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Ask HN: How to find software jobs that provide private offices in urban areas?
32 points by mlthoughts2018 on May 20, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 17 comments
When specifically seeking non-remote software and technology jobs in an urban area, how can you effectively search for employers that are able to provide dedicated private offices for engineers and technology workers?

I have previously worked in a private office, in standard high-walled cubicles, in fully open-plan spaces, and in remote positions from my home.

For my next job, I know that for my own productivity and cognitive health, a private office is required. No more compromises with noise-cancelling headphones, remote or work from home arrangements, or anything else. Office or bust, required for basic cognitive health.

One problem is simply finding companies (beyond Stack Overflow) that possibly offer private offices. Many companies literally only have open-plan seating and cannot, even for the greatest candidate, give an office (let alone possibly viewing offices as mere tools that all candidates deserve for the sake of health and productivity).

How can I filter these companies out of my search efficiently by finding companies that do recognize the fundamental importance of private working space?

Secondly, how can I present my desire for an office during my interviews, application, or negotiation? My deep conviction is that open-plan offices are not cost effective even in urban areas after accounting for productivity and morale loss, and that a private office is an essential tool, no different than a keyboard or ergonomic monitor set up. Open plan offices actually prevent teamwork and collaboration, and because I really do care about team-oriented workflows and non-superficial collaboration, giving team members important privacy at their discretion is vital.

What is a good way to communicate this deeply held personal value such that it is clear that a desire for a private office is directly motivated by a collaborative, team-oriented approach that values productivity and cognitive health?

Open plan was invented by bean counters and sold to impressionable engineers through a combination of rah-rah misdirection and pop psychology. They save money, period. No claim of improved collaboration or productivity has ever been demonstrated. In fact, lots of studies say the opposite. The fact is that senior management wants to save money and they will do that no matter what the downside impact is on productivity or morale. You can measure the reduction in square feet of rent easily, you can't measure lost productivity or morale at all. Combine the money savings with the usual 'visionary' leaders claiming the benefits of open plan, and you will lose that battle every time. As long as engineers will put up with crappy working conditions, crappy conditions will persist.

It is almost universally the case that the people and making decisions about open office plans themselves have offices.

Companies that don't have the "everyone with an office" culture are not going to accept. Even if they did you sure as hell wouldn't want to be the single snowflake there with the private office.

Companies that do have that culture are so so rare that I don't think you could find a job that matches all your other requirements (location, pay, culture, role).

And I also think most of those companies that have offices tend to be "stuck in the past". Meaning, they still haven't adopted the open office fad yet or are soon going to do it when the next bean counter comes in.

This is quit different from companies that have offices because they are "ahead and over the open office fad".

Considering that you're asking for something that is politically and logistically impossible at many, if not most, companies, you just need to ask immediately if this is something that can be done, and part ways if the answer is no.

Perhaps you could work remote, but rent an office in a co-working space with co-tenants who give you something close to your desired experience? A lot more difficult for machine learning than for a web developer, though...

Everyone in my group has an office, so it's not impossible, even outside academia. I'd still find the inquiry a little weird, especially with the "cognitive health" framing. It would be better to say "I want to work to the best of my abilities, and I've found that I'm most productive with a private office".

Are you able to name which company you work for, or which cities they offer offices in?

1. apply for the job 2. mention your requirements to the recruiter 3. if ok, pass the interview 4. if you pass, get the job, otherwise, back in 1.

What you think is probably not important: at the end of the day, what matters is what your employer thinks. If they think you need or deserve a private office, they will give you - otherwise, you might need to change your expectations.

Note: as noted, universities often offers private office. I had such a job. Nice but my salary was a fourth of what I have today. So if you do not want to make compromise on your office space, you might to do some on your compensation.

many universities offer private offices for technical staff, both for working on in-house administrative software or working in research groups. be warned that you might have to accept a lot less compensation than at a big tech company.

That's true, but they are sadly moving to open plan too in many instances which is appalling.

Tell the recruiter. I'm looking for an environment where I'll have my private space. Unfortunately you can't filter that anywhere on the internet. You have to get in touch with the recruiter 1st. Keep in mind, majority of the recruiters will ignore your requirement (because it is very odd... indeed), they'll skip it and put you straight into the classic hiring process and tell you "yeah sure we'll see what we can do I'm sure it's doable". So you'll have to talk to a member of the hiring team, which is probably 2-3 steps down the road. If you get a phone screen most likely you'll end up talking to a random engineer. Until you get to the actual hiring manager who is the only person who can come up with a legit answer to your question.

