This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Develop in the Cloud, sponsored by AT&T. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Develop in the Cloud site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

Developers, Introverts, and Productivity

The simple power of a door that closes.

Research suggests that our extrovert-loving schools and workplaces are squandering the best efforts of software developers and others who cluster at the introverted end of that spectrum.

Last winter Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking burst onto the business scene accompanied by the obligatory TED talk and coverage in the NY Times and on NPR. (In Amazon's sales ranking, Cain's book is currently holding at no. 97.)

The book's thesis is that we in the US have fallen out of balance: we have undervalued introverts since the early years of the 20th century, beginning at the time when the rural and agrarian was yielding to the urban and industrial. The lopsided approach is exacerbated in the workplace by open-plan offices. At the time I wrote about this imbalance from the point of view of the increasing emphasis inside companies on social collaboration.

Earlier this week the Farnhham Street blog featured a passage from Quiet that will be of interest to developers. It describes a study designed to isolate the factors that separate the very best developers from the least productive.

Over 600 developers from 92 companies participated. Each one was to design, code, and test an application, working in his or her normal office during business hours. Each was paired with another from the same company, but they were to work separately and not communicate. The results will be familiar to anyone who has been around long enough to have seen a range of software development shops: "The best outperformed the worst by a 10:1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median."

The researchers quickly eliminated almost all of the factors that immediately come to mind to explain such a disparity: neither education, nor salary level, nor years of experience mattered much. The best performers made salaries 10 percent above the worst, though they were on average almost twice as productive.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn't worked together. That's because top performers overwhelm­ingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

Bullpens don't work for developers. Yet almost all modern companies throw their workers together with no walls, as documented in these photos from Facebook offices and a smattering of other Web 2.0 companies. Here is Susan Cain writing in the Times:

Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and dis­tracted. They're also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu, and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

When I worked at Apollo Computer in the late 1980s, every developer had an office with a door that shut. We could control our own lighting, play our own music out loud, and decorate as we desired. If a door was shut you didn't even knock. Hewlett Packard bought the company because, senior managers there told us, they wanted to learn how we did the same work they did with one-fifth of the staff.