iPods for the masses - Embedded.com

iPods for the masses

Click here for reader response to this article

Offices are so noisy it's hard to be productive. To compensate wise managers should provide MP3 players to the developers.

Most wags consider Fred Brooks' The Mythical Man-Month the classic work on software engineering. From it emerged Brooks' Law, which states: “adding people to a late project makes it later.”

But in my opinion DeMarco and Lister's Peopleware is the single most important book on the subject ever written. To learn about software productivity the authors ran “coding wars” that pitted development teams from some 600 organizations against each other. Turns out experience, salary, language used, and all of the other parameters we'd normally consider important were in the noise. The biggest factor? Interruptions.

Teams with the fewest interruptions were nearly three times as productive as those suffering from the usual plague of never-ending phone calls, queries from fellow workers, the chime of ever-more incoming email, and the like.

Three times. Think about it.

Later studies by other researchers found that after an interruption it takes 15 minutes to get into a state of “flow,” that Spock-like trance where you're one with the computer. Yet the average developer gets interrupted every 11 minutes.

Most managers stick their engineers in cubicles rather than private offices, ensuring that every overhead page breaks into their thoughts and anyone's ringing phone brings the entire room's productivity to a screeching halt.

Dilbert rightly calls cubes “anti-productivity pods.”

One company, just starting to design a new engineering building, asked me to discuss this issue with upper management. I explained the perils of interruptions and the benefits of offices. Hours of negotiating failed. I was told that the interior designers promised that cubes were more “flexible” than offices.

Me, I'd take productivity over flexibility any day.

Later I had exactly the same discussion with a large company in Finland. That country has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. English, the language in which we held our talks, is commonly spoken but has the status Spanish holds in the United States. Managers told me, in English of course, that cubes are more “flexible.” Same word, different culture.

I think it's a conspiracy.

But the fact is few companies will abandon the stampede to maximize noise and therefore destroy productivity. We engineers simply have to work under the big boss's radar screen to employ practices that let us work efficiently despite a work-hostile environment. There are a lot of tricks we can use. One I've advocated for years is to wear headphones, at least for a few hours a day, to drown out the incessant office hubbub.

But here's a better solution: managers should buy each member of the team an iPod or similar high-capacity MP3 player.

For two or three hundred dollars, say a quarter percent or less of the fully-loaded cost of a developer, this sort of tool drowns out the office politics and chatter and lets Joe Coder focus on cranking great code. Joe's productivity rate will soar. That small investment gets recouped in hours.

I bought a Dell DJ Digital Jukebox, a $249 marvel that packs 20 GB of music into a shirt-pocket sized package. My 250 or so CDs fill less than half the unit's memory and offer something like five work-weeks of music without a repeat. We've taken to calling the thing a DellPod in deference to Apple's leadership in the industry. The Dell unit offers a quality of sound that is, well, music to the ears.

For some reason the supplied ear buds are, for me, uncomfortable. Others in the family have no problem with them. Oddly, if I reverse the channels, putting the left one in my right ear, they feel fine. Or consider Bose's noise-cancelling headphones. Though I've yet to try these out, they look like a comfortable way to insulate oneself from a bustling, noisy office, at least for a few hours a day.

I'd never advocate living in this cocoon for eight hours straight. We build products as teams, working with other developers, bosses, marketing dweebs, and customers. Monkish isolation is nave. But for a couple of hours a day, when your need to concentrate deeply is thwarted by the noisy office, don the headphones and drown out the discord.

The role of a manager is to help her people be maximally productive. That includes providing the appropriate tools, from an environment that has heat and water, to compilers and debuggers, and even to devices and strategies that help one think.

What do you think? Should the company balance their need for “flexible” cube space with tools like MP3 players?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response

In my career, i've gone from a corder office with windows that open and back to a cubicle. They both havepros and cons. When I had an office, people felt compelled to come and talk to be about non-work related items for longer periods of time, because they could sit down in a comfortable environment. In a cube, however, the interruption are shorter. The problem is the frequency is greater in the cube. The cube offers the advantage of being able to overhear conversations you may want to be a part of.

