Burn the cubicles - in the pursuit of happiness

Kaz revolves around the word happiness. It’s around everything we do. We continually ask ourselves: “are we happy?”. We have a rule of thumb about failure that says: if one day we wake up and think of going to work as a pain then we will know that we have failed.

Many question our principle of happiness as the core business philosophy. Many are clearly baffled that this can be true. And many just laugh it away as a triviality – not believing it to be true. But if you think about it it’s the most obvious thing, it’s amazing that so many companies in the world miss something so basic. The pursuit of happiness is inherently a human endeavor. We spend most of our waking life at work, a significant number of modern human relationships are connected with work – given these facts isn’t it obvious that we need work to be based around happiness?

So what does the pursuit of happiness entail at workspace? There is no sure shot formula – you just have to go by your feelings. But if you were to ask us, what is one thing we must do as the first step in the pursuit for happiness – we would scream:

Say NO to cube farms

Cube farms are evil. They are inhuman. They were made by some alien droids that had no concept about being human and living a normal human life. If you want to achieve anything close to being not sad – burn those cubicles.

So if not cube farms then what? People have to work somewhere. Well we believe that the most natural space in our lives is our homes. So if we can mimic anything about our home at workplace that will bring happiness. So that is why we love our office that is not a purpose built open space for cubicle animals. We work in houses built in the 70’s that we have converted to offices ourselves. They are not inhuman multi-storied building but human two storied buildings (amazingly the two building we are based in are exactly the same architecture because they belong to the same family!). They have open space in front with large trees that have real fruits in the summer (an amazing thing by the way in the concrete mess of Dhaka). They retain old mosaic patterns that were very popular in Dhaka during the 70s and 80s.

 

 

Our seating is as asymmetrical as possible – almost chaotic. We try to give large tables that all look a bit different from each other. We sit with the wall at the back – so that it feels safe and we don’t feel watched. Our monitors are kept in a way so that the screen cannot be viewed by someone approaching us – so that we have our privacy. As un-cubicle like, as possible.

So once again, do everything you can to your workspace to stay away from the cube farms. Be happy!

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Cat on a hot software company

If you are curious about the title (and you should be!) the explanation is easy:

The blog is about Ms. Meow the cat - the official Kaz Software mascot. The blog is also tangentially about the importance of making a place of work, particularly a place of creative work, feel like a real human habitation (as opposed artificial "corporate" one). And last but not least the title is a shameless attempt to push a picture of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in of their finest moments :)

The mascot

Ms. Meow is a cat with a strong personality. She knows what she likes (techies and food) and she knows what she doesn't like (admin droids and banana). She is very conscious about her career improvement, as can be seen below - she learning the art of SQA with full dedication. (I'd like to point out that she is far from an ornamental mascot - she is the savior who protects us from the clutches of the evil mice :)  

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The workplace like a real human habitation

I agree, this paragraph looks suspiciously like a weak attempt to bring credibility to this blog post. But I assure you it is not. From the day we started ten years ago, we made innumerable decisions to make sure that our place of work feels, as close as possible, like home. This is not an easy task, mind you. It is not as easy as putting some pictures on the wall or setting up a comfy place to sit, etc. Well I should say it not just those things - there are many reasons why home feels like home. The visual aspect is only a small part of this big story. 

But why make it like home at all? Well that is a long tale with no definite story-line. But it is really a point of view (amongst many) about workplace. But it is a view that we at Kaz subscribe to very passionately.

I can't do it justice, so let me quote something I read recently in a book review (and I quote without credit - in the world view that in the post Google world there is very little need for such a thing): 

Understanding that humans biologically evolved to cooperate and that leaders emerged to protect the group, organizations that create environments paralleling those early conditions will bring out the best in us. This means taking steps to avoid the allure of abstraction in modern life by keeping it real and avoiding the perils of scale by keeping team sizes that mimic those of human tribes.

The picture

OK, cutting to the chase, here is the picture. It is from the movie Cat on a hot tin roof made in 1958. When the monochrome was at its best in human history and when nothing could beat the sizzle of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. (As a last attempt to justify it, I'd like to note that it goes with our theme in this blog of putting up old b&w pics of movies that are notionally connected with the content of the blog).

