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Programmer Interruptions, where does it stop?

I've read Joel's and other comments on how a workplace can be rated on how much the programmer is interrupted.  The less interruptions the better.  My question is, how far should you take that advice?

Specifically for the first time in my life I'm working at a large company, 3000+ people vs all my previous jobs, 100- people.  This big company has a ton of rules and I know that pretty much I'm going to just have to live with them. M aybe I'm just an arrogant prick but I see it as both good for me and good for the company to remove many of these rules / systems.  Examples:

Each person is given a trash can.  You are not allowed to put anything in it but paper.  Anything else you are supposed to take to the trashcans on the other side of the office and separate (cans, bottles, plastics etc)  Seems to me the cleaning people should take my trash and separate it so I can instead get back to programming.

Anytime you are late, out sick, or going to anything even job related but outside of the office (ie, you can't *punch in*) you have to fill out a form.  At all my previous companies I'd just tell my direct boss and he'd deal with it so I could get back to programming.

Once a week you have to fill out a form stating everything you did last week and everything you think you are going to do this week.  This is sent to the section boss, not my actual manager.  Again, at all previous companies that was something my manager figured out through discussion in the line of work instead of a separate hour out of my programming time.

Once a month you have to account your time as a percentage to the various projects, I suppose so they can account what each project is costing.  Again this was something previous companies dealt with leaving me to program.

Other *big* company issues.  When I first got here I needed to setup my new computer and install a dev kit.  The dev kit required a longer IDE cable than was in the computer.  It took an hour to get permission to go get the IDE cable.  Then a few days later I got chewed out because the person I really needed permission from (I didn't know that) had not been in the office and so another person gave me permission.  It took about 40 minutes until the person with spending authority would sign the expense report.

That brings up a few issues.  (*) I've never had to fill out an expense report.  At all smaller companies I'd just hand the receipt to my boss and he'd/she'd deal with it so I could get back to work (*) They lost at least 4 programmer hours, maybe more (other people got pulled in) over a $10 IDE cable in not being able to just trust that I needed the cable and letting me buy it.  (*) They have no system in place for dealing with these issues quickly.  Another guy on my team needs a new hard drive.  He's got a full 10gig drive, that's it.  It's been 6 weeks now.  No Drive.

Another, they have flex time but *core* hours.  Core hours are 10 to 3.  That's not bad, the problem is if you are late you get docked $20 for every 15 minutes cumulative.  Ie, late 1 minute today and 5 tomorrow you you'll get docked $20, not $40 for being late twice.  Obviously I try not to be late.  An advantage to the system is I can leave at 3pm and not feel guilty about it assuming I make it up before the end of the month.

But, it's interesting the psychology the system produces.  They account on 15 minute chunks so if I stay to 8 hours and 15 minutes today I can work 7 hours 45 minutes some other day.  If I work 8 hours and 14 minutes today it doesn't count.  It's also tied to the clock, 9:55 to 7:05 minus lunch is 8 hours, not 8 hours 10 minutes.

But, the psychology it produces is that I find that at 7pm, the normal time to leave (10 to 7), if I feel like it I'll write a personal e-mail at work knowing that if it takes 15 or 30 minutes I will get that time accounted to me and I can take off early another day.  Yes I know that's bad of me.  The point is, with no such system in place I would not be able to take advantage of it.  Because the system is in place it encourages me to work it.  Especially when despite getting up and trying to get in on time, once or twice a month I'm one to 2 minutes late and I know I will get docked for it.  It makes it adversarial.  The plus is it makes me try to leave at 7.  Without this system I would leave probably between 7:30 and 9 like I did at most previous companies.  Of course that's a plus for me, not for the company.

Obviously a 3000 person company is not going to change anytime soon but how can I go about trying to at least get them to think about it and which issues if any are worth it?  There's a logical argument, time = money, programmers programming is more efficient, less money, more likely to meet dealine then programmers sorting trash or programmers filling out forms, but I can't think of anyway to put that that doesn't sound arrogant.  Nobody listens to the logic, they just think I'm being rediculous etc.. maybe I am.

Gregg Tavares
Monday, September 30, 2002

God I hate big companies... you can't fight those guys.  Dilbert will become a sad reality, not a funny comic strip.

rage against the plants
Monday, September 30, 2002


I know where you are coming from.

