Value created vs. time spent

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012 at 13:37

Yesterday, I was in the zone for about ten hours (see: Flow). I started working at 1 PM, I didn’t actually plan to work ten hours, but it was 11 P.M. when I started yawning and realized I had been designing and developing for a solid ten hours (minus a diner break).

This doesn’t happen very often.

The last few weeks I’ve been working from a co-working space in Antwerp instead of at home and I am reminded how bad interruption is for your productivity.

Fog creek Software:

“Since the beginning, Fog Creek’s promise has always been that every developer gets a private office with a door that closes. Don’t want a private office? You get one anyway. If you want camaraderie, you can walk down the hall, put your witticisms on company chat, or store them all up and let fly at lunch.”

Campaign Monitor:

“For us, private offices were non-negotiable. Over the years we’ve had fully open plan, only offices and a combination of both. In my experience, closable offices for each team member are by far the best configuration for a software company.”

Paul Graham:

“After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you’re a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.”

Regarding that software part, I am very happy I that can buy the software I want to get the job done, whenever I want to, without any discussion.

It used to be that I had to argue with someone higher up whether a $30 piece of productivity software would save the company money. At a billable rate of $110/hour for 2 persons, it takes about 8 minutes of discussion until you reach a potential $30 lost revenue.

I don’t understand how any company can charge for coffee. If you calculate the gain it’s probably better to hand people money to drink coffee every two hours.

(OK, I’m joking here, I know you just need to drink 2 liters of water every day and you’ll be more productive and healthy. But don’t take away my coffee.)

Closed plan offices are expensive. The best hardware is expensive. Software is expensive. But interruption is really expensive.

Bill Dallesandro:

“A study by Microsoft showed just how lethal interruptions are to productivity. The researchers taped 29 hours of people working in a typical office, and found that they were interrupted on average four times each hour. Sounds like a day at most offices. Here’s the kicker – 40% of the time, the person did not resume the task they were working on before the interruption. The more complex the task, the less likely the person was to resume working on it after an interruption.”

Consider the task I was working on yesterday: first I forked an old project, made it reusable, refactored the code, and merged it into an existing website. I’m not saying what I’ve done was hard or ground-breaking, but it sure required a lot of concentration.

Take this little nugget of information about the history of Valve:

“Gabe tells it this way. When he was at Microsoft in the early 90’s, he commissioned a survey of what was actually installed on users’ PCs. The second most widely installed software was Windows.

Number one was Id’s Doom.

The idea that a 10-person company of 20-somethings in Mesquite, Texas, could get its software on more computers than the largest software company in the world told him that something fundamental had changed about the nature of productivity. When he looked into the history of the organization, he found that hierarchical management had been invented for military purposes, where it was perfectly suited to getting 1,000 men to march over a hill to get shot at. When the Industrial Revolution came along, hierarchical management was again a good fit, since the objective was to treat each person as a component, doing exactly the same thing over and over.”

The rules of the game have changed. You can’t solve a problem by throwing more people at it. A single developer can make a huge impact. A team of 13 can be bought for $1 billion.

I have a vision for a software design company, and that vision falls somewhere between what Valve is doing (PDF link), what Joel Spolsky is all about, 37Signals’ view of work, and Apple’s output.

If what I’m saying appeals to you, we should talk.

5 comments to “Value created vs. time spent”

  • Nice. Seems quite close to how we work at Zorros (see also my dutch

  • Nice post Johan. Absolutely agree with the theme of this article.

    Programming, or any kind of work that requires lot of concentration, should be done in a quiet place. That’s why i also prefer to work alone, free from other distractions.
    I find that i am more creative and also a lot productive when i am alone. But am sure this applies to pracitcally everyone else.

    Also thanks for all the links in your article. I had read few posts by paulgraham earlier but, the post on hackers was really good :)

  • Yup, sounds about right. Relying on a hierarchy is -at best- a double-edged sword: on paper, the risk & cost of bad decisions is reduced, but people are also relieved of responsability. They will then try to work around the system and/or develop apathy towards it. Power without authority (power that relies too much on strictly formulated rules & procedures) creates a demotivated and ultimately unproductive workforce. Good managers delegate and don’t micromanage, only jumping in when the situation gets stuck. Additionaly, putting emphasis on hierarchy creates a lot of red tape and unneccessary paperwork. Basically, you’re breeding a culture of distrust. If you don’t allow employees to order a €30 piece of software on their own, what does that say about your trust in their professionalism?
    In my experience, empowering people to organise their own job and then providing them with clear general objectives is the best way to make them shine. Coupled with honest & frequent feedback on their performance, there is very little that can go wrong for very long.
    The problem I have, though, with these innovative organisation models (Valve, 37signals) is that they are all based on a rather homogenous workforce, namely fairly young developers or engineers. Things get a bit more complicated in heterogenous organisations, with people from different backgrounds and of different age groups. Some employees want a fairly detailed to-do list for every day, and/or thrive in an open-plan office. Lack of clear hierarchy and rules can be stressful and unsettling for some. These are issues that need to be addressed without classifying valuable employees as dinosaurs or freaks. It’s all about getting people to be enthousiastic about their work and building internal motivation. And sometimes that’s giving them the feeling that someone is making the tough calls for them.

  • @Toon

    Great comment.

    Good point about the homogenous workforce, this certainly doesn’t apply to any company.

  • Macspertise says:

    Best solution is to let people choose their own place. Since tastes differ an office with a variety of options should cater all and gets you a diverse workspace. Next problem are the managers. They need extensive training to cope with such an environment.

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