Open space or offices — developers debate the merits

Views differ on whether software development is best carried out in an open-plan or private cubicle environment

He works in a private office at SAS Institute, with a radio playing in the background, and he takes calls on a speakerphone. It's an environment that makes him far more productive than he would be working in a cubicle, he says.

"You have the ability shut your door and shut out most of the distractions," says the anonymous SAS developer, "and if you're more comfortable, you are usually more productive."

He isn't alone in his belief that an enclosed office can boost developer productivity.

John Miano, founder of The Programmers Guild in the US, also believes that software development operations would improve if employers provided a workspace that offered peace and quiet.

"It's my personal view that we have twice as many software developers in this country as we need," Miano says. The controversial H1-B visa programme for non-US citizen IT workers "has destroyed the entry-level job market," says Miano.

He argues that businesses should focus on improving productivity and not on hiring cheap labour and outsourcing jobs. Improved development tools, processes and better work environments could reduce development costs, Miano says.

Something as simple as "getting rid of cubicles and replacing them with enclosed offices" can boost productivity by eliminating distractions, he says.

Others, however, say working in open spaces can improve communication between developers, which is vital for most large projects.

For example, Altair Engineering has opted for an open environment in an building it opened two years ago. With a three-story atrium that lets in natural light, the building features open areas shared by developers and their managers, says Michael Kidder, vice president for corporate marketing at the software development firm.

"We find that the open area provides a lot more communication between team members, which is critical to the quality of software," Kidder says. "That feedback loop is very hard to structure."

William Sims, a Cornell University professor who has studied workplace environments and software development, says his research found that open environments are more conducive to project development work and notes that developers in private offices may be more productive individually but may not be in sync with a team. Nonetheless, most software engineers still have "this firmly ingrained belief" that they need an enclosed office in order to be productive, he says.

Walt Scacchi, acting director and a research scientist at the Institute for Software Research at the University of California, says office design boils down to economic issues for many companies.

In addition, some software development firms view offices as a perk for managers and put developers in open environments. On the other hand, some companies see offices as a recruiting perk, he says.

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