Thursday, November 14, 2013

Aghast at the bullpen

The other day, I was reading a perfectly nice article on the Wired website: This Company Believes You Should Never Hack Alone.

The article discusses the hot new startup Pivotal. Pivotal is indeed very trendy, whether it's because of Paul Maritz, or their big-name backers, or their hot, hot market space, or for some other reason.

At any rate, it's a perfectly nice article, with lots of interesting details about how they're trying to establish the company culture and built the team.

But, frankly, I never really made it to the article.

I simply couldn't get past the headline, and the picture.

Stop. Go look at that picture: "Inside Pivotal’s San Francisco offices, where software coders rarely work alone."

All of a sudden, the bullpen is trendy.

I'm not quite sure when this happened, but it really took off when Facebook lost their mind and converted the old Sun Microsystems office space in Menlo Park into the world's worst offices, ever.

It will be a large, one room building that somewhat resembles a warehouse. Just like we do now, everyone will sit out in the open with desks that can be quickly shuffled around as teams form and break apart around projects.

Let's belabor that point a little bit. As Zuck said

The idea is to make the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together. It will be the largest open floor plan in the world, ...

I guess the time has come to admit that I Just Don't Fit In.

When I see the picture, the first words that come to my mind are not "the perfect engineering space: one giant room".

I've actually worked, briefly, in bullpen environments. They do have a few advantages:

  • They help people who haven't worked together very much get to know each other somewhat better
  • They make it possible for the manager to look out over the open space and visually itemize who is present, and where they are located
  • They save money on things like walls and doors and windows.
But they have, oh, so many disadvantages.

I'm not quite sure where this open floor plan mania arose from. Some say it comes from the famous stock exchange trading floors. As if a scene like this makes you think that people are being productive in that environment.

Others say that the idea came from the famous newspaper "city desk" rooms, most famously the Washington Post newsroom where Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down the president, an idea you can see parroted in New York City mayor Bloomberg's horrific city government bullpen, which is gathering followers throughout government

At the Wilson Building this week, workers will begin knocking down walls on the third floor to create a permanent bullpen for Fenty, who intends to shun the isolated sixth-floor mayor's suite after he is sworn in Jan. 2. By sitting among his deputies, keeping close tabs on them and engaging them in everyday decisions, Fenty said he will foster increased accountability and a spirit of openness that he believes has been missing from city government.

Maybe it works for city governments.

Maybe it works for stock exchange traders.

But I'll tell you something: it does not work for software development.

The reason why is, I think, best expressed by the great Rands, who wrote about the zone:

Let’s talk about the Zone once more. You’re either sitting down with your computer to futz around with something or you’re attempting to get in the Zone. This is that magical place where you’ve managed to fit the entire context of your current project in your head. With all this content in there, you can perform superhuman acts of productivity and creativity because you have the complete problem space at your mental disposal.

If you're more of a visual person, this is a brilliant web comic which makes the same point.

Look, Pivotal may be a quite nice place. I think they have some brilliant people there, and I think they are working hard to do what they think is right for them.

But I could never work there. I need to think. I need to concentrate, to focus, to enter the zone.

I guess it's good that I know this about myself, so that when I read about Pivotal, or read similar articles about companies like Square, where

Dorsey and Henderson applied that same sense of vision to their new offices, which take up parts of four floors in a dowdy former Bank of America data center. The theme is one of a miniature city, with conference rooms named for famous streets and a grand "boulevard" the length of two football fields.
I can simply say to myself: well, that's another company I'd never want to be part of.

I don't want an office "the length of two football fields".

I think that pair programming is interesting. In fact, I regularly practice it. But I call it "having a second pair of eyes." Here's how it works: my co-worker will stick his head in my cube and say:

Bryan, I'm a bit stuck on something. I've been through this code a million times, and I just can't see what's wrong. Can you take a look?
And I'll nod, and hit "save" in my editor, and step around the corner to his cube, where I'll pull up a chair and watch over his shoulder as he walks through the code.

After a minute or two, I'll say something like:

Oh, I see. You're expecting the variable "resetRequired" to be true, but in this particular case we're arriving here via a different code path, and it's going to be false.
He'll nod, and say
Of course! Nothing like another pair of eyes!
And I'll go back to my desk, and we'll both try to get back into The Zone

I take some hope from reading that maybe it's not just me

About 70 percent of U.S. employees now work in open offices, according to the International Management Facility Association. But the collaboration-friendly environment with minimal cubicle separations “proved ineffective if the ability to focus was not also considered,” according to a new study by the design firm Gensler. “When focus is compromised in pursuit of collaboration, neither works well.”
And I'll hope that some of these findings take hold:
People work less well when they move from a personal office to an open-plan layout, according to a longitudinal study carried out by Calgary University. Writing in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep Chugh and Theresa Kline found that such workers reported more stress, less satisfaction with their environment and less productivity. Brennan et al went back to survey the participants six months after the move and found not only that they were still unhappy with their new office, but that their team relations had broken down even further.

Still, it's wicked trendy: More employers choosing 'open' offices

Experts say the use of open office design elements is now growing at a double-digit pace, heralding the death of the traditional corner office and the infamous high-walled cubicle


Not so long ago, I was lucky enough to work at a company which gave me a fantastic work environment: I had a (small) private office, which was quiet and calm. People could come by whenever they wanted to talk to me. If I needed to have a conversation, I could close the door to avoid bothering others. The noise of my co-workers was completely invisible to me. I was fantastically productive.

So I know such companies exist, clear-thinking places where they recognize that Programming Is Hard, and you need to have long, undisturbed periods of complete silence and deep thought; you need to get into The Zone.

I'll say a silent prayer that such companies survive, and that we aren't all forced into the bullpen.



  1. Having entered the labour force at a later date than you, and in a country where ‘cubicles’ were never adopted, that picture doesn't give me pause; it's all I've ever seen, although I've only seen desks that were so cramped at companies that were genuinely starved for space.

    The definition of software development has broadened significantly in the last ten years. Much of what these startups do is actually web development, which is a much more collaborative field, and attracts a different type of personality (sometimes jokingly called 'the brogrammer') who doesn't crave, and sometimes doesn't even need long stretches of uninterrupted time.

  2. Amen. In 2008 I was successful in saving a team from the bullpen. We no longer had room for cubicles (there's the real motivation behind this), but were able to set up a system of miniature cubicles that afforded mediocre privacy for most, and better-than-bullpen privacy for everyone. Recently we were moved to a new area, and now have the dreaded half cubicles arranged in squares of four with everyone back-to-back. I'm looking for something better, but so far no luck.
    19 years ago my first job started me out with a private corner office, and it's been downhill from there. I only faintly remember what it means to be fully productive.