Office or cube doesn't matter – neither is ideal. What I found to work is a pair of noise-canceling headphonesand iTunes on the computer playing music without lyrics or heavy rhythms (to each their own here). I then established aculture in my company whereby you would email someone, even if they were 50 ft away. If they did not want to bedisturbed, they checked email only at convenient stopping points.

But I sure miss my office!

– Eric Uner

At work, my iPod is my most important tool.

As for headphones, though, noise-canceling headphones are a big mistake.

The problem is signal-to-noise ratio. The noise-canceling headphones will drown out background white noise (fans and so on) leaving nothing but impulse noises from phones, clicking and clacking keyboards, sniffles and snorts, door slamming, voices, ad nauseum.

I found that noise-canceling phones on an airplane cut the engine noise to the point that I could hear conversations five rows away. I'd rather listen to the engines.

I have found the Shure E2c noise isolating earbuds ($100-150) are fantastic. It takes a little trial and error to determine the most comfortable ear pieces (comes with different sizes) but they block most of the annoying sounds.

PS: I don't know why it's soooooo hard for managers to understand that “thought workers” need to be able to think. Duh. I wouldn't expect a kid to do his/her homework in this environment.

– Robert T

I've found that listening to music with headphones at least part of my day really does boost my productivityin the cube environment. However, sometimes you need to pull off the headphones to hear the scuttlebut and get a heads-up on what may be coming your way!

– Mike Sessums

I couldn't agree more!!! I have been using this technique for years now and it's AMAZING how much more work Iget done when listening to my favorite tunes. Not only that, but I can concentrate for longer periods of time without taking a break (once I found myself finally getting up after coding for four hours straight!!!). I highly recommend this for anyone who is frustrated by the ever increasing “noise” in the workplace.

– Gbenga O.

I've worked in many environments: telecommuting, cube farm, lab, newsroom (no cubes, no walls, just engineersand desks). When I share a room with other engineers, my preference is the newsroom, hands down.

Cubes are the worst of both worlds, and the best of none. They provide little or no shielding from noise (I've yet tosee a cube farm with an anechoic ceiling, as though that would solve the problem), and just enough “privacy” that otherscan't tell whether or not it's “safe” to interrupt someone. Most assume it IS safe, and shout or poke heads over the cube walls to start a conversation.

The newsroom, on the other hand, has many advantages: Everything's out in the open. Available are instant visual cues as to who's available, and who's not. The openness is an inherent sign that sound and voices carry, and that those in the space come to respect the quiet if at all possible. At the same time, the open space fosters quiet, close face-to-face interaction, which is immediately taken somewhere else if appropriate.

I've removed cube walls from a room when I could, with positive results in terms of productivity and interaction between engineers.

Pens are for farm animals. Creative engineers do not belong in them.

– Daniel Daly


I'm sure that everyone has noticed that most of the managers who claim there's no benefit to private officesdo so from their private offices!

The ideal solution? Be fortunate enough to work for a company that realizes the cost of a noisy environment. My current employer allows me to work from home four days out of five.

– Tim McDonough

Stumbling upon what I just informed my manager and HR, to hear the same answer as other managers in the worldhave said – cubicles are more flexible and someone also thinks noise adds a bit of fun to the office time!But I hate the noise and the conversations.

I have been 3 times more productive myself when the environment was less noisy and more isolated. It made me think more and worry less.

I would suggest an in-between environments to managers where we have a isolated environment for 2 or 3 people in a cube. Anyway we look – distractions are always present on the field. Do we need to learn to cope up with it instead of tryingto avoid it?

I do tell the Madame Curie story to all – “when all of her classmates in school arranged the desk & benches around her, she didn't even realize what was happening and went on reading the book she was reading. That was the amount ofconcentration she put in.”

Do we all need to take the moral from the story?Of course, all of us are not Madam Curie!

– Saravanan T S

I'm working in a Japanese company and both in Japan and Belgium our office is a large floor where you can seeeverybody. It is very distracting because every movement, noise, conversation will catch your attention. And people have no worries coming without notice to your desk for a chat. Listening to music may reduce the sound distraction, but can we really concentrate on design when listening to music? We have one engineer using Bose noise cancelling earphones but he can't hear his phone or hear us calling him… I think that private office with up to 10 people would be a good compromise. Or if we work on large floors, we should have a pool of small offices when deep concentration moments are required.

