Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Segment’s Systematic Quest for Depth

October 27th, 2017 · 11 comments

Segment’s Focus Problem

Segment is a typical Silicon Valley success story. It’s a data analytics software company started by three MIT dropouts in 2011. Last year it raised $64 million in its Series C funding round.

Things at Segment, in other words, were going well — with one exception: their employees were having a hard time focusing. Concerned, the company ran an internal team survey and discovered that the “chatter and noise” in their industry-standard open office was the biggest cause of distraction (not surprisingly, “group slack channels” was the second biggest cause) .

So Segment decided to do something about it.

In a move that you could only expect from an advanced data analytics company, they programmed an iOS app to measure office noise levels and ran it on the iPads mounted outside the office’s conference rooms. They then crunched the resulting data and found that some parts of the office were more noisy than others, with the loudest areas around a factor of two louder than the quietest (see above image, in which red corresponds to loud and green to quiet).

Armed with this data, they rearranged the seating in their open office. As they described on their company blog:

“The teams needing the most verbal collaboration — Segment’s sales, support, and marketing teams — moved to the naturally louder parts of the office. The teams needing the most quiet — engineering, product, and design — moved to the quietest parts of the office.”

They then re-ran their original survey and discovered that the total time people spent focusing increased from 45% to 60%. As they explained: “In a purely numerical sense, you could equate that to hiring 10–15 people.”

The Focused Future

What I like about this story is that the company identified the ability to focus as a tier one skill (indeed, they list it as one of their four “core values”), and then made concrete, data-driven changes to better support it.

In recent years, when interviewed about my writing, I often predict that a transformation away from our current ad hoc, noisy, distracted way of working into something much more structured and effective is not only inevitable, but will happen fast once it gets going.

When you see a company like Segment essentially find 15 free employees by rearranging their desks to support more deep work, you get a glimpse of the type of humble experiments that will spark a major revolution.

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My friend Rob Montz is an incredibly talented, up and coming documentary filmmaker based out of DC. On Wednesday (Nov. 1st), he’s hosting a sneak preview screening of his new documentary short, “The Quarterlife User Manual,” which, in his words, “lays out the core rules a newly minted college grad should follow to secure a meaningful job.” It also features yours truly, among many other more famous subjects. If you’re interested in seeing the sneak peak (which will be held in We Work — Manhattan Laundry, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC), send an email to robmontz@gmail.com to request a spot on the guest list…I only ask that you applaud loudly whenever I appear on screen.

11 thoughts on “Segment’s Systematic Quest for Depth

  1. Cole says:

    Wow. It’s great to see direct proof of this concept. I know that it’s espoused by Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister but seeing it actually there in the data is really interesting.

    I am even more curious about how they measured “total time spent focusing”. Depending on the nature of the measurement, I think their results are at-most equal to hiring 10-15 people. But depending on how they quantify it there could still be some measurement bias.

    At the end of the day, I think a company like Segment doesn’t directly care about “total time spent focusing”, what they actually care about is output. There is certainly a strong correlation between the two, but it may not be direct.

    It would be unfortunate if they were measuring mouse activity and there just more time spent browsing the web then interacting with their team. 🙂

  2. Nick says:

    The Hawthorne effect perhaps?

    1. andrew says:

      Thanks for this. Cal’s post was too uncritical. There’s also possibility that any new seating plan makes people more productive for a while.

  3. Troy says:

    Do you know how they decided on this solution, rather than a more conventional (and potentially much higher impact) one like smaller open offices or closed offices?

    45%->60% for the amount of work required is a great return, but it seems like 45%->70% or 80% would easily justify far more work and expense – that is, the goal is more to eliminate the problem as fully as possible than to eliminate as much as one can with only creativity.

  4. Dave Small says:

    Great example Cal: We can distill this to a single employee. A company is better off with a focused employee for four hours than a distracted employee for eight hours. We can also consider the cascading effect of the distracted/distracting employee on other staff.

  5. Angel says:

    Have you considered that the format of your blog posts does not promote focus? This is just a general comment about your blog.

    The sheer amount of hyperlinks placed in each post distracts from whatever point you’re trying to make. Every bright red hyperlink makes me pause, and wonder why a seemingly innocent group of words is so important that it’s hyperlinked. It makes me wonder what it leads to. It makes your writing a lot less impactful. Not to mention, it can start a click-through journey into the depths of your blog.

    If the purpose of the links is to provide necessary addtitional information, consider adding them as notes at the end of each post? Blog formats like Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits seem to jibe more with the message of a focused life.

    1. John says:

      Absolutely in agreement. It’s tedious reading content on some blogs and websites. Every paragraph is filled with hyperlinks to other articles or other websites. If I were so interested in the history of Segment,—their founders, their website—I’m sure it’d be easy enough to find on my own. Really, for this blog post, those details are irrelevant. What matters is the message Newport is conveying. Leave the rigorous citations to formal papers. I understand that authors are demonstrating diligence or honesty by peppering their writing with hyperlinks, but the same references could be included below the content.

      Let us FINISH your short blog post before we get our attention splintered into five different directions.

  6. Veronika says:

    This is great! I wonder though if the reported productivity increase (as measured by self-survey) could be a type of Hawthorne effect – so even if the seats were rearranged in the opposite way, people would still have felt more productive.

    Also wondering if any academic labs are able to do this – the office layout influences interaction in so many ways, but often there is very little flexibility in terms of what you can do with the space.

  7. Edward Sansom says:

    I always insisted in having a private office and a conference room. In the conference room my position at the table was a signal. If I sat in the middle in what I called the JC position I came to listen. If I sat at the head I came to tell a story or give instructions.

  8. AML says:

    Cal, I think you will absolutely love this little girl named Alma Deutscher. She’s a deep work superstar. https://youtu.be/b0mb0F8fjqQ
    So amazing. Enjoy.
    Cheers.

  9. Chris says:

    Nice article.
    I’m fine with the hyperlinks…. it’s helpful to see the sources and related content.

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