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June 24, 2006

Naming Thoughts From an And-2

As you may know, Microsoft employee email addresses are prototypically made up of your first name and the first letter of your last name.

When Microsoft started, people got the canonical email aliases for their names: billg, steveb, etc. The aliases were limited to 8 characters (a rule that still applies today, even though it may be more for convenience of typing than due to a real technical limit). If you look at the famous original eleven photo of Microsoft (scroll down to see it), you see people named Steve, Bob (3 of those), Jim, Marc, Gordon, Bill, Andrea, Marla, and Paul. Now, it was presumably obvious that there would eventually be conflicts in the canonical aliases; the company already had three people named Bob although they each had a last name starting with a different letter. The tiebreaker was to add a second letter from the last name. More problematic was people who had more than seven letters in their first names, or more than six if two letters of last-name differentiation were needed, etc. Bill Gates's parents were named Bill and Mary, he had a sister named Kristianne but she went by Kristi, and his other sister was Libby...is it possible he grew up in a world in which nobody had a name or nickname longer than 6 letters? In any case, eventually the system started to break down a bit as too many people named John and Michael started to work here, plus you had people with long first names. So, many "modern" email address use the first letter of the first name and then the entire last name, or else the part of that which fits in eight characters. And those started to conflict, so email aliases arrived that had the first two letters of the first name, or first name and middle initial.

Thus, we can propose a taxonomy of Microsoft email aliases. Aliases based primarily on first name would be labeled "and-1", "and-2", etc. depending on how many letters of the last name they used. For example my email aliases is 4-and-2 (4 letters from the first, 2 from the last), so it's an "and-2". Bill and Steve have "and-1"s. Meanwhile lots of people now have "1-and"s, meaning 1 letter from the first name and then most or all of the last name, but we also have "2-and"s, "3-and"s, etc.

The idea being, you can roughly tell someone's seniority by the style of name. The and-1 is the oldest, followed by the and-2; it's probably a tossup between the and-3 and the 1-and, because many people chose an 1-and because they thought an and-3 looked ridiculous. Then you get to the and-4 and the 2-and, and beyond. It's not entirely fair since when people leave their email aliases get recycled, so someone might jump in and get a primo and-1 if they arrived at the right time. And of course you have strange exceptions where people have equal numbers of letters from their first and last name, or whatever. I know one person, who when assigned an and-3, instead requested the unused and-0, a request which was granted then (this was back in 1989 or so), but would probably not be allowed now.

It's also dependent, of course, on how unique your first name is. If Wyclef Jean or Madonna Ciconne or Gwyneth Paltrow (or her kids) showed up at Microsoft, they would slide right into and-1s. Same for Chuck D (obviously someone who was destined to work for Microsoft).

And this does matter less than it used to. In the old days you HAD to know someone's email address, because the email system only knew their alias; finding someone's alias from their name was a separate step. Since almost everyone had an and-1 or an and-2, and Microsoft was an informal, first-name-basis kind of place, this worked out well. People would be know as "Hank XY" or whatever. The system started to fall apart when there were too many aliases, people started using 1-ands, and the email system started resolving full names. So now, it is very likely that you may send many emails to someone without ever knowing their real email alias. Still, you can imagine a day where people walk around Microsoft saying snooty things like "oh, ignore him, he's just a 2-and" or "better answer that email, it's from an and-1."

My "ideal" email address would be adamb. When I got my job offer from Microsoft in August 1989 a friend of mine verified that adamb was available, but in between then and when I actually started in March 1990, Adam Bosworth showed up and took it, so my email address wound up as...well, I don't think I'm supposed to reveal it, so suffice it to say it's the same as the alias I post under here.

(A side note: when I came back to Microsoft in 2003, they assigned me the email address adambarr. I glumly assumed that adamb--err I mean my old alias had been taken, but in fact it hadn't, and when I asked they happily changed it back to what it had been. No idea why they tried to give me a different one, since they knew it was me (in fact it was the same account and they had kept my password the same as it had been 3 1/2 years earlier, which would have been nice if I had remembered it for more than a week after I left in 2000)).

