The Place Where Flow Goes to Die

Posted Monday, December 10th, 2012 at 9:58 pm

My employer has multiple offices in different places, so people who I’ve worked “with” for months can still be newcomers to my physical work environment. A visiting co-worker recently said, “From your Twitter feed, I assumed this office would be, like, the loudest place ever.”

Am I really that sensitive? I started wondering. I started keeping track of it.

When I came in to the office the very next morning, I could overhear three separate conversations. It turns out this is not at all unusual — a situation like this happens at least once per day.

Then came a link to a Stack Overflow jobs post (now sadly expired). The amusing part was supposed to be that, after “ninja”, “rock star” and other types of badass programmer, now they were advertising for a “Chuck Norris developer”.

But I was struck by the check marks on their Joel Test score: After they went on and on about how well they treat their developers, it was still no surprise to find that one of the three items they didn’t have a check-mark for was “Do programmers have quiet working conditions?”

Programmers hardly ever have quiet working conditions. Anywhere. Especially when you consider that what “quiet” really should mean is free of distractions. Not all distractions are aural; I remember one startup where all engineers had to be available on an internal chat channel. Which meant there was constant chatter going on in that channel, which meant a constant drain on everyone’s attention.

My workplace has an alarm on one of its entryway doors, so that if the door is left open for more than 30 seconds, it will make a high-pitched, siren-like squeal. Unfortunately, there are two things that often keep it from closing properly. One is an occasional underpressure in the stairwell, which means the outflow breeze is sometimes enough to keep the door from closing all the way without a human deliberately forcing it. The other is a sticky latching mechanism on the door handle, so that even if it does swing all the way closed, sometimes it’ll just bounce back without latching.

The practical upshot is that a loud siren goes off in my workplace at least two or three times a day — and on some days, it’s more like every 15-30 minutes.

That’s combined with the multiple people on conference calls or in conversations at their cubes, the phones going off, the people walking by, and the incessant IM-request popups from colleagues (I got at least 4 in a single hour today). One of my co-workers once said, “This is the place where flow goes to die.” But there are places that are worse.

The folks on Stack Overflow looking for a “Chuck Norris developer” billed themselves — apparently quite proudly — as a “high-speed, crazy-creative” company, and as one that’s “fun, fast-paced, high-octane, [and] exciting”. None of which exactly says “a good place to concentrate on coding”. They also tout their “break room’s Xbox 360 where you can show off your Rock Band skills”.

I once worked at a place that had a foosball table. One afternoon, while I was working on a thorny coding problem, a couple of the back-end developers decided to actually play a game of foosball. Needless to say, I didn’t get anything done for the next half-hour — my cubicle was only 20 feet from the table. Those things are loud.

I can’t imagine it’d be any easier to get anything done while folks are playing Rock Band, either. With foosball, the noise is only a side-effect. With Rock Band, it’s the whole point of the game.

It’s now been 25 years since DeMarco and Lister’s Peopleware showed that quiet, private work space is essential for good quality code. Why have we still not managed to learn this?

My workplace is not “the loudest place ever”. The real tragedy is: it’s pretty much bog-standard for modern American workplaces. I’ve worked in worse. But even though it’s standard, that standard is still really bad. We can do better. Why don’t we?

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