Why it isn't so surprising that "furniture" is the keynote speech at the Java Symposium

At first when I saw it on the schedule I thought it was a joke. Sure, the Java Symposium isn't exactly the biggest or best conference, but keynote speech about furniture? Really? But after thinking about it for a while, I realize that the issue is actually important enough for a keynote, even though I disagree with Neal's thesis. So why is furniture is the subject of Neal Ford's keynote at this year's Java Symposium? He will talk about "the frustrations of modern knowledge workers in their quest to actually
get some work done, and solutions for how to guard yourself against all
those distractions." He's going to rant against cubicles, save the everyday Joe Programmer from his frustrations, and I think that's great.

But I'm not sure if I agree that a shared workspace is causing Joe Programmer's troubles. Sometimes I like being in a shared space. Sure, if I am hot on the trail of a great idea, and thick in the implementation, then yes, by all means, I want an office and a closed door. But alas, the opportunities for such development are relatively sporadic. The reason is that, once the code is done, working, and checked in, you get to describe it, support it, test it, explain it, defend it, tweak it, deploy it, demo it, profile it, document it, and discuss it. These other activities require communication and an office actually gets in the way of those tasks.

Communication is the core benefit of being in a shared workspace. But sharing energy is another. The energy of the place can keep you going in the middle of the day when you might be sagging and loosing focus. It's kind of like working out in a room of people vs doing it yourself. Working in an office means you get some good peer pressure to at least pretend to work when you're sitting at your desk. This is why I, and many people I know, enjoy working in a coffee shop. In fact, I'll even dub this "The Coffee Shop Effect".  (Of course, it works the other way around, too: if everyone is depressed about something, like a bad quarter, it's easy to get pulled down with everyone else. Luckily in a coffee shop people are usually jacked up on caffiene, and there is no shared earnings report, so that's nice.).

I also want to point out that being in an office doesn't necessarily reduce distractions: IM and email have a way of ignoring physical barriers. I've yet to meet a product or project manager that shied away from opening the door at any time. Of course, it's possible to close the digital doors too, and coworkers no matter their title need to respect one's space, but an office alone doesn't solve these issues. E.g. it takes more than changing around furniture to cultivate a nice atmosphere.

So basically I think that companies should provide both types of environments. There's a huge economic pressure to keep expensive programmers focused and productive for more hours in the day, but there is a certain maximum (for myself it's only possible to be in "the zone" for a max of 4 hours per day - when I go past that and look at my work, I have to admit it's not great). And for semi-focused work, a shared space is actually better and more fun.

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