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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Opening umbrellas indoors on purpose

There once was a company which had a nice 7th floor office for many of its support staff. There were windows on two of the four walls, and blinds were used appropriately to modulate incoming light. At night, a few small desk lamps were switched on here and there. Those, a wall of awards, and our monitors provided the rest. Then, the company moved, and the new space was sick. The techs rebelled. This is a small part of that story.

Datapoint, April 1977 To appreciate the situation, you must realize that this new space had no windows to speak of. The support floor itself had none. There were some windows on one wall, but there was no way to get natural light all the way into the building from them, for there were interior walls in the way. This area had been a Datapoint assembly line back in the '70s and '80s, and I'm sure it did that job well.

Skip forward 30 years or so, and now there are three shifts of people working in there around the clock with no external cues to tell when it's day, night, or in-between. Worse, there were ridiculously bright lights overhead, and no way to turn them off. Oh, there were switches, but everyone was forbidden to touch them, after quarrels between support and accounting had cropped up.

Support wanted them off, accounting wanted them on. Some folks in support figured "turn on a lamp" and bought a whole bunch of them from Office Depot and left them in a pile by the switch with sign: "free, take one". After all, they can turn on a lamp, but we can't turn on a "dark". No dice.

Well, support people solve problems. Even ridiculous ones like this. One weekend, someone noticed that all of our cubes had this shared pass-through hole for wiring in what was otherwise a solid desk surface. Specifically, they noticed that this hole was fairly big, and you could probably fit a pole in there, like for a tent, or ... an umbrella.

One tech got in his car and went to Wal-Mart, returning with a big outdoor patio type umbrella, the sort which fit into those holes in picnic tables. It fit perfectly, and cast a wonderful shadow over our computers and screens, and we had a nice Saturday evening working tickets and taking calls as usual.

Three umbrellas over desks The next evening, some techs who hadn't worked on Saturday showed up and saw it. They realized how awesome things were with that filtering added, and decided they wanted in on it. They ran out to Wal-Mart and returned with two umbrellas of their own. Now there were three of them in this area, all in a row. It was starting to look mighty sweet.

Sunday night was also pretty nice. We operated under our canopy and got things done. The accounting staff (or whoever) did whatever paper pushing they wanted to do, and we had some semblance of control over our space. We figured we had finally managed to get things moving the right direction, and that things would start climbing back out of the corporate hell which had followed our move.

Three umbrellas seen from a distance Well, anyone who knows corporate America knows what happened next. Sunday night turned into Monday morning, and the uptight management types who had been missing those 48 weekend hours returned. They came around the corner and saw this scene: three picnic umbrellas sticking up over the cube walls. That's when shit hit the fan. Phone calls started flying, with this person calling that person, calling the president of the company, waking up the VP of that area, and so on. The question was: who gets fired?

What's more amazing is that nobody was fired, at least not right away, but it certainly set the stage for some which would follow. Those who were involved but didn't get fired that summer would quit within a year. There was a clear impedance mismatch after the company changed, and that was the only way to resolve it.

Old dark office This story wouldn't be complete without a picture of what that old space looked like. This was a typical scene from just another night up on the 7th floor. It was dark, cool, quiet, and kind of fun, actually. It was dark enough to where my poor camera didn't focus very well, and yet still bright enough for us humans to work effectively. It was perfect.

Considering the support service was the product, and those people were how that product was delivered, you'd think someone would care about this kind of stuff. You wouldn't mistreat a horse which is pulling your carriage, so why do that to your employees?


August 24, 2011: This post has an update.