Workspaces

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.

workspace3

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 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Workspaces

  1. Another nice post, I love that fishtank by the way. I’m not sure if embedding pictures in wordpress comments is possible but here is a link to my workspace: http://i.imgur.com/UsoBr3G.jpg
    Not as cool as yours, mine seems a little colder without the tank and plants.

    The comparison you draw between writing a novel and writing code is very intresting to me. I always felt more like they were two incompatible sides of me and were constantly clashing. I thought along the lines of: “How can I impove at such a stuctured medium (programming) by writing something spontaneous and organic (novel)”
    This post gave new insight into that so thanks!

    Like

    • Thanks! I’ve always liked fish, since I was really little. My family thinks I’m nuts. I have two other fishtanks–a 1.5g and a 2.5g, both of which hold a single betta (apiece) and more live plants, natural rocks, and stuff like that. Really pretty, and the plants keep the water very clean.

      Ah, but writing is very structured! It’s just more native to human thinking than code, or at least it is to most people. I’m sure there are super-hackers out there who think in code more easily than words. (I personally have had one or two of those code dreams… one time I dreamt I was writing HTML and woke to half-consciousness, drowsily muttered, “No… I have unclosed tags…”, fell back asleep, closed the appropriate tags, and then I woke up for real and realized the ridiculous thing my brain had done.)

      Paul Graham is my most recent reading obsession, so obviously I’m biased right now, but you really should read the Hackers and Painters essays he has online. PG points out a lot of connections and similarities. Particularly you should have a look at these two, if this is the sort of thing you’re interested in.
      http://www.paulgraham.com/knuth.html
      http://www.paulgraham.com/hp.html
      I know some of them are long, but they are a lot of fun. :3

      Oh, hey, look. I just turned 18. Ha.

      It looks to me like you like having a lot of space to think, with minimal distraction. Yet, that is not a manager’s desk by any means! It’s got a certain quality to it… I’d have a hard time working there myself, though. I wonder how your thought patterns are different from mine and how that gets expressed. But they can’t be that different. From what I can see of the handwriting in your notebook, your handwriting looks kind of similar to mine.

      And–I took Latin too! Maybe you’re in another country or something. Here in America, Latin’s a rare subject… my high school taught it, but only once a year, and it wasn’t a long class. Actually it wasn’t even all Latin; it was Latin and Greek and looking at what other old alphabets looked like–more of a linguistics class, really, although Latin was a main emphasis. It was interesting, and I liked it, but it was certainly not a popular class. Looks like you took more than just a brief high school course on it, though. (I, uh. Really like languages. I took four years of French in between learning computer languages. And a year of German.)

      It’s funny how schools go, “What, linguistics? We don’t need to teach that. They’ll never use that. …Fiiine, I guess we’ll offer it as an elective.” and then they go, “Geometry is a *required class.* You can’t skip it, you need it to graduate.” I have not used Geometry since sophomore year of high school, apart from the stuff that should be common sense. I’ve used the stuff from Classical Languages more, I’d say.

      Also, the things you learn in language classes are more applicable to programming than Geometry, if you ask me. I’ve read that any system devised by a given group reflects that group’s internal communication system. Therefore, any computer language written by humans will reflect human languages. This should be obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to miss. Computer languages have syntax. Another word for syntax? Grammar.

      Again, that’s also part of why writing can make you a better programmer. Become more proficient with one language, and you become more proficient with any language. Even an intentionally created one.

      Wow, what a long comment. I just can’t avoid writing blog posts everywhere, can I? This girl thinks too much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s probably a good thing that they both tanks hold a single beta each- I hear you shouldn’t put those fish together.

    Ill check out Paul Graham later today, after I finish reading this epic by you, and then the rest of my book, then I should have an empty plate to shove more words into my eyes.

    Happy birthday! you should have made a post or something so I could have known. Did you have party or anything? Surely such a life changing milestone deserves more than one line out of your response.

    Your next paragraph made me laugh becuase first I am in the states, and two becuase I also take highschool Latin. At my school Latin is dying a slow death, less kids every year, less funding. Oh well it’s going the same way that rome did.
    Before I took Latin I took spanish for two years and Chinese for one. Both of those were intresting but now come back to haunt me and confuse Lain and its many rules even more.

    You continue to make valid arguments that I had not thought of about crossovers to programming. Long comment it may be but by no means was it boring.
    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Like

    • No, you shouldn’t! Most of the time they fight to the death. There are exceptions (three, in fact: when they’re mating, when they’re inhabiting a huge pond or tank that’s in the hundreds of gallons, so it’s big enough that they both have room to claim territory, or in a rather unnatural situation aquarists sometimes create where you put at least six females together in a big enough tank–if you do that right, they won’t hurt each other, but it’s really tricky and stressful on the fish). But the females aren’t as showy as the males, so I content myself with spoiling my colorful little guys in their own tiny underwater jungles.

      Oh, but you can put them with certain OTHER fish in a 10g tank or larger. It’s just important that the other fish are there first and they don’t nip the betta’s long fins too much. My third betta lives in the 10g with some neon tetras, a platy, and a guppy.

      Eh, I don’t think turning 18 is such a big deal. It means I can get a job and a driver’s license (which I wasn’t able to before because I stalled too long on getting my learner’s permit–I was busy with other stuff at the time). It represents some respect from people who place more value on legal validation than I do, and it represents a certain increase in freedom once I get the aforementioned job/license.

      I suppose I have a different definition of adulthood than that of a lot of other people, but I’m not sure what my definition is. Is it a certain measure of independence? Is it building something to be proud of, like an journeyman’s master work? Or is it a change in the way you think, or in the way you interact with other people? If it’s just the last measure, I’ve been an adult for years, and there are middle-aged people who are still teenagers.

      The legal system may have recognized me as an adult, but I’m broke, jobless, can’t drive on my own, and living in my childhood bedroom still. I have to admit it’s awfully claustrophobic. But saying that implies I expected better of myself–and when you compare my accomplishments to those of other people my age, that sounds admittedly ridiculous. There are 18-year-olds who are still in high school and have never had a job, and who don’t have my skills (or equivalent in another field).

      The biggest echo of my French classes is that I have a knee-jerk reaction to reading words like “hors d’œvres” aloud. People say “you’re pronouncing that wrong”; actually, I’m not, I’m just pronouncing it in French instead of the Anglicized pronunciation. I didn’t take enough of the other languages to have the same reaction very often.

      I did a kind of dumb thing in sophomore year and took French and German at the same time. I mostly didn’t have issues with it, but I had occasional problems when I needed to speak French and all I could think of was German, or vice versa, and rarely I would confuse simple words that I said in French often for German words. It’s kind of like how after I took Java, I started fiddling around with Ruby and Python tutorials and I needed a conscious effort not to put semicolons at the end of my sentences.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You need to email me! I’d hate to turn your beautiful tech blog into a chat log.
        Ill just put the address here but its also on my blog.

        Like

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