I wrote this in 2016, so here's hoping post-pandemic we won't go back to packing programmers in like caged hens.
I don’t want to be one of those who go on about the good old days, and for software development, there’s a world of difference today. As I was recently googling for answers on stackoverflow, it occurred to me that Irix OpenGL linking bug which took me over half a year to track down back in the min-90’s (it would have been longer if some SGI folks hadn’t seen us demoing a Windows version of our product which prompted them to send us engineering help instead of more salespeople), would probably have been solved in an afternoon if we had today’s Internet back then.
And look, I’m self-publishing games and apps developed on my own with a laptop in my living room instead of working in a huge team with expensive middleware on software dictated by a publisher or corporate management. Although I still have to do the latter on occasion to pay the b8lls.
But not everything is better. For one thing, as an industry professional, the office situation has gone steadily worse. (The other thing is interviewing, but I’ll save that for another article). When I started in the 80’s, it was customary to share an office, but it was an office, and usually with just one officemate. At my first job with Texas Instruments, it was me in one corner of a large office and my officemate in the other corner. At MIT, I shared a smaller office, and drink fridge, with a grad student. And also at the Space Telescope Science Institute, I had one officemate.
But one officemate is still one more than ideal, so I was pretty happy to get my own office at BBN, where that was standard. You might think, as “open office” advocates are wont to say, that this results in introverted engineers shutting their doors and never communicating with others, but actually what happens is you can get work done without listening to your officemate get in political arguments or have long phone conversations, and you can actually hold spontaneous meetings in your office (only awkward when someone I interviewed with called during one of those meetings).
But that was in the mid-90’s and the beginning of the end. BBN with its new management from IBM and Internet-centric focus proudly announced their new “open office environments” which turned out to be cubicles. Perhaps that also signaled a new emphasis on marketing-speak.
From there, it was downhill. I moved to LA and shared a large office with two others at a small company in LA, still considered crowded at the time but not too bad. It was pretty much impossible to conduct business phone conversations, though, so I ended up conducting my weekly phone meetings with Franz (not the guy’s name, but our Lisp compiler vendor) at home before coming into work. So when I read about CEOs who have no office like everyone else at work, I say, yeah, right.
Then I moved to Silicon Valley and my non-cubicle run was finally over. It was a bubblelicious time, so we did upgrade to super cubicles, importing ceiling high custom wood-with-sliding-glass-door cubes from Canada which made me feel even more exposed like a panda at the zoo, so I tried covering up the door with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Evil posters, but the CEO ordered them taken down (I’m not sure which was the offending poster, or both). Still it felt more like an office than a cubicle, albeit with me inside staring balefully out (I did set a trend in arranging my desk to face outward — everyone was doing it).
My next startup in San Francisco also transitioned from traditional cubes to not-so-cubed, when we got funding and moved upstairs to rooms with a view. I did have to share an office again, but the view was fantastic and this being a San Francisco dot com, we all got Aeron chairs, and then for budgetary reasons settled for cheap folding tables as desks (I do the same for my home office — the cheap table, not the expensive chair).
Then I went into the game industry, and I’ll keep it short — open office, then crammed into a small office with two others (after being assured that it was would be just one — it’s not a good sign when things aren’t turning out how you expected on the first day).
After that, I went freelance with only the occasional on-site contract, so it was several years before I encountered the really open open office where everyone is sitting at a single table together wearing headphones and pretending not to see the people on either side and facing them. This arrangement is great for Maryland crab cake feasts and table top games, but pretty much the worst arrangement for work short of having people sitting in each others’ laps.
I did try this seating arrangement in a WeWork office once. I found the whole coworking space thing ridiculous. Partly the concept, largely the execution. I see the appeal — it was all new and shiny with glass walls everywhere, filled with a lot of young people who liked to call themselves millennials and talking about how they’re targeting millennials, business school grads walking around saying they’re going to be the AirBnb of this and the Uber of that (“We’re gonna crush it!”), shelves full of design books and the occasional programming book, and free coffee.
I like the free coffee. The glass walls were silly. I’m not just saying that because I walked into one of them (ouch!). I did appreciate that in the summer walking through the halls you could see a lot of nice legs in those offices, but if I paid for an office I’d want some privacy (brings back memories of those glass cubicles…). And for business reasons, you need walls. If you have any confidential information, a glass-walled office is not the best place to keep it (much less confidential hardware — I have console equipment that I can keep at home as long as it’s in a room where not everyone can see it).
Between the picnic table and the glass office, they have variations of desks and cubes, including the budget “hot desk” option where you grab whatever seat is available every day. I’m tempted to say I don’t see the point, but I can understand some people go stir crazy if they’re working at home by themselves, especially if they’re crammed into a dinky apartment in the big city, but why not just work at Starbucks? The coffee’s not free, but the music is better. And they have some comfy lounge chairs. At WeWork, I did spend the majority of my time in their lounge on the sofa (where people would wander in off the street and ask what is this place?), made possible by working on a laptop (if you have a desktop PC in one of these coworking spaces, you have to tether it like a bicycle on a sidewalk).
In fact, I’ve noticed that recruiting pages for tech companies often show some smart and sharp-looking young people sitting with their laptops on a sofa. So maybe I’m complaining needlessly and for the next open office trend everyone will move into the lounge. Or their neighboring Starbucks.