Life in the Bullpen

After the divisional all-hands meeting last week and my post, I called out for anyone close to the Building 300 remodel to weigh in with comments. Someone answered the call, on an internal blog.

His name is Puneet, and he’s a developer who sits in the bullpen on the 16th floor of 300, way at the high point of the HQ campus. His post is not just a recount of his experiences after the remodel, it’s also a nice history lesson about workspace design.

I like to have contributors from time to time. Remember Paul and Rich? Lulz. Here’s Puneet’s post, in its entirety. Enjoy.

“[John] Wookey talked about it, and Jake blogged about it. So I thought I might as well chime in with a first hand opinion.
It’s been just over a month now that I moved 3 floors up to the newly renovated 16th floor in 300 building. Besides the brand new carpets, swanky new IP phones and larger number of closed-door-offices, this floor also boasts of the new seating plan for 24 distinguished developers in the Financials Fusion Development team. I am one of the 24 brave soldiers and the new seating plan is called the bullpen style of seating. No, its not your regular cubicles, it is something straight from the golden era of 60’s.

Over the last month, we have had numerous friendly visitors and curious onlookers come up to the 16th floor to check how the new arrangement looks like. For the first few days, I was excitedly chit chatting with the visitors and explaining how life was in the bullpen. But I could not sustain it for long. Slowly, I started avoiding eye contact with them. And then thankfully their numbers dwindled and I thought that was good. Until Thursday afternoon when John Wookey mentioned about the 16th floor in his all hands meeting . Friday morning suddenly saw a spike in the number of visitors. It felt like being in the wrong side of the fence in the zoo. And now not only are they peeking in, they are giggling too. Hopefully, the curiosity would soon subside and we would be back to our normal selves.

Blocks of Four

The black and white picture above reminds me of my dad’s office in late 90’s. He used to work for the Government of India. Rows and rows of desks, one after another. No partitions, no privacy. The executives were placed in private offices at the rear, observing the workers through the glass window. However, our seating plan is a little bit different. We are grouped in blocks of 4 developers each. The block is surrounded by a wall of about 4 and 1/2 feet. And although ‘Sam’ [name changed to protected the innocent] and ‘Ralph’ [name changed to protected the innocent] sit right next door, I don’t think any executive is interested in observing what we are doing on a minute by minute basis. This is how we are seated:

This has actually been a prevalent seating plan in IDC [India Development Center] for a long time now. Except that it is a block of 6, not 4 developers in one ‘pen. So IDC folks must be wondering what this uproar is all about. Let me explain.

Increased Communications, Agile Team
The main driving factor for this experiment is to see if this results in an increase in the level of communication within the team. Since all the developers would be coding [. . .], the idea is to foster more collaboration amongst the developers to increase the efficiency and productivity of the whole team. Apparently, many of the new age software companies, Google included, have found love for this style of seating. Within Oracle, this is being currently tried as an experiment. I found a good reading on this topic in this online community website: Designing Collaborative Spaces for Productivity.

A brief history of Office Space in the USA

When we moved to this new location, I was curious about how office spaces have evolved and so I spent a little bit of time digging through the interwebs to find how the seating plan evolved in the US over the past several decades.

Pre-1960’s

Until the 1960’s, bullpens were the norm, as shown in the first picture above. Nobody cared for privacy crap.

70’s: Action Office and the Cubicle

Then in late 60’s came the innovation of “Action Office” from a furniture design company by the name of Herman Miller. Today we know it as the “Cubicle”. The cubicle was invented by Robert Propst who worked as the research director at Herman Miller. The Action Office/Cubicle was supposed to provide more privacy and was also easy and cost-effective to configure and re-configure as desired.

Cubicles instantly became popular and remained popular through the 90’s. Until I think when Peter Gibbons brought down his cubicle wall, while his VP Bill Lumbergh looked on startled, not knowing what to do, as hardcore gangsta rap played on in the background. The scene was from the movie Office Space. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, please just die.

And then Dilbert came and destroyed whatever was left of the reputation of the cubicle via it’s evocative comic strips by devising terms like the “cubicle farm”. Eventually, just before he died in 2000, the cubicle inventor Robert Propst himself committed that cubicles were a great mistake.

21st Century

21st century saw Google rise and shine. Google adopted a new way in everything they did, right from free food to a democratic IPO and then the seating plan. They adopted the 4-in-a-block style of bullpens. Since Google has been a successful company so far, it has inspired other to follow suit. Thus, bullpen seems to be becoming more and more prevalent as an effective office seating style, at least in the high tech software industry.

