The Price of Developer Happiness

Guest Post: Rich Armstrong is the Director of Customer Operations at Fog Creek Software in New York City. The company has invested in the workspaces of their employees to make them maximally productive. In the following article, Rich gives some wonderful analysis of the costs and benefits of their decision. Spoiler Alert: It is worth it.

Creating Workstations That Make Developers Happy

Okay, let’s just assume that you’ve bought into the idea that a happy developer requires a clean, attractive, comfortable workplace that encourages healthy, sustainable productivity.

You don’t want to do this piecemeal. You asked for a big monitor and you got it. Now, you ask for a sit-stand desk, and you’re suddenly the guy who always needs another “toy.”

You just want to know what a top-notch work station costs so you can tell your boss.

We use these products every day and have for years, and we love them. (Disclosure: None of the following links are affiliate links. We get nothing from recommending these products.) Here’s what our offices contain:

  • Fully-loaded Aeron chair, fully assembled  – $988 from
  • AirTouch Adjustable sit/stand desk  and non-moving side desk –  $1738 from Steelcase – Excellent for pranks.
  • Optional anti-fatigue or bouncy Kybun mat for those folks who choose to stand all day – $68 from Amazon or $335 from Steelcase, respectively.
  • 30″ monitor for work and a side monitor for your bug tracker – $1520 from Dell
  • Beefy workstation so you can’t pull this move – also $1520 from Dell
  • Whatever keyboard you want (because we’re all snowflakes) – up to $270 for a Kinesiskeyboard
  • Whatever mouse you want (beautiful, fragile snowflakes) -up to $70 for an Apple Magic TrackPad or a fancy trackball.

That’s a cool $6,174.00 maximum. (Yes, I know, we’re paying for a chair for people who stand all day, but we’re talking maximums here.)  All of these except maybe the computer have a depreciation schedule of  about five years. So that comes out to $102.90 a month. But, that’s not $102.90 per month extra; it’s the total cost of everything we use in our offices except the phones. (Which, for a dev, who cares as long as it never rings.)

We could do some research on and come up with some depressingly small number representing the minimum you could spend on a dev to get them nominally productive, but we really don’t want to go there.

Good luck!

Your Office Design Expresses Your Priorities As A Company

Since the beginning, Fog Creek’s promise has always been that every developer gets a private office with a door that closes. Don’t want a private office? You get one anyway. If you want camaraderie, you can walk down the hall, put your witticisms on company chat, or store them all up and let fly at lunch.

In the previous section, the underlying message was, “Give your people the workstations they need to be comfortable and healthy.” The message here is not, “Give your people private offices.” We’re satisfied enough with the benefits that we’re going to continue it, but we’re not here to proselytize that policy.

The point this time is this: your office space and how you design it is an expression of your priorities as a company. It speaks to everyone who comes through the space, every day. Do not be shy about spending money on it.

Let’s get the number out of the way. We spend a bit over 6% of revenue on office space. Compared to other companies we’ve surveyed confidentially, that’s on the high side, but not by much. And we’re growing fast these days because of the stunning success of Kiln, so we won’t be above 6% for long. We’re based in Manhattan and, as you might imagine, office space is very expensive. But that’s what the company was founded on: a good job for awesome coders in New York City. Without making light of the achievements of our neighbors, we didn’t want to be the best place for devs to work in Hackensack. So it’s time to pony up.

Of course, a lot of companies who are competing for the same talent are actually venture-funded startups. They have different needs, revenue/reward models, and external expectations than we do. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Fred Wilson might take issue if you buy the $10,000 espresso machine before showing a profit. We’ve been profitable since inception and so can work a little differently.

Also, the price tag on our office space is not only because we have private offices. We need alunch room and kitchen to accommodate everyone having lunch at the same time, away from their desks. Our summer head count can grow by ten because of our summer internship program. Okay, so we don’t actually need the saltwater tropical fish tank or the marble showeror the library.  But we’re also expressing our company culture by how we structure our office, and if that can keep us happy and motivated, plus attract more smart people who share our values, that’s very much worth the extra money.

Here’s a few good snapshots of our office, if you want to see more.

The Benefits of Employee Lunches

Buying lunch in lower Manhattan is not cheap. If you don’t brown-bag, you’re pretty much in for nine bucks, and more if you want to sit down. A meatball sub is $8.50. The Hanover Square Deli does a respectable dduk mandu guk for about $9.50. A meager-looking, but tasty, turkey and guacamole sandwich from British import Pret A Manger will set you back $6.75 (plus tax). Or, if you really want to eke out some savings, you can get a cup of soup and a hunk of bread for about $5.

