Silence is for the weak

In yesterday’s “Vacations are for the weak", Seth Bannon said: “Preventing burnout is part of your job. Staying well rested is part of your job.

While we’re stating the obvious, I have another myth I’d like to put to rest: “Silence is for the weak“. Too many offices, managers, entrepreneurs and even other developers build offices full of noise and distractions, preventing developers from concentrating and doing our jobs.

I’ve spent time in offices with crazy distractions and noise. In one famous San Francisco-based startup, the table-tennis table was directly in the middle of the developers’ desks. In another, anyone could add songs to the Sonos that played across the office.

My favorite example of this sort of insanity is the office in which each time any developer deployed to production, the speaker system automatically played 6 seconds of their favorite song across the entire office. You could actually watch productivity go out the window as dozens of developers fell out of the zone.

Sometimes management prioritizes the open plan aesthetic above enabling concentration. One office had hardwood floors which allowed every conversation to bounce around the entire floor: the suggestion of carpeting was rejected because it would ruin the look of the office. In another, management felt different teams–working on completely separate projects–could collaborate if they overheard each others’ conversations. They even planned to pipe in music to raise the decibel level high enough so that it would instigate conversation between distracted teams!

Sometimes people in roles which don’t require deep concentration don’t get it: I’ve been in offices while sales calls happened in the open where the entire dev team couldn’t tune them out. I’ve seen marketing teams collaborating loudly within feet of engineers trying to concentrate. I’ve heard of sales guys playing frisbee over the heads of engineers.

Why does this happen? Because of a belief that “silence is for the weak”. You should just suck it up and get back to your desk. Put on your headphones and write me some code!

It's lunacy! Everyone tries to attract the best engineers with top-of-the-line Macbooks, expensive coffee grinders, catered lunches, and fridges full of expensive smoothies and beer. Why not attract them by giving them a great working environment, where they can spend their time deeply engrossed in their passion: writing code and building systems?

And don’t get me started on “collaboration”: people having a conversation next to me aren’t collaborating: they value their ability to chat above my ability to get work done, and they’re too rude to go find a conference room. Similarly rude and selfish is tapping someone on the shoulder to ask them a question: if you think your ability to get stuff done a few minutes faster is worth popping me out of the zone, then you show that you only care about yourself.

It’s not like the industry is not aware of the problem. Peopleware–the bible of managing engineering teams–discussed this over a decade ago. It’s a long, systematic study of productivity and it concluded, unequivocally, that noise damages engineer productivity. (It also addresses coding with music/headphones, and says music is bad for coding productivity)

Spolsky introduced a lot of us to Peopleware. He feels that concentration is so important that all his engineers get private offices. He also put “quiet working environment” in his famous “Joel test", right up there with “do you use version control”.

I have yet to even see an office where devs have private offices. Google has 3 engineers per office in Mountain View; Microsoft’s Redmond office has two. Still, that’s better than 99% of Silicon Valley companies I’ve seen. At a recent talk I gave to developers, I asked the audience if they had private offices. About 10% of hands went up, which on the one hand seemed shockingly high compared to offices I’ve seen, and on the other hand is shockingly low: think of the productivity being thrown away at all these other companies!

The CircleCI team will soon be moving to our own office in SF. One of the highest priorities is a private office for everyone who wants one, and a quiet working environment for everyone.

“Silence is for the weak” is a myth which has to die. To managers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and even to coworkers: Preventing distractions for engineers is part of your job. Engineers being able to concentrate is part of your job. You spend a fortune hiring amazing developers, so build them an environment that lets them succeed.