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Managing Software Engineers, by Philip Greenspun (philg@mit.edu)


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Social

It is easy for an office to beat the home on the social dimension, especially if the programmer lives alone. If there are people at work at all times of day and night and you've succeeded in building an organization of good people, ipso facto there is always someone interesting to talk to at the office. To exploit fully the social possibilities of the programmers' office, it is important to have informal gathering spaces. At the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which has nurtured groups of great programmers for nearly 40 years, the gathering spaces are referred to as "playrooms". These contain sofas and coffee tables, movable in the best tradition of Dewey, where programmers eat, talk, and occasionally listen to presentations. Usually a playroom will have some sort of shared writing surface such as a whiteboard. Note that these playrooms also are an important part of an organization's knowledge management system. You need to give programmers from different projects a place to meet where problems can be discussed and solutions from older/other projects can be suggested.

A social place will never be friendly if it is trapped behind a high wall of security. It ought to be very easy for a programmer to invite a friend over. If programmers are comfortable meeting their friends at the office it greatly increases the likelihood of friends recruiting friends.

An open office plan contributes to making the work environment stronger on the social dimension.

Physical Comfort

A programmer's work environment should be a supremely comfortable place to sit, look at information on a screen, and type. At ArsDigita we accomplish this via providing Aeron chairs, the keyboard of the programmer's choice, and at least two monitors. In the summer, the place should air-conditioned 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. In the winter, the office should be heated and humidified (often neglected). The air should be cleaned year-round with high-efficiency mechanical filters and electronic cleaners so that allergy sufferers are not discouraged from working.

One horrible mistake that we made was letting our architect design the workstations. Each programmer was given a 6'x2' desk, 12 square feet total. Two 21" monitors took up so much depth that there wasn't even room for a keyboard. Immediately we had to toss our monitors and get flat panels (cost about $400,000 extra). IBM had a better architect for its Santa Theresa facility: Gerald McCue. He found that each worker needed 100 square feet of dedicated space and 30 square feet of work surface. McCue also found that programmers needed noise isolation from enclosed offices or high partitions but personally we think this rule is worth breaking in a dotcom world where a team has to work fast and in sync. Better to manage noise by spreading desks apart a bit so that there are fewer programmers in a given area and therefore fewer conversations, fewer telephones, and more opportunities for sound to be absorbed before reaching someone's ear.

Aesthetic

Programmers don't have the same need for wood-paneled expensive plushness that, say, corporate lawyers or investment bankers might. However, the office has to be aesthetically satisfying or it will be tough for anyone to take seriously the idea that the company values aesthetic internal design of computer programs. Similarly, the office has to be finished and well-executed or nobody will believe that the organization is committed to finishing products. In the long run it is impossible for an organization to be excellent in one area and mediocre in all others. So the physical facilities have to look as though they were planned and decorated by someone with taste. Note that this need not be expensive. You could do it with $200 desks from Ikea and a consistent set of art posters on the walls. But an expensive facility with blank walls and boxes left over from the last move screams incompetence. Remember that the overall place has to look nicer than most of the programmers' houses.

Entertainment

It is easy to make an office more entertaining than the average person's home. Most people have a TV at home but they don't have friends with whom to watch it. Nor will they typically have the kind of big-screen equipment that is easy for a company to acquire. In the 1980s students at the MIT Media Lab would gather on quite a few nights to watch movies from analog laserdisks, presented with a very high quality projector. After the movie was over, they'd go back to their desks and work for a few hours, something that would not have happened if they'd gone out to the movies.

The average home cannot accomodate a pinball machine. An office can. The average home can have video games, which are very popular with young programmers, but not people with whom to play. The average home cannot have a grand piano but almost any office can.

Attractive

A worthwhile goal is to have at least one thing that is extremely attractive about the physical enivronment for any particular prospective software engineer. Here's a possible list: Not everyone has a dog. Not everyone can play the piano. Not everyone wants to practice rock climbing. But by having a long list in the same building, there is a good chance that at least one item will be very attractive to a particular person. If a person loves gardens, he or she can be seated at a desk within view of the garden. That person won't value the other items, perhaps, but another employee will.

Change of Venue

You can work on all of the preceding dimensions but there will come a day when a programmer gets restless. Sitting at exactly the same desk every day is tedious. We thought that we could solve this at ArsDigita by using the Internet and our branch offices. We'd encourage programmers from Cambridge to pick up and work at a spare desk in the Berkeley or Pasadena offices for a week or two. The idea did not catch on, however, because it turns out to be disruptive for one person on a team to disappear. One of the reasons we've found open-plan offices effective is that it helps to have one's team members close enough to look casually at what is on the screen.

What does it take to let the entire team pick up and work somewhere else for awhile? A beach house or a ski house within a two-hour drive of their main office. It is kind of expensive for an individual to rent a vacation house year-around, equip it with a DSL line or cable modem, and pack it with enough desks and computers for a team to work. But if you've got a group of 30 programmers and get a house large enough for 6 or so to sleep and work, the cost is manageable. In the winter, a programming team can disappear for a week, ski every morning and work all afternoon and evening. In the summer, a team can spend a week looking out at the ocean... while typing most of the time. It costs more than not having the beach house but a lot less than having employees go off on their own to have fun every weekend and not work.


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