You won't be able to change them and it will just stress you out to try.

Your goals that you had at smaller companies -- to do a good job and achieve personal professional excellence while providing value to your employer and their customers -- will just make you depressed because they are unattainable.

You need to change priorities, my friend. You need to read "The Joy of Work" by Scott Adams. It will tell you how to achieve as much happiness and accomplishmentas is possible at a large bureaucracy.

Don't worry about efficiency and getting things done on time. Don't have the right cable? No problem -- send a memo and then surf the net for a few hours. Play Tetris. Get some doughnuts and coffee. Flirt with a cute gal. Fill out your time card that you were waiting to get that cable which you needed to work. Hey, you sent the darn memo/email, what more do they expect? You even left a message on their voice mail. It's *their* fault you couldn't get stuff done. You were all ready to go but you can't be expected to get stuff done without the cable. You did all you could!

Study hypnosis. Practice pacing and leading your boss and cow-erkers. Do all your shopping at work. See how many different places at work are safe for a mid-afternoon tryst.

Search on these words for more info:
shirk, work-to-rule

Find satisfaction in your new life.

If you don't like it. If you crave and need to accomplish something, then start work on that great american novel. email your home account one paragraph at a time.

Still not satisfied? Well, you'll need to work at a smaller company then. A company the size you describe is incapable of improving productivity or making sensible decisions. That's just the way it is and many people have found happiness and satisfaction in life by going with the flow and enjoying it rather than trying to buck the status-quo and tick off a bunch of people.

Good luck!

Sarain H.
Monday, September 30, 2002

Generally, I'd agree that most big companies get entrenched in rules and regulations because people at the top don't trust the people at the bottom that they can't see.

Most of these things are going to be impossible to change unless you get significant responsibility of some kind. Sometimes, you're lucky enough to find yourself in an "elite" team that is given more latitude due to the extra trust invested in it, or a blessed manager who understands that bureaucracy needs to be taken away from his staff.

My advice is try to live with it, but spend all your time learning from what you see. I spent a long time in a place I didn't like, but the education I got from watching dysfunctional management in action is something that will stay with me forever.

Monday, September 30, 2002

More thoughts I couldn't resist:

$80/hr to sort trash is not so bad. Easy work, not so stressful. The thing is that yes man mr boss man sir if you want me to sort trash sir yes sir i am right on it sir. If they want you to waste your time that's totally cool -- **As Long As They Are Paying You By The Hour**. If they aren't paying you by the hour and the result of having to spend 1 hr a day sorting trash is that you'll have to work an extra hour for free, tell em to go crawl in a hole: "I ain't gonna sort no trash for free, man! You jus tryin to keep me down! I'm gonna organize a union, man!" That's the key to this whole thing -- are you being paid by the hour. Never forget this important distinction.

About that great american novel you're going to be starting -- how about something Kafka-esque? You could write crazy surreal stories about spending hours and weeks trying to get a $10 cable approved and acquired. It would make great reading. The famous shirker I mentioned made his fortune writing about bureaucratic insanity and there's so much of it it wouldn't hurt to have a few more writers in the field.

I think the full name of the book is "The Joy of Work -- How to Find Happiness at the Expense of Your Coworkers".

Sarain H.
Monday, September 30, 2002

> Nobody listens to the logic, they just think I'm being rediculous etc.. maybe I am.

Maybe you are. I like a little walk every hour or two - good for your health - and walking my banana peel to the kitchen garbage after lunch isn't such a hard thing to do.

> At all my previous companies I'd just tell my direct boss and he'd deal with it so I could get back to programming.

At my previous companies it's my job to offload work from my boss and not vice versa.

> a $10 IDE cable

That's annoying. If your boss values your 4 hours, maybe [s]he knows the ropes. My boss has an administrative assistant / receptionist, who handles some of this administrivia for anyone in the department who asks.

Christopher Wells
Monday, September 30, 2002

Believe me, my 100,000-person company was a far, far more pleasant and rational place than your 3000 person company seems to be.  You'll probably find it easier as you learn the ropres.

Everybody hates time reporting but we used it to charge clients and ultimately reflect the true cost of projects, not to find goof offs.  You don't need time reports to find goof offs.

Nobody does more time reporting than lawyers, but it really pays the bills.

Monday, September 30, 2002

To the original poster:  you won't survive long in that environment.  It's obvious you don't have the personality for it (no offense).

