Geeks With Blogs

Scott Kuhl Warning: I may have no idea what I am talking about!

Here are some links and info to keep handy next time your employer starts "cheaping out".

Quite Working Conditions / Private Office

There are extensively documented productivity gains provided by giving knowledge workers space, quiet, and privacy. The classic software management book Peopleware documents these productivity benefits extensively.

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!

Only The Best Tools

Writing code in a compiled language is one of the last things that still can't be done instantly on a garden variety home computer. If your compilation process takes more than a few seconds, getting the latest and greatest computer is going to save you time. If compiling takes even 15 seconds, programmers will get bored while the compiler runs and switch over to reading The Onion, which will suck them in and kill hours of productivity.

Debugging GUI code with a single monitor system is painful if not impossible. If you're writing GUI code, two monitors will make things much easier.

Most programmers eventually have to manipulate bitmaps for icons or toolbars, and most programmers don't have a good bitmap editor available. Trying to use Microsoft Paint to manipulate bitmaps is a joke, but that's what most programmers have to do.

At my last job, the system administrator kept sending me automated spam complaining that I was using more than ... get this ... 220 megabytes of hard drive space on the server. I pointed out that given the price of hard drives these days, the cost of this space was significantly less than the cost of the toilet paper I used. Spending even 10 minutes cleaning up my directory would be a fabulous waste of productivity.

Top notch development teams don't torture their programmers. Even minor frustrations caused by using underpowered tools add up, making programmers grumpy and unhappy. And a grumpy programmer is an unproductive programmer.

To add to all this... programmers are easily bribed by giving them the coolest, latest stuff. This is a far cheaper way to get them to work for you than actually paying competitive salaries!

Strong Support Staff

A programmer is most productive with a quiet private office, a great computer, unlimited beverages, an ambient temperature between 68 and 72 degrees (F), no glare on the screen, a chair that's so comfortable you don't feel it, an administrator that brings them their mail and orders manuals and books, a system administrator who makes the Internet as available as oxygen, a tester to find the bugs they just can't see, a graphic designer to make their screens beautiful, a team of marketing people to make the masses want their products, a team of sales people to make sure the masses can get these products, some patient tech support saints who help customers get the product working and help the programmers understand what problems are generating the tech support calls, and about a dozen other support and administrative functions which, in a typical company, add up to about 80% of the payroll. It is not a coincidence that the Roman army had a ratio of four servants for every soldier. This was not decadence. Modern armies probably run 7:1. (Here's something Pradeep Singh taught me today: if only 20% of your staff is programmers, and you can save 50% on salary by outsourcing programmers to India, well, how much of a competitive advantage are you really going to get out of that 10% savings?)

Two Monitors

Microsoft researchers haven't perfected the genie, but they've found a tool that can increase your productivity by 9 to 50 percent and make your work day easier. And you can begin using it right away.

The researchers conducted user studies that proved the effectiveness of adding a second or even third monitor to your workstation, creating a wide-screen effect. In addition, they found out how the operating system needs to change to accommodate a larger screen area.

Give someone a second monitor, let them use it for while, and then try to take it away. It just isn't going to happen. They'll never go back to a mono display. Researchers in the Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment group (VIBE), found that increasing a computer user's display space made it easier for them to complete their tasks.

The first study revealed that the users' productivity increased by 9 percent. Further studies showed even greater increases - at times up to 50 percent for tasks such as cutting and pasting. Mary Czerwinski, the VIBE research manager, is excited about her group's discoveries, asking, "If you're able to squeeze 10 percent more productivity out, do you know how much money that will save?"

Posted on Tuesday, April 11, 2006 12:35 PM Miscellaneous | Back to top

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