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Is it time to get depressed yet? This has been a topic for such a long time. It was in people ware in 1987. I thought I discovered the topic when Joel (On Sofware) wrote about it in 2000. While a few people seem to enjoy open offices, the overwhelming majority of developers I know, or who chime in on HN, value a quiet place to work and dislike open offices.

And yet, not only has nothing changed, it seems to be getting worse. It couldn't be more clear to me that developers, at least on this issue, simply have no clout as a profession. There may be a few individuals who can make demands, but on the balance, these are decisions imposed on us, as a group, and we are apparently unable to do anything about it.

The really sad thing is, this isn't a situation where we're asking to fly first class, or for more vacation. We're talking about asking for something that will make us more productive and increase the value we largely hand over to our employers, simply because it's depressing to not be able to do a good job due to distractions.

So yeah, I'm depressed about it. There was a time when I read these essays and felt a bit more charged up, like people were starting to understand something important and that things would change. Well, now we have open offices.

I'll finish with another variant on my broken record: the industry talks constant about the critical shortage of software engineers, but it won't give them a quiet place to work. Actually, that last sentence is too optimistic - it won't allow them a quiet place to work. Those places exist, but companies often demand that their programmers spend 8 hours a day in places that are too noisy for focus.

I suggest perhaps a fetal position desk:


I'm not sure that private offices would work. Such an arrangement assumes that the devs take a lot of personal responsibility for collaboration and staying productive. Although some might be able to handle this I've met far too many devs who just go down their own road when left alone.

I've been writing software professionally since the late 1980s. So, I've observed this trend and the industry over a long period. I first worked for a startup in the early 1990s, and before that I worked mostly in small businesses.

30 years ago programmers were highly respected. We were mysterious to others and we were able to influence things like office layouts and the like.

At some point over that time period, things shifted. Programmers became seen as "geeks" who didn't really understand business and "business guys" took over. These people don't understand technology and they have disdain for it. I'm talking, in fact, about not just enterprise (Were for a long time the "IT Manager" who was not really technical ruled)... but startups where "business guys" end up being the CEOs.

They think that giving us big monitors and nice computers is valuable, and they do it, but they have no consideration for our workspace and will save even a tiny amount to have an "open plan". They have no concept that we might know what we're talking about because "office space is the realm of business.".

I saw this directly last year-- an office with 2 business people and 14 engineers. One of the "biz guys" was the "manager". They went looking for offices and didn't invite any of the engineers, of course, and came back talking about how great the office they chose was. How it was open plan and all that, and we'd really love it. This is after telling them before they even talked to the real estate person that open plan was the one thing we absolutely didn't want. They looked at several places that had been built out with lots of individual offices but they didn't like it because it was "too dark". OF course once they made up their mind about what THEY wanted, all of our comments were seen just as whining and it was "too late". (even though it wasn't as even to this date they haven't signed a lease due to other factors.)

In the 1950s a great many women went into the work force and there were huge numbers of them employed as secretaries. This was the era of the "Steno pool" and their job title was "typist". They were meant to sit and type at the typewritiers. Because they sit punching a keyboard all day (And because they were women) they didn't have much prestige. Business types don't see it as real work.

This is how programmers are seen today-- we're just typists "arranging the little ones and zeros" (direct quote from that boss last year)

There is no respect for us.

It's the fundamental difference between the "enlisted" and the "officers", the "managers" and the "grunts". We're grunts, and we're meant to be interchangeable cogs-- that's why they'd rather employ a dozen mediocre java developers than one brilliant erlangist. We're not capable of decision making and we have no understanding beyond our weird obsession with those stupid computers. -- that's how they see us. They'll lie and say otherwise, but deep down and a fundamental level, that's how non-technical people see us.

And I think we don't really deserve it until we stop joining places like this.

Whenever I see a startup with an open office plan I don't apply. But I think I'm making a mistake. I should apply, go thru the process until I see the office, and then tell them right then and there "sorry, your website said you value employees but by putting engineers in an open office it's obvious you don't".

Of course that won't accomplish anything.

The only people as low on the totem pole as engineers is HR, and HR feels the need to lord over others, so of course they couldn't care less about the needs of engineers (or any employees really.)

So, I call on YC and other venture investors. Start asking founders what kind of office they want and then don't invest in the ones who advocate for an open plan for developers.

I bet that alone boosts returns.

Further, I personally will no longer work for companies where the CEO is non-technical unless I'm the CTO, and even then I have concerns. (Eg: as CTO I need to have absolute authority over things like office arrangements for engineers.)

High tech companies where the CEO is not technically proficient are far less likely to be effective.

We need to demolish the idea that engineers can't lead and don't understand business.

As someone whose learned business, it's a lot easier to learn than adding another programming language to your repertoire.

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