The people who thrive in big companies are the people who don't think too much about what makes sense, what's efficient, what has a positive return on investment, etc.  Rather, the most successful corporate drones are the people who are enthusiastic all the time, even when (or _especially_ when) they're involved in pointless, irrational activities.

Good luck -- you'll need it.

J. D. Trollinger
Monday, September 30, 2002

I beg to differ on who thrives in corporate environments.  I think you are describing folks who survive there.

The fact is that it takes big organizations to do big projects and most big organizations have to do one big project after another.  Even the small things are often big projects. 

The folks who thrive, succeed, and advance in big organizations have to master the politics.  It comes naturally for a few folks and never for many.

The reward (or punishment) is that you get to work on breathtakingly complex projects.  If you are successful, you may get to work on many complex projects.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

"The fact is that it takes big organizations to do big projects"

Hm. In 1994-1996, me and another fellow put together a 1.2 million transistor ASIC. It was the largest chip ever made by the large well-known company we got to front it for us in return for the right to buy it back at cost. I worked OK when we got the first rev out of the foundry, and we had the whole thing working perfectly after one metal fix. The very large company with the fab facility had such high turn-over due to their miserable working conditions and politics that they didn't have anyone left who knew how to do the layout. We didn't either, so we just read their documentation and did that part ourselves.

In addition to our own labor, it cost us less than $100,000 to produce the chip since we went with Viewlogic instead of shelling out big time for the Cadence tools.

I'd say it was a big project, bigger than most big companies can handle except at obscene cost.

We did it in a garage. And we did it better than any big company could.

Agility. That's where it's at.

Anonymous & Got Nothing to Prove
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Here here to the agility of small companies.

Here is a quote I find particularly encouraging when I struggle to get things done at my small company:

What's scary about Microsoft is that a company that size can develop software at all. They're like a mountain that can walk.

Don't be intimidated. You can do as much that Microsoft can't as they can do that you can't. And no one can stop you. You don't have to ask anyone's permission to develop Web-based applications. You don't have to do licensing deals, or get shelf space in retail stores, or grovel to have your application bundled with the OS. You can deliver software right to the browser, and no one can get between you and potential users without preventing them from browsing the Web.

You may not believe it, but I promise you, Microsoft is scared of you. The complacent middle managers may not be, but Bill is, because he was you once, back in 1975, the last time a new way of delivering software appeared.

Matthew Lock
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

3,000 isn't that large a company.

From your description it sounds as if its main business is something to do with shop floor engineering.  In any working practice managed by time, as yours is, and hedged with control to manage costs there will be a sub-culture that 'knows how to get X if you want it'.

The trick is to make use of such sub-culture without becoming part of it.

Simon P. Lucy
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

LOL at the rules this company has in place.

I'd be very very tempted to fill in my "what I'm going to do" form with entries like:

* Sorting trash - 1 hour
* Awaiting authorisation or $10 IDE cable - 4 hours
* Meeting out of office - 1 hour
* Filling in form to authorise meeting out of office - 1/4 hour
* Attempting to free space on a full hard disk - 5 hours (compare with cost of buying additional hard disk)

Then total up the amount of the time you have to spend *not doing your actual job*.

It'll get you hated of course, but you can at least sit secure in the knowledge that you've pissed somebody else off.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Sounds like the sort of place where the CEO is getting ready to grab his or her massive bonus.

He or she doesn't want any nonsense about doing real work; he or she just wants to make sure nothing spoils the idyllic picture painted for investors, and that costs are the lowest in the business.

What happens next years is not this baby's worry.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

I feel for you.  The biggest company I ever worked for was about 300 people.  I know that's still considered a small company, but even then the beauracracy was too much for me.  I ended up leaving after about one year.  I think the key in my situation is that the company used to be a software development company, but they were moving towards being an outsourcing solutions company.  Why does this matter?  Because developers were no longer seen as a profit center.  Instead, they are viewed as a cost along with the rest of the 'production' staff and machinery.  Indeed, I started hunting for a new job the day after they had announced that they had purchased external software - the same type of software that we developed.  At that point, I realized I was just going to be an expensive tech support person for the old system.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

I am constantly amazed by the sheer idiocy of management across all areas of work. (No, it's not just software developers that are managed by morons). I'll give you this advice though - quit now! There is nothing for you in that soul-sucking sweatshop; leave. Try and find somewhere which has competent management.

