We’ve all pulled off and been victims of pranks. In college, we literally turned a guy’s entire room upside down. Everything was as he left it … if up was down and vice versa. Bed, chairs, desk, dresser – everything on and in them was flipped around – even the posters on the walls.

When I went to work at Texas Instruments – my first job in the tech industry – I came back to my cubicle after a bunch of meetings one day, opened my top desk drawer to find it filled with packing peanuts. I opened another drawer. Same thing. Filing cabinets too.

Then I looked up at the overhead storage shelves with their flipper doors ominously closed. I was afraid to open them. I thought, nah, how could they possibly do it and get the doors to close. So I opened one. Hundreds of peanuts came pouring out. I know who did it – I was best man at his wedding years later – but I still don’t know how.

Those were just small-time pranks. Nothing prepared me for what happened my first week on the job as director of marketing at a high-flying Silicon Valley company that went from zero to $100 million in revenue in a few short years and had just gone public.

Actually, it was my second week on the job – my first was at Comdex, the biggest computer trade show in Las Vegas. My boss, a cofounder and VP of marketing and sales named Raj, had asked me to write a memo with my feedback on the company’s presence at the show, which I dutifully did and emailed to his admin to be distributed.

I was in a great mood as I walked into the office at 9 a.m. Five minutes later, all hell broke loose.

Raj stormed into my office waving a sheet of paper in his hand, exclaiming, “It’s a disaster! Your memo’s a disaster!” Startled, I jerked in my chair and almost spilled my coffee. I stared up at Raj, who looked so agitated I thought he might have a stroke.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, starting to panic. “What memo?”

“Your memo, the one you wrote. It’s a disaster!” he repeated. “You insulted everyone. It was terrible. It’s a disaster!” The guy was really freaking out – flapping his arms up and down like a live caricature of the boss in a Dilbert cartoon.

My mind raced. I’d written some inflammatory memos in my time, but that wasn’t one of them. I was the new guy. I knew better than to ruffle feathers right out of the gate. At least I thought I did. Trying to sound calmer than I felt, I said, “Can I see it?”

At first glance it looked like my memo. There were two handwritten notes in the side margin; one said, “Matt, I’ve got a real problem with this bullshit – Dan.” Beneath it was another one that said, “Raj, Let’s discuss ASAP! Matt.” Matt was my counterpart who ran sales. Dan was his newest sales manager.

My heart sank. Barely there a week and I’d already shot myself in the foot. And let me tell you, I needed that job. I was in the process of relocating from southern California. My wife was already house hunting in the Bay Area, for God’s sake.

Floored that these guys – good guys, mind you – could have found anything I wrote so offensive, I reflexively started rereading my memo. Except it wasn’t my memo. It was a spoof, a prank, and a damned good one.

In it I ripped apart every sales and marketing guy, but in a way that it sounded credible. I marveled at how the company had ever gotten to this stage with such incompetent executives … and without me. Then, in a conspiratorial tone, I suggested Raj and I get together and figure out how to fix his organization.

I was so relieved it wasn’t funny. What an ingenious prank, I thought. Then I looked up and realized that Raj was still standing in my office staring at me with horror on his face. I must have been smiling, which I’m sure upset him even more. Finally, I said, “I didn’t write this, Raj. It’s not my memo.”

At first Raj didn’t get that it was just a prank, that his new director of marketing wasn’t a narcissistic psychopath, and he wasn’t going to have to fire me after a week on the job. The poor guy was so naïve. I added, smiling, “It’s a practical joke, Raj. This isn’t my memo. I didn’t write it, somebody else did.”

I watched as the truth slowly dawned on his face, and then finally sank in. Still looking grim, though, he asked, “Who would do this?”

“How should I know,” I said, “I just got here.”

The insidious thing about the memo is that Matt and Dan weren’t in on it. Their notes were genuine … at least I think they were. And while I did eventually figure out which two guys pulled it off, at least I think I did, I was never able to get either one to confess. But get this. Both went on to become prominent senior executives in the tech industry. Go figure.

Image Flickr Scott Ableman

  • It’s definitely a contender for the title, but there’s an unanswered question. You had emailed the real thing to the CEO’s admin. – a person for whom involvement in such a prank would be a firing offense.

    So how did the joke memo become the one others saw, without your memo also going out from the admin at some point before 9am? Or some kind of contradiction, when the angry responses started coming back? It seems like your memo didn’t even reach the CEO, which is odd.

    All pranks are ultimately about logistics. You’ve hidden the true beauty of this one.

    • Steve Tobak

      All that remains a mystery, Joe. At the time I was much more interested in keeping my job than anything else. To this day, I’m not exactly sure who was in on it and who wasn’t, except that Dan was definitely not and Matt probably was. As for the perpetrators, I’m onto you, Pat and Don. 😀

      • Wow, that WAS an amazingly insidious prank!

        I’d wait until the perpetrators have a tropical island with a monorail and a super -weapon, then see who they invite.