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How to promote good incidental communication

In the recent thread about offices vs. cubes vs. one-big-room the main point of difference between the offices people and the one-big-room people seemed to be the quality of the incidental communications (defined as communications not specifically directed at you). For example:

Overhearing two co-workers talk about a bug they encountered in the foo routine and noticing that it is similar to the bug you're working on in the bar routine.

Overhearing two co-workers talking about who should be kicked off the latest reality show and noticing that you don't care and you've just dropped out of flow.

The people who liked one-big-room seemed to have a lot of the Good and little of the Bad. Whereas the people who didn't like one-big-room (like me) had had a bad experience with lots of Bad and little Good.

This leads me to ask the community:

If you have had a good one-big-room experience, what qualities kept the, if you will, signal-to-noise ratio of incidental communication good?
(policies, procedures, attitudes, office arrangement, etc).

Bill Tomlinson
Friday, January 31, 2003

Some of the others mentioned that a break area is good. I don't care if people are discussing the latest stupid MTV shiney object, as they're entitled to take a break once in a while.

But the crappy conversations they have shouldn't be in a place where they'll distract me. Break areas are good, as they can discuss the random crap there, and related discussion can be discussed when working in the work area.

Mike Swieton
Friday, January 31, 2003

I understand where a lot of this concern comes from but, in my experience, when a team is fully engaged it's just not an issue.

I work with a very talented team on an XP project. We use team based seating so everyone is in close proximity: developers, QA, product manager, etc.

Sure, we talk about real life stuff. Sure, it's possible that people are sometimes "disturbed" by this. But, overall, the benefit of the enhanced communications is so overwhelmingly obvious that no one has ever complained.

Bruce Rennie
Friday, January 31, 2003

The problem I have with working in an open area, (we have half-cubes at our work) is that marketing or Account Execs will come over to ask Someone sitting two seats away from me why the widget isn't doing what its supposed to do, and the next thing you know, there is a freaking 5 person meeting around a devlopers desk.  Great, i'm happy that our PM and Account Exec team and our developer all finally got to talking about implementing widget b, but when i'm trying to debug its very frustrating.  Any suggestions on how I could improve this sistuation?

Vincent Marquez
Friday, January 31, 2003


Friday, January 31, 2003

Vincent, marketing and accounting people generally do not understand how developers work and why we need not to be disturbed.

If challenged directly, they will usually apologise and say "yes but it *was* only 5 minutes" or "but you didn't have to listen", before doing exactly the same thing 3 hours later.

ALL you need to do is explain to them. Better, get the development manager to do it. Get them accustomed to using email/IM (ty, pb).

If you still have problems, you will need to explain more assertively in terms that they do understand. I am not advocating aggression, abuse or anger [hey, cool sentence -  do I win a Joel prize?]. It won't work and you'll get disciplined.

What they understand is money; request your manager bill them for development time lost (an hour * number of developers should do it). Don't expect to actually get any funds transferred. All you're doing is making a point.

If you have a discrete environment, filled only with developers, request a physical barrier (door?) be put in

Saturday, February 1, 2003

disregard last line - cut+paste error.

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Justin, a better technique for dealing with interruptions from account managers and similar people is:

1. when it happens, wander to your manager's office and start a conversation, dropping the fact that so-and-so has just come by and disrupted your line of thought, so you thought you would take the opportunity for a break

2. randomly go the said account manager, preferably when he or she is busy on something, and interupt him or her. Point out he or she does this to you.

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Another suggestion for Vincent's problem

Have a near by office for conferences (one with a door). My project has one booked all the time for this.

If the discussion involves more that 2 or 3 people make a rule that they go to the conference room.  If the room is tied up go to another room or postpone the meeting

John McQuilling
Sunday, February 2, 2003

IMHO if your flow is constantly interrupted by people outside your team / division, its your manager's problem and you should moan until he fixes it.

Where I work we have a formal seperation of function across division and we have formalized the communication between sales / finance / support people and developers. Interaction is via email and our bug reporting software and one person per team is assigned " buggable" duty as Issue Manager. This duty rotates every 2 months or so and we have a roaming email which follows that person around. The issue manager also generally has his / her own office, so people popping in to "quickly ask about x" don't disturb the other developers. I think this works extremely well. The issue manager knows which dev to bug and when, and he understands flow so he doesn't do random drop-bys. When he doesn't know what to do, he escalates to the team leader. This role is stressful for the issue manager, but also a great way to learn and get the bigger picture. Most devs really enjoy the change of pace for a while.

Btw, I don't buy the "better communication in a shared space" idea. Where I work we are 2 to an office and that works great. People drop into each others offices to discuss technical issues, or to visit friends, but without ever bugging more than 2 people at a time. "The zone" is your friend :)

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

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