Saturday, 27 November 2021

The Great Conference Room Naming Débacle

It's very common to give names to meeting rooms. Often, the rooms in one building will be named according to some common theme. In one Cisco building I worked in, the theme was "elements". The room nearest my office was called Arsenic. Quite why, given a choice of 120 elements, they chose one that instantly brings to mind nasty murders and agonising death, only the Facilities Department would know.

Another building named its rooms after cocktails. My nearest room was called Kamikaze - presumably whoever chose the name had spent more time drinking than studying recent history. It did attract some wry comments from my Japanese colleagues who visited there.

No Cisco buildings had rooms named after individual aircraft, like "Wright Flyer" or "Spruce Goose" - maybe because there aren't that many famous ones. Had they done so, Enola Gay would surely have been selected. It would have been the perfect place to close that city-wide broadband deal with the mayor of Hiroshima.

There was a DEC building I visited once that named its rooms after famous computer scientists. That sounds reasonable, except that several of them worked for DEC at the time. Wandering around you would see a room labelled Butler Lampson or Leslie Lamport, and think, I had no idea he worked here.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. In the early 80s, DEC's UK engineering team was growing rapidly. At first they tried to house us in a warehouse that was surplus to requirements, in Acre Road, Reading, next door to the UK importer of the disastrous Yugo cars. They did a cheap and nasty conversion into office space, which was woefully inadequate. The building was impossible to heat anyway, but installing a hot-air system that vented near the roof didn't help at all. As a result, everyone had a little electric heater under their desk. They also forgot to install extra power to run all the servers, and the electric heaters made things worse. Everything was so delicately balanced that one day a colleague arrived and turned on his 60 watt desk light - and the whole building went dark and quiet. After that they did install extra power.

In 1983 we finally abandoned Acre Road and moved into luxurious new digs called DECpark II, adjacent to the recently-built UK headquarters. It was specially designed to accommodate engineers, with dedicated labs and computer rooms.

There were 18 meeting rooms scattered through the building, and they needed names, a job which fell to the facility manager. He was a pompous and disagreeable individual, who drew attention to himself by driving to work every day in a Rolls Royce. It was agreed that the theme should very aptly be famous European engineers and scientists. The pompous facility manager organised a competition to name them, asking everyone to come up with their own list of 18 candidates. The candidates who got the most votes would be selected, and the entry that came closest to the final list would win a bottle of champagne. All very jolly-japes.

Unfortunately he'd forgotten he was dealing with computer scientists, with their usual delight in finding ways to break carefully designed systems, and to embarrass people in authority. One of our number, Mike, had already shown himself to be especially gifted.

This was in the first blush of the Hitch-hikers' Guide to the Galaxy's fame. When we were first connected to the corporate DECnet, it was Mike who had ensured that we got DECnet area number 42, and then gave all the systems names from the series - VOGON (later famous as the source of the Vogon News Service), SLARTI and so on. Then there was FORTY2, whose DECnet address was 42.42.

Later another pompous new senior manager showed up. He wanted a dedicated system to house all the secret information that only important people were allowed to access. (Though I was one of the privileged few, I never did find out what he had in mind). Mike tried to call the system ARKB, and very nearly succeeded. (For those who don't remember HHGG, Arkb was the spaceship that took all the telephone sanitizers, timeshare salesmen, HR consultants and other indispensables, and abandoned them on another planet).

Mike, with a little help, quickly figured that if all the network engineering team submitted the identical list, we would be sure to win - we made up about a third of the total staff. Better yet, we would get to decide the conference room names. The team set to work selecting all the rudest, most obscene and generally inappropriate names they could find. The only one I remember was the German scientist August Kundt, famous for Kundt's Tube. I'm sure you get the idea.

Mike distributed the list and we all submitted it. What the pompous facility manager should have done, of course, was to say, "Nice try, guys" and perhaps give us a bottle of champagne. But he was too pompous for that. He sent an angry rant to the whole facility and to our US management, and tried to get Mike fired. He completely failed to take into account that Mike was far more valuable to us than he was. Nobody liked him much to begin with, and after this he was reduced to a laughing stock. He didn't last long, and was soon replaced by someone less pompous but unfortunately even more incompetent. And, needless to say, we never did get a Kundt Room.

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