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Is Facebook’s Massive Open Office Scaring Away Developers?

October 9th, 2016 · 37 comments

In Search of Silence

Joel Spolsky is a well-respected figure in Silicon Valley. He created the popular Trello project manager software and is currently the CEO of Stack Overflow.

He’s also one of the first Silicon Valley insiders to publicly and directly endorse the importance of deep work over the fuzzier values of connection and serendipity.

At the GeekWire Summit earlier this week, Spolsky made the following claim in an on-stage interview:

“Facebook’s campus in Silicon Valley is an 8-acre open room, and Facebook was very pleased with itself for building what it thought was this amazing place for developers…But developers don’t want to overhear conversations. That’s ideal for a trading floor, but developers need to concentrate…Facebook is paying 40-50 percent more than other places, which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”

Spolsky argued that offering private offices and uninterrupted time to concentrate is perhaps one the most valuable benefits you can offer developers in our connected age.

In Deep Work, I noted that most businesses do not yet recognize this activity as a tier one skill, but that this would inevitably shift, and Silicon Valley, with it’s reputation for workplace innovation, would likely be one of the first places we would see the movement begin.

Hopefully Spolsky’s comments are an early indication of my prophetic prowess.

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37 thoughts on “Is Facebook’s Massive Open Office Scaring Away Developers?

  1. Willem Smoor says:

    Cal, I found your headline striking since it echoes exactly what I heard about the Facebook office on the Hello Internet podcast: that these offices are almost never more than 30% filled. Apparently, the majority of people that work there make sure that they are away from their desk when they need to get work done. These anecdotes are discussed in these three minutes of that podcast:
    Cortex: 32: Dropping Acid
    https://overcast.fm/+EtBnM42Gk/38:31

  2. Scott says:

    Elon Musk at SpaceX has low-walled cubicles. His reason? Making sure people are working. I suspect the monomaniacal focus of geniuses keeps them from understanding how gravely us normals are adversely affected by distractions.

  3. Frustrated Developer says:

    Recently my office in London Ontario introduced open office . It is HELL. Cannot concentrate at all and not even able to write a single line of code peacefully. Damn idiot managers are atill enjoying comfort of their closed office.

    1. Stanley Yelnats says:

      I hear this! It’s the same thing here! We have an open plan and it’s hell. I get so much done when I’m not surrounded by coworkers talking about stuff. I finally got to work away from it all a couple days ago and nearly finished something in a single day. It has taken me 2 days since to button up the few pieces that I didn’t get done. Shouldn’t be that hard but with meetings and people popping their head in and stuff constantly it’s hard to focus!

    2. John C. Matyjasik says:

      YES…making me crazy.

  4. JD says:

    Cal – For a great example of a silly “open” office space in the DC area, check out the Booz Allen’s innovation center — at 901 15th Street in NW DC. It’s a huge open floor plan on the ground level of an office building – that is designed to look like a Silicon Valley office where people are whiteboarding and coming up with huge ideas that will change the world. In reality, it’s very likely a distraction zone where not much deep work is actually done. Worth a look.

  5. GAUTHMA says:

    Having also spent (more than) my share of years in open-space hell, I tried to get my bosses to follow Spolsky’s lead, and give developers a quite place to work. I failed, but his idea is worth sharing:
    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/BionicOffice.html

  6. Carl says:

    Group programming is useful for beginners, who more time looking things up, hacking, or debugging as actually designing and programming. But even there, you want offices with only two or three. Either that, or you need good sound deadening so distant conversations don’t interfere with yours.

    The sad thing is that the decline in real documentation nearly demands a time of group programming. Once upon a time you could curl up with a hefty manual and learn a framework or tool and actually understand it. (I treasure my ancient hard copy manual of Microsoft Word from the early Pentium days.) Today, the groovy fad is “learning through discovery” which screams out for mentoring.

    The Eclipse development tool is notorious in this regard. What a vile program! Incredibly difficult to use efficiently without bugging an experienced user.

  7. anon11 says:

    Why would anyone hire people who can not concentrate? I worked in open offices for the last 10 years. Initially, it was difficult, …and most uncomfortable when surfing the web. But guess what, once you stop surfing the web habit, and get into the zone, it does not matter. If someone can not concentrate, how can the produce anything of value at all?

