The Engineer’s Guide to Desks
Choosing the Optimal Gravity Prevention Surface
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Whether we work at home, in a pristine window office with a view of other pristine window offices, in a soul-sucking corporate cube farm, or in a series of cafés while milk-steamers provide the white noise that our programming souls demand, we are picky about our office environment. And well should we be, because the more optimal our office is, the faster we can work.
As someone* once said, “You can’t spell Office without a big O.” And what do programmers do when we see Big-O notation? We optimize. So let’s optimize the hex out of our offices, starting with our desks.
*(It was me. I said it. Just now, here. In the previous paragraph, right after the asterisk. Above.)
It used to be that a desk was just another place to put stuff. There might be a pencil holder, a calendar, a brass nameplate if you wanted other people to think that you thought you were important, and maybe a framed picture of somebody else’s family because the picture that came with the frame looked nicer than whatever family picture you’d intended to put there when you bought the frame.
But these days, the main purpose that a desk serves is as a horizontal surface on which to rest your computer. It could a laptop, a keyboard plugged into a desktop machine, a small monitor, or a wraparound set of several 4k displays. But just like we can have no greater purpose than to type information into your computer, your desk can have no greater purpose than to host these devices and keep them from succumbing to gravity’s great suck, or what someone* once called, “That long, sad drop floor-ward.”
*(Again, me. Here.)
For example, see the chart to the left, compiled at great expense from countless* examples of devices which, without the support of a horizontal surface on which to rest and prevent the relentless pull of gravity, simply tumbled to the floor, possibly shattering, or at the very least slightly inconveniencing, their sad, deskless owners.
*(Zero, for example)
The trick to optimizing the desk solution is to consider these important use cases. Make sure that your desk is the best typing and gravity-hindering surface possible. There are basically three options that engineers use successfully: the Classic Desk, the Standing Desk, and the Lap.
The Classic Desk
The Classic desk is the traditional office model practiced since our ancestors first settled this great land. While the Warrior class was beating the native flora and fauna into submission, the Engineer class was doing the books in the manor house, seated in an uncomfortable chair at a large wooden table. Just as those old oaken tables kept the accounting books from hitting the floor, today’s modern desks perform a similar feat with computers. Today’s engineers sit all day and night at these desks, endlessly typing.
The classic desk has survived through the ages for a good reason; it works. Not only does it keep things from falling to the floor, but it helps productivity through natural ergonomics and physics. As you can see in the diagram to the left, the ideas originate in the Brain (A) and flow downward using Gravity (B). They then exit through the fingers (C) to enter code into the machine. This flow of information produces the optimal amount of code.
One posture that many engineers adopt is The Slouch, which involves awkward horizontal slumping, often causing a situation where their head, or what some people call the “idea center”*, is at the same level as the keyboard. In this case, there is not as much momentum for the ideas to flow out. But there are two factors that help salvage this situation. For one thing, it ensures that only the very best ideas have enough energy to propagate over to the keyboard. In the previous example, an engineer with good posture is able to enter ideas at a brisk clip, but there is nothing to guarantee that those ideas are all good. Meanwhile, an engineer practicing The Slouch may have less sheer output, but the quality of their ideas, and therefore their code, tends to be much higher.
*(Me, for instance)
Another mitigating factor for slouching engineers is their diet. In general, engineers that demonstrate this anemic posture accompany it with mass quantities of sugary, caffeinated soda anda steady stream of high-calorie snacks. The extra energy that this food imparts helps push those ideas past the gravity well and out onto the keyboard. The problem, of course, is that the snacks and drinks themselves also spill out onto the keyboard, causing hardware malfunctions that defeat the productivity of the slouching engineer. But that’s what napkins and IT budgets are for.
The Standing Desk
The last few years has seen a rise in this exciting, new desk situation. Originally heralded as a more healthy way of being desk-confined, the like of which hadn’t been seen since wardens started introducing elliptical machines into solitary confinement cells, the act of simply standing at a desk was said to promote core strength and balance. The only way that argument makes sense is when you are pitching it to people who would otherwise be passed out. The amount of activity involved in standing is basically zero*, unless you’re buzzing so violently from caffeine that the act of standing still takes physical strength (and extreme bladder control).
Nevertheless, the standing desk does offer some advantages to today’s engineers. For one thing, it shares the same idea->code gravity equation with the Classic Desk, as thoughts trickle down from the head (A) to the fingers (B) and out onto the keyboard (C). But another, less obvious advantage of this pose is offered to those practitioners of Software Methodology. I’m speaking, of course, of the Agile software process.
In Agile software development, teams typically gather together on a daily basis in what is called a Scrum. This meeting usually takes place while the members are all standing, and consists of a quick round of status to determine areas of need and overlap in the team.
Here is where the standing desk shines. Instead of wasting time getting up from the desk and moving to the meeting area, the owner of a standing desk is essentially in a Scrum all day long, with every line of code written being a virtual ‘status’ item.
There are, of course, two points of view on meetings. Many engineers feel that their productivity is killed by meetings, and that fewer meetings means more code and therefore greater productivity. Other engineers (typically managers who used to write code and like to pretend that they’re still engineers) feel that meetings are productive because they synergize and facilitate, enabling communication in an empowering means of forward-thinking thoughtfulness (or something like that).
The “Lap” option, often practiced by engineers in coffee shops worldwide, is a popular variant of the Classic Desk, with many of the same advantages. Information still flows from the brain (A) down with Gravity (B) and ends up as code on the keyboard (C). But the distinguishing feature of The Lap is that engineers with laptops on their thighs benefit from the extra heat in cold climates. This method of over-heating the thighs has been referred to* as the “Engineer Tan” (D) and is considered to be attractive to other members of the species (while being ironically bad for future reproductivity).
No matter which style desk you choose, be sure to pick one that allows you to optimize the way that you work. Remember: it’s not about the code you write, but about the code you could have written, if only you’d had the right desk. Will we, as engineers, be lying on our death bed in the years to come, thinking, “I wish I’d written more code?” Of course we will! And having an optimal desk setup is one way to mitigate that eternal shame and regret.
As someone* once said, “Behind every great programmer is an incessant drive to do Great Things. And in front of them stands a desk on which to do them.”