this was done for docx) and that no new feature is not without it's cost but Exchange web services already returns .EML format items – is the internal inbox format not separated enough to allow it's replacement?

  15. Boris says:

    Seph: but why not ask someone from Office to do so? Raymond works on Windows, in an entirely separate team.

  16. Seph says:

    @Boris, Stephen Griffin wrote about this in 2008 with blogs.msdn.com/…/no-msg-for-you.aspx but I think Raymond would have some interesting insight and opinions on supporting and expanding legacy (and until recently proprietary) file formats and would be able to provide some interesting anecdotal examples of why things are they way they are. Rather than a dry response such as "MFCMAPI provides the code needed to save MAPI properties to XML format but we (Microsoft) have no plans to officially support it".

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