Thank you for holding my duck

There’s a story I like to tell, which I vaguely remembered as originating at Bell Labs or Xerox PARC. A researcher had a rubber duck in his office. When he found himself stumped on a problem, he would pick up the duck, walk over to a colleague, and ask them to hold the duck. He would proceed to explain the problem, often realizing the solution himself in the middle of the explanation. Then he would say, “Thank you for holding my duck”, and leave.

I love this story. Years ago, Tamar Shinar and I agreed that the “Thank you for holding my duck” expression is better if it is understood to not mean the colleague didn’t contribute, as then it can be used in boundary cases without slight. But finally, someone asked for the source, and I looked for one and failed.

I did find something, but it was worse than my version: Wikipedia’s page on Rubber duck debugging has a programmer explaining their problem to the duck. This may work, but misses the social aspect: explaining the problem to a person uses a different part of the speaker’s brain. I asked some people at Google; only Martin Wicke had heard of my version, and his source was me. I did learn from the inventor of the Burrows-Wheeler transform that rubber duck debugging is sometimes called “brickwalling” in the UK, but again that’s the worse version. Finally, with Tamar’s help I found my direct source: Bill Polson, back when we were both at Pixar.

Pixar, then the mists of time

Here is the story as far back as I can trace it. I got it from Bill Polson, who got it from Leo Hourvitz, who got it from a story about Xerox PARC. Leo, who worked at Apple and NeXT prior to Pixar, has “tried to search for an authoritative source many times, but any search involving PARC inevitably devolves into results about Steve and the Mac”. Bill’s words, slightly corrected by Leo:

According to Leo, there was a duck at one point at PARC, and it was involved in some sort of protocol. Probably you had to be holding it to speak in a standup or something like that. Or maybe it started by explaining yourself to the duck, but it just didn’t work unless you had a person there, so you gave the duck to someone to hold…

However it happened (losts in the mists of time) it did evolve into a meaning where the duck was a virtual duck, and “holding the duck” meant listening (only listening, not commenting) as someone worked through the problem in their own mind. In practice this worked this way:

I come into Geoffrey’s office. I need help. “Geoffrey, I’m trying to figure out how to diagonalize the defrobulator in sub-logarithmic time. I’m considering algorithm A, B, and C.” And I talk and talk and at some point, I say “Oh right, B is clearly the answer. Thanks!”

Geoffrey then says, “Glad to help!”

Ultimately, the term was used in this way: “Hey Geoffrey, I need you to hold my duck.” (Thus signalling: shut up, I need to work this out.)

And then: “Thanks for holding my duck.”

Bill continues:

In the interests of absolute clarity, I would say that there was a small group at Pixar, centered around Leo and the TS2 FX team, for whom this was absolutely the norm. Anybody who worked on that team, or who worked with someone who worked on that team, used this expression almost daily.

So to be clear, I doubt any animators ever used this.

But I took this to Pixar University, and then to the Shorts program, and then to the Tools Group. I would bet that Larry Cutler took this to Dreamworks and etc.

And now I can point people to this post when asked for a source!

Is it originally from Xerox PARC?

I would of course love to trace the story back to Xerox PARC. Please let me know if you have any leads!

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