Cave and Commons

After doing my research on the evolution of office spaces, I was talking to ‘Ted’ [name changed to protected the innocent] and he told me this bit about how the office space was organized in a company he previously worked for in India. The company was called CMC Ltd. and it had a lot of IBM legacy. Everyone, including the General Manager, would sit in a cubicle. But the important point to note is this — each floor had conference rooms all along the windows, while cubicles occupied the rest of the space in the middle of the floor. Only conference rooms along the windows, no offices. If someone wanted to do work that required less distraction, more peace and quiet, they would go into the conference room for couple or more hours. Similarly, for meetings, 1-on-1’s or phone calls from spouses, the conference rooms were used for more privacy. But for all other regular work throughout the rest of the day, everyone would sit in the common cube area. This is an implementation of the idea of ‘Cave and Commons’. The conference rooms are the caves that provide privacy when required. Other times, everyone worked in a common area. I think this idea makes a lot of sense.

Nervous Breakdowns and Bullpens. No kidding.

This is straight from a psychosis research. While in this state of concentration, if your ‘subliminal sight’ detects movement approaching from behind, your brain will attempt to alert you with a Peripheral Vision Reflex. In other words, you get startled. Repeat this several hundred times and your are risking a nervous breakdown.
Apparently, from the research article above, the walls of a cubicle prevent sudden nervous breakdowns. A big +1 for cubicles.

So what is the conclusion?

The argument about the effectivity of a Private Office vs. Cubicle vs. Bullpen has been going on for several years. Joel Spolsky, of Joel on Software fame, firmly believes in private offices for developers, as does Microsoft, his alma mater. Whereas, Google believes mostly in bullpens and cubicles. The earliest reference on this topic I could find is a usenet discussion from 1991. Yes, 16 years ago too, people like you and me were discussing the merits of each style. So there seems to be no one final answer or conclusion to this discussion. As a consultant would say — it depends. But given a choice, I personally would want a corner office with a private jacuzzi. [. . .] ;)”

Good stuff. Luckily, I have seen “Office Space”, so I won’t have to die. Sound off in comments.

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

23 comments

  1. God that makes me feel old 1991 was 16 years ago – really? How did that happen?

    oh on topic again, I sadly suspect that Puneet is correct in imagining that corporates look at the culture of other corporates, more successful – more rich – more innovative whatever it is, and decide that they can use seating plan changes to drive culture changes. I don’t believe so, it seems to me that culture change is driven both top down – overtly – and by core groups of internal staff covertly (or at least tacitly). But it’s a human activity, not a logistical activity.

  2. God that makes me feel old 1991 was 16 years ago – really? How did that happen?

    oh on topic again, I sadly suspect that Puneet is correct in imagining that corporates look at the culture of other corporates, more successful – more rich – more innovative whatever it is, and decide that they can use seating plan changes to drive culture changes. I don’t believe so, it seems to me that culture change is driven both top down – overtly – and by core groups of internal staff covertly (or at least tacitly). But it’s a human activity, not a logistical activity.

  3. Excellent point, one that I have alluded to in other posts. Maybe it’s feasible to change logistics first, but that road is long and hard. I’m glad to have a firsthand account; I’m hoping to get an update from Puneet in a few months to see how the change is going.

  4. Excellent point, one that I have alluded to in other posts. Maybe it’s feasible to change logistics first, but that road is long and hard. I’m glad to have a firsthand account; I’m hoping to get an update from Puneet in a few months to see how the change is going.

  5. Interesting seeing how different countries woek in different ways…

    Here in the UK it’s pretty much all open plan, everywhere. In the customer office I’m in this week the entire (Agile) team sits in an open plan area and there are conference rooms at each end, of differing sizes, that can be used when privacy is needed (or wanted).

    In the Oracle offices it’s pretty much the same, most areas are open plan, but some of the senior management gets their own office… a lot of the desking is hot desked too, so there’s not a huge amount of “this is my space, this is yours” over here… although messing with the resourcers would be a REALLY bad idea!

  6. Interesting seeing how different countries woek in different ways…

    Here in the UK it’s pretty much all open plan, everywhere. In the customer office I’m in this week the entire (Agile) team sits in an open plan area and there are conference rooms at each end, of differing sizes, that can be used when privacy is needed (or wanted).