Anyway, long story short you have to start the hiring process with a company in order to find out if they offer private offices to their employees.

I've worked for 5 very large companies and one startup. I'd say if you have a critical role in the company and aren't "just a dev/tester etc" you wouldn't have a problem getting private space when you need it. I've often found programme managers or senior architects can get a room for large periods of time or project teams of 3/4 people can get a space for a number of days/weeks/months for critical projects. I'd be surprised if this works differently anywhere else but the default always seems to be cubes

Work remote and rent an office from a law firm.

I can't answer the first few questions terribly well, because I'm honestly not sure how to go about searching for jobs that directly offer the (rare) private office, these days, however, I have some thoughts on the later questions.

As far as the "correct" way to ask for a private office, I think you've done it relatively well right here. If I'm reading between the lines here, correctly, it's implied that the private office, for you, is non-negotiable i.e. no amount of salary[0] will override the private office desire. The way I'd handle it is the way you've presented it. This is probably something to handle during negotiations -- after you've been given an offer -- rather than in an interview[1]. Simply lay it out as you would salary and other elements (e.g. software/hardware that you require to do your job effectively). I'd include most of the explanation that you gave here, though wouldn't frame it as "cognitive health" as that has undertones of mental illness, but rather indicate that it's a matter of productivity. At the end of the day, you are something they are paying a lot of money for so framing the argument in a manner that helps them to understand that, in doing so, they will be optimizing the investment they're making in you, is key.

I'd recommend looking at a company that has a reasonable number of private offices -- they're unlikely to build something for you and if they do build something for you, you're likely to encounter inter-personal issues with the remainder of technical staff that does not have (but very likely wants) a private office. You're also likely to run into a lighter version of the kinds of problems you get when you're the "only remote person" -- out of sight out of mind. Staff may see the open-office as a license to walk up to someones desk where your private office will serve as an unconscious barrier in that case. At least in the places I've worked, it's not unusual to have 10% of desk space be offices and for some of the senior engineering staff (usually folks who have been with the company for a while) have private offices.

I also don't find what you're looking for to be terribly burdensome (again, provided they don't have to build something for you). In past jobs, I've seen more onerous requests be offered if the candidate is excellent and we were in a tight spot or other circumstances warranted.

[0] OK, everything has a price - for a few million, most of us will work with our hands tied behind our backs, but I digress...

[1] In the most ideal circumstances, you'll be a great fit and will be far ahead of the next best candidate that they didn't make an offer to. This invokes loss aversion on the part of the hiring manager making it more likely they'll be willing to entertain your request if it otherwise isn't a normal thing for them.

Thanks for the considerate advice. I definitely see what you mean with “cognitive health” carrying the wrong connotation.

In my experience interviewing, companies right now seem less willing than ever to negotiate. In my field (machine learning), despite all the pop articles you see, my observation is huge downward pressure on wages and a big focus on hiring young, junior level staff even for positions that claim to require many years of experience with highly specialized technology.

In one case, I interviewed for two months with a firm (phone interviews, code tests, and two different difficult all-day on-site technical evaluations). I did very well and it seemed clear that my particular experience and specialization was right in the exact area they were seeking, definitely something requiring a lot of prior work experience in a certain type of production machine learning service.

After all of that, they asked my salary requirements (we did not even get to the point of negotiating an office or anything else), and when I mentioned I was seeking something around 20% higher than my current salary, something definitely in the competitive market range for this position, they balked as if they could not believe how high a salary it was.

A few days later I got an automated rejection email stating they were seeking a less-experienced candidate.

In a few other cases when I was in early interviews for jobs I was much less invested in, I decided to test the waters on private offices, and frequently I heard,

- “I’m the hiring manager and I don’t even have an office.”

- “Our CEO doesn’t believe in offices”

- “We are looking for someone who can work in a collaborative environment” (apparently for some people office == not collaborative?)

and many more. Imagine if I had to do two months of grueling tech hazing software interviews at all these places just to find out they operate without the logical possibility of an office? I don’t think I could.

But at the same time, if I bring it up too early, it could be seen as if I’m being demanding instead of curious, or it could look like I want to hide in an office rather than using an office to create sincere collaboration that acknowledges the importance of privacy during certain work.

