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by Joel Spolsky
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Visiting Cambridge (Massachusetts [USA]) for a party at Y-combinator made me jealous about how much more vibrant the hacker/startup scene is in the Boston area than it is in the New York area. Or maybe it just seems that way, because Paul Graham and his crew have done a remarkable job of attracting a first rate flock of smart young entrepreneurs by providing seed funding for a bunch of new startups. I probably talked to a couple of dozen people and they all seemed really, really smart and enthusiastic.

Is New York just lame compared to Boston? Or does it just seem that way? Why is that... is it because of MIT? or all the other high tech stuff going on there? Is it the high cost of living in New York? Or the fact that we have too many distractions, and it's not a good place to concentrate on making a startup? Or maybe it's because investment banks, hedge funds, advertising agencies, and media companies suck up all the oxygen? One bright young Harvard grad I met at the party has a job as the full-time, personal system administrator maintaining the PC of a famous hedge fund manager ... (Dude, come work for Fog Creek... we can waste your talent in a much more laid back environment.)

Multitasking in the Workplace

New York Times: Big screens are good, interruptions are bad, etc. The stuff about how long it takes to pick up a train of thought after being interrupted is really cool; I've been claiming this based on my own experience but I never had anything remotely scientific to prove it. You can read the original papers by Gloria Mark on her web site.

She also tries to pin down whether it's more productive to be "collocated" or not, by which, I think, she's comparing the number of interruptions suffered by people in private offices vs. open spaces. The bizarre thing she claims, which could be true, is that open-space-dwellers actually get voluntarily interrupted less because people can quickly see whether they're interruptible or not. She does mention that open-spacers do frequently decide to "interrupt themselves" to participate in another conversation that they overheard, something which is probably net beneficial for the team's productivity but which drives me crazy.

I keep claiming that private offices are more productive than open space plans or cubicles, but the one advantage of open space which people keep bringing up is all the accidental, serendipitous knowledge transfer that takes place when everyone overhears everyone else. I think it's not worth the productivity loss caused by an increased number of interruptions. This summer when we had four interns building a new product, we had to put them all in a single open space because we ran out of offices (oops). Watching the four of them work together, you could clearly see that ad-hoc, impromptu conversations were somewhat valuable, but you could also see that anything that interrupted one person (e.g. when I wandered over to discuss some tiny issue with one of the interns) it ended up interrupting everybody -- those tiny issues inevitably became conversations with everybody, thus interrupting 3 people who had no reason to be interrupted and who would take an average of 25 minutes to return to what they were doing.

Also, I think that private offices have remarkable benefits in terms of your ability to attract and retain talent and people's general happiness at work, which leads to increased productivity because you're hiring better people and they're happier. We're doubling the size of the Fog Creek offices as soon as we can, and our goal remains to put every developer in a private office.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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