Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Space: The Final Frontier

My wife's employer has built a new building for their HQ. They've been moved in for a couple of months, and I finally got a chance to take a short tour today.

It's gorgeous, in its way. It's cutting-edge. Lot of glass -- stand next to a window on one wall and you can pretty much see out the windows on the far wall. Open, airy -- well, the windows don't actually open, those have been gone from office buildings for a long time -- higher floors extend a bit past the ones below, plenty of light. Big, multi-story atria here and there.

Most of the work space is communal -- waist-high cubicles, and not offices. The big conference rooms are glass-walled, and while there are meeting rooms with actual walls and doors, they are small -- privacy is not a premium. Walk down a hall, you see what is going on, who is doing what, transparency in operation.

Lights and AC brighten and hum to life on when you enter a room, dim and run slower when you leave it.

Cutting-edge, and green, too -- there's a carpet of plants on the roof, and it uses recycled graywater. There's a kitchen, tables, chairs, the usual, and nearly as much stainless steel throughout as glass. Art on the walls, some of it modern, some of it animated, some of it impressive.

Be a great setting for a science fiction movie. The building is a real showpiece of a work- environment, designed to foster a communal shoulder-to-the-wheel attitude. I suspect it hits all the politically-correct bases, and I also suspect that the techno-mechanico look and feel gets good reviews from younger employees -- wifi, all the bells and whistles, clean, shiny, and efficiently-done. A walkway, underground, takes you to a mall, with food courts and shops, and you never have to go outside.

To me, it felt rather like an operating room in a big hospital after everybody has scrubbed up. Spotlessly clean and perfectly functional, but no warmth to it.

I'd rather work in the Bradbury Building myself ...

Guess that shows I'm getting old. And so glad I don't have to go to an office every day, no matter what its configuration.


Dan Moran said...

It's a terrible environment for programmers, buildings like that. Many years back a bright programmer named Joel Spolsky wrote a blog post on this that I still refer people to:


Here's the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into "flow", also known as being "in the zone", where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.

The trouble is, getting into "the zone" is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you're tired or have already done a lot of creative work that day, you just can't get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, reading the web, playing Tetris.

The other trouble is that it's so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers -- especially interruptions by coworkers -- all knock you out of the zone. If a coworker asks you a question, causing a 1 minute interruption, but this knocks you out of the zone badly enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you're in a noisy bullpen environment like the type that caffeinated dotcoms love to create, with marketing guys screaming on the phone next to programmers, your productivity will plunge as knowledge workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.

With programmers, it's especially hard. Productivity depends on being able to juggle a lot of little details in short term memory all at once. Any kind of interruption can cause these details to come crashing down. When you resume work, you can't remember any of the details (like local variable names you were using, or where you were up to in implementing that search algorithm) and you have to keep looking these things up, which slows you down a lot until you get back up to speed.

Here's the simple algebra. Let's say (as the evidence seems to suggest) that if we interrupt a programmer, even for a minute, we're really blowing away 15 minutes of productivity. For this example, lets put two programmers, Jeff and Mutt, in open cubicles next to each other in a standard Dilbert veal-fattening farm. Mutt can't remember the name of the Unicode version of the strcpy function. He could look it up, which takes 30 seconds, or he could ask Jeff, which takes 15 seconds. Since he's sitting right next to Jeff, he asks Jeff. Jeff gets distracted and loses 15 minutes of productivity (to save Mutt 15 seconds).

Now let's move them into separate offices with walls and doors. Now when Mutt can't remember the name of that function, he could look it up, which still takes 30 seconds, or he could ask Jeff, which now takes 45 seconds and involves standing up (not an easy task given the average physical fitness of programmers!). So he looks it up. So now Mutt loses 30 seconds of productivity, but we save 15 minutes for Jeff. Ahhh!

There's a lot of reasons for bad or inneficient software work out there, but work environment is right up there. I imagine the same is true for any kind of work that requires deep concentration.

Anonymous said...

I like the Bradbury Building better, too. I also prefer a little privacy, or at least the illusion of privacy. Even at work, when I owe my employer my time, private life intrudes (gotta make an appointment with the doctor, talk to the banker during business hours, what have you) and I'd rather have a little privacy for that. Plus, like the article Dan quoted, I don't always want to be distracted by my coworkers.

I once worked in an office that had just replaced paper with computers, and I was sandwiched between two co-workers. One had never worked on a computer, was timid, and had a very slow learning curve (although she was willing to try). The other had never worked on a computer and by god didn't ever want to work on a computer and resented the hell out of having to deal with the computer for the 2 years she had left before retirement.

Even with 5' cubicle walls, I ended up being their go-to person for help, to the point that on our main production days, I forbid either of them to talk to me because I had to get my own work done at some point.

I shudder to think what that period in my work life would have been like with a virtually open work environment.

Shawn R.

heina said...


I remember working in a particular dot-com open environment with you. It was great for socializing. I enjoyed the camaraderie. I think the biggest distraction was the attractive gal who sat halfway between us and was quite flirty at the best of times. Come to think of it, most of the staff (guys and girls) there were pretty Melrose Place.

That said, I also used to work late into the evenings there and got most of my real work done after everyone had gone home and the place quieted down.

Those days are over and I prefer to go HOME after work, so I've found that investing in a high quality comfortable pair of oversized headphones (the kind that professional sound guys use for monitoring) blocks out distractions and sends a clear message to people that I'm not to be bothered -- especially after telling them a few times that's what it means when the 'phones are on.

One of the things I've found is that, in order for these environments to work, you need to provide enough collaboration spaces, conference rooms and more importantly mini-rooms for 2-4 people and a white board, for the number of people in the pit. This gives a space for collaborative design, lunch, phone calls, etc.

Dan Moran said...


The only woman I really recall from launch was the corporate counsel -- asian woman. I forget her name, but I may die before I forget what she looked like.

There certainly were a lot of pretty people in that building. Some of them were even competent.

I recall one day opening the door for some delicate black-haired girl, about 5'2", smiling at her and getting a nice smile back ... and realizing a few minutes later that it had been Natalie Merchant. She didn't stand out, in that crowd ...

The getting things done after the "work day" is over is pretty common among programmers. But it's almost always the result of management being clueless.