    1. Steve O says:

      Thank you for writing this comment! Your personal experience has invalidated the personal experience of most other people and virtually all published research.

  8. JRStern says:

    Whether it scares them away or not, it cuts their productivity by 50-90%. Now, if you ask me, the average developer barely contributes anything anyway, so cutting their output by 90% will hardly matter, but the few elite developers upon whom the whole operation really depends, if you cut their productivity you’ve made a big mistake, and of course if anyone is “scared away” by such a foul environment those will be exactly the ones scared. BTW it’s not just privacy, noise, and distraction, it’s lack of walls to post references on, it’s lack of desk space, and most of all lack of respect.

  9. Rajesh says:

    IMO, the open office floor plans is not something which was done to promote innovation. This was a cheap trick to save money in building partition walls. Later management realized that it also serves a second purpose to keep a check on everyone. But everyone says open offices bring innovation and more collaboration. That’s the most B.S reason I have ever heard of.

  10. KStemple says:

    Peopleware by DeMarco/Lister published in 1987 describes the working environment needed by developers. Concepts hold true today.

  11. Brett says:

    As someone who started out developing, I couldn’t agree more. Those people that advocate open-office, bullpen-like desk arrangements for developers have clearly never developed themselves before. I’ve always been an advocate for IM’ing first and walk-ups and phone calls as last resorts, as IM’s can be paused or set to DND. For those that don’t develop in complex code bases (are there any other?), I liken it to walking through blueprints of skyscrapers, in 3D, as you hold all of buildings of a downtown skyline in your head. When someone interrupts a developer who is ‘deep in the code’, it almost always takes more than a trivial amount of time to get back to the same the same point in code, with the same context prior to the interruption.

    Sure, there are times when you can’t avoid an interruption, but they should be reserved for emergencies, as ultimately your just frustrating the developer (who likely has several urgent issues already), and costing your company in highly-valuable developer productivity and time.

  12. Bitter Tuna says:

    For the rest of the world: 8 acre = 3.237 hectares

  13. It always amazes me that companies still operate this way. Maybe that is why they need the 8 acres to actually get something done and maybe to house the huge QA departments to find the bugs that were created by the developers each time they were disturbed when writing that critical bit of code.

  14. The open office concept has made its way around the corporate world, not just software developers. It’s a bad idea for most companies, most of the time. Would it be as popular if it wasn’t a cost-saving structure?

    1. codetaku says:

      Given the play it gets in best-selling management books, yes. It’s not actually a cost-saving structure. It destroys productivity, which is its own extremely steep cost. It’s OK though, before long people will start to realize their employers aren’t offering them anything that a decent project management web application wouldn’t offer while letting them work from home and charge 50% less than their employer. Not having to pay for even those cheapo open offices is a radical savings, and when you pile on the massively increased productivity of people working from home and collaborating online…. companies might start regretting that gutting of everything they ever offered to workers they’ve been feverishly doing since about 1980.

    2. Dan says:

      Think of this, if you work for a company where you are charging hours to a contract the open office lack of productivity is a good thing because you get to charge more hours to the program and use that as a profit making device. Sucks for the contracting agency because the cost of getting things done escalates. That is why I fought to get into projects where we were locked away in a small room by ourselves so that I could be extremely productive.

      This is the reason why government contracts end up costing so much, military contractors went to the open office concept to increase their profit margin.

  15. Anonymous says:

    When I was in a cubicle, I went insane. That’s not good for productivity.

  16. I’m not a big fan of open offices either. One of the places I worked at thought they were great and didn’t realize they might not be so great until the CEO happened to walk down the stairwell and found me sitting on a step there to do some coding without all of the distractions.

