Here’s an excerpt from a Paul Graham essay entitled “Great Hackers“:
If companies want hackers to be productive, they should look at what they do at home. At home, hackers can arrange things themselves so they can get the most done. And when they work at home, hackers don’t work in noisy, open spaces; they work in rooms with doors. They work in cosy, neighborhoody places with people around and somewhere to walk when they need to mull something over, instead of in glass boxes set in acres of parking lots. They have a sofa they can take a nap on when they feel tired, instead of sitting in a coma at their desk, pretending to work. There’s no crew of people with vacuum cleaners that roars through every evening during the prime hacking hours. There are no meetings or, God forbid, corporate retreats or team-building exercises. And when you look at what they’re doing on that computer, you’ll find it reinforces what I said earlier about tools. They may have to use Java and Windows at work, but at home, where they can choose for themselves, you’re more likely to find them using Perl and Linux.
(This was before Python went mainstream, by the way. This essay’s from 2004 and Python’s really young–it was still obscure at the time. Python seems to be replacing Perl, probably because it’s a good first language, and the syntax looks “friendly,” and so many young hackers will have lots of experience with it. Perl looks intimidating but does a lot of the same things; I don’t know enough about it to say if it does them better.)
This passage kind of made me wonder precisely what different hackers’ workspaces look like, though. Obviously they’ll all strive to be fortresses of concentration, quiet with minimal interruption. But hackers are a blatantly nonconformist culture; individuality is prized to the point that imagining there could be a standard for “hacker workspace” is laughable.
For the purposes of this discussion I’ll extend the category of people being discussed to anyone who programs in their spare time, as those who wouldn’t normally be included in the description “hackers” really only face the barrier of time before they qualify (well, to a certain extent; there are exceptions). I’ll also include other “maker” cultures that work at a desk. To me, artists and writers are the ones who come to mind, although there are undoubtedly more that you can think of.
It made me think about my own workspace, and how much it said about me. Which turns out to be… a lot.
First, that I am a very visual person. The wrong kind of clutter bugs me. Yet, I’m willing to give up the back half of my desk space in order to surround myself with a dozen plants and a 10-gallon fish tank. This is because it isn’t clutter to me.
Some people couldn’t bear having so much stuff in their line of vision. For me, it’s essential.
When I need to stop and think about something, I pause and stare for a few minutes at my fish, or I water my plants. Being surrounded by this cozy, natural background helps me work. On anything–not just code.
Conspicuously missing from my desk and the surrounding area is any sort of calendar. When my mental organization isn’t enough, I make my to-do lists mostly on the computer. I rarely forget things I need to do unless my workload is really heavy, and then I just write it down in Word or LibreOffice.
I did, in early May, make a paper list of the things I wanted to get done this summer and space to scribble down stuff about them, and put them below my desk’s clear plastic cover. It’s visible under the teapot; look how much I haven’t used it. At all. It wasn’t obtrusive enough to visually nag me (if it were, I’d have thrown it away), so I forgot about it.
I like very much to be organized. Disorder kind of makes me nuts, actually. Not the sort of disorder that you get when you don’t make your bed (I don’t care about that), but the sort you get when your mental systems, or any extension thereof, aren’t easily usable and accessible. It actually puts me in a bad mood until I can sort things out. Any system I use to do a task I’d normally reserve for my brain has to be just as organized as my brain is, or it’s like my brain is what’s disorganized. This is why I always know where things are on my bookshelves, why I clean out my computer’s files on a regular basis, and why I’m picky about how my code looks. If I have notes on a novel I’m writing, they need to be organized too. Props to the writing program Scrivener for satisfying this need–I love Scrivener.
The easiest system to keep organized is my brain itself, and I happen to have a lot of mental space for the things most people would put on a calendar or a to-do list. I think this comes from spending… about five, six years? regularly working on long fantasy and steampunk novels with Byzantine plots. I never relied much on outlines or notes, unless it was fiddly technical stuff like how many miles per hour someone’s clockwork cart was supposed to go or why something that seems unlikely happened. Funnily enough, that’s the sort of thing you put into code as comments. And, because I spent so much time learning to hold so much plot in my head, I don’t think it’ll be much of an issue when I need to hold the entirety of a long program either. Now that I think about it, it seems that writing novels taught me more code skills than I realized.
I also always have music playing. Always. I can barely work without it; I can’t have the emptiness of a sound-space any more than I can stand the emptiness of a bare desk. But it has to be the right kind of music, just like I can’t have the wrong kind of visual clutter. Right now, a YouTube playlist of about 100 nightcore songs is my poison. (Nightcore is mostly just pop and/or rock music at 1.5x speed, unless the person who remixed it actually knows what they’re doing.)
Pop music is easy to tune out, and the speed increase makes it easier to tell lyrics apart from when someone’s actually talking to me. Some nightcore is more techno or dubstep-ish, and that’s really appealing too. But it’s important that it has a solid beat, and that I can mostly tune out what I’m hearing. I speculate that the reason pop music is easy to tune out is because the people who make it realize that if folks listened to their lyrics, they would seriously question their own taste. Whatever. It works; listening to music that I can mostly tune out means I don’t hear all the other little sounds that might disrupt my thinking.
Why do hackers, artists, writers… etc, like cozy, quasi-cluttered spaces, and managers like a rather bare area specifically dedicated to business? (Which is evidenced by the fact that that’s what workspaces in companies across America look like. I don’t need to dispute the latter point; they’re the ones who chose to make their places look that way.) I’m sure they consider our desks ridiculously frilly and cluttered.
Perhaps it’s because for hackers (and for novelists too), it’s that they don’t have bad associations with work, so they don’t have bad associations with the place they work–they don’t feel the need to compartmentalize, to differentiate between their “work space” and where they have fun, because their work is fun to them. Perhaps it’s because they like work and spend more time doing it than managerial types might, so their space has to be comfortable for longer periods of time. Perhaps it’s the hackish tendency not to place value on “seeming professional.” Or perhaps it’s another side effect of how those drawn to maker professions like programming and writing just inherently think differently than people drawn to manager-like professions.
What your chosen workspace (not one that was designed by someone else) says about you is worth thinking about, because it might say something you hadn’t realized before.
Go ahead, describe or post pictures in the comments. I’ll wait 🙂