Mike Bland

Music student, semi-retired programmer, and former Googler

PSA: T-shirts Considered E-ville

T-shirts: The worst schwag ever. Trust me. Just Say No!

- New York
Tags: Fixits, Google, schwag, Testing Grouplet
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I’ve mentioned in my previous posts on Fixits and the Testing Grouplet that T-shirts are the worst idea in the world for Fixit schwag, promising to go into more detail later. This is that detail.

After the March 2007 Testing Fixit, I was forever scarred for life. Never, ever again would I make the mistake of ordering T-shirts as Fixit schwag ever again. Three years later, during the TAP Fixit, a question came up from a participant asking “Do we get T-shirts?” A volunter in Zürich, Daniel Fireman, brought this specifically to my attention, replying: “I think Mike is the best one to reply to that question.”

Indeed. The following was my reply, with lessons I believed I might one day need to share with a broader audience. It says it all. And, like “Nowhere Man” came to John, this all came “in one gulp”:

Oh…oh god…I must have blocked out that question when I saw it yesterday. Let me explain why T-shirts are the Fru-its of the Dev-eel:

  • They are expensive. To get any sort of discount, you have to get on the order of 1000 of them, and that gets you about $7 per shirt, so you need to put up $7000 at a minimum. Usually you won’t get 1k people actually registering their activity or walking up to get their schwag even if you detect activity automatically, so you usually get the minimum order to get the discount, trying to anticipate the size distribution of mens and womens S/M/L/XL/XXL, with the knowledge that you probably won’t give that many away anyway, but the people who do earn one will be seriously let down if you run out of their size.
  • Giving the T-shirts out after-the-fact won’t work, because (as mentioned above) most people won’t register/qualify for points/schwag, and you’ll need to order so few that they’ll potentially be more expensive to produce, and you’ll be so mentally exhausted after the fixit that you can barely finish the retrospective, let alone deal with ordering and shipping T-shirts. (One-size-fits-all schwag at least relieves you of the mental strain of figuring out how many of each size you need.)
  • There is no accurate and reliable way to estimate how many you need for each site, or even for each building in Mountain View. You don’t really know ahead of time how many engineers will get the message and do stuff, so you’ll end up with too many shirts one place, not enough in the other, etc. Panic, frustration, and confusion ensue—especially in MTV, where there are more people coming to you physically and rummaging through the pile searching for shirts to lug back to their buildings, which can be quite a ways away.
  • There is no accurate and reliable way to estimate how many you need of each size, or whether the sizes will run large or small, etc. You think you’ll need more Mediums, so you’ll get more Mediums, but they run small, so people want larges, etc. You’ll run out of the sizes everybody wants, and have tons left over of the other sizes.
  • Specifically regarding ladies’ sizes, some companies have a very unhealthy perspective on female body image. You could get a ton of shirts not big enough to fit a Barbie doll, and run out of the Larges and XLs that you only got a handful of because you had a ludicrous expectation that Medium would fit an average adult woman. (And bear in mind Mamie Rheingold helped me order all my T-shirts for past fixits, so it wasn’t gender bias on my part.)
  • They are big and bulky. They are a pain to ship and carry, and often arouse suspicion in customs agents in some countries, meaning there’s a chance the T-shirts won’t arrive at a certain office in time.
  • People will walk away with them during the event. Googlers love T-shirts, and have been conditioned to help themselves to free T-shirts if you leave them unsupervised. And they’ll take all the good sizes.
  • No one will want them after the event. This is largely due to the fact that you’ll have the wrong sizes after a point.
  • You’ll run out of space at your desk to store the leftovers, and there isn’t a common T-shirt warehouse where you can stash them. See the “big and bulky” issue above.
  • You’ll move desks, or offices, even to the other side of the country, and people will find your old boxes of shirts and track you down and ask you what to do with them. They won’t want them themselves, ’cause the boxes are big and bulky, and the shirts are all the wrong sizes.

I have to admit, it does warm my heart to see people walking around with the August 2006 Testing Fixit T-shirt, or the March 2007 Testing Fixit T-shirt, but that is merely foggy-eyed nostalgia for relics of a more innocent age. The more pressing reality persists that T-shirts are a wicked curse cast upon oneself, an everlasting monument to despair wrought by hubris. In fact, a fellow Virginian even had something to say on the subject once:

And the T-shirts, never fitting, still are sitting, still are sitting
On the pallid busted pallet just inside my office door;
And the boxes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er them streaming throws their shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!