Nothing gets done when you interrupt an Engineer

Ross McKelvie
Nov 13, 2014 · 4 min read

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

Image for post
Image for post

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.

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:

Image for post
Image for post

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.

Image for post
Image for post
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

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.

Image for post
Image for post

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!

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.

Boost VC

The Boost VC Accelerator: We Invest $500k in Sci-Fi…

Ross McKelvie

Written by

Engineering Entrepreneur

Boost VC

Boost VC

The Boost VC Accelerator: We Invest $500k in Sci-Fi Founders. 250+ companies funded -http://www.boost.vc/apply

Ross McKelvie

Written by

Engineering Entrepreneur

Boost VC

Boost VC

The Boost VC Accelerator: We Invest $500k in Sci-Fi Founders. 250+ companies funded -http://www.boost.vc/apply

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store