Monday, April 16, 2007

My personal workplace survey

Being a consultant, I frequently have the chance to work in different organizations, and see different approaches to software development. Being a reader of Alistair Coburn's Agile Software Development, and Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's Peopleware, I have a strong personal feeling on the way workplaces affects software development.

Some basic principles first...
For those who are not familiar with the topic, I'll squeeze the information a fer lines. Mr. Coburn puts a great emphasis on the way communication takes place in a software development team. Communication is meant as sharing of common useful information, and it's probably one of the biggest efficiency booster in a software development team. If you start analyzing what developers do during the day, you'll note that coding is actually only a small part, communicating can be often as big as coding. Differently from coding, though, communication time is not really tracked in productivity reviews, so most of is effect is below the observability source. He also introduces the notion of information radiators, those artifacts, such as writeboards, diagrams, calendars and so on that help indirect information diffusion in the workplace.

DeMarco and Lister, focus on the effects of the workplace on individual productivity. A developer, and, more in general, a knowledge worker, does a very special job which is a mixture of knowledge and creativity. This type of job is influenced a lot by environmental factors (researches show a factor 13 between the best and wort measured individual productivity). The underlying model is that a knowledge worker is getting in the productive state of flow only after about 15 minutes after an activity is started. Every time his/her concentration is interrupted by something, 15 minutes are lost.

... and then the survey
For places I've seen, the situation is pretty close to a Waterloo. One thing that must be considered anyway is that, being a consultant I was not a full time employee (so I didn't have the same rights of my employed peers). Also, we normally help organizations in trouble; healthy organizations normally don't need us, so we probably see places a little bit below the average. I tried to define workplaces according to the main distinction of software or non software company, meaning that in some cases developing software was the core asset of the company, while in some others it was just something that needed to be done. Anyway here's the survey...
  • Small financial company IT department, small room (few people in it). We were free to attach papers on the wall (but looked suspiciously), the place was basically silent. High overall efficiency.
  • Big financial company IT department, very large scale project, huge open space. No walls, so nothing could be attached on it; quite a few meeting room not to disturb the colleagues. Messy shared information system based on notes. Structured documentation, but very few readers, improved over time. Lots of windows, but they couldn't be opened for security reasons. Smoking forbidden only in the open space. Headache basically every evening. Very low overall efficiency, boosts during somebody's holidays.
  • Average Financial company IT department. Small room, silent, about ten people in it. Meeting room available, but seldom used (maybe too formal). People often talking less than necessary.
  • Software company. Average size open space. Lots of people talking loud. Whiteboards available in separate rooms. Low efficiency.
  • Software company. Average size open space, high background noise. Lots of whiteboards available. High overtime ratio, to maximize silence's effects.
  • Part of big financial company IT department. Small rooms, some people worked for years in a servers room (no windows), high background noise. Headaches. Only junk food available in the surroundings.
  • Software company. Small rooms. Boss smoking in the aisles, and changing requirements. Extremely high overtime, enough to define efficiency as non measurable.
  • Software company. Small room, many people. Whiteboards forbidden, meeting rooms sometimes available, very few people taking notes on paper. Later, the whole department moved to a single room, formerly a shop. No whiteboards, no meeting room, increased quit ratio.
  • Software company. Small room, smaller desks, very high background noise. Only paper whiteboards (non-erasable). High overtime ratio, low productivity.
As you might notice, the picture is somewhat desolating. I managed to see a better place, where developers had better rooms, whiteboards, space and silence. But that was not in Italy, so it can't be included in my survey. But the facts that only a few of the company manage to reach a sufficient score (and none of them is even close to excellency) really makes me wonder...

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