Mr Jack
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Be thankful, this is nothing compared to government. For instance:

You can actually get an IDE cable. For me to get that I would have to be authorized to actually work on my computer. Since I do not have the proper authority to fix my own machine I can easily waste 20 hours trying to track down some one who has a clue. Of course the schedule does not change. I should have forseen this with my all knowing government issued millenium eye.

You get trash cans. I do not get a trash can because it was not in the budget. I have to buy toliet paper, napkins, forks, spoons, etc, from the PX downstairs because of this quite often.

You have to fill out a few forms. Don't even get me started on this. The US government is responsible for the slaying of the entire forests in small countries to supply paper for its forms. If I take a piss I better have submitted a form in triplicate signed by someone who has the proper authority to allow that to happen.

But on a serious note - [Once a week you have to fill out a form stating everything you did last week and everything you think you are going to do this week.] This might be because the company is ISO certified or maybe has similiar certification. A lot of those certified processes require immense paper trails and auditing in specified ways. For instance - every week I submit a status report to the lead developer which then submits it to the "System Architect" (this is a joke in itself. remember - government). All of those documents from our department are placed in special directories that all have the same heirarchy and do not change. That is all part of ISO certification. Fun Fun Fun.

My best suggestion is to just go with the flow and ride the gravy train. I hate this job but it pays my bills and helps finance my side business which I intend to take on fulltime in the near future.  So until that day ...

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

What's happened is that you have been working in small companies where you were either one of a very small team or were working in the company's core activity; either way things will be geared towards your own productivity.

In your new company things are different. It could be that its core activity is what decides how things are run. In general, wages, management attitudes and personnel policies are those that are the norm for the core activity of the company, whatever your particular specifalization is. If your new company's specialization is software development, then it's eventually going to get into trouble.

Your company definitely looks like it is managed from the top down, though some of the rules don't seem too stupid. It is more logical to expect you to sort out your trash first, then to mix everything up (and thus probably make it unuseable for recycling) and expect soembody to go through the unpleasant task of sorting it out.

The saga of the IDE cable however does suggest to me that your company has problems. Any large company needs strict control on expenditure, but if it fails to take into account that to try and prevent all  mispending is actually quite uneconomical, then it will foul up big time.

But as the guy who works for the US government says, you ain't heard nothing yet. I work for the Saudi government, and our bureacracy is such that we have never been able to upgrade the 32MB of RAM that a large number of perfectly good Pentium II computers came with. The request is put in, and after a couple of months it is added to the budget. Eventually a tender is put out for the RAM. The answers come in and after about two months the lowest bid is accepted. The vendor then of course refuses to supply as the price of RAM changes almost daily and the old quote was ouf of date.

Then we have the case of my office mate's chair. Everything in our college has to have a government number on it - this includes computer cases (you can nick all the innards though with no problem), tables, OHP's and even chairs, though not the building itself as one of the stocktakers found out after walking round it a few times and searching bemusedly in every nook and cranny for a whole day.

Anyway my office mate decided he needed an extra chair in case more than one student came to see him at the same time. The Department Secretary, more used to handing out computers and such like, insisted he filled in a cessation form for the chair. For a whole year no problem but then one of our colleagues decided to take a car ride to the next country with the innards of an expensive instrumentation lab in the boot, and the powers-that-be decided that no one was to be issued with his passport for a mid-year or weekend trip, until he had got somebody else to sign a form in the presence of the Department Chairman, saying that all the equipment he was responsible for was still in place.

My office mate volunteered to pay for the chair, to leave a depositi for the chair, to exchange the chair for his passport, to return the chair and let his students stand or sit on the floor as they wished, but no luck; every time he wants to go to Bahrain one of us must accompany him to the Department Chairman's Office to solemnly sign that we have taken over responsibility for the saidchair!

You won't change anything that's happening in your company for at least a year. Sit and lump it, and then decide if the company is really suffering from terminal rulitis, or if now you are trusted it is worth pressurising to get the things changed.

And as from your post it appears you are being paid $80 an hour, then enjoy!

Stephen Jones
Tuesday, October 1, 2002


Wow! I got laid off yesterday and was sitting around feeling sorry for myself until I read your post.

