If programmers are anti-social, how did they end up in the bustling hives of Silicon Valley?

People often are drawn to computer nerdism partly because they prefer interacting with machines rather than with other people. (James Damore made this point while working at Google and learned that free speech is for Americans who don’t need to work!)

Yet the coder in a modern Bay Area software plantation is sandwiched tightly between two other galley slaves (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). He or she has less personal space than a McDonald’s cashier.

How did it come to pass that people who went into programming because they could be alone with their beloved machines are now packed like sardines into densely populated coding plantations and, after hours, packed like ocean liner steerage passengers into shared apartments?

Despite the somewhat lower salaries, wouldn’t most of these people actually be better off working as COBOL programmers for an electric utility? They’d at least have a private office or cubicle.

I asked the founder/CEO of one of the companies that I visited in SoMa whether he wouldn’t get more productivity out of his workers with a more traditional office layout. “Interviewees would just walk out if they saw cubicles or rows of private offices. This [array of tightly packed desks] is what they expect for a modern tech company.” He also told me that the grungy industrial space was costing over $70/ft triple net. “It’s actually more than a modern office tower because people want ‘authentic.'”

[The same CEO told me that the monk-like amount of space per coder also is associated with a monk-like abstinence from sex. “The guys are always complaining that there are no woman to date in San Francisco.” (presumably the imbalance is far larger down in the Valley!) Perhaps if they had a better understanding of California family law they would not complain as much and/or would look at neighboring Nevada, with its $13,000/year cap on child support and 50/50 shared parent default, as a destination for romance …]

Is it fair to say that, aside from the cash, Silicon Valley now offers one of the nation’s largest mismatches between workers’ preferences and working conditions?

28 thoughts on “If programmers are anti-social, how did they end up in the bustling hives of Silicon Valley?

  1. Tim: But the delusion is widely shared in Silicon Valley! Facebook has infinite money (thanks, addicted users!) and they built a bullpen-type facility from scratch using star architect Frank Gehry.

  2. Open offices are the absolute worst. Absolutely zero privacy and very noisy. Very difficult to get any work done. Terrible for productivity.

    Your CEO friend is deluded.

    Unfortunately, this “open office” fad has been adapted in traditional businesses, as well. Even stodgy business sectors have gone “open office.” Or worse, just rows of connected desks, jamming 15 people into a conference room.

    What corporations “save” in real estate office costs gets eaten up by the lower productivity and higher turnover.

    I wouldn’t conflate “anti-social” with “needs some privacy and quiet to work/think/make phone or video calls.” They are not the same. Similarly, open office inhibits phone calls as well, as you don’t want to say anything that isn’t for everyone’s ears, or to bother your neighbors.

  3. Always an amusing difference between the CEO’s mind & reality. Programming today is more like being a secretary, searching for code segments on goog, navigating Apple bureaucracy, writing emails. Your library card catalog skills will be a lot more useful than your math skills.

    • @lion
      More like Mad Max where programmers spend their days scavenging from the pre-apocalypse codebase like bits of a ’73 Ford Falcon. Anything that can be written has already been written. Just needs to be dug up.

  4. There are more and more medium sized companies which have figured out that good programmers are as productive or more when working remotely. OAuth, Heroku, Gitlab are ones I can name off the top of my head.

    In general, the idea that a programmer would be more productive when he starts and ends his day with an hour long commute, and spends the rest of it in a cubicle or open space with distractions like other people having conversations around him is so stupid that it could only be held by American managers and their overseas emulators. Especially when you consider that most of his workflow management and communication happen online via Slack, Gira, Git, etc.

    Silicon Valley salaries are counterbalanced by Silicon Valley cost of living and terrible quality of life. The only upsides are the possibility of joining a unicorn early and cashing out on stock options or climbing the career ladder quickly. In other words, the same calculations a corner drug dealer, rapper or sportsball player makes-sure, odds are that the outcome will not be very good, but there’s a small possibility that it will be great. Well, alrighty then.

  5. The open office thing is a rationalization, your CEO is engaging in self-deception. I don’t know of any programmer who prefers open-plan or cubicles to a private office. SF commercial real estate is so expensive it’s simply not possible to provide each programmer with a private office like Microsoft does. Most studies have shown open offices have a negative impact on productivity, as Tom DeMarco warned in “Peopleware” decades ago. On the flip side, there are some benefits to collaboration, but not enough to compensate for the disruption in flow for programmers.

    He’s right about how expensive the faux-bohemian industrial-grunge look is. Workers will build gleaming new buildings, then meticulously apply acid to make the steel surfaces rust. Not a new development, though, it’s been ongoing since dot-coms invaded SoMa 20 years ago.

