Some Thoughts on IT jobs and Working Conditions

Had an interview recently. Overall the interview itself was relatively positive, and I think the challenge that was offered was something that I’d have been quite up for, but I had some reservations about the work environment – more than just “passing reservations”, so I thought I’d put some thoughts onto digital paper, so to speak.

I do have fairly strong feelings about the inadequacies of “open plan offices” for IT workers [or more generally, “knowledge-based workers”.] To give you a better idea of what I am referring to:

  • Peopleware – possibly the single-most important reference on working conditions for tech workers. It shows comprehensively how people with fewer distractions get more productive work done than those who are constantly interrupted[1][2]:
    “The people who brought us open-plan seating simply weren’t up to the task. But they talked a good game. They sidestepped the issue of whether productivity might go down by asserting very loudly that the new office arrangement would cause productivity to go up, and up a lot, by as much as three hundred percent. …The only method we have ever seen used to confirm claims that the open plan improves productivity is proof by repeated assertion.”
  • Joel’s [Original] ‘Bionic Office’
  • Joel’s Updated Offices – keep in mind this is Manhattan office space, so getting the best people on board requires the best environment. Contrariwise, you may not get the worst people in the worst environments — but the “best” IT people will usually move on to better, more productive environments fairly quickly.
  • Open plans make establishing “Mutual Interruption Shields”[3] almost impossible.
  • Tom Limoncelli also makes the following quote here:
    The biggest time management problem for system administrators is interruptions.
    I tend to think that the same problem applies to software developers – it’s sometimes referred to as a “mental context switch”, and can cut the productivity of your IT workers in half – or worse. Open plan offices are, generally speaking, the epitome of evil when it comes to protecting your IT employees from interruptions.
  • A Field Guide to Developers – some interesting observations about what things are [and aren’t] important to IT workers [the article was written with software developers in mind, but in my experience systems administrators are quite similar in their expectations and ideas about “good workplaces”.] From the Field Guide:
    “One thing that programmers don’t care about – They don’t care about money, actually, unless you’re screwing up on the other things. If you start to hear complaints about salaries where you never heard them before, that’s usually a sign that people aren’t really loving their job. If potential new hires just won’t back down on their demands for outlandish salaries, you’re probably dealing with a case of people who are thinking, ‘Well, if it’s going to have to suck to go to work, at least I should be getting paid well.’

    “That doesn’t mean you can underpay people, because they do care about justice, and they will get infuriated if they find out that different people are getting different salaries for the same work, or that everyone in your shop is making 20% less than an otherwise identical shop down the road, and suddenly money will be a big issue. You do have to pay competitively, but all said, of all the things that programmers look at in deciding where to work, as long as the salaries are basically fair, they will be surprisingly low on their list of considerations, and offering high salaries is a surprisingly ineffective tool in overcoming problems like the fact that programmers get 15” monitors and salespeople yell at them all the time and the job involves making nuclear weapons out of baby seals.”
  • From The Practice of System and Network Administration, Chapter 35.1[4]:
    The hiring process can be simplified into two stages. The first stage is to identify the people whom you want to hire. The second stage is to persuade them that they want to work for you.
    Making a persuasive argument with a poor workplace environment is always going to be difficult, regardless of salary or any other factors. Many people in the IT industry can be “unique” in this respect – they find roles that keep them interested and excited about each day at work – and that aspect is far more important than work that pays a top-dollar salary but is rote and monotonous.

