Order in chaos

My desk is a mess.

My computer takes the centre position. That’s about the only place with some semblance of serenity. Surrounding this electronic piece of equipment, chaos reigns. Files are stacked and shoved to one corner. My bag and other personal belongings are packed to the other corner. I’ve got a C# reference book practically acting as my permanent armrest for my left hand. I don’t even have space to put my other three reference books, and I have to put those on another desk. And the pieces of paper scattered all over, covering every centimetre square of space on my desk.

And I can’t work without this mess. I need this chaos around me to function. That pile of paper there? That’s my programming reference pile. This pile here? My immediate-tasks pile. The one beside it? Oh, the project-just-over-but-keep-in-my-face-for-emergency pile, which slowly joins its comrades in the so-long-ago-I-forgot pile. Then there’s the scribbles, where I scribble down stuff like thoughts, notes, user interface prototype drawings and shorthand of user queries.

The apparent haphazardness of my desk actually has an order to it. Like handing a value smaller than 1 to the “minus x square” function, the chaotic disarray goes one way and then another. And as you continue, you find everything slowly settles into order.

The function eventually goes to zero. And my desk arrangement finally makes sense.

I’ve peeked at my colleagues’ desks. Their files and papers are all neatly stacked into rectangular blocks, with nary a sheet out of place. I can also see large parts of their desks’ surface. My mind is capable of pulling seemingly disparate ideas together. The natural way for my work desk to manifest is by being a mess.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered if a high level manager walks by my desk and judges me to be anything less than competent, based on the condition of my desk. I, am afflicted with NADD. This is who I am. I will be listening to music, while I’m feverishly jamming the keyboard, wishing the code will appear as fast on screen as it is in my mind, and tapping my feet in tune to the rhythms. Then I’ll be writing some comments because that piece of code will probably confound anyone else who reads it, and midway through the commenting, I’d think of some funny expression and I’ll check my English on Merriam-Webster. And oh yeah, I need to check that SQL expression to do string manipulation, and then Google it. Then the phone will ring, and I’ll drop my earphones, and I’ll wait a while to clear my throat and then pick it up, to attend to the needs of some user. I’ll then clasp the phone between my right ear and shoulder (because research shows the right ear is connected to the left side of the brain, which is better at deciphering voices than music), while opening up a document to confirm some details. And after I finish answering the user’s query, I’ll think to myself, “what the heck was I doing before this?“. Ok, what was I talking about? Oh right, so I find it unbelievable that anyone can have a neat desk, and so I decided to ignore the high level manager and just do what I do to produce results.

I usually have half a dozen applications open on my computer desktop at any one time. I thought this to be bad. Then I saw one of my colleagues have so many windows open (yeah we’re in the Windows camp. Hey we telnet to do some *nix work too), that the taskbar had to double up in width (I’m starting to do that too these days…) because there are too many taskbar icons.

I also know of some of my users who have ten Excel spreadsheets open. Or two of the same application open because they think it’ll work faster. Or they’ll give the impression of being multitasking. STOP IT! Multitasking is a fallacy! David Allen uses the term “rapid refocusing”. Some people can bring chaos into order. Some people can’t. If you need to have that many windows opened to gather information, and you’re a user, your IT department is slacking off. Go pester them.

If you are someone who thrives on being in the eye of a tornado, who finds peace in chaos and who can bring peace from chaos, I salute you. Welcome to the real world.

Just say hi

As of this writing, I have worked in a corporate environment for just over four years. My colleagues are great and I (usually) like my work. There’s something missing though. A pervading miasma of human frigidity saps the friendliness out of the air. Teams don’t really talk to other teams, let alone between departments.

The sad truth is we form cliques and this will ruin creativity. Innovation will then only come from ideas within the clique, and let’s face it, one can only come up with so many ideas in isolation. With my main job role as a programmer, this “island clustering” means I’ve got few people to bounce ideas off of.

How do we bridge the gaping maw present in corporate human interaction?

Just say hi.

I read about this advice from New Rules @ Work by Barbara Pachter. She wrote a short chapter about it, covering topics such as the greetings used (“hi” or “hello”) and at what distance between you and the other person you meet should you say or do anything (5 feet minimum and you must say something).

The experiment.

