Late Night Heroes

This post from Grand Rapids locals, Atomic Object, documents a phenomenon in the software industry that is particularly insidious as it can demotivate good developers.
No one thinks back to the root cause of the pain they don’t feel. There are new problems to solve, new features, or new projects. It’s very easy to miss a critical element of what got you to this point in the first place. Think about it. When was the last time you stopped and appreciated a piece of software that’s run smoothly for years? 
Ironically, less disciplined developers who commonly let bugs out into the world may be more likely to get the technical kudos. After all, they’re performing the software heroics of late night, last-minute debugging and patching. It’s their technical ability that a customer is held hostage to and rescued by. ...these efforts are highly visible to customers. I suspect some developers even get addicted to the opportunity to be a hero and save the day through their technical prowess. This isn’t really in the best interest of customers, but if you’ve headed down the path of undisciplined, unpredictable development, you’re probably thankful for the effort. 

Heroics are great when they’re needed, but it sure is better to not need them at all.
While overtime and late night heroics are highly visible to managers and non-technical higher-ups as extraordinary effort, one might step back and ask, "Why were these efforts necessary in the first place?" Quiet, consistent quality is distinctly un-sexy. It takes place at 2 PM on Tuesdays, not 2 AM on Saturdays.

Why is our software so buggy, our progress so unpredictable? Let's strive to eliminate heroics from our process, not encourage them.

When 10x is 0x

There’s no such thing as a 10x engineer spending time on something that never ends up delivering business value. If something doesn’t deliver business value, it’s 0x.

- Erik Bernhardsson

Ah, the 10x Engineer™.

One of the most frustrating things I’ve witnessed in my career is smart developers working on stuff that just doesn’t matter.

Blistering progress toward a goal that does the business no good, is not progress at all. In fact, when you consider the opportunity cost, it’s negative value.

Perhaps more important than raw technical ability is a finely-tuned intuition about where to aim that talent.

Humane Offices: SAS

Located outside Raleigh, North Carolina, analytics software maker SAS is the largest privately owned software company in the world.

SAS is consistently ranked as one of the best places to work in the United States and is well known for its workplace culture and world-class employee benefits. One particular aspect of its culture might stand out to readers of this blog.
One example of employee-centeredness can be found in the fact that each employee has his or her own office. There are no cubicles. While SAS Institute describes this as a way to maximize productivity, it also fits in with the operating principle for [CEO] Jim Goodnight: that’s how he would like it were he “just” an employee.  - The Wharton Work/Life Roundtable
Everyone gets a private office. We're not talking cube farm here, either. These are real offices with doors that can be shut. All of SAS' 13,700 employees are encouraged to be creative and make their work space fun. A SAS senior communication specialist has turned her office into a shrine to Elvis with a velvet Elvis painting and a life-size standup of the King.  - The Huffington Post

SAS has incredibly low employee turnover of 3-5% annually, when the software industry average is 20-25%. If you want to get in the door (and get your own door), apply here.

Humane Offices: Epic Systems

If you’re the kind of person who cares about humane office space, you’ve no doubt heard the vocal opinions of Joel Spolsky and his companies Fog Creek Software and Stack Overflow. But I wanted to shine a light on some of the companies that aren’t constantly mentioned when the topic comes up.

Epic Systems, a healthcare software provider, has bucked the open plan trend by giving a private office to every developer in their beautiful campus outside Madison, Wisconsin.

Lunch at Epic Systems in Madison

Epic Systems campus

Epic Systems cafeteria


At its 385-acre campus, with 1.5 million square feet of space spread across five buildings, Epic Systems Corp. provides private offices for all staff—a choice that is designed to support the focused-work practices and needs of software developers. According to Epic’s own research, this design approach increases productivity by 40 percent.

- HQ

One feature that isn't farm related: A lack of open offices. Cuningham has worked with Epic for more than 19 years, and learned early on that "employees felt they were much more efficient when working in individual offices."

"At first they exclaim that they don’t feel individual offices are necessary. But they all go away saying, ‘Wow, I think they’re onto something.'"

- Fast Company


Even more beautiful than the architecture and carefully manicured landscape is this: hallways lined with individual offices and doors that close.

Epic Systems offices

Epic Systems officesEpic Systems offices

Epic Systems developer


Epic Systems is hiring aggressively. If you like what you see, apply here.

Open Plan Alternatives: Gleaming the Cube

In my last post, I urged office planners to ask their people what kind of environment is best for them. One surprising thing they might hear is that people prefer—gasp!—cubicles. Yes, cubicles.

rejemy tweet

In the hundreds of comments people have written on my various blog posts about office design, a common theme was of people working in open plans who wished they could have their cubicle back.

In fact, I was surprised when an interview I did with Wired regarding my views on office design was boiled down to a statement I made to this regard:

Wired quote

I’ve heard from several people who were incredulous that anyone could prefer a cubicle to an open plan. I believe this attitude may be a kind of extreme reaction to the giant, soulless “cube farm” that some companies employed (and still employ).

The dreaded 'cube farm'

But, an open plan can turn into a landscape just as depressing when applied uniformly to a large space.

The dreaded 'open plan farm'

We can compromise, right? The Library and the Bazaar can coexist. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. And please don’t assume that everyone hates cubicles. It’s no private office, but for many people it beats the hell out of the open plan.

Open Plan Alternatives: Ask Your People

I’ve heard from several people who have the power to make decisions about office space, but feel frustrated that they can’t find practical suggestions on what to do instead of an open plan.

Well, if you’re already open to the idea that open plan offices are not a panacea, but you don’t know what to do instead, here’s a surprisingly straight-forward suggestion: ask the people who work there.

Ask me.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my writings on office design, it’s that people who work in offices have strong opinions about how they’re designed. The only thing that holds them back from expressing their opinions is a sense of learned helplessness that comes from years and years of working in crappy offices and seeing that no one cares about improving the situation.

This point was buried in another post I wrote regarding open plans, but here it is again: No size fits all. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to consider the people who work for you as individuals with different wants and needs, because, well, they are.

Cubicle farm from 'Tron'

I’ll end on a quote from Peopleware, as I often do…

A common element that runs through all the patterns (both ours and Alexander’s) is reliance upon non-replicable formulas. No two people have to have exactly the same work space. … The texture and shape and organization of space are fascinating issues to the people who occupy that space. The space needs to be isomorphic to the work that goes on there. And people at all levels need to leave their mark on the workplace.

Integration Is Communication

Kent Beck wrote a tweet recently that had me nodding my head:


I feel like this is a lesson one only learns while working for a large corporation. At this scope, there’s so much work to be done, and so many groups of people involved, that the most acute pain is always felt at the integration points.

The obvious solution is “better communication.” More meetings, more emails, more documentation, more complicated forms one group fills out to communicate its needs to the others. The cure seems worse than the disease.

What’s the real solution? I’m not sure there is one.