(Scratch that - I wasn't "sitting around feeling sorry for myself."  I was "analyzing the impact of the workforce reduction policy".  Gotta practice my action word / BS phrasework for my next resume, you know.)

BTW, the next time you can't get an IDE cable, use 2 Dixie cups and a string.  Take a photo and attach it to your next review, highlighting your ability to improvise when resources are scarce.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

I am currently on a contract with such a company.
Wasn't it for the money, I wouldn't be there.
It's so ... demotivating.

So, let's finish the stuff, collect the $$$ and move on to self-funded projects that can generate my own income flow while partnering with other good people.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Make sure to factor all the 'overhead' time in your estimates.

"Yes, that could be completed a day earlier if I didn't have to sort the garbage".

Allocate these items to the projects so the business owners see it on the 'bill'.

65 hrs - coding/testing
1hr - writing this report
6hr - writing other reports
4hrs - acquiring a new cable
1hr - couseling for improper approval procedure for cable acquisition
1hr - recycleable garbage sort  (sounds like a coding issue;-)

Dan Sickles
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Sounds like my last job at eFunds.  Ungh.  Flee!  Flee!

Jason McCullough
Tuesday, October 1, 2002


So why did you take this job?

(Of course, I realize that in the current state of the economy the only alternative may be unemployment).

A lot of those rules sound ridiculous, but timesheets and expense reports are hard to avoid at any sized company.

And if they can afford to pay you $80/hour they must be doing something right.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002


What, do you think the company admitted it was dysfunctional during the interview?

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Try this: on your next vacation, or even on a weekend, go to a temporary labor pool. They'll send you someplace where you'll work all day for a bit above minimum wage.  You'll be held to a clock: start, lunch, break, end-of-day, and, yes, bathroom breaks.  Return to your $80/hour office job.  You'll find that your company doesn't seem all that bad any more.

Finally, if you don't like it, leave.  Find someplace more to your liking.  Nobody's forcing you to stay where you are.  Stewing over things is corrosive.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

It will hurt your brain, this job, especially if you like to be productive. Learn to play the game, it's an acquired skill.

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Sometimes you gotta spend a bit on these jobs.  Like buying little recycling bins so you only have to bring your recycling stuff across the office once a month, or when you're bored.

Maybe you can get them to give you electronic forms to fill out.  Then you can do something funky like hook up a cvs dump of your check-in comments.  Delete minor parts.

The main danger of these jobs is that some spend $ on books, stresseating, or what have you.  Because they're boring.

Getting a complain-buddy might be useful, or better locating someone at work who thinks like you.  It's good for maintaining confidence that you can accept the people there have it bad, while you remain professionally unconcerned.

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

>>> What, do you think the company admitted it was dysfunctional during the interview?  <<<

Of course not.  But did he ask any questions or do any investigating to find out if there might be a problem?

OK, so these days any job is a good one, but think back to the expansion phase of the bubble. Is there anyone on this discussion who changed jobs during that period and who can give us an example of anything at all they did to find a decent work environment?  Or was the only concern the size of the paycheck?

Me, I stuck with the job I had until things started going bad.  A bad decision in retrospect.

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

Where is the balance?  In my mind it's the programmer's immediate supervisor/project manager.  At my last company it took about three months for my PM and I to start working well together.  After that we each had a clear understanding of each other's abilites and limitations.  Don't forget, the US Army takes as much as 52 weeks to train some infantry men.   

Scott Rogers
Wednesday, October 2, 2002

'bout 15 years ago I worked at a very large NY bank. I was assigned as the build manager for my group. Biggest disk drives we had were around 20MB so I had to do our builds in stages.

I managed to "acquire" an unused "expansion chasis" (remember those ?) but without drives. I tried to get a couple of bigger drives to run the builds and maintain version history, to no avail.

Then it dawned on me: All the executives (i.e.; window offices, nice real wood furniture, top of the line pc's) had machines with two hard drives. Wanna bet none of them actually use (or are even aware of) their D: drives ?

So one evening after 5 I did some recon. Sure enough, all the executive's D: drive were completely empty.

Over the next couple of weeks me and my handy screwdriver removed those lonely unused drives and installed them in my expansion chassis and build PC.

My boss was smart enough not to ask where I got the drives from. No one ever noticed.

It's only theft if you take the equipment out of the building. :)

Tom Dratler
Thursday, October 3, 2002

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