Programmers and Cubicles

"Solitude is a valuable form of humanistic property all too easily subject to theft."
-- Steve Mann, "Mediated Reality: University of Toronto RWM Project", (Linux Journal, March 1999, p. 50).

Comments on the cubicle rationale, with excerpts from articles on Silicon Valley architecture, in San Jose Mercury News, SV Magazine, August 8 1999: David Plotnikoff, "It Takes a Village", p. 10-15, and "Designing the New Campus", p. 15. (I couldn't find these articles on the Merc News excellent website, or i would link to it.)

Emphasis in bold is mine.
My comments are in [italic].

When it comes to personal quality-of-life amenities, none apparently is more coveted than an office with a door. The question of who needs an honest-to-gypsum office with real walls and who can get by in a doorless, fabric-skinned cubicle divides architects and planners. Academic studies on how cubes affect communication are inconclusive. "Those decisions generally have to do with either misbegotten notions about how people communicate, or--worse yet--applying one blanket design to everybody," says Richert, the architect who directs Sun's Workplace Effectiveness Group. "Lesson No. 1 is the solution should depend on the work people are doing. When people say "We want our engineers to communicate more therefore we're putting them in a bunch of Dilbert-type cubes," I know they have not one iota of understanding of how that really works.

[Comment: That's the trouble - as usual, a purely practical situation has gotten mixed up with social signifiers.]

Richert believes the people who really need the hard-walled offices are those who "are doing intense, heads-down coding where you have to keep a set of variables in your head for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. If you're disturbed you've lost that work." He believes people whose jobs depend on such concentration will invariably find ways to rebel against cubicle seating. "They'll bring earphones. They put tape and barriers across the openings to their offices. Worse yet, they'll simply avoid times when a lot of other people are in the office."

[Comment: And i have seen good programmers develop habits of being brusque and rude, i.e., *less* communicative, as an (unconscious) way to protect themselves from intrusion.]

[Another datapoint: A sidebar "Designing the New Campus", p. 15: ]

The holy grail for campus designers is "synergy" -- the collegial feeling that comes when individuals and groups are arranged for optimal comunication. Alas, unlike the unyielding math of floor-area ratios, synergy is a slippery concept and the never-ending quest for it is as much a black art as a science. While every architect invokes the S-word freely, no two ever agree on which exact attributes define a communications-friendly building.

"It's one of the things that my profession does not do well," says Eric Richert, a staff architect for Sun Microsystems. "There's been a lot of literature and research on how teams work from an organizational sense, but very little work on how teams work with either physical space or technology infrastructure."

[Comment: A manager-type once inadvertantly spilled the beans to me: Programmers are less *productive* in private spaces, e said. E knew this because Borland put their programmers in nice offices, and Borland eventually folded. So that's why.]

Summary

" Beckett is a punisher of actors. ... He always confines them in the most ridiculous places -- in urns, in garbage cans, up to their necks in sand. It's like he has an extreme resistance to the basic reality of theater -- the actor."
-- Neil Jordan, in "Beckett: from stage to screen", by Alan Riding, New York Times, in S J Mercury News, Sunday July 16, 2000, p. 5G.
 
Cubicles are nice and cheap. And all i've heard, read and experienced looks to me kinda the same point of view you need for keeping the ol' plantation running profitably. "But you can tell they *likes* it down in the quarters, suh -- why, look at em allus smilin and havin fun, playin with those video games and nerf toys. And we give em all free Jolt and gourmet coffee too!"