Some things I noted about the place where I interviewed (either from observation while I was waiting, or during the interview):

  • Almost all IT staff in one open plan area. Think of a 1950’s newspaper bullpen, and you get the idea. There was one area to the side where where some of the more senior staff seemed to have their own bullpen.
  • Not even cubicles for some semblance of privacy. I’ve worked in a place where even the telephone operators in the call centre had more privacy and insulation from distractions.
  • Apparently this “extreme open plan” was a deliberate decision — it was apparently part of an ongoing attempt to fix some ingrained cultural deficiencies. [How exactly this was expected to achieve their goals is still unclear to me…the actual problems weren’t fully disclosed.]
  • Some people were trying to work while others carried on in one corner of the room in a fairly noisy discussion – from what I could see and from the information I was provided in the interview, there was no separate meeting area or room for ideas to be brainstormed. Not seeing the impact of that on overall worker productivity completely escapes me.
  • The interview itself was conducted in one of the few private offices [presumably because privacy is important for an interview, and without a private meeting room, what else will you do?]
  • From what I could tell, only very senior management were allocated the few private offices. Apparently parking was allocated on a similar theme…only for the very senior.[5]
  • No space for individual whiteboards or reference libraries. No, Google doesn’t answer all questions, and the two whiteboards I saw seemed to be shared by all staff.
  • Two excessively noisy airconditioners — not a ducted or even split A/C system, and the compressors were completely underspecified for the office space/volume [making them run at or above capacity by the sound they were making – and it wasn’t even a hot day.]
  • Very large space with large windows, but using overhead lights instead of lots of natural light — opening the blinds and letting more light in seemed like an easy fix, but one that seemed to be overlooked by a lot of intelligent people.
  • The space could actually quite easily be converted into a two-storey, split or lofted area, providing significantly more workspace area and worker privacy. But I expect that would be too much money spent on IT workers [hmm, wait, apparently that’s the thinking that caused many of these problems initially! Meh.]
  • Non-ergonomic chairs and desks. If you’re putting people in chairs for 8 hrs per day, those desks and chairs had better be comfortable and compliant with occupational health and safety regulations.
  • Multiple monitors – if you’ve got 4 different 19” monitors attached to a single machine – maybe, just maybe, you should consider using those monitors elsewhere and buying two 24” monitors. You get 13% less pixels in a typical scenario, but only two monitors with more actual pixel real estate. Two monitors that use less power, are easier to manage and there’s only one break in your overall screen real estate. You’re also less likely to waste time juggling windows from one screen to the next – which is another productivity win. Sure it’s a small detail, but lots of small things over a long time actually add up pretty quickly.[6]

Recruiting new staff for such poor environments is going to be difficult. Not impossible, but definitely difficult:

  • If you’re planning to build a team – changing the environment to attract good candidates is critical to your prospects of building a top-notch technical team.
  • In a place where salaries aren’t really competitive, and office working conditions are assessed with a low priority, people are going to want you to offer other remuneration options.
  • Options you ask? Such as a subsidised mobile phone, PDA and broadband[7], telecommuting, higher than standard superannuation, salary packaging/salary sacrifice options, free or subsidised parking, regular technical training, flexible working hours, less restrictive dress codes, and of course the aforementioned things like private offices and quiet work environments.
  • Given the current economic climate, and the tight budgets most businesses presently have, flexibility on “alternative” remuneration options seems like an easy option to consider, yet seemed like “a bridge too far” for this place.
  • The poor economy isn’t going to last forever – when that happens, employers are going to find themselves on the back foot due to staff attrition: “the grass is always greener”, and when you’ve put up with poor conditions for long enough, it doesn’t take much to say “hey, I can do better – I’m out of here.” All it takes for that is a slight salary bump. If you provide a great work environment, better salary isn’t always going to compensate for that. [If tell you you can work in a great IT job with a great team for $70k p.a., then offer a crap, boring job with lousy conditions for $95k p.a. — how many IT people will take that? The number is a lot lower than you might think.]
  • So – bad conditions, non-competitive salaries and lack of alternative remuneration options all add up to “don’t work here unless things change”.

I’m lead to understand that the role I interviewed is a new role, paying OK[8] with significant responsibilities and strong prospects for advancement, yet it has gone unfilled for some time. I’m not completely surprised. If something was to change and I was offered the role, I’d still feel “80% positive, 20% negative” about it – but that 20% could easily make the difference between a 9-12 month stop-gap tenure and a 3+ year team-building role. It simply would depend how committed they proved to be about making real change, and providing a top-notch workplace experience.

