Nothing gets done when you interrupt an Engineer

Interruptions are setbacks, use them sparingly. Is there a solution to this common problem?

This comic is the perfect illustration of the typical interruption in a programmer’s day. Working in an office building is a hard balance of keeping up relationships with colleagues and getting shit done.

Boost VC Tribe 4 Observations

Tribe 4 was Boost’s biggest tribe yet. Day 1, the office was packed. Everyone was trying to get to know each other and build their businesses at the same time. Everyone was in the office. That was three months ago. Today, I count two engineers at their teams’ desks. The other people on the team are working away, collaborating, emailing, taking meetings, etc.

The unaccounted engineers, however, are working on secluded couches, dark corners, and isolated rooms. Unlike their business-side cofounders who change their task every 30 or 60 minutes, often involving verbal dialogue and collaboration, these engineers need a large percentage of the day set aside for uninterrupted thinking & programming.

Back when I worked at a marketing agency, guys and gals on our dev team would often pick up their laptops and move to a quieter area of the building when the pressure was on. This is an observable habit of engineers, especially within the realm of startups.

Headphones are a symbol that says “I’m busy right now.” This email was sent around the office by a Boost engineer one week into the program:

Don’t interrupt anyone wearing headphones. If you don’t want to be interrupted, put on headphones:
Need some help? Send a message over Slack or in an email. Whatever you do, don’t risk taking someone out of flow. They could be in the coveted mental state we refer to as “The Zone”.

Many engineers felt the same pain and began working slightly further away from the center of the office; they are in a race against time, and breaking focus hurts.

No really, breaking focus hurts

just like when invisible walls show up out of nowhere

Chris Parnin of ninlabs research conducted a study on the effects of interruptions on productivity and focus and found the following terrifying conclusions:

  • A programmer takes between 10–15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption.
  • When interrupted during an edit of a method, only 10% of times did a programmer resume work in less than a minute.
  • A programmer is likely to get just one uninterrupted 2-hour session in a day

Is it really that important?

Every time you interrupt a programmer, it’s coming at a cost: product development is set back about 20 minutes every time you tell them something. It’s no surprise that engineers thrive alone during darkness — nobody is around to break focus.

If it’s not mission critical, consider just shooting your programmer a text or email, they’ll get to it when they’re out of the zone. This applies to anyone on your team: interruptions are setbacks, use them sparingly!

People still talk to me, what’s the solution?

Do what the programmers are doing, but better. Give them an isolated room or area that blocks out most office chatter. Especially in a coworking space, office chatter and interruptions are unpredictable yet regular.

If your engineers are consistently moving away to get work done, make a nice area for them. Give them a Red Bull fridge and turn the lights down a bit. Take any meetings with developers outside of the lair.

For Boost’s Tribe 5, we are going to experiment with different solutions to accommodate a lot of companies with a lot of people in different roles. The idea is to create a “Programmers’ Lair,” a large room separated from the main floor where programmers and anyone needing focus can go to work, uninterrupted, all of the time.