This is what makes it tricky.

... as if I didn't write enough in the last comment, something came to mind that bears mentioning, as well.

It occurred to me that I didn't inquire about the size of companies that you're looking at. You mentioned hiring managers, so I assumed the target is 500+ employee outfits, though the place I'm at is not that large and we have hiring managers. If you have a person dedicated to negotiation and you're not doing negotiation directly with the manager that wants to hire you, make sure to have these discussions with the right person.

At the place where I did a large amount of interviewing (as the interviewer), the separation in this area was very strong. The hiring manager would do the initial negotiation and if they could get you to agree to terms that were within the typical range for the position, the manager wouldn't be involved at all. If a candidate had unusual requirements[0], the hiring manager operated as a middle-man with the manager. The hiring manager is simply "doing their job". You getting hired doesn't reduce their work-load or their team's workload. You can use that to your advantage by saying "Would there be any issue with me reaching out to (manager) to have some questions answered about the position?" Don't come out and say you are trying to work around the middle-man and when you talk to the manager, bring up the office situation somewhat casually. This prepares them for when the hiring manager reaches out and might improve your chances. I've seen this play out twice -- once in the footnote and once with a guy who was brought into a team as a remote employee reporting to a manager who disallowed remote work[1]. YMMV, though.

[0] We had one guy, that we hired, ask for $50,000 more than the position paid, for example.

[1] Incidentally, both of these circumstances played out very badly for us. The overpaid individual left after 4 months to an even better paying position and the remote guy did as well as remote guys do when the rest team practically sits on top of each other in one office -- out of sight, out of mind, until quarterly budgets get discussed and the manager sees one more employee than he remembered having.

Glad I could be of assistance -- let me see if I can assist further:

I have to say I'm a little surprised you're running into issues on the negotiation front -- but that may be where you live and other circumstances. Where I'm at (the Detroit area), there are fewer of the well-known huge tech companies, and I'm unaware of any, in particular, that do things like catered lunches, but there are plenty of great jobs and the market is very hot. On that, though, the best talent wants to work at the top places but the places that are traditionally "unsexy" are the ones that are going to be more willing to negotiate. I'm not sure, however, how many of these places are looking for ML candidates -- you're probably going to find that limits you a bit and that might be part of the problem[0].

As far as salary negotiations, that's the hardest thing to get right. It's very difficult to pull off, for me, but the golden rule is to not be the one to give the first figure. This will not make your hiring manager happy. I've always been able to successfully deflect the conversation before the final interview with some choice words[1]. If they insist and are turned off by a candidate seeking the best possible outcome in a salary negotiation, I'd take that as a big red flag and be done with it. If you're working with a recruiter,... stop returning his/her calls. It takes creative finesse to handle this well and I strongly suggest doing a few HN searches for good advice (there was a post I laboured to find which helped me out a lot and got me what I wanted in this area). The thing of it is, it feels like you're negatively impacting your chances of getting the job when you play a bit of hardball on these things, but if handled correctly and professionally, it demonstrates characteristics that a hiring manager expects out of someone in a senior position. It also indicates that you carry ambition along with your technical skills.

Here's the single best piece of advice I have gotten about job hunting -- and bear in mind, I'm from Detroit, so we do a lot of car analogies: "What color do you want? The cheapest color" and "Don't sit in the car". Both of these things are not common-sense advice -- we test drive the cars we want to buy because we think we're going to learn something about the car by doing so and we pick a color because we think that's going to be particularly important to me. The reason that car color is the first thing you're asked about is because it puts you a little closer toward the illusion that you own the car, already. The test drive creates a very powerful connection between you and this potential purchase. The salesman knows if he puts you in the seat and you drive away, the probability of you buying that car goes up substantially. It's not enough to just be aware of these things, it's important to guard against things that will unreasonably bias you toward becoming attached to the car. This advice applies to all negotiation. If you avoid things that will trigger loss aversion, you will have an unemotional focus on the target attributes and can evaluate the decision you're making based on those things[2].

You're coming in with a requirement that might very well be a non-starter because of some "corporate philosophy" (somehow, open floor plans have a religious fervor about them). I have different requirements than yours, but when I encounter a company that has a "policy" against things that I feel make me more effective, I graciously turn the job down, early. I do so before they have the opportunity to even offer to see if there's a way they can work around this policy for me[3]. Aside from the footnote, the biggest red flag I find is inflexible policy -- it's the kind of thing that causes a company to lack nimbleness. Companies that I want to work for treat policy as guidance and are willing to break policy[4] when the circumstances fit.