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Custom Carrom Board for a Custom Software Company

Our annual Kaz Carrom League is in the offing. Carrom is a game we love to concentrate our passion on during the rainy months of June and July. If you know anything about Bangladesh's rain you'd know why :)

With the carrom fever coming up we've been in search of the perfect carrom board since our old ones are dying out. But one of life's lessons was the fact that there are no perfect carrom boards out there.

Just as some problems in this world just needs a custom software, we needed a custom built carrom board.

So work is in progress for that perfect board. I list some of the spec items for this perfect board for your reference.

 

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Varnished sides with grains that contrasts well with carrom men

Did you know that the carrom disks are called men?  They are are and they deserve the proper varnished sides to settle down.


Extra wide sides

Because you need need your hands to relax while you wait for your turn.  Basic primal requirement.

custom carrom board extra wide edges

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Smooth rounded edges

There is no insult in life greater than being pronged by the sharp edge of the board when you've just missed your chance to grab the queen


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Strong joints to last a lifetime

Some people say that the strength of the joints transmit to the spirit of the game. 


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Extra strong back support

These boards will last a long time as will Kaz and we want to make sure posterity remembers us.  

N.B. Just in case you are new here: we are a custom software company  in Bangladesh making custom web, desktop and mobile apps for other companies and being very good at it! Check out this page to know more about our software development work culture and environment.

Workspace design for a software company

We are fanatical about our culture, we think as a custom software company this is our biggest strength that we can offer to our clients. A good workplace culture brings in great software, the equation is that simple. And the first thing in creating a good workplace culture is create a setting for it - creating the right physical environment that signals the values that we care about. Workspace design is key to a great software company. It is just as easily as important as the software development IDEs and tools. And this is not something new and specific to this space, a craftsman's workplace has always been important, his craft is enhance by the right choice of environment, the right arrangement of things. 

We realized this importance right from the beginning, and the first chance we got to setup our environment was in 2005 when we moved from our makeshift offices to a place that we could mold to our needs. We decided to call that place the Nirvana - because that was exactly what we wanted to make our place. 

We laid down our goals about workplace as follows and those goals have never changed for us, they define all decisions we take about modifying our environment.

  • Workplace has to feel like home.
  • Workplace has to be somewhere you can relax.
  • Workplace has to be fun. 
  • Workplace has to have places where you can always find a quiet place to sit and think. 

We read up all there was to read (or rather all that Google knew about). At the end two resources helped us a lot in our quest for the perfect workplace for software development. 

The first and by far the most important one (over the years) is the amazing book The Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander - which is a list of patterns that make great places of comfort. This obviously appealed to us as software engineers - great fans of design patterns in software design (there is actually a direct link between the two - with the pattern language book influencing the need for design patterns. Here is a link where Prof. Alexandar made a keynote speech at ACM conference on OOP that tells the story from his side.). This book gave us almost step by step instruction of what to do.

The next resource that was a great help was our guru's blog at joelonsoftware.com a lot of his writing guided us, but the must read was the bionic office, read also his updated one (when they moved to their new place). Joel is very opinionated. And that helps, he puts is logic in strong terms and you tend agree or disagree with him pretty early on. A lot of his stuff we followed blindly but a lot we did not and some we initially did but over time realized that there are better ways of doing things and changed.

What we started in 2005 has been an on going thing for us. Because no design is perfect, as we tried out various ideas some worked like magic but some needed subtle changes. Over the years, we have grown much larger in size and got hold of more space next to the original Nirvana. We adapted our workspace design ideas to fit with what we got from feedback from our people. And today at the middle of 2013 we have a set of rules for setting up things which are slightly different from our original and we know for sure it will change over time too. 

I describe below what we have now - our workspace design plans, office layouts and placement of different objects within our working environment. I will do most of it in pictures with little notes to go over the rationales or things we have learnt that are important about the elements in the layout. 

