The massive legal battle between Waymo and Uber may revolve around corporate trade secrets, but the courtroom’s biggest mysteries have undoubtedly been the meanings behind the Silicon Valley jargon used in the case.
In case you’ve missed the spectacle, here’s a quick recap: Waymo, the Google self-driving spinoff, is suing ridesharing firm Uber for theft of trade secrets in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. The trial began this week.
Puzzled jurors and journalists were treated to a number of vocabulary lessons delivered by attorneys, witnesses, and federal judge William Alsup, to explain away confusing evidence in the trial’s opening salvo—and with good reason.
Symbols stood in for abbreviations derived from nicknames. Industry inside jokes were gleefully and gratuitously thrown around. Curious phrases manifested out of thin air, helped explain nothing, and just as quixotically disappeared from the conversation altogether, never to be heard from again. Often the whole thing came wrapped in questionable grammar and stuffed with typos indicative of rushed cell phone usage and a habit of sticking to a 140-character limit.
It was a haunted crossword puzzle; a word salad with extra chunky dressing; the confusing credit default swap of the Great Recession in lexical form.
Some of the suit’s strangest sayings took inspiration from the wild kingdom—at least in part.
The impossibly bizarre “Yakshave dot com” provided an early yardstick for peculiarity, which only grew each time the expression was echoed by a clutch of highly educated and well-respected lawyers and engineers, their utter lack of irony or reaction when repeating the profoundly odd moniker only adding to its alluring powers of weirdness.
While Google forensic analyst Gary Brown described the web address as the host for Google’s SVN server—itself a term for a system that logs software changes which was responsible for the furrowing brows of noobs across the room—neither he nor anyone else offered any explanation of the expression’s origins whatsoever. One can only guess the site’s creator was a Ren & Stimpy fan.
Not to be outdone, members of the primate family made their own play for Most Unexpected Phrase Involving an Animal in a Major Lawsuit, with the induction of “GorillaCircuits dot com” into the official court record.
This verbiage, however, was given much more context within the confines of the case. The name belongs to the circuit board manufacturer accidentally responsible for setting off the entire lawsuit.
Waymo employee William Grossman testified that he was the wrongful recipient of an e-mail sent out by the Gorillas, which was actually intended for employees at Uber. And inside the electronic message? A slew of schematics for building self-driving technology that looked eerily similar to Waymo’s.
The plans looked oddly familiar to Grossman, a hardware engineer, and he immediately sent the communique up the chain of command, where it eventually became Waymo’s catalyst for going to court.
No industry worth being involved in is without its experts, and no expert worth their lofty designation is without the desire to coin—then endlessly use—hyper-specific phrases about their industry of choice, with inspirations ranging from twee observations to well-established folklore.
The tech world is no different, and spectators at the Waymo-Uber suit were treated to background on some of the industry’s privileged lingo, including the title bestowed upon former Google employees by current ones: Xooglers. Pronounced “ZOO-gler,” the idea not only keeps things simple (Ex + Google = Xoogle), it supposedly keeps things respectful, essentially used as a term of endearment, Uber attorney Arturo Gonzalez explained.
Mentioning Team Mac to those in the know is essentially the nerdier version of screaming, “Remember the Alamo!”
But one company’s warm and fuzzy group hug is another’s cold-blooded battle to the death—metaphorically speaking.
“Team Mac” was also exposed to outsider ears after appearing in an evidentiary exhibit as the subject line of an e-mail sent by then-Google employee Anthony Levandowski to his then-boss, Larry Page.
Apparently well-known in the annals of tech industry history, the term is a nod to the ultimate Silicon Valley origin story-cum-creation myth that is the founding of Apple. It’s the name that was given to the group of venerable corporate assassins assembled by Steve Jobs to compete against fellow employees at the then-fledgling computer company in a war over creative control and ideological supremacy. (Guess who won.)
Throwing out a “Team Mac” reference to those in the know is essentially the nerdier version of performing the Rebel Yell or screaming “Remember the Alamo!” In other words, it’s shorthand for: “I don’t care if you’re my cherished co-worker. I will stop at nothing until you quit in shame, get fired, or end up reporting to me.”
Stranger Than Fiction
Still, the proceeding’s finest turns of phrase simply defied all laws of reason and are perhaps best left to all their naturally ridiculous splendor. Some things are just not meant to be defined. (Even a yak shave could be logically linked to some discernable action.)
In not one but several truly surreal incidents, the serious legal matter concerning billions of dollars’ worth of technology, some of the world’s most powerful people, and nothing less than the future of transportation itself was reduced to an Abbott and Costello routine, thanks to one screen name: Someguyiknow.
It belonged to Google’s Gary Brown, the forensics analyst, and was used in several e-mail chains meted out by Uber’s legal team, gloriously resulting in various takes on the following exchange:
Who is someguyiknow?
You are someguyiknow, correct?
Are you someguyiknow?
Another instant classic came courtesy of Uber’s ex-CEO Travis Kalanick, who was struck with the divine inspiration for the mantra during a “jam session” he held with Levandowski and a few other Uber execs, an experience Kalanick described as all the rousing freeform creative flow of a wild jazz ensemble—without any of the music.
“Laser is the sauce,” Kalanick was moved to proclaim after the “sesh.”
The line found its way into so many subsequent notes taken at Uber meetings that Kalanick was asked to explain its meaning while under oath—or, at least, assess Waymo attorney Charles Verhoeven’s suggestion that the laser sauce was the magic ingredient needed to ultimately make autonomous cars work, which Kalanick allowed was “pretty close.”
But there’s no telling how close anyone will ever be able to come to figuring out why the Shakespearean phrase “pound of flesh” ominously appeared on a wishlist attributed to Kalanick in yet another set of notes taken at an Uber meeting, which concerned the company leadership’s plans for Levandowski.
After a full day of living with the vexing fact that the idiom had gone entirely unexplained by lawyers or witnesses on either side, observers were on the edge of their collective seats as the video testimony of the note-taker himself, John Bares—Uber’s former head of autonomous operations—was being prepared. They were met with collective disappointment.
“I can only speculate,” he said in the pre-taped deposition. “It looks like Travis talking.”
Yet even Kalanick was unable to shed any light on the matter.
“It’s a term I use from time to time,” he offered, almost with a shrug, almost as though the note meant nothing, and the lack of resolve wasn’t slowly eating away at every man, woman, and child present.
Perhaps someone will declare a Team Mac on Kalanick and get to the bottom of it.