  17. Mike Moon says:

    Through my experiences, there is a big difference between an open office, which is full of distractions, and a team bullpen, focused on development workflow AND mentoring. The issue is that there are multiple objectives in play. Having a couple of elite programmers, working in isolation, who don’t mentor and spread their knowledge and experience in pursuit of a real team with subsitutable resources, certainly builds quality software but the risk is very high to the organization were one of the elites to leave for other opportunities. From the perspective of the organization to maintain continuity, they simply must have a team educating environment. If it takes 50% longer to add features but increases the resources able to add/maintain said features, that is an organization win, no question about it. The end result must be one of roles. Elite programmers first job is not development, it is mentoring. This has been termed pair programming in agile methodology. I would suggest tri-programming: one developer drives coding at the keyboard: Rookie, one developer guides tactical on the task at hand, supporting the driver: Mentor, the third developer guides strategic on the other two and keeps everyone else the hell away: Management. The real work is both code development and mentoring, so spark up that multiple-objective genetic algorithm to simulate the best office layout: I can say it is a team bullpen with several available private rooms, white boards and coffee machines in ready service to the Borg.

  18. Dan Watling says:

    As a professional developer with more than 15 years of experience, I couldn’t disagree more. The idea behind open floor space is to foster communication and knowledge transfer, not to ensure developers are working. For instance, you may be working at your desk and over hear a conversation that is relevant to what you are working on. You can then join in the conversation and learn something (or teach something). The more people that are on the same page, the more likely the task / project will be successful and the more likely it will be completed sooner. Learning to focus on the things that matter with distractions all around you is merely a skill that we can all learn. Putting developers in their own private offices would be a huge step back. No one would talk!

    1. Chris W says:

      Professional developer with 35 years’ experience here. “Communication and knowledge transfer” is the excuse given but my experience at lots of companies comports exactly with the article. Management gets pressure to pump out features, and they want to see developers working instead of just trusting that they do. On top of that most managers and executives have very different ways of processing things than most developers: developers will think about a problem for a long time, turning it over and over in their heads until they come up with a solution. While that’s happening there is almost no visible output and nothing to measure for “productivity stats” or “burndown charts” they need to show their senior management (who also don’t have a feel for how developers process things).

  19. Adam Bhakrani says:

    It resonates a lot with the view of Jason Fried from Basecamp. He either mentioned it in a TED talk or in Kevin Rose’s podcast “The Journal”.

  20. Phil says:

    Managers, by definition are constantly disrupted while in the office. The do not understand the need for focus and “in the zone” work.

    My company moved, and I went from an office to a cubicle. It was bad, but in a small office, people knew if I had headphones on, leave me alone. I stayed reasonably productive.

    An open floor plan works for people who are either high performing (Mark Zuckerberg?) or don’t want to do anything.

    I am pretty good, but not a genius, I need to focus. A coffee shop, open office, or airline terminal are hell unless I have GOOD noise cancelling headphones and people don’t keep tapping me on the back!

  21. Joel Spolsky is right on the money. As a non-IT engineer who started an internet tech business, I can have a unique multi-industry viewpoint and heck, nowhere in the world do people like to work in an open office (cubicles). Of course people get more done in a private office. This has been figured out long ago. I’m surprised there’s even a debate. If Facebook thinks a cubicle farm is more productive then well, I guess all I can say is it must be nice that the success of the company isn’t dependent on cranking out software.

    And in more general terms, if the open office (cubicle farm) is a “workplace innovation” that silicon valley has pioneered then silicon valley has erred. How is an open office a step forward that nobody in any other industry has ever thought of? In the rest of the world people despise cubicle farms. It’s pretty obvious why facebook has to pay developers more to work there.

    Private offices are more expensive because they take up more space and often require renovations. There are a few, but not very many, places where an open office is a good idea.

  22. Dan says:

    “Hopefully Spolsky’s comments are an early indication of my prophetic prowess.” — Cal Newport, October 2016.

    Spolsky made his recent comments because he has argued on this issue since before you were a grad student. You should do your research.

  23. Dan says:

    I stupidly joined a research lab which is designed as a “collaborative working space”. Most of us grad students sit elbow-to-elbow and worse is that even the computers are communal, so if you arrive late then some intern has probably taken your computer. The PostDocs and Professor have their own private offices of course, yet somehow we’re still expected to read papers and generate cutting-edge research in a lab which feels like a drop-in center for people with ADHD.
    I laughed when our Professor recently announced he’d discovered a book called “Deep Work”, and suggested that perhaps if we concentrated harder then we might achieve better results.
    –A disgruntled CS student

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