When you’re used to work with people which with you get along well, team spirit builds rapidly. If you get along very well, then you will pass the point from being merely coworkers to being good pals, and that results in more casual demeanour and familiarity. While it is very good for a team, you also have to be careful to not let familiarity (and all its liberties) seep into your work, especially with customers.

The first manifestation of this familiarity is very often jokes (which eventually permeates the very language the team is using) and pranks, although they really have to be funny to be tolerated by the team. But changes in language to include anything from innuendo to inside jokes or inappropriate language can create problems.

A friend of mine is a team manager in a company that does software to help companies to track transactions over long time scales using information retrieval technologies. One of those (proprietary) technologies involves the creation of indexed yearly archives, .iya files 1. So the files started as “iya” files, then they became “hiiyaaa” (ninja, cowboy, bear style, or even Hertzfeldt style) files. Then some idiot on the team invented the in your a** files, and of course, like Chinese cookies, where everything sounds better if you add in bed at the end, the in your a** became a common sentence ending.

That was all funny until a customer called for an update and a junior programmer replied, “oh, yeah, I’ll update the file in your a**”. That wasn’t all that funny then. You can figure out how hard it hit the proverbial fan.

* *

On another occasion, I was working on an external company product that had, erm, say, severe limitations, and we had to produce a re-implementation to replace the company’s product—or at least patch it good. The company name was Enigma 1 but their version of the code became the Enema version. We would discuss our version, the “good” version (naturally) using the name of the company I worked for versus the Enema version.

So we would compare the progress of the reimplementation by various statistics, benchmarks, and comparisons between our version and theirs, and the files were labelled correctly to the name of our company and to Enigma. But the name Enema was not only being spoken too often, it was also starting to appear in manuscript notes and in file names. Of course, we make perfectly clear, and definitively so, that the joke went far enough, and that everybody would now use Enigma, and not any other rime.

Imagine what damage it would do to your company if your presentation file name is enema.ppt. That would mean losing your contract, or at least damaging your credibility beyond repair. You never quite recover from that, even if you fire the twit.

* *

It’s very hard to avoid this problem when you’re in a nerd pack. Red Hat Linux becomes Dead Rat Linux, RPM becomes the rotating package mangler, it just never ends.

So while it’s a sign that your team’s health is doing great, keep a good eye (ear?) on your team’s memes and address the problem if you think there’s one, or bound to be one.

1 Of course, I changed lots of details to protect the innocent.

2 Responses to Seriously.

  1. I think it really depends on the company you’re working with/on (to a certain degree).

    • Steven Pigeon says:

      I suppose it does, but it’s still rather damaging for your reputation and credibility if you let something really nastly slip. The best defence is simply to make that kind of meme verboten in your team, and treat all your customers in the most professional and respectful way all the time—even if playing on a product or company name can be funny as hell sometimes :p

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