At Fog Creek, we have our lunch catered every day.  The cost of this to the company is $15.75 per person per day. Not counting drinks and snacks, this amounts to an extra $4,000 per year per employee. So why wouldn’t we just pay people $4,000 a year more? If they want to be frugal, they can buy that $5 soup and pocket the difference.

Well, first off, since lunch is a catered on-site meeting, the cost of that lunch is 100% deductible as a business expense. If you worked here, it’d cost the company $16 to give you $10 to go buy your own mediocre udon noodles.  (Don’t take any taxability or corporate expense stuff here too seriously; I’m not an accountant or lawyer.) Second, Fog Creek’s free lunch is much more because of how it fits with the rest of our workspace and culture.

Free lunch is nothing new. Google and other big tech companies have been giving their employees breakfast and lunch (and sometimes dinner). Free lunch has been around for more than a decade because it works for attracting and retaining top talent. (Or, rather, people think it works.)

Now, the food at Google, and the people who make it, are awesome. The food at Fog Creek is good, but nowhere approaching what Google does. We don’t have Sam, the sushi chef, doing hand-rolls to order. We don’t do miso black cod, lamb shanks, or osso buco. We don’t have a raw vegan station with selections so delicious they attract the most dedicated carnivores.

Here’s what we have at Fog Creek instead: no meetings.

For us, lunch is our only recurring meeting. The only standing interruption in the day/week of a developer here. Everything else is ad hoc or temporary. (One exception is our quarterly meeting to go over financials and to grill the founders with questions.) The default at Fog Creek is no recurring meetings. Once you’ve established that, recurring meetings become the exception, rather than the rule, and tend to wither naturally as their usefulness degrades over time. For example, the FogBugz team is currently doing a stand-up meeting for fifteen minutes every day right before lunch, but this won’t last. The Trello team was doing them before and shortly after launch, but they’ve subsided.

The Kiln team lead assures me that their weekly stand-up is a real recurring meeting, but at some point they’re going to lose interest and go back to coding. It’s what they do. Meetings have a network effect. They need other meetings to legitimize them. If you’re constantly scheduled with meetings, you don’t mind being interrupted one more time. Or, rather, you don’t have the energy to protest. When you proceed from the assumption of no meetings, you have to expend effort to keep a meeting going.

It’s not all a playground, of course. There are downsides. Things, sometimes important things, don’t get communicated to the right people at the right time. More often than not, the worst result is hurt feelings or slight confusion. Sometimes it’s more than that. But we wouldn’t give it up.

For someone who’s used to a standard work environment, it seems silly, cult-like, possibly even daunting, to be “forced” to break bread with your colleagues every day. It seemed odd to me before I came here, but by the end of the first week, nothing seemed more natural. When most of your “socialization” with your colleagues takes the form of mandatory, recurring meetings over a conference table, it’s natural to not want to see them again over the lunch table. People have been making decisions about your time all day; at lunch, you need some time to yourself.

But when most of your time is spent working in a private office, taking breaks according to your natural attention span, having short chats with one or two colleagues, it’s a pleasant prospect to surface for some pleasant conversation about StarCraft or football with nice, intelligent people. And maybe you’ll hash out that new feature, too.

One can make the argument for free lunch based strictly on developer productivity. A free lunch could give you a hundred hours per year from your best people, time saved in driving, waiting in line, etc. But, consider the depressing ease with which such a gain can be wiped out by a few recurring meetings.

So, for our final section, we do have a number: $15.75 per day. $4,000 per employee per year. It’s a lot of money. But without the rest of the company culture, it would be sort of meaningless. A sense of entitlement grows rapidly around any perk you offer, and lunch is no different.

A lot of this series has been based on getting hard data out there so that developers, our main audience, have an easier time talking to management about some of the things that’ll make them more happy, healthy, and productive. For this post, it’s a bit more difficult. You might get your boss to spend $16 a day, but changing the culture of meetings in any workplace is nearly impossible. (During my tenure, Google tried no-meeting Thursdays and formal meeting-reduction task forces, reminiscent of Brazil’s Ministry of Debureaucratization, to no avail.) It would require rebuilding the company culture from bedrock.

Our bedrock is the idea that, once we’ve hired good people, it’s the effort we make to direct their intention, rather than their attention, that creates value. It’s not just our lunch benefit that springs from that, but nearly every other thing we do.

For Fog Creek, our founding principles, and the pains we take to stick by them, are the price of developer happiness, and that can’t be measured in dollars.