It’s Friday, 12th August 2016. It’s 11 AM and I’ve been sitting at my workplace for the last one and a half hours, in the glorious headquarters of K___a, the internationally famous payments unicorn, in the heart of downtown Stockholm. In the engineering department, we have a large landscape with bays of six workstations, with essentially no separation between them. This morning, the coworkers of another team that occupy the next bay are happy and alive and chatting as usual. I am the only member of our team present (summer vacation period and some extra circumstances), and I don’t have anything important to do at the moment. (I finished a bunch of tickets the day before and just want to get myself organized, maybe look at some incoming code reviews, etc.) Because my half-idling mind is repeatedly poked by those cheerful voices from behind, I start making a list of all the topics the people in the next bay are discussing:

  • living conditions in Stockholm (the eternal buy vs. rent debate);
  • where the investment market is heading (is it a good time to buy?);
  • cars and winter tires (winter comes early in Sweden);
  • a super slow SD card that should be replaced (and the inevitable debate about speed specs and the list of recommended models);
  • Olof Palme and the political situation that led to his assassination;
  • food (cooking, eating);
  • etc.

Just all kinds of totally crazy, unrelated stuff. And of course lengthy work-related discussions, too, just not my work. I am hearing about docker, nginx, rakemeter and whatnot. (My job has nothing to do with these. I am working on a system that is completely different.)

In general, people coming and going along the corridor, and the teams next to us perhaps even more so, are talking loudly and have no respect for anyone who tries to concentrate. The voices coming from behind my back are actually driving me insane.

After my mind is blanked by noise, I sometimes count how many different conversations I hear at the same time. Three is not uncommon. I would need to concentrate on a fourth one (in my own head). That does not work. When I hear two voices speaking at the same time, I stop listening.

Often when we have something to discuss with my colleague sitting next to me, I miss part of what he says because someone else is louder (several meters away) than his voice from 30 centimeters. This also happens at our standups, which we have in the corridor (for lack of a better “team area”). Side note: yes, people are actually slipping through our ring of four to six people having our standup before the board, with coffee in hand, trying to find a nearby meeting room.

Oh, and there is this totally annoying phone ringtone going off every now and then. I am told that I have to listen to it, because they cannot turn it off. It is some kind of paging alert. I feel sick every time I hear it.

This leads me to a perceived lack of control, as I probably shouldn’t just tell lots of people to shut up. I (and some other colleagues of mine) have brought up this problem with middle management, but nothing happened since several months (yet), even though I am taking a hit every day. All this is totally annoying the hell out of me. There is no way to think and concentrate in here, but perhaps only by great effort, and only when those other teams feel like taking a break from their seemingly eternal feel-good banter.

I feel frustrated because I perceive that my needs as a software engineer are not respected. I feel further frustrated because this state of affairs seems to be culturally accepted, so I don’t see any hope towards change. Quite a few people will admit (in private conversations) that they are frequently annoyed by nearby chatter, but essentially none are willing to speak up or speak out. (The company’s annual attrition rate is, tangentially, not very low – the number I heard was well into the double digits. But that is, again, culturally accepted, if not outright celebrated.)

I tried going to different places in the open office with my laptop, but sitting in random office locations (corridors? meeting rooms?) does not work for me. I need a permanent workplace, but one where I feel good and can relax and concentrate.

I have tried noise cancellation headphones (one of my teammates has a pair); they don’t really work. Noise (such as the low hum from the machines or AC) goes away; speaking voices come through crystal clear. I could also blast music into my ears (and I do that sometimes), but most of the time I just don’t want to listen to music, but concentrate on my work in (relative) silence.

After some research into possible remedies, I ordered some old-school hearing protection: they basically look like headphones, but their sole purpose is to block noise. They are normally used by people working under noisy conditions, eg. machine rooms, construction sites, etc. We’ll see whether they work out for me. If they do, they might just become my most important and most valued tools as a software engineer. [Update from several years later: They work! The precise model I have is called 3M Peltor X4A. But I guess any good earmuffs (marketed for shooters, aviation workers etc.) would work equally well. This is the real deal, short of working from home, which, as demonstrated later during times of Covid, is the real real deal.]

Now back to this Friday workday of mine. I’m just about to leave my desk and go for lunch when I am suddenly contacted by live operations: we got a critical alarm in the system. This is definitely a rare occasion. It’s already past noon; emergency changes must be done before 4 PM. This needs immediate attention. The crash is a bit tricky, because it does not seem to be caused by any changes in this morning’s release. Nothing went live that looks obviously related to the crash; that piece of code has been sitting there unaltered for several months.

Together with a colleague working from home, we dig into the crash and finally prepare an emergency change that we believe will fix it. In two hours, we are proven wrong. We get another crash: a slightly different, but obviously related one. One of our premises was slightly off the mark, so unfortunately we have not managed to fix the bug. Now it is even more pressing to come up with a second fix, one that will actually work. It is business critical to get this working before the weekend.

It is past 5 PM when we finally manage to get the second emergency change live. This happens less than five minutes before the system attempts the critical operation again. If we would have missed it again, we’d have been in for a nasty afterwork (together with live ops personnel). Fortunately, this time the job completes without a problem. We get the offending data logged. Our theories are confirmed. We will need to clean up the mess and properly fix the code in the next scheduled release, but that is a piece of cake. We are worn out (I certainly am, plus I do not remember having lunch), but we are finally happy.

During this adventure, the other team has been delighted to continue their chat on and off, throughout the day. Naturally, I no longer kept a list of all the subsequent topics they discussed. But maybe I should not need to expand conscious mental effort to screen them out and zone in on getting a critical emergency fix right (preferably the first time).

I also believe that even on less critical days, I should have access to the standard tools of my trade, among them a reasonably silent and distraction-free working environment. The workplace should not be something to survive. Besides, given the salary they are paying me, it would not be a bad deal for the company if they allowed me to be in a place, and state, where I can actually work.

Having a better office is now on top of my standard list of things to check out when looking at accepting a new job. Some companies will never qualify. But most people cannot afford to be as picky as I am, and this remains a severe problem for lots of us.