A lot of projects had stealth t-shirts, and my favorite of those is my Platypus. Unlike most Google shirts, a stealth project t-shirt is unbranded: nowhere does the universally-recognized logo appear, and whatever text or images do appear on the shirt are so intentionally cryptic that only those who are already in the know will recognize it, conveying a sense of secret society among those who wear one.
I think it was early 2005 that I first saw a Platypus shirt. It immediately struck me as weird; I mean, Valley culture embraces weird like a cheap drunk, but there’s “weird for weird’s sake,” and then there’s “weird because I know something you don’t.” And there was clearly way more to this than just weirdness sake. Being the t-shirt junkie and busybody that I am, I knew I had to have one of those shirts. The first one got away, but I’m sure I cornered the second Googler I saw wearing one and demanded enlightenment.
The company was small enough back then that the sense of shared culture was still pretty strong. Whoever it was I grabbed took a quick glance at my badge (“Yeah – you’re one of us”) gave me the high level bullet (“It’s an online storage project”) and told me I could look Platypus up on Moma.
The idea back then was pretty much what it still is today: a way to store and access your files online. But back in 2005 was still a couple of years before people started talking about “clouds”, and the idea of keeping all your data “out there” was kind of freaky and radical. But the Platypus team was trying to make it a reality.
The thing was, storing massive amounts of data “in the cloud” and allowing you to access it securely and fault-tolerantly from any machine, anywhere, was a freakin’ hard technical problem, and took a lot longer than anyone expected to get right. There were little slips and leaks and rumors, but at that time Google was the hottest thing on the web, and there were rumors about pretty much anything anyone could imagine it working on. I was doing a lot of campus recruiting around then and made a point of making sure my laptop’s desktop icons were visible on the projection screen before and after my presentation. I seeded it liberally with things like “Google Secret Mountain Fortress Driving Direction,” “Google Space Station Orbital Coordinates,” and “Google Phone Technical Specs” and no one, no one, no one ever called me on it.
Anyhow, back to what Google actually was working on: Platypus. As I said, it was pretty hard to get a system like that right, and when things went wrong, they did so in quirky, hard-to-reproduce ways. So the only way to really nail all the bugs was to get a lot of alpha users pounding on the system. But how are you going to convince alpha users to trust their precious files to your secure, fault-tolerant online file system if it’s not (yet) particularly secure or fault tolerant? Yup: you offer them t-shirts.
Even better, you don’t offer them a t-shirt for just using Platypus – it’s much to easy to sign up, throw a couple of unnecessary files in and forget about it. You want to encourage users to put your system through the wringer, to poke at its dark corners and expose its weaknesses, don’t you? So you only give out t-shirts to users who have used Platypus, encountered a bug and filed a bug report. And in doing so, you make the hottest t-shirt in Engineer even more of a badge of honor, bragging rights to the cognoscenti that yes, you waded in, slapped the system around and brought back a reportable bug for the leader boards to show for it.
I’m sure it’s still there in the eternal memory of the Bugalizer, but I’ve got no recollection of how I earned my shirt. All I recall is that moment of pride when I copied over the screenshot, typed my name into the “reported by” field and hit submit. And I also don’t remember the aftermath, but I’m not to proud to speculate that, once the coveted shirt was in my greedy little hands, I probably didn’t touch Platypus again until it launched two years later.