– Joachim Vandersleyen

I fully agree with Jack. Most of time this place(cubicle)is very noisy and it affects the productivity, and it eats up some of my time as i have to stay back in office after the office hours to complete the pending work!

– Anshuman Singh

listening music simulates alpha pulses which are sleep inducing…writing codes in this way is how muchproductive i cant say….associates starts concentrating more on lines of songs rather then lines of there codes

Techniques like meditation are more reliable for increasing focus rather then depending on gizmos….

if you enjoy your work and has interest in getting work done ….nothing can distract you …

Its about silencing your inner voices which is more important….

– rajan

Why the expensive MP3 player when your computer (120GB Hdd) can play music?

– Sameer Cholayil


I can only do some types of embedded work with music in the background, and I like to work in relative silence. It's a bit easier for me becasue I work from home.

One negative about the iPod idea is that it makes it incredibly easy for an employee to walk away with confidential information.

Just jack into the PC and copy the files.

There are some firms that actually ban portable devices with storage:



– Ralph Hempel

If I remember right, the Space Shuttle code is written by Lockheed Martin. They provide private offices with doors andwindows for their software developers. They also have an enforced quite time during the day for about 4 hours, whenthere are no conversations, visits, etc. The stakes in their work are very high. A software defect may mean that theastronaughts sitting across the table may not return safely. They probably have the lowest error rate for any softwaregroup. I think it was less than 10 defects per million lines of code. Pretty impressive…

– Howard Smith

I dislike the idea of the company buying iPods. It implies they think they can cover up the problem. For most of mywork I need quiet, not just a different type of noise.

The results of the survey are surprising. 21% of your readers work in private offices. I have worked for a company thatprovided private offices and it was great. But right now I don't know of any company that provides them. I'd like toknow where these people work.

One of your readers used the term “private office with up to 10 people “. Perhaps private offices are so rare that somereaders are unclear on the term. You can't have a private office with 10 people in it. Once you have more than one it'snot private any more.

Eventually I hope to work from home. That is probably the only way to have a productive work environment.

– Gary Chatters

jack that would be my ultimate dream to bring an ipod to work. I could work better under stressful situations like(debugging )it can be a pest @ times, I think employers should go out the way to bring a better way of comforting developers to a jobsetting in stress=time situations.

It would nice to listen to linkin park while you code and debug an asics board.

– fred barnes

Right on!

There's noise galore both in terms of “office activity” noise (conversations, ringing phones, printers and equipment) and also the ambient environment noise (air conditioning compressor, buzzing overhead lights).

I've pretty much resigned myself to the noise year ago — now, I always bring a industrial pack of foam ear plugs, a Bose noise-cancelling headphone, and an iPod with me.

– Joseph Chiu

I find it very refreshing to hear the comments of others and compare their feelings to my own.It makes one feel less alone in the jungle of life!

– anthony olivastro

I think the main problem is that engineers are asked to work in a non-productive environment. The only phase in an egineers life that he can truly pursue what he likes in his job is in academic research as long as there is considerable freedom and trust between the employee and the employer

– Stephano

In Silicon Valley, engineers with offices are rare. At my company, no one has an office – this includes the CEO, President, CTO, etc.

Noise is not the real problem. If skilled engineers can't come up with individualized solutions to deal with noise, they are probably in the wrong business.

Interruptions are the biggests factor that causes a loss of effectiveness. This is a culture problem that must be addressed by the management team. My group has a policy which allows 3 mornings a week (4 hours a day) of no meetings, email, or phone calls. This has helped increase our productivity in a very measureable way.

– Todd Wright

I not sure what is the best solution to avoid distractions. I write code at home and sometimes even sparrows bothers me. I will try those canceling headphones and instrumental music. But for sure this subject must go on until better ideas come up to help us.

Thanks Jack for start this kind of discussion.

– Joao Roberto Gandara

Luckily, I work in an Anechoic Chamber.

– Steve King

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.