Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Real engineers prefer cubicles

Well, maybe not really, but I could never tell from the work environment of software engineers that I see today.

Jim Showalter recently wrote a blog post called Open Cubicles Must Die ranting against you-know-what. I think he made some interesting points, and it's a post worth reading. Jim is hardly the only person who argue that private offices are more productive, but what I find interesting is the seeming lack of desire for private offices from the engineers themselves. Jim's blog post got a lot of page views, but did not really get many comments supporting his position. I personally have not discerned much interest among my software engineer peers, even disregarding cost. People are actually proud of their wide open spaces and are disdainful of individual offices. Have individual offices gone the way of the dodo? Would you prefer your own office if given the choice?

Personally, I have experienced a range of options. I have indeed had a private office. I have had cubicles with 4 walls, cubicles with 3 walls, and once I worked in a hallway at a table with 2 legs (the other side of the table was held up by a cabinet). I have seen "cubicles" with 2 walls, which I suppose means they aren't really cubes, and cubicles with partitions maybe 4 inches taller than the desk surface. And of course there are those completely open spaces with no partitions. There are advantages that come with this status quo. Collaboration is easy, of course: I like being able to talk to a colleague by just turning my seat 180 degrees. And it's easy to yell "who's up for sushi?" over the cubes. On the other hand, I don't really need to smell what all my colleagues are having for breakfast/lunch.

I wonder if my experience has to do with the kind of developers I hang out with. I work mostly in startups that generally claim some "agile" mentality. Collaboration is frequent and necessary. In fact, I think there is something to be said about the idea that Agile is micromanagement. In this environment, you need to be constantly accountable to your peers, and a closed office door is an obstacle.

What about the productivity that you lose? Each interruption hinders your own work. Yet as Jim pointed out, disappearing into music with your headphones has its own productivity cost. I remember a colleague who would just grab his computer and go home when he needed to actually get work done. I think the key is that private offices optimizes getting your own work done, while open work spaces optimize helping other people get their work done. While you want to get your own work done, if you work in a highly collaborative environment the team's needs might take precedence, and expressing a desire for a private office will seem antisocial.


  1. I'm a 'Real Engineer' and I don't prefer cubicles.
    Personally, I think Jim Showalter's article hit the nail on the head. I actually left my last job because the cube I was in was next to a bank of cubes filled with salespeople. They talked on the phone all day and it drove me crazy. I need a quiet place to work. I don't care if it's an office or a old cupboard, as long as it is quiet and distraction free.

  2. I think it depends on the work and the project.

    Like you, I've worked in a variety of environments. Currently, we have an open floor plan (no cubes or partitions) and it works out pretty well. It's much easier to know what's going on, especially when someone in another group might be having an integration issue with one of my projects.

    OTOH, interruptions are a problem, and sometime the noise/smells are a bit much. I deal with it by coming in early or by stealing a conference room for a little while. Sometimes, I'll just go work at the coffee shop around the corner.

    One other issue, because my (local) team works so closely together, team members in remote offices seem more distant.

  3. There are some valid reasons to prefer a cubicle over an office:



  4. I'll take a private office any day.

    At my first two jobs I had my own office.
    Then I went through 28 years of cube land at several other jobs.

    Now I'm back in my own office with a view of the Van Nuys airport. I dread the thought of going back to cube land.

  5. I am all for private offices.

    "Collaboration is frequent and necessary" - if you are collaborating all the time, when are you thinking? :-)

    Proponents of "open spaces" miss an important point, which is that workers of thought such as developers need *quiet* and *privacy* to do their job. Without those one's ability to stay in the flow is broken by external interruptions that are plenty in a open space.

    A private, quet space allows to concentrate and to stay in the flow without limit. Just don't forget to plug out the phone.

    Private offices should be a standard, not an exception.

  6. I used to work for a startup where two of us developers had luxury of a separate 'developer' room with a closed door, when we really needed to work harder it was comforting to not have people around screaming like it is end of the world.

    But now I work for a midsized company and 4 developers share a cubicle and I am not half as productive of what I used to be.

  7. I hate cubicles, it is root of most evil in IT world.

    Sure someone who needs constantly help love them. Most of questions are really stupid and can be solved with JIRA or 10 minutes googling. I really dont understand why most people needs answer right now, and can not wait 60 minutes for email answer.

    It is killing my productivity, it is ME who have to finish his work at weekends at home.

  8. Here we just open the door to turn our offices into 'cubicles' people roam around freely.

    When anyone needs to think about a problem they just go for a walk. If they see someone with a frowned face staring at the screen they simply ask what the problem is. After you helped getting rid of the frown you tell him the problem you where struggling with.

    If you find yourself walking a lot to the same place then one day you just bring your desk with you, or ask someone else to move it.

    In the end you get offices with people who like to have music on, offices where people talk and quiet offices.


  9. I really don't see the benefit of the open plan offices.

    If it's so good for collaboration, why can't you have both?

    Open offices for 1 to 2 hours a day, private offices for when you need to actually get work done?

    BTW, whoever yells "whose up for sushi" is kind of an ass. They invented IRC, Campfire, and Email for a reason.

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