  6. Chorus of bullpen haters: Why don’t the slaves rebel? Can’t they see that they’d be better off taking a $100,000/year job for an enterprise (maybe state or federal government) that will give them some peace and quiet from 9-5 and not force them to live in a place where a house costs $3 million?

  7. I don’t think programmers are antisocial, I just think they have to focus and concentrate deeply for extended intervals, so they tend to learn how to block out extraneous stimuli and bear down on a problem for hours at a time, and then do it over and over again, day after day, which gives the appearance they don’t care about social interactions, at least while they’re working. Sometimes hygiene suffers too.

    Writing good code is hard, and if you’re really in the groove on a critical project you just do not want to be distracted at all, by anything or anyone. So it doesn’t matter how tightly you’re packed (obviously there’s a limit) as long as you can shut out the distractions. But the nerds I know (and my father is one) are very eclectic, and extroverted people when they’re not laser focused.

    My father used to program in IBM System 370 Assembly using green-screen 3270 terminals with the tank armor keyboards. While he was coding, he could completely turn off the outside world, including all the noise of a mainframe computer room with behemoth 1403 line printers running. Interrupting his concentration was a dangerous thing to do if you didn’t like being screamed at. I can see how some would think he was antisocial after he told them to get the hell out of the room and leave him alone to work a few times. And other people can’t handle the background noise, but he could. But when he wasn’t writing programs, he was (and still is) a very outgoing, sensitive, ebullient guy with a grand sense of humor.

    You’re a programmer. You’re not antisocial.

    I dunno. Maybe the CEO here just really isn’t very interested in what his coders think as long as they get the work done. Maybe he’s paying too much for office space. People will also do surprising things in terms of working conditions if they think the reward is worth the sacrifice. Or if they’re in the Navy, circa 1952.

  8. Everyone seems to be saying the CEO is deluded, but he’s just echoing what his workforce and potential employees expect?

    As lion says, a lot of programming jobs today are more about loosely tying things together. If you have very few “serious” problems to solve that require deep concentration, then collaboration may be more efficient.

    In my city, the bullpen idea has been ramped up to perma-hotdesking. All staff are expected to find an available seat each day, and no personal effects are allowed. If you’re away from your desk for more then 60 minutes, someone else may just take it.

  9. Confession: I’m one of those sweatshop employers who offers unlimited vacation, 90% coverage of health insurance, three kinds of beer and cold brew coffee on tap, market-rate salaries, and desks on wheels in a giant room with no walls.

    1. People say, “you’re just doing this to save money on rent.’ And that’s bad how? A dollar not spent on rent is a dollar that can be spent on something with a higher return almost anywhere else. Overspending on premium space is one of the classic blunders that ends with tons of people getting laid off.

    2. In terms of productivity, I haven’t seen as much of an effect as people or the researchers claim. In my case, we have gone through three offices in five years, and with each one it started out empty, got submarine-tight, and then moved and started over. Each time, as things got really tight people started telling me that they’d be a lot more productive if they had more space. What’d I see for the 30-60 days after the move when we were swimming in space? Pretty much the exact same thing as before. This included people being pushed out of offices and into open spaces.

    3. It absolutely does increase communication between people. How much of a good thing that is depends. I call open floor plans “Culture Amplifiers” because I think whatever the culture is, you get more of that when people are on top of each other. If everybody hates each other then lots of space and offices give you more room to avoid them.

    4. Open floor plans mean anything you do, you do in front of a dozen other people. These days that’s better for pretty much everybody.

    5. All execs (including CEO) are in the thick of it–nobody gets a private office except our mid-level HR staff for privacy reasons. So even if I’m wrong about the whole thing, at least we’re imposing our stupidity on ourselves as well.

    • Everyone knows unlimited vacation is a scam. As for beer and coffee, I can’t drink the former while programming, and I can buy/make all of the latter I need, thanks.

      >market-rate salaries

      Yeah, obviously.

      >Interviewees would just walk out if they saw cubicles or rows of private offices.

      No, they wouldn’t. “No way, man, I can’t even conceptualize working in a company where I have my own office!”

      > I call open floor plans “Culture Amplifiers”

      Ugh.

  10. > “Interviewees would just walk out if they saw cubicles or rows of private offices. This [array of tightly packed desks] is what they expect for a modern tech company.”

    I bet this is true. I work in one of those authentic, former warehouse places. Not an interior wall around. And the average age of the devs here is certainly under 30, and their experience is working on projects in college libraries, working on projects at Starbucks, and working on projects in other open office factories.

    As the CEO states, these guys literally would not know how to judge a company that had offices.

