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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Some effects of unchecked company growth

Companies frequently go through changes. Those which are trying to hire as quickly as humanly possible tend to have a lot of growing pains. If you haven't been through this before, it might come as a shock when it happens to you. There are a few patterns I've noticed so far, and it seems like the kind of thing I should share with other people so they, too, will know what to expect.

First, a few caveats. This is not a check list, or a linear sequence. Some companies will hit all of these scenarios, and others will skip over them entirely. Some will go back and forth, growing and shrinking, sometimes hitting those states, other times not. Also, just because your company does this, it does not necessarily mean it has become a big faceless place that no longer cares about you, but you definitely should keep your eyes open as it progresses.

Let's begin with the physical office space.

There's a point where you have tons of space. Maybe the company buys an old corporate campus and has whole buildings which haven't been used yet. You may come in to find entire floors filled with nothing but LoveSacs (think bean bags, only much bigger). Nobody feels cramped.

Eventually, you might get some crowding. This may come and go. Intern seasons will also affect this, so during the summer months, a few extra people may add to the load, but then it may go back down in the fall. At some point, the "fall relief" may stop happening because full-time hires more than cover the departing interns.

There may be some temporary respite when a new building opens, or when a floor becomes available for habitation. (Companies often move into sites before all of the space is ready.)

But... eventually, there is more crowding. Things start getting weird again. And then there's even more crowding.

At some point, the company may shrink the desks. This is where they take out the five foot wide desks and replace them with four foot wide desks. In so doing, they "reclaim" one foot of width per desk. You can see that after reclaiming this from four desks, they get enough room to cram in another desk! The same space which used to hold four people (4 people x 5 feet = 20 feet) now holds five (5 people x 4 feet = 20 feet). If you have multiple monitors, things may get interesting. Your neighbors will be closer to you... on both sides.

Another step they can take is to remove the notion of "pods". If you aren't familiar with this, a pod is typically where four or six desks might be pushed together. Two or three of them are on one aisle, and they back up to another two or three which are on another aisle. Then, there's a (hopefully ADA compliant) gap between it and the next pod. When space crunches get really serious, then the gaps go away entirely.

Once this happens, you end up with very long runs of desks with no space in between. You might have ten desks in a row. Let's say your teammate is directly across from you, on the other side of your monitor. Maybe you are both right up against the windows, which is relatively special since (1) natural light and (2) distance from the aisle. In order to sit down with your teammate, you have to walk all the way back to the aisle, passing up to nine other people on your row, while simultaneously passing the ten other people who also back up into the same space. Then, you have to thread your way BACK into the next row where your teammate is.

What's this? Backing into the same space? Ah, did you forget about the row behind you? Those people's chairs are in the same general area as you. When they push back, they approach you. If they leave their chairs out, you may have to do some fancy footwork to get around all of them. Remember that you also get to do this on your teammate's row with their row-mates and the people who sit behind them (and their chairs).

The whole time this is going on, you have more and more and more people crammed into the same amount of office space. Unsurprisingly, the noise levels go up, up, and up some more. Everyone is advised to "get good headphones", and eventually to forego regular passive headphones and start springing for the fancy, multi-hundred-dollar active noise canceling kind. Yes, the kind you'd wear on a plane, only you're going nowhere, sitting at your desk. These expensive headphones will occasionally walk away, as will Lightning cables for phones, and other random stuff on your desk. You will have to start hiding them or otherwise find a way to lock them up when you aren't there.

All of these people in one space also need to have meetings somewhere, and while you've been adding desks, you probably haven't been adding conference rooms. Eventually, every single conference room near you will be booked solid from some relatively early hour to some relatively late hour. VPs and maybe even some high-level directors will use their powers to get their admins to "claim" rooms for their own purposes. Those rooms disappear from the calendaring system for everyone else, and only add to the loading problem.

There's also the matter of parking. In the heady days of having quiet floors full of LoveSacs, the parking lot has empty spots as far as the eye can see all day long. You can arrive at 6 AM, 8 AM, 10 AM, or even right at noon and you will get a good parking space not far from the entrance to your building.

As things start getting more crowded, you will find yourself vectoring around the lot to find space in front of a building that isn't yet occupied. You'll park down there and hoof it back to your building. Hopefully there's good lighting and halfway decent security in case you have to leave after dark. (Remember, in the dead of winter in this part of CA, local sunset can happen as early as 4:30 PM if you're close to the hills.)

Eventually, the company may add little "pucks" in the parking spots which report open/taken status, and little displays to point you to a row with open spots. This may work for a little while, but growth will surpass it in due time. You may also start playing games with your start times in order to get a decent space in the morning. You lose the ability to sleep in, show up at 10 AM, and leave at 8 PM. You also can no longer leave to have lunch off-site, or run errands mid-day, since there won't be a space when you return.

Next comes the valets. A company will be hired to bring people in to take your car and double-park it behind other cars. In case you haven't seen this before, allow me to explain: a normal parking lane might have 20 angle parking spots on either side. Valets will pick one side of that lane and will park cars nose-to-tail right behind the cars which are angle-parked in those spots.

A tight squeeze every day

These valets don't work for your company and have no particular affiliation with it. They may hire all sorts of random people who will do unspeakable things with the cars once they take the keys. If it's a tech company with lots of expensive and exotic cars, you may well hear vrooming engines and squealing tires in the lots, and then find out that it's not some idiot owner, but instead it's some valet.

There will be fender-benders. There will be paint swaps. Cars will get damaged, and nobody will leave a note. Security's cameras will somehow never be able to help you figure out what happened, and posts complaining about it in the internal groups will "mysteriously" vanish, along with the dozens of "me too" comments from other drivers.

Visitors, too, will have to go through this. They'll hear strange engine noises coming from the lot as they go into the building, and know it was their car. Then they'll come out and review the dash cam video, only to find that there's no recording at all. The only way this could happen is if it was purposely erased, since it should have recorded something. Then they'll undelete the video, since they know better, and will produce a video that shows the car being driven around and around and around, instead of just being parked in any number of available valet areas.

This, too, will be posted, and then deleted mysteriously.

If you choose to drive, you will now have to choose between getting up much earlier, in order to get your own space, or coming in later and possibly having to hand your car over to the valets. Do you trust them? What about the other drivers who have your car parked directly behind them? Can they back out into what's now a half-width parking row without hitting you? Keep in mind that if they end up hitting you and they just bone out without telling anyone, you're out of luck. You take a hit on your insurance or you pay for the repairs yourself.

If growth continues, then at some point, yes, even the valets will fill up. They will do this without any particular coordination, so that building A's valets will say "go to building B", and when you get there, they will send you back to A. Cars will be filtering past in both directions, having heard one piece of advice or another. Realize that the whole time, these cars are threading through a parking lot that has had most of its rows reduced to nothing, just like clogged arteries. It's really slow going and mighty frustrating, and then you get sent in circles by the valets.

You may end up having to park off-site. By this, I mean potentially a mile or more away and even in another city, beyond the point of being able to reasonably walk back. There may be short-haul shuttles. Those shuttles may not run on predictable intervals, and may not operate as late in the evening as you need them to. You may have to get on the last "remote parking lot" shuttle at some point just to get your car and bring it into the main lot.

Some days you might just turn around and drive home and work from there.

These are just some of the notes I've taken for the "building" and "parking" aspects of company life. I haven't talked about long-haul shuttles, food and drink accommodations, company outings (parties, "field days"), performance reviews, or the inevitable added layers of management.

I'll save those for another time. This is plenty right here.

How much of this have you lived through? How much are you willing to stick around for if it starts happening? Are you sure?

July 31, 2018: This post has an update.