A couple weeks into the project, and despite my access to the issue tracking system, the project wiki, and the code repository, I still felt uneasy–there was something I was missing, but since I didn’t know what that was, I couldn’t ask for it. Coffee? Water? Multiple monitors? Appealing snacks? Had all those. I stood above my workspace, and then figured it out:
We were seated all wrong.
All of us on the development team were placed into cubicles arranged into a herringbone pattern pointing to one side of the room. Our faces turned about 25° towards one other person. I became familiar with the backs of many of my co-workers’ heads, since that’s much of what I saw of them all day. It was a bizarre arrangement for the kind of work we expected to do, since it discouraged interaction: you didn’t want to walk up behind someone and tap him or her on the shoulder for just any old thing.
Of course, interruptions are ruinous to developer productivity, but so is
isolation. There was a lot of context missing for me on this project, because it wasn’t available through the commit comments, and asking for it on chat would’ve required my knowing who to ask for what. I was slower to contribute because I couldn’t overhear relevant chitchat and couldn’t catch the eye of the project lead when I had a question, the most urgent one being: why were our workspaces arranged so stupidly?
I envisioned some workmen arriving one morning with a bare sketch of a floor plan in hand, and a general work order: “Build X number of cubicles from this pile of parts.” They weren’t told who’d work in the cubes, nor what was important to us. They acted from assumptions that seemed reasonable, but were still flat-out wrong.
One was that we all needed to have visual contact with one certain thing at one end of the room. Most of us have experience with this kind of arrangement, since it’s how we sat when we attended school. It’s also how clerical workers’ desks were often placed in early open plan offices. Management enjoyed this arrangement, since it permitted easy surveillance of those notorious insubordinates, schoolchildren and women. Placed side-by-side, we have less interaction with our peers, and more with the authority figure at the end of the room. But here in a twenty-first-century cube farm, there was no teacher on a dais to please. Why were we all facing the same way?
To watch a movie? Or perhaps a more sinister activity?
The project never required the Two Minutes Hate–well, as far I could tell. Who would’ve tapped me on the shoulder to let me know?