I can see the collaborative thing coming up a lot because of the fallacy that open office environments foster collaboration. I'd find a way to work collaboration in directly with your initial argument -- something along the lines of "As a Senior Developer, I understand that part of my responsibilities will be to share my skills with my coworkers with the goal of making more senior developers. I'll make sure my door is open except for the rare occasion that a deadline necessitates me to be "nose down in code".[5]" There's a small mind hack you can play if you're good at that sort of thing, but be careful, because if you're not it can backfire pretty badly. Follow-up with "At this point in my career, I've learned that communication has to be deliberate and that's the way I approach things. I'm confident that my approach to communication will make any concerns around collaboration a non-issue." Deliver that as casually as you can -- as if it's a simple, obvious, fact and you end up putting the hiring manager in a tough spot for a rebuttal[6].

I completely understand not relishing wanting to put up with months of job hunting/"tech hazing". Job hunting isn't terribly fun. Might not hurt to ask questions in forums where employees of the companies you're looking at frequent asking about offices if you want to improve the hit ratio. Another option that could help to eliminate places earlier in the process is to request a quick tour after the first on-site interview[7]

Unfortunately, though, when you have a lot of requirements, or when your requirements are not the norm, it's normal for this sort of thing to take a while and require a lot of work on your part to sort out. The tech hazing will wear you down and increase loss aversion, making it harder to walk away from a good offer that doesn't meet your requirements. And maybe you shouldn't walk away -- that's your call. At the same time, if this is really important to you, this is the market to be picky in. The market is hot. If you can keep yourself from being discouraged, you'll probably end up where you want with enough persistence.

As an aside - I got a kick out of the excuses you received "I'm the hiring manager and I don't even have an office." There are so many things I can think of to say to that which would get my resume binned: "Oh ... (shuffles feet) ... well, can I talk to your boss then?" or a sarcastic quip along the lines of "Work this out for me and you'll have one more argument to make for why you deserve one!"

[0] And I'm not suggesting you avoid ML jobs -- if that's where you fit best, stick with it.

[1] ala "I'm seeking Senior level position and with my experience, I expect to be paid above average for the market however, salary isn't my greatest concern and other things like benefits and such greatly affect any number I'd throw out right now. If after all of the interviewing is done you find that I'm going to be a good fit, I'm confident we can come to an agreement that works out for both of us."

[2] And it's entertaining, too.

[3] Generally, I don't want to work at a place where they had to make a major exception for something that I would have considered a reasonable accommodation, particularly if that accommodation is one that 90% of the people who currently work there would similarly want. If they are interested enough in hiring me that after I have turned down the job, they pop up with a way to provide that accommodation, I would consider it -- and this actual situation happened to me about 15 years ago, but I ended up not taking the position.

[4] And I'm not referring to ethics-based or legal-based policies.

[5] Here's the thing -- if offices are unusual where you're looking, the fact that you have a door serves as a psychological barrier -- you'll rarely need to close it. But it also doesn't matter -- that's something you work out with your boss after you've got a place to plant your hind-quarters. And you work through that concern by checking in with your boss every two weeks with a "Hey, just wanted to make sure I'm meeting your expectations as far as collaboration is concerned"... no mention of the door. Leave an opportunity for them to speak up if there are concerns, but you'll probably find that your boss has better things to be concerned with. Incidentally, I know that Microsoft at one point was big on offices. I'm not sure if that's still the case, though.

[6] And a rebuttal isn't a bad thing -- at least they want you there badly enough to try to persuade you to change your mind.

[7] "Wow - your office is far more impressive than the pictures online led me to believe -- would you be willing to give me a brief tour?" I've never had this fail at places that have fewer than 200 employees -- people like to show off where they work. If it's a high-security operation, though, don't expect to see much. :)

Thanks for such detailed follow-ups. I appreciate it and will read your comments again to really think about some of the points you raise.

Regarding my tough time with current negotiations, there was a recent article that really summed up my experiences: < http://fuzzyblog.io/blog/jobhound/2018/04/24/ten-things-i-le... >.

I live in a large US city, and seeking senior machine learning roles has been dreadful, for all the reasons mentioned in the article, combined with what looks like big downward pressure on salary.

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