Thursday, October 15, 2009

Buying or Building... Furniture

Most software developers are familiar with the "buy-or-build" question: is it more effective to find existing software and try to make it work in your situation, or to build it to your exact specification and take on the burden of maintaining it? But sometimes it comes up in other contexts.

Like office furniture.

My current project at work is winding down, and I'm rolling over to a new one. As part of the transition, I'm moving from my old, two-person office into the new team's bullpen environment.

It might seem like a poor trade, but this team chose to trade in their fairly nice offices because they valued the higher conversational bandwidth they got in a bullpen. Yes, it's a bit noisier, but most of the noise is project-related, and results in quicker and more complete information dispersal both among developers and between developers and SQA engineers (who also share the space).

The big win for me is that it reduces the barrier to pair-programming to the cost of mumbling, "Uh... can anyone take a look at this with me?" And we still have the offices for when we need to make a phone call or do an interview.

One of the stipulations on building out the bullpen was that we had to use existing furniture. Unfortunately, while our current furniture is nice (and somewhat pricey, from what I'm told), it's optimized for a one-person or two-person office. We each get a curvy desk, a table with attached bookshelf that fits the curvy desk as an extension, and a funky rolling file cabinet. But the curvaceousness of the furniture means that it only fits well in a few prescribed configurations--none of which match a bullpen where you want to pair-program!

So the current bullpen, built from curvy bits loosely jammed together, isn't big enough to hold more people. And naturally, the people who handle furniture and facilities wouldn't be terribly happy with us saying, "Oh, this expensive furniture is nice. Now would you mind finding some place in our already-filled building to store it, and buy us some additional expensive furniture just like it, but without curvy bits?"

So our manager/Scrum Master, being the pragmatist that he is, decided we should build our own. From scratch.

Actually, "scratch" in this case really means heavy, solid-core interior doors for tabletops, and prebuilt folding-table legs to hold them up. Assembly is trivial, the surfaces are generous, prefinished, and attractive, and the cost was just a fraction of what we'd have paid for non-curvy versions of our standard furniture (which keeps the facilities folks happy... or at least happier).

There are, of course, some drawbacks. Making single large pairing stations means that you have to choose a single table height. In our case, it was chosen for us by the height of the prefab table legs.

However, my current programming partner suffers from an unfortunate and tragic genetic defect that caused his growth to continue far beyond normal human levels (the medical term is, I believe, "freakishly tall"). I, on the other hand, boast a full 5'3" of height, which seems far more normal to me, all things being relative.

So our alternative solution was to just tear the bookshelves off two small tables (again, that storage problem!), and then use one for each person, moving the tables around when we need to. The works great if the tables have cool adjustable legs like ours do.

(Mine, of course, is the station on the right.)

1 comment:

Mike said...

My medical charts do all say, "Freakishly Tall" under height. It's a medical term. Honest.