    Now for me the best aspects of this are that it does keep me working rather than surfing. It keeps me from procrastinating. But it’s definitely border line stalker-ville where I feel in the panopticon with a founders and managers sitting and looking out at the desks the entire day.

    I will say unlike some open offices the one I am in has lots of empty space, we have large sit/stand desks side by side placing devs 56″ apart but the next row of devs is at least 15 feet away. And the place itself is surprisingly quiet, not library quiet, but it’s not difficult to concentrate. It is difficult to make phone calls or have any privacy whatsoever.

    (This may change for the worse by next year if they double the number of people here…. If they do that then it will be just as bad as any open office.)

    I’m actually in a pretty good place, for the first time in a very long career, people are okay with my coming in late and leaving late.

    I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be as productive if I were working alone by myself.

  11. It seems like the non-revenue producing employees have a lot of influence at these companies.

    Maybe those who are dissatisfied with the open offices can take up the massive business opportunity of helping those recently laid off at Buzzfeed and HuffPo learn to code.

  12. Open office spaces is for college hires. They like it because it puts them back in an environment they are used to: working as a group in a common area, dorm, cafeteria, etc.

    Code that comes out of those college hires, is nothing but a POS (proof of concept). Once you put the code in production it won’t last few weeks. If you have a senior developer watching over them, then expect productivity to go down significantly. The same is true if college hires are working on production code. Why? The senior engineer won’t let them cut corners: they must now write test cases, address edge cases, add clear comment and write clear code, etc. I have seen this first hand over and over.

    The office space that I like the best are those those where you have a room in which you can comfortably fit 3-5 developers of like minds. The room has a large whiteboard and a large screen. Such a small group working in a “private” office will do wonders working together because software development is a team effort where sometimes you need your quite hours and sometimes you need to be able to tap into someone on the spot and sometimes you need your wild hours (playing Doom, Decent, etc).

  13. Open offices AKA “green offices” or paperless etc. are a form of shut up and submit, brought to you by the tyrants in Silicon Valley

  14. Please tell us more about this CEO’s views! I love it, it’s like a real live version of “Believe it or not, the serfs prefer it this way!” Packed in, sexless, hoping to make a million dollar option score in a place with %50 income taxes where a 1 bedroom condo costs a million bucks! Hahaha

  15. For once I actually agree with the rest of the Weblog commenters?!…Open offices do suck and I would take a cubicle any day. I consider myself pretty extroverted for a programmer, but I’m so much more productive when I can sit by myself listening to Spotify and quietly focusing on the task at hand.

    • I’ve been in cubicles far worse, far far worse than the open office I’m now in.

      What is the value you drive from a cubicle?

      I saw cube walls shorten from 6 feet to 5 feet to 4 feet. They never had the privacy I needed to let me call a doctor, or even my wife.

      They were often crammed with 3 to 5 other engineers.

      I am not fond of open offices on general principles, but cube land sucked just as hard if not moreso.

    • Obviously a private office with a sweeping view of the ocean would be ideal, but my workplace doesn’t offer those to early career people! I mostly just want a quiet place I can focus and get work done (my old cube really did provide this!) But that’s the opposite of what I get in an open office…but I can’t escape to a privacy room because it would “hurt team dynamics” ugh smdh

  16. Yeah, I wonder if people don’t agree that they are ok with an open floor plan because they don’t want to separate others apart and are afraid that they are the only ones with this displeasure with the open floor plan.

    I hated out open floor plan at a solar developer, but as a new hire would have never disrupted the status quo.

  17. There are many commenters here having trouble with reading comprehension.

    The CEO said “Interviewees would just walk out if they see anything else than an open space”. He seems to be in-tune to his employees, and as he’s forced by the tight market, he gives them what they want, an open space. Yet somehow, you think you know his employee candidates better than him.

    • Problem is most software companies hire juniors (solid juniors in the valley, average to weak in the rest) and juniors don’t know better, not because they are not smart but because they lack something to compare against.

      I thought I was the greatest wiz kid at my first couple of programming jobs. As expected they were open space, filled with wiz kids and with owners that spouted the mantras: “the market is so competitive we cannot get enough people, open space is great for collaboration, we are cool, we have consoles and free food”, etc. Basically, “you are so great we are giving all you want. Can I be your friend?”

      Nah, I was being had. They were giving me peanuts in exchange for my younger years (at 30 you are obsolete there).

      And if kids are not able to realize they are being had career-wise how are they going to realize that they have been conned into buying that open spaces are the best for them.

      Most tech companies CEOs do know what they are doing (young workforce control and exploitation by infantilization) but they won’t tell, they didn’t get to CEO by being politically challenged.

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