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Monday, March 12, 2018

Inconsistent application of naming schemes can hurt

Warning: the following tale is about a situation that in isolation, is small potatoes. It's no big deal by itself. If it's the only thing that happens to a person, that person should be able to go "easy come, easy go", because standing alone, it is in fact that simple and stupid.

However, as part of a much bigger pattern, when it happens to you, it hurts. It shouldn't hurt, but at the point you've lost all of your buffer, your shielding, your rough skin, your whatever you want to call it, everything starts hurting, and this is no exception.

So before you bag on me for complaining about something this silly, consider the context first, then ask yourself if you'd honestly be any different.

Also for the nitpicky types, yes, Braille doesn't work that way. This isn't about that. Focus.


In the fall of 2017, the company decided to start figuring out what to name the conference rooms in its newest building in a particularly shiny part of the Pacific Northwest here in the US. It would be the latest in a line of wonderful buildings, complete with conference rooms which sported themes for their names.

Some existing names were local people (real or otherwise) or phrases like "Sir Mix-A-Lot", and "Frazier", and "The Mountain Is Out". This sort of naming cleverness goes on all over the company, and there's usually a unifying theme.

For the new building, it was decided that one group of rooms would be named for "Women in Tech". This then touched off a poll in which people could add their own options, in addition to the usual likes, comments, and other reactions that come with the territory. People who worked in that city contributed a bunch of options.

There were the people you would expect: Grace Hopper, Frances Allen, Margaret Hamilton, Radia Perlman, and so on.

But then, one day, someone added another option, and it started getting votes. That option was for me.

I was floored. I felt the love from my fellow coworkers for thinking of me and for putting their names behind it. The voting went on for a while, and then it was closed. When it was done, I counted up the number of rooms that needed names, and looked at my position on the list, and it was just above the cut-off point. It looked like it was going to happen!

I sat on this news for months, not telling anyone else. I didn't want to somehow ruin it by talking about it -- something about counting chickens before they hatch, and so on. I waited and waited.

Then, one morning, I came to work and opened up my Outlook calendar to see what kind of meetings I had coming up that day and the next. Instead of seeing a neat grid with a handful of meetings, I saw an empty grid with a single huge multi-day event blocking all of the days. It said "meeting room block" or something to that effect, and it went on for over a month.

I boggled over this for a second, and then it hit me: someone had created the room, and it had the same name as me, and then in setting up the Outlook calendar stuff for the room, it had squashed my own calendar into nothingness. To prove it, I went and looked in the map viewer, and sure enough, there it was. Room 03.C.13 was named for me.

Obviously, I had to post about this internally. At the first the post was about my calendar being eaten, but as my investigation unfolded and turned up the room appearing, I updated it, and soon it was spreading out with bunches of people noticing and reacting. It became a "trending" post internally, which got even more people to notice it.

That's when the buzzkill landed, and things went sideways.

Someone showed up on the thread and said they were in charge of such things, and that this should have never happened. There were rules about naming things after employees or former employees, and as a result both this room and another one (named for a VP, apparently) would be changed to yet other names from the list.

Within a couple of hours, a task had been filed, and the room name had been changed. 03.C.13 is now apparently Radia Perlman, creator of the spanning tree protocol which (among other things) keeps your networks from being tied in knots when you have redundant paths.

Still, it sucked to lose "my" room. I had been planning to visit that office shortly after it opened to get a picture of me standing in front of the room, maybe holding my badge next to the embossed conference room sign, and now it wouldn't happen. Also, every meeting on my calendar for the next almost two months was gone, because they "cleared it out until the first day of business". I lost the room and I lost my meetings.

Even that might have been bearable, but then someone showed up with some troubling news: the London office had two conference rooms named for people who were at the company. One was just a person's last name, and the other one was "House of (last name)". Both individuals were instrumental in getting that office off the ground, and were captured in conference room name form.

Nothing happened. There was no response to this comment on the thread.

Indeed, weeks went by, and nothing happened to the conference rooms in London. I checked back on them every week or so while I still could, and they were still there, doing their thing. I looked for tasks that might have been filed to rename them in due time, but no tasks ever materialized.

Why did those rooms get to exist, and not these two? What was the difference? What could possibly explain the inconsistent treatment?

I may never know.


A few days before I left the company, I got a notification that a package had been received and was waiting for me. I was out of town on business, but when I got back, that was my first stop: to go to the shipping center and get my package. I had no idea what it was, since I hadn't ordered anything and wasn't expecting anything.

They handed me a large manila envelope. It had my name and the company's address written on it in two-inch high letters. There was no return address or any identifying marks. The only thing which gave any hint as to its origin was a 2.5€ Éire postage stamp. That is, it cost 2.5 Euro, and it came from Ireland. We had an office there, so maybe it was from them, somehow?

Still, I was mildly concerned, so I took it out of the building into the courtyard and gingerly opened it and looked inside. There, I saw a thin piece of wood. Now I was really confused, and really curious, so I slipped it out. As it came into view, I realized what I was holding: it was a laser-etched analog of the signs they usually plaster onto the wall outside a conference room.

Someone in Dublin had used their workshop's laser cutter to make a spot-on recreation of what "my room" would have had on the wall outside. I realized the significance and realized what it meant: someone wanted me to have this because of what had happened with the actual room.

I had no idea who had sent it, so I posted an obscure little note internally thanking "My laser-wielding crew in Dublin" or something to that effect. That turned out to be the last internal post I ever did.

Later, I looked in the envelope and found out that there was a note attached, and the creator had signed it. I won't reveal who that person is lest they receive some kind of smackdown in their next performance review cycle for "being snarky" or something equally stupid (and yes, as a senior engineer who sat in calibrations, this happens). They know who they are, and if they read this, I thank you again for giving a shit and keeping the proper spirit alive despite all that's happening to kill it.

Finally, this story would not be complete without a picture to prove that this really happened. Here it is, the conference room that never happened:

Keepin' it real with a laser cutter

March 15, 2018: This post has an update.