Today there are 21 fulltime Adam Bs at Microsoft. They are arranged as follows: seven 1-ands, one 2-and, one 3-and, two 4-ands (for a four-letter name like "adam", 4-and is as deep as you can go), one and-1 (which can only be one thing), five and-2s (including me), three and-3s, and one person whose email name doesn't have "adam" in it (must be his middle name or nickname etc).

There are also eight "dashed" Adam Bs (aliases for non-fulltime people started with prefixes like a- or v-, thus cutting the usable space down to 6 letters), including one whose email name somewhat astonishingly starts with v-2 (meaning, there is someone with email address v-XYZZY and someone else with email address v-2XYZZY). I guess this the next frontier of alias differentiation (a check of the address book reveals hundreds of v-22s, including some v-2Ns where N is 6 or 7 or etc). No a-2s however.

Posted by AdamBa at June 24, 2006 08:33 PM

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Actually, there's no correlation between seniority and alias. As you illustrated with your Adam Bosworth example, email aliases are frequently recycled (and for awhile, so were employee ID numbers). Many people who joined in the 97-01 hiring spree/dotcom craze (when lots of senior employees were leaving) got an older 'and-1" style alias. Also, you could always ask for a different alias than whatever HR pulled out of a hat, and a lot of people I know did so.

For a long time, the only rule was that your alias had to include at least one letter from each of your first and last names. This is part of most aliases are either "1-and" or "and-1".

This policy led to some very funny aliases, and was sometimes practical -- as a fictitious example, if your first name was Angel and your last name started with L, you could have the alias "angel" instead of "angell". But it also led to some really bad aliases that look like typos. For the same example, if your last name started with i but there was already an angeli, you could get the alias "angei" (dropping the ell), which of course will often be confused with both "angel" and "angeli". Perhaps you could call these"-1 and 1" aliases.

Anyway, the company finally adopted X509-style email aliases, so now FirstName.LastName@microsoft.com works the way it does for most of the other companies in the world. Yay! Sadly, I haven't yet seen this translate into a decrease in email confusion. Just last week, someone accidentally assigned me (a software developer) the entire Australian sales division for a major project, because someone thought the rightful owner's "-1 and 1" alias was a typo and helpfully "corrected it" in the financial data. Oops.

Posted by: Michael Brundage at June 25, 2006 09:33 AM

There's no a completely accurate correlation, but there's not NO correlation either. A lot of people have stuck around and if you look at the and-1 for a common first name, chances are it's an oldtimer.

Good point about the -1 and 1. There's is also the 0-and, where someone just uses their last name. And someone in my group has a 1-and-1-and-1 (for lack of a better term) -- their three initials.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at June 25, 2006 05:24 PM

Well my alias is a bit intereting, my first name (eithor Fox, or the full version Foxeris) seems to be unique in the company so I had started as an FTE I might have gotten foxc, insted I started as a contractor and moved full time, so all they did was take off the a- from my alias.

Of course what I have now is a MUCH cooler alias, and easy to rember too. I won't post it for obviouse reasons, but you can do a lookup in outlook to find out what it is ;)

Posted by: Fox Cutter at June 26, 2006 10:56 AM

I have the "coveted" and-1 alias, but only b/c my name is unique I guess. And because I had to request a change, when the original alias I got made everyone assume I was a guy. Sadly, my original alias was recycled pretty quickly.

When I switched jobs, my interview schedule got sent to my old alias (though the change had taken place a full year before!) and as it turned out, the guy with my old alias was an architect on the team I was interviewing for, and gave me the scoop on my interviewers. Which apparently helped since I got the job :). Good thing I wasn't too worried about confidentiality...

Posted by: Anandi at June 28, 2006 08:48 PM