 

The work desk

  • We feel strongly about the pattern that there should be a wall at the back and that you cannot be approached only from the front. This creates a feeling of safety and it is one thing we never compromise on.
  • We place the seats so that you are looking out to the room at other people working on the same project as you are (another pattern). 
  • We are against Joel's single developer working alone in room model and also against Googleplex like or Agile war room like setup. But if a team wants to adopt a war room setup for limited time that is ok too. 
  • Desk space is vital for a proper mess. And a proper mess is vital for some developers, SQA engineers and designers! 
  • Pair programming needs elbow space! 
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Transition Spaces

  • Transition spaces like corridors are vitally important for a software company. They are where most solutions are found and most designs are finalized. So they need big whiteboards with markers.
  • The zen view pattern says points of beauty should be in transition spaces so that it leaves a good memory when you go to your ultimate destination. We agree and try putting in all sorts of points of interest like artwork, aquariums, etc.  
  • Not in the pic below, but transition spaces need to be dark with splashes of light (another pattern) - this helps the traveler feel they have reached home when they reach their room which are typically brightly lit. (Bit off the rocker statement I agree but we seriously believe this).
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Meeting Spaces

  • We make the meeting spaces cozy so that people feel comfortable being there.
  • We make sure there are no unnatural obstructions like tables in between people. 
  • We put strong colors in one or more walls - this is gives a jolt to the group when them first go into the room. A jolt sometimes helps people think out of the box. Strong colors also make people confident and help them take bold decisions. 
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Eating Together

  • We eat together because that feels like a family.
  • We make the room where we eat feel like a dining room at home, with pictures of our kids, little decorations we've picked up from our trips around the world, etc. 
  • We make the center of the table well lit and the sides a bit darker to heighten the feeling of grouping. 
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A Place to Contemplate or to Meet 

  • A place with a view; so that you can sit, relax your eyes a bit and think about things.
  • Some comfy chairs ideally cane to make it feel more like a garden patio.
  • A point of interest - like a big earthen bowl with water and aquatic plants in them, etc. 
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N.B. Just in case you are new here: we are a custom software company  in Bangladesh making custom web, desktop and mobile apps for other companies and being very good at it! Check out this page to know more about our software development work culture and environment.

In praise of mafia in a software studio

Kaz has always had a mafia. It is an institution that is deeply ingrained in our culture. We have always had a Don in our history and the personality of the Don defined the nature of our culture and our outlook at that point in time.

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"A mafia!" you might say.

"Yes a mafia" we would answer. A mafia with all the characteristics of the real thing. A parallel force to the legal authority, a group with great power with dubious ways of getting things done, running a protection racket yet somehow benevolent to those who accept its existence. 

The mafia at Kaz or "The Underground" as it is euphemistically referred to most of time is a real force. A force of good. They set the tone of all our fun events. Their activity covers just about everything - from setting up a cricket tournament (where they run the betting ring) to arranging gifts for our weddings (where they send out their goons to collect money). Kaz mafia has also been rumored to be very much in contact with the authorities too! 

We think this alternative force is absolutely essential for us. Since this force is given a lot of power to act and speak in our system - it is possible for voices to be heard from a different group than the management. Underground has an image of the protector of the techies from the evil (and acts of insanity) of the mad group of non techie sub human droids that run the management. This image makes it easy for dissent to be voiced about policies or rules at Kaz. And this makes it possible for the management to "understand" their mistakes and make amendments to the rules and policies. It is really like a check and balance in the organization. And for a software studio where the main groups that are essential to the business are software people who run from a slightly different dimension than rest of the human population (to put it lightly) - this check and balance is very important.

So I sing today the praise of our mafia and our great Don. 

N.B. Just in case you are new here: we are a software company in Bangladesh making custom web, desktop and mobile apps for other companies and being very good at it! Check out this page to know more about our software development work culture and environment.

The theory of software studio

The question I keep asking myself over the years in this space is "why isn't a software development company a software studio?"

We just love to call a place where websites are designed and made a "web design studio". A design and branding place is definitely a studio, so is an artist's workplace or a photographer's business. The word studio conjures this nice image of creativity at work, a feeling of something beautiful being made or an expectation of seeing something breathtaking.

Compare the word studio with what most software places are named or referred to as. The nicer ones with at least some feeling for the art are: software houses, shops, services or pods. The more formal ones are: companies, centers and offices.  But the award goes to outsourcing places with depression oozing from flowery phrases like: low cost, offshore, cost effective, transparent, time tracked, video monitored, screen captured, toilet-time controlled, caged programmers...I'm just joking about the last ones but only just.

But isn't software all about creativity? The art, craft and engineering war is not new - but even the most ardent engineering fan would accept that there is creativity involved somewhere in the process of making software. Whether you are making the software in-house or you are outsourcing it to be made somewhere far away the fact remains that there needs to be a certain amount of creativity and element of art involved in the story. So there is no big crime in using a word like studio to describe the place where all of this is taking place.