    In the Oracle offices it’s pretty much the same, most areas are open plan, but some of the senior management gets their own office… a lot of the desking is hot desked too, so there’s not a huge amount of “this is my space, this is yours” over here… although messing with the resourcers would be a REALLY bad idea!

  7. 4-bull pen is good if the pens nearby are occupied by the people doing similar stuff. Our team next door is not software developers, and they have to chat on the phone. A lot. Yes, and joke and laugh out loud.

    But other poor souls have it even worse, having to sit next to some kind of secretarial or legal team, who have much more to chat about.

  8. 4-bull pen is good if the pens nearby are occupied by the people doing similar stuff. Our team next door is not software developers, and they have to chat on the phone. A lot. Yes, and joke and laugh out loud.

    But other poor souls have it even worse, having to sit next to some kind of secretarial or legal team, who have much more to chat about.

  9. Graham: Odd to hear that cubes are not prevalent there in the UK. I never had one, but I always thought the low-walled cubes were a nice compromise, offering some of both plans. The ones with widows are decent too.

    Alex: Totally agreed. The old Santa Monica office (now Google) put me too close to sales folks who were constantly on the phone. I used to get in early to have quiet time, but that only works for development.

  10. Graham: Odd to hear that cubes are not prevalent there in the UK. I never had one, but I always thought the low-walled cubes were a nice compromise, offering some of both plans. The ones with widows are decent too.

    Alex: Totally agreed. The old Santa Monica office (now Google) put me too close to sales folks who were constantly on the phone. I used to get in early to have quiet time, but that only works for development.

  11. Like in the UK, in the Netherlands we don’t use cubicles much either, if at all. I’ve seen a lot of offices from the inside, working as a temp for over 15 years (80’s and 90’s), and have never seen cubicles other than in American movies.

    Only once I’ve experienced something remotely like it; I was working with 3 colleagues in one room, and at some point someone in charge of things decided we would work better with a 5 feet wall in the middle, seating us two by two. Still opposite of each other, but facing the wall instead of our colleagues. I hated it.

  12. Like in the UK, in the Netherlands we don’t use cubicles much either, if at all. I’ve seen a lot of offices from the inside, working as a temp for over 15 years (80’s and 90’s), and have never seen cubicles other than in American movies.

    Only once I’ve experienced something remotely like it; I was working with 3 colleagues in one room, and at some point someone in charge of things decided we would work better with a 5 feet wall in the middle, seating us two by two. Still opposite of each other, but facing the wall instead of our colleagues. I hated it.

  13. Els: This is great stuff. Honestly, I am just discovering that the cube is an American phenomenon. I’ve worked only in cubes and offices when I went into an office for my entire professional life. I can see how it would be shock to the system.

  14. Els: This is great stuff. Honestly, I am just discovering that the cube is an American phenomenon. I’ve worked only in cubes and offices when I went into an office for my entire professional life. I can see how it would be shock to the system.

  15. The phenomenon discussed here related to Cubicle Level Protection is called Subliminal Distraction.

    If you work in an office with out this level of protection and have psychiatric episodes such as panic attacks visit the Panic Attacks page at VisionAndPsychosis.Net.

    The phenomenon produces a variety of symptoms including depression. There are pages of events going back over a hundred years to support this.

  16. The phenomenon discussed here related to Cubicle Level Protection is called Subliminal Distraction.

    If you work in an office with out this level of protection and have psychiatric episodes such as panic attacks visit the Panic Attacks page at VisionAndPsychosis.Net.

    The phenomenon produces a variety of symptoms including depression. There are pages of events going back over a hundred years to support this.

  17. Nice post and description. I've been stuck in “bullpens” and “cubicle farms” for many, many years of my career as a technical editor/writer. I'm now working on escaping the clutches of the “cubicle” and breaking out on my own as an independent freelance editor. Although I'm gaining clients for my editing services only slowly, the freedom of working in my own environment (where ever it may be), is refreshing… and allows me to edit more competently and write without constraints. Thanks for the post! I hope you don't mind, but I'm linking to this post from my website on cubicles!

  18. Thanks Dave. The author, Puneet, has left the bullpen and Oracle, but he stays in touch, so maybe he'll see your comment.

    I live in Portland, which has by far the biggest nomadic tech workforce I've seen. The combination of wi-fi enabled spots like coffee houses, great public transportation, excellent bike-friendly conditions, and heavy-duty Open Source roots make it an ideal spot for work environment freedom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.