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