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And what a difference does a single word make! Software Studio - brings to mind pictures of cozy places, of dark rooms with splashes of light where there are screens and of places to relax and chat.

Words reinforce our view of the world and that in turn changes the way we think about things and eventually our actions. So here is my simple theory:

If a software company just starts calling itself a software studio (or something cushy like that), soon it will become a place where work is fun and creative.

A bit rash, random and without proof for sure - but aren't all theories something like that at the beginning?

N.B. Just in case you are new here: we are a software company in Bangladesh making custom web, desktop and mobile apps for other companies and being very good at it! Check out this page to know more about our software development work culture and environment.

Patterns in workspace design - redo

This is a post that was done way back in 2007. But nothing much has changed about our philosophy of creating an environment for creativity. We are redoing a lot of the space designs this year and will blog about those efforts. And as a starter we would like to re-post this for those who've not read it.

With the designer workspace project in progress at Kaz, I was revisiting the principles for achieving the perfect design of workspaces. These patterns as they are formally called were the guiding light when we were planning the Nirvana (our office space). 

Software has patterns. Patterns are tried and tested ways of architecting systems that just work perfectly for a broad set of similar problems. Made famous by the gang of four (GOF) in the early 90s when they published their book Desgin patterns

Interestingly the idea of patterns comes not from software but from architecture. We all have felt that some buildings or houses just feel more comfortable than others. There are some places where an adda is always a good adda. The person who put this into concrete form was Christopher Alexander in his book The Timeless Way of Building

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Since I can’t possibly describe this better than the great guy himself, let me quote from the book itself:

“There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are. ” 

As the quote sort of hints, the book was more philosophy than practical hints about the patterns. The next book was the practitioners' handbook for the patterns – the analogy of the GOF book in architecture: A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. One of my all time favorites, this book is worth reading just for your soul.

Before being carried away let me pin down a few patterns that is very relevant to workspaces and that we are definitely consulting during the planning. All of the following are stolen from the great book. 

Note that the numbers represent the pattern number used in the book (there were 253 catalogued). You can get a whole list of patterns here.

134 Zen View 

If there is a beautiful view, don't spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition- along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms. 

135 Tapestry of Light and Dark

Create alternating areas of light and dark throughout the building, in such a way that people naturally walk towards the light, whenever they are going to important places: seats, entrances, stairs, passages, places of special beauty, and make other areas darker, to increase the contrast.  

146. Flexible Office Space

Lay out the office space as wings of open space, with free standing columns around their edges, so they define half-private and common spaces opening into one another. Set down enough columns so that people can fill them in over the years, in many different ways- but always in a semipermanent fashion. 

152 Half-Private Office 

Avoid closed off, separate, or private offices. Make every workroom, whether it is for a group of two or three people or for one person, half-open to the other workgroups and the world immediately beyond it. At the front, just inside the door, make comfortable sitting space, with the actual workspace(s) away from the door, and further back. 

183 Workspace Enclosures 

Build each workspace an area of at least 60 square feet. Build walls and windows round each workspace to such an extent that their total area (counting windows at one-half) is 50 to 75 per cent of the total enclosure that would be there if all four walls around the 60 square feet were solid. Let the front of the workspace be open for at least 8 feet in front, always into a larger space. Place the desk so that the person working at it has a view out either to the front or to the side. If there are other people working nearby, arrange the enclosure so that the person has a sense of connection to two or three others; but never put more than eighth workspaces with view or earshot of one another. 

185 Sitting Circle 

Place each sitting space in a position which is protected not cut by paths or movement, roughly circular, made so that the room itself helps to suggest the circle- not too strongly- with paths and activities around it, so that people naturally gravitate toward the chairs and cushions loosely in the circle, and have a few too many.   

250 Warm Colours 

Choose surface colours which, together with the colour of the natural light, reflected light, and artificial lights, create a warm light in the rooms.  

252 Pools of Light 

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can't have pools of light without the darker places in between.

N.B. If you are new to our blog here is a quick summary of who we are: we are a software studio based in Bangladesh. We work on outsourced software projects from all over the world. We are passionate about the workspace and culture of a software company.