Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Different Minds V (Asking around)

I thought I'd better check my assumption that people talking stops you programming.

Web searching produces contradictory results. Everyone agrees that it's a very complex task that needs lots of concentration.

Noisy crowded offices feature in several lists of 'top ten classic software mistakes'.

Tom DeMarco, a famous software productivity guru makes quiet and privacy the unconditional top recommendations in his famous book 'Peopleware', about how to manage software development. And has done experiments to back his advice up, which come to the conclusion that what is obvious (to me) is also true. You can't program well when people around you are talking.

A lot of programmers work very anti-social hours so that they can get things done when no-one else is around. (At the shop I'm talking about so many of the programmers were doing this that it actually got quite noisy and distracting in the evening. I tried coming in very early in the morning or at weekends to avoid the other avoiders. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a mornings person, and I had to abandon this strategy because it was leaving me permanently exhausted).

Many people wear earplugs or earphones to work.

But some of those people are using their earphones to listen to loud music.

Those people are doing it to block out the ambient noise, and some of them say that it only works with instrumental music (no words), but some of them say that as long as they listen to songs they know well, it's not distracting.

And some programmers don't believe that there's a problem at all. They think that the people complaining about the noise are 'special snowflakes', or that they're trying to get offices for reasons of status. I wouldn't have been at all surprised by management types or HR people thinking this, but these are actual programmers saying this. Most programmers don't care about status. If they cared or noticed that sort of thing they'd stop wearing black T-shirts with the names of children's musicians on them covered in pizza stains. The ones that care about status signalling tend to become management.

One very successful and innovative shop I read about (Github) is actually proud to boast that they have rock music playing loud in their office. I could not have been more surprised if you had told me that they paid people to go around slapping their programmers with wet fish and stealing their computers.

So I asked the other people where I was working. After all we were all in the same environment.

And results were weird. Some people hated it like I did.

Some people found it just as distracting as me, but didn't care. They were getting paid whatever, it's only a job, isn't it like this everywhere?

Some people pointed me to sources of industrial strength ear-defenders.

Some people said what on earth is your problem? Can't you just shut out the noise?

And some people just didn't think it was that noisy.

I was reminded of a situation years ago where a colleague of mine was constantly complaining about the air-conditioning.

Apparently the air conditioning where we were working would randomly switch on and off every five minutes.

I tried to sympathise, but I hadn't the heart to tell him that I hadn't noticed that we had air conditioning before he'd started talking about it, and that even now I had to make an effort to tell whether it was on or not, and that I'd never noticed it switch on or off. Nobody else understood why it was a problem either. Chris found it absolutely infuriating and complained constantly. He eventually left over the issue. This was a sad thing because he was one of our better talents and we missed him badly.

Noise sensitivity is apparently a common symptom of Asperger's Syndrome, common amongst engineers and mathematicians. I wondered if that might be my problem.

I have some friends who are involved in autism research, and I asked them whether they thought I might have the syndrome. They were unanimous that there wasn't a chance. (Although one said "No, you're weird, but in a completely different way. Nothing like Asperger's.", which wasn't super-reassuring.)

Just to check that they weren't being nice to me, I did a couple of online tests, both of which said that I'm slightly less Asperger's than average. (Apparently that means that it's schizophrenia I should be worrying about. Sigh...)

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