Tasting notes on 30 years of eating dogfood

Jun 19, 2017   |  

Once, when I was five, curiosity got the better of me and I grabbed a few kibbles of dogfood from the bowl marked “Jasper” on our kitchen floor and shoved it in my mouth. While I was a bit young to provide detailed tasting notes, I remember it being dry, mealy, and uncomfortably beefy.

If you work in tech, chances are you’ve eaten dogfood, too. Fortunately for you, in this connotation, eating dogfood means you’ve been an early adopter—someone who has volunteered to test drive an app, product, or feature and offered your feedback to prepare it for wider release like the adventurers featured in our new story “Digital Daredevils.”

So how did early adoption become synonymous with eating dogfood, of all things? As tech legend has it, the term emerged from a 1988 email exchange between two former Microsoft managers, Paul Maritz and Brian Valentine, with the subject line, “Eating our own dog-food.” Valentine, now CEO of WISErg (a bio-technology company that converts food waste into fertilizer) confirmed this legend, and even shared a copy of the original emails from 1988.

First came Maritz’s email encouraging more internal use of a new printer server called “LanMan”—short for the name of the tool, Local Area Network (LAN) Manager.

 From paulma Tue Feb 23 13:46:53 1988
 To: brianv
 Subject: Eating our own dog-food
 Date: Tue Feb 23 13:44:32 1988

Thou shalt use the LM server for printing

Then, Valentine pulled a Jean Luc Picard by forwarding Maritz’s email to a wider group with a note added saying, essentially, “Make it so.”

 From brianv Tue Feb 23 15:18:50 1988
 To: joanh lan netmktg paulma
 Subject: Eating our own dog-food
 Date: Tue Feb 23 15:19:23 1988
        | >From paulma Tue Feb 23 13:46:53 1988
        | To: brianv
        | Subject: Eating our own dog-food
        | Date: Tue Feb 23 13:44:32 1988
        |
        | Thou shalt use the LM server for printing
        |
 The gods have spoken and we shall serve...
 [A whole bunch of instructions on using a circa-1988 printer server were redacted here for the sake of space and reader attention span.]
 Happy printing and please start using it, we wrote it, now let's beat on it.

Thanks
 brianv

“Eating our own dogfood” was presumably a reference to Alpo advertisements in the 1970s and 80s in which celebrity spokesman Lorne Greene claimed the dog food was so good he fed it to his own dogs.

“It was the first use of dogfood in the company—which then became an industry term,” Valentine said. “It was fun to be part of an era where we could come up with dumb stuff and have enough industry influence to get it to stick as industry terms.

The “dogfooding” analogy stuck, and eventually it became standard process to have Microsoft employees become early adopters of new products. There has been a love-hate relationship for the name, though, and there have been several movements to replace “dogfood” with a tastier name—even ice cream.

I asked Valentine if he and Maritz could use a time machine to return to 1988 knowing the subject line of that email would stick for 30-plus years, would he have picked a different analogy?

“Hell no,” Valentine said. “It has worked for 30 years for a reason. That reason I don’t know, but so be it—don’t screw with a good thing.”

Check out our story “Digital Daredevils” to learn more about how early adopters help Microsoft keep up with rapid and continuous digital development cycles as they compete for the ultimate annual prize: The Most Interesting Leather Jacket in the World.

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