Home > Miscellaneous > The Birth of the Cubicle

The Birth of the Cubicle

March 21, 2008

According to Timm over at DevTopics, this year is the 40th anniversary of the much maligned cubicle. Since that time, cubicles have been reviled, scorned, berated, ridiculed, and generally hated. According to the article though, 70% of American office workers spend their work time in a cubicle. Other than spreading gossip, surfing the Internet, and drinking coffee, ANYTHING that so many Americans do at work every day is going to be hated.

I spent the first three years of my professional life in a Cube Farm. At the height of my employment, there were almost 800 of us crammed into the 5×5 boxes (or were they 4×4?) This particular company was a little different in that the cubes were not arranged in a grid, but rather at an angle. This meant that most of the cubes had open backs where you could easily roll out into the walk way. This had the benefit of feeling more open and promoting communication. On the downside, it was more open and promoted communication, most of which was inane and unnecessary.

Blissfully, I escaped such confines in 2000, and I’m typing this from my private office with the door closed. I am also blessed that we have a receptionist who actually screens my calls. Unfortunately the walls are paper thin, and even with the door closed I can hear the conversations of the two offices on either side of me, not to mention all the office chatter and ambient noise from the kitchen and the upstairs. *sigh*

The Zone

Timm also talks about getting in “the zone”, something to which most programmers can easily relate. All these minor complaints aside, when I get into the zone none of these distractions exist. I had two experiences just this week that perfectly illustrate this. I was testing some of the new ASP.NET MVC project I’ve been feverishly working on, and after a particularly rewarding success I did a little fist pump celebration (come on, you all know you’ve done it!) Immediately following, I literally jumped in surprise when I noticed someone sitting in one of the guest chairs by my desk. Apparently, one of the partners had come in, tried to get my attention, and failing to do so had patiently sat down to wait for me. I don’t know how long she had been there, but apparently it had been a little while.

Yesterday, a co-worker came to my office door (which I mistakenly had left open) and stood there for a moment. After waiting a few seconds for me to notice him, he asked if he could bother me for a moment. I said “no, not really”. He thought I was kidding and started talking about whatever issue it was he had. I gruffly stopped him and said “No, REALLY”. He then realized I was not kidding, apologized, and moved on. He apologized again this morning, and truthfully I had to think hard to even remember the incident. When you are in the zone, anything outside is unwelcome.

So what is the lesson in all this? Don’t mess with the zone, baby.

I think non-programmers really misunderstand the zone. Quality programming time is fleeting. Some days you have it, some days you don’t. Most of my days are a mix of the two: usually long hours of relative dormancy punctuated by brief periods of intense productivity. This is hard for a lot of people to understand or appreciate, especially non-technical managers of technical people. They see us reading, chatting, emailing, spending oodles of time on blogs and forums, etc., and to them we are just slacking or surfing the Internet. What they don’t get is that we can do a lot more in 2 hours of zone than in 8 hours of drudgery. Extended periods of zone will actually wear me out physically. I’ve had a few of those the last couple of weeks, where by 2pm I am just toast, but man have I done some serious coding!

Any programmer who has done this for a living for more than a month has come to truly cherish zone time. Zone time is gold. This is why we are so intolerant of interruptions. Some of us handle them more diplomatically than others (I had one mentor who would literally throw things at you until you left his cubicle), but we all share the same goal: prevent the loss of the zone. Once the zone is lost, who knows when it will return.

Wrapping it up

So what does the Zone have to do with the lowly cubicle? Well, Timm wants us to comment on our preference for offices or cubicles. For me, working in a cubicle and getting in the zone are almost mutually exclusive, especially in a busy place with a lot of distractions. You can certainly be distracted in an office, frequently by yourself. Truth be told, this blog is a bit of a distraction for me, as is keeping up with all the others I subscribe to. But I find outside interruptions (the phone notwithstanding) to be a lot fewer, especially when I shut my door.

One last thought: the zone is really what we get paid for. Sure, what we know and can do is important, but the zone is when we actually produce. Barry Bonds can hit Home Runs, but that isn’t why he gets paid: he gets paid because when he gets in the zone he actually hits them.

So jump on over to DevTopics and post your preference. You have time, you’re obviously not in the zone right now…

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