Be careful with that thing, it’s a confidential coffee maker

Raymond Chen

For a time, Microsoft and IBM were collaborators on a project known as OS/2. You might have heard of it.

For the most part, the work was done separately, with the Microsoft engineers working in Redmond, and the IBM engineers working in Boca Raton, commonly nicknamed Boca. There were some Microsoft engineers who were sent to the IBM Florida office to serve as liaisons.

During this period, IBM tracked what they called “security violations”. These included things such as tailgating through a locked door without swiping your ID badge,¹ leaving the office with papers on your desk,² or wearing shorts to work.³ According to one legend, you would be fired after your sixth security violation. A variation of that legend said that Microsoft would have to dismiss three employees after amassing a cumulative ten violations.

Microsoft was not known for its strict corporate policies, and one of the Microsoft employees stationed in Boca reported that as a general rule, the Microsoft transplants had difficulty adhering to the rigid IBM standards of business conduct. According to one employee, “Sadly, six security violations did not in fact get you sent home to Redmond. I know: I tried.”

The only coffee available in the building came from a vending machine that accepted a large amount of money and produced in return an undrinkable brown liquid. The Microsoft employees chipped in to buy a cheap coffee maker and put it in their shared offices. But it was identified and cited as a fire hazard and security violation.

Part of the Joint Development Agreement included a clause that the Microsoft offices inside the IBM location were sort of a tiny Microsoft embassy, and anything marked “Microsoft Confidential” could not be touched or examined by IBM. So the Microsoft employees took a cardboard box, wrote “Microsoft Confidential” on it, cut a cup-sized access panel in the side, and put it over the coffee maker.

Since the box was labeled “Microsoft Confidential”, IBM security could not look inside.

Fire hazard eliminated. Coffee access preserved.

¹ Sure that makes sense.

² That’s getting a little picky.

³ That isn’t even a security issue!

9 comments

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  • Ian Boyd

    I love so much about this story.

    But mainly the irreverence all around.

  • Chris Warrick

    The next step is to declare the entire office Microsoft Confidential and avoid the consequences of leaving papers on desks, right?

  • Kevin Norris

    Ironically, cardboard is flammable.

    But the autoignition point of paper is much higher than the boiling point of water, and I can’t imagine a coffee maker getting hotter than that, so it was probably fine.

  • Paula Paul

    I really enjoyed this perspective and would have loved the idea of a confidential coffee maker (or any coffee maker…) back then! I was one of those IBM software engineers who was drinking the ‘coffee’ from those paper cups in the early 80s while OS/2 was under development. I wasn’t involved in OS/2 but was a software engineer working on CAD/CIM ‘program products’ at the time.
    For another perspective on culture, the timing of my career as a software engineer subjected me to ‘mandatory antitrust training’ twice. Once when I was still an IBM employee, when we were required to take antitrust training to understand that it was anti-competitive to bundle software and hardware. I learned quite a lot about product pricing and finance during that training at IBM. My second ‘mandatory antitrust training’ came many years later when I joined Microsoft. That training required me to listen to someone tell me that it was not appropriate to use phrases like ‘crush the competition’, which to me was just good professional common sense. Maybe what that Microsoft training really taught me was just how far we’d come, culturally, in the profession, and that maybe wearing ties and having more women in the industry was not so bad after all…
    We really did have quite a lot of fun in software engineering at IBM during the early 80s. It was an amazing place that produced amazing products, but oh, those coffee machines were really terrible!

    • Martin Ba

      > maybe wearing ties and having more women in the industry was not so bad after all…

      Is this just correlation in the quote above, or what does wearing ties have to do with women in the industry??
      The former not something I would ever miss, and the latter a real shame. 🙂

  • Piotr Siódmak

    “security violation” basically means “because I said so”

  • Nikolas Gloy

    I got in trouble as an IBM intern for wearing shorts in the office (1988 or 89)

  • Ivan K

    Years++ ago I was tasked with making a unix version of one of our (at the time) “server” programs. The unix “client” and x-platform glue was already written. Part of the NT version was chosen to be written as a kernel device driver to meet realtime requirements… Anyway…, The client was willing to pay all the $$$ for the new driver. My initial solution was to put a windows box in a cardboard box with a power cord coming out and a bold note about it in the user manual and call it done. I even demoed the working system to my boss (no cardboard) laughing.