The Nutshell Version For Employers:
  • The current economic climate will not last forever. Signs of recovery are already present in Australia.[9] If you’re reading this from the US, expect similar changes as the ARRA stimulus kicks in on all the huge IT projects Obama has approved.
  • Despite the climate, quality IT staff are still in demand. That demand will only increase as the economy recovers.[10]
  • Treat your staff well.
  • Pay them at least comparable salaries to other people doing the same work at other companies/organisations/institutions.
  • Offer alternative remuneration options.
  • IT workers almost always have backup plans[11] – poor timing may be the only problem for them. At the moment.[12]
  • If you don’t make them secure when times are bad, the first chance that comes along for better conditions and better pay may well leave you in the lurch, if you ignore this advice.
  • IT workers talk to other IT workers. Information will and does travel.
  • Perth isn’t a very large place. Information definitely travels quite easily in the IT industry here[13]
  • Information – good and bad – travels easily through mechanisms that may not always be known to you[14] “IT Networking” isn’t always about Cat5 cable :-)
  • Don’t think that people will stay out of loyalty when you’ve treated them like crap.[15]
  • If you’re an employer and this is all news to you – you really need to do your homework better.

My $0.02 for today.

P.S. If you’re going to comment, please refrain from mentioning names, if only to protect the guilty :-D

  1. Peopleware pp. 52-3.
  2. And yes, I’m aware that the authors of Peopleware aren’t against all shared workspaces – but those who share workspaces should be working on similar tasks or projects
  3. From Time Management from Systems Administrators
  4. The Bible for System Administrators IMHO
  5. Everyone else was expected to battle for the limited public parking available in the precinct. No subsidisation. I got the impression that since there was a train station very close by that there was an expectation staff would use that option. Never mind that public transport would actually cost me the same or more than driving and parking.
  6. Kudos where due – actually having multiple monitors for tech workers is almost a given these days, but I’ve still seen places where it’s not done, despite being de rigueur for programmers/sysadmins.
  7. Yes, accessing systems from home is important, even if you’re not offering any sort of telecommuting.
  8. Although I was offered $5-$10k less than what I would expect for a comparable role at a similar employer
  9. The stock market may take 2-3 years to regain lost ground, but that doesn’t reflect the health of an economy – continued growth does.
  10. Yes, I see the irony between my statement and the fact that I’m still looking for work. Am I a quality IT worker? Yes. Am I selling myself properly? Maybe not. Am I possibly overqualified for some roles? Maybe. I’ve really never been out of work for long enough to care, so maybe job hunting is one area where I need to learn a few more things. I’d much rather be improving my tech skills and working on interesting things however.
  11. Sometimes multiple backup plans.
  12. And yes, I’m being deliberately cryptic.
  13. Some might say it doesn’t matter where you are.
  14. Say, for instance, a lunch with former colleagues who happen to know a lot more than you ever expected about the environment you were considering.
  15. As a historical reference, I was only earning about $63k (all up) when I was working at $JOB-2 — money wasn’t everything. I left mainly because of two things:
    • The offer of a more challenging position with better conditions
    • The prospect of the existing working conditions at $JOB-2 being sharply compromised was becoming very real. [After I left, that “prospect” did in fact become a reality.]
    There were other, less significant factors – but those were the two main ones.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on IT jobs and Working Conditions

  1. Fortunately ATM I’m in a position where I don’t have to compromise principles in order to buy $FOOD (or $RENT etc.) – so I’m allowed to wax lyrical about how I expect a workplace to operate :-)

    It’s also a subtle reminder to myself – of the things I should remember whenever I’m in a position where I’m the one in charge of the workplace environment. I don’t expect to be working for other people forever – in fact there’s a decent chance that (once I’m employed) the next time I’m talking to recruiters I won’t be looking for a new role, but I’ll be looking for new employees instead.

    And no, that’s not a pipe dream. Unless it’s a MUSH.

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