In the fall of 2000, I was living and working in Palo Alto, Calif., in the middle of the high-tech Silicon Valley. Our publishing company was very serious and technical, so the human resources department decided to infuse a bit of fun into the workplace by announcing a Halloween pumpkin-carving contest.
A blue ribbon, they announced, would be awarded to the "scariest pumpkin in Palo Alto."
Jeananne and I constituted the entire staff of our department. Since we had two weeks to concoct our plans, we devoted a portion of each lunch hour to researching our options.
First, we wanted a pumpkin that would scare the daylights out of any techie at our company. But we had no idea what we were going to do.
Second, we had to be able to carve our pumpkin with the relatively rudimentary tools the HR department was going to provide. So we needed an easy, uncomplicated design that people who were semi-artistically challenged could complete reasonably well.
We thought about why a "standard" jack-o'-lantern with a witch's face is scary. We realized that it's because the witch represents the ability to change the known universe in the blink of an eye.
The witch in "Sleeping Beauty" creates a forest of thorns that the handsome prince has to slice his way through. The witch in "Snow White" creates a poisoned apple to dispense with the heroine.
In "Grimm's Fairy Tales," a witch turns a handsome prince into a frog with the flick of her wand.
But what, we wondered, was the modern-day equivalent? What did we have to fear in this highly computerized valley? What could make our technical sisters and brothers grimace with fright? What could – not with the flick of a wand, but with a press release – turn our world upside down? Who or what could turn that handsome prince of a program we were using into an antiquated frog with the flick of a new product release?
Then we answered our own questions and chortled happily.
On the day of the contest, we sequestered ourselves in a remote corner of the back offices and set to work. When we were finished, we placed our pumpkin on the table reserved for it. Next to it, we placed a card.
The judges had just stopped in front of the pumpkin to our left when my friend Chris sprang into action.
Slowly and apprehensively he approached our pumpkin. He looked at it from the left. He looked at it from the right. When he read the word we had carved into the pumpkin and looked at the card beside it, he screamed. He threw his hands over his head and ran away in humorous mock terror.
The judges were attracted by his wild antics and sauntered over to see our work. Then they broke out in waves of laughter!
On the side of our jack-o'-lantern, we had carved just one word: "Microsoft."
On the card, we had written "Microsoft has just announced a new product release that makes obsolete all previous versions of the program you are now using. Please stop using them and upgrade immediately."
You see, we realized that to a techie – and many other mere mortals – Microsoft is a very scary monster. It can, in a press conference, stand the world on its ear with the announcement of a new product.
Just when we had Windows 95 working perfectly, we all obediently scrambled to get the new Windows 98 because Microsoft announced its existence. The same with ME and XP.
Each time, programmers boohooed the fact that they now had so many lines of code to correct and a whole new set of commands.
Yes, with one pronouncement, one press release, Microsoft could terrify the world of techies and ordinary computer users alike.
The judges quickly agreed that ours was the "scariest pumpkin in Palo Alto."
And we have the blue ribbon to prove it.