So I tried it. Several weeks ago, on one blustery morning, as I was walking along the side of a row of cubicles, someone was also walking towards me. I quietly cleared my throat, looked her in the eye, and said “Good morning”. She just breezed right by me without giving me a look. Oh this is gonna be hard…

For the next few days, I tried really hard. I said “Hi” or “Good morning” to anyone I met. Along the cubicle aisle. On the way to the pantry. Not one single person responded. Then something magical happened. Some of these people started noticing me, that I’ve been greeting them. They turned and looked at me when I greeted them, but still they said nothing.

Then one fine morning, as I was walking back from the pantry after getting some water, I greeted another person. I was pretty much discouraged by now, and my heart wasn’t really in it. There came a feeble “hi” from that lady. I nearly jumped for joy. I got another person to respond! It was unbelievable. I walked back to my seat, smiling all the way. I could have clicked my heels in the air, but I thought that’d look ridiculous.

It’s still hard now. Sometimes. Sometimes they are looking away from me. Sometimes they have a scowl on their face, and I was afraid they’d bite my head off if I waved and said “hi” to them. And sometimes, I just plain forget. And sometimes, some of them says “hi” or “Good morning” to me first. That’s just awesome.

Do not discriminate. 

Let me give a piece of advice. Greet everybody. I don’t care if the person is your boss or your boss’s boss. I don’t care if that person is the cleaning lady. Greet everyone. Especially the cleaning lady. You do not want to slowly find that your trash bin is almost always never cleaned out, or your desk not wiped.

Now go say hi to your boss.

Zip up or shut up

Today, I’m reminded of an article I read in the Men’s Health magazine. I can’t remember the entire thing, but there was something that stuck to my mind. Now, if there are ladies reading this, you might want to stop right here and go read something else, because what follows will be a shocking revelation of an undisclosed men’s toilet habit which might jar your sensibilities. Perhaps you ladies might even find this secret natural (hey, men actually do this!), but since I’ve never been in a ladies washroom before…

You still here?

Ok, here it is, and I want you to read everything carefully and slowly.

There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, that is so important, that you have to talk about it with your pants down.

There had been quite a few instances where I’ll be, uh, minding my own business while in the washroom, and two guys would waltz in to do their business. And they would be talking to each other. They could be talking about a recent project, or the decision of so-and-so, or about the details of a business deal (a real one thankfully, not the one happening in the washroom. Sheesh.).

I don’t know about you, but I find it kind of awkward conversing while holding my pants up. Especially if you are also making sure the other person isn’t looking at you. Seriously, you could have struck lottery (and positively thrilled to tell me), the building could be on fire, or Armageddon is nigh. I don’t care what it is, it can wait a couple of minutes.

Embarrassingly,  as I’m writing this, I recall a presentation for my Japanese language class. I wrote a scene with my fellow student, where both of us were in the toilet and discussing details of a karaoke session we were going for afterwards. Ah, the follies of youth…

Which brings me to a related point. Do not use your mobile phone in the toilet either! Barbara Pachter, author of “New Rules @ Work” says,

No one wants to be on the other end of a flushing toilet.

I doubt anyone has an interest in the fascinating sounds produced in water closets too.

Let your phone ring at least twice

There was this time when I had to clarify something with someone, and I decided to call her (instead of emailing her). So I dialled her number, and she picked up the phone almost immediately. I mean, I was still pulling reference material together, and I was actually counting on the phone ringing a couple of times to give me time. I was pushed off balance by the suddenness of her voice.

So I developed this habit of waiting for the phone to ring twice. Because when the first ring occurs, I have to mentally shift from my programming to being able to take calls. By the time I’m prepared to take the call, the second ring occurs. I then take the time to clear my throat (the last thing people want is to be greeted by a hoarse voice). And when the second ring finishes, I pick it up, grabbing a notepad and pen in the process to take down notes if required.

People expect the phone to ring.

Letting the phone ring a couple of times also gives you time to prepare yourself. It could be an important person on the line, and you are wasting the opportunity if you sound weak, hoarse and unprepared.

Why would you sound hoarse? From personal experience, because my job is mainly programming, I seldom need to converse. My throat starts to, uh, “coagulate”. After 3 to 4 hours of non-talking, I’m going to need to clear my throat.

Or if you happen to be eating something (a piece of chocolate, a biscuit/cookie or sweets), you are going to sound like someone talking with their mouth full. Which you are! The two phone rings are going to give you time to swallow that chocolate or push that sweet to your cheek so you can speak properly.

Add to the fact that you greet the other person on the line (you do greet with a “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” right?), the phone conversation will go a lot smoother.

When you have to Paint

When you’re a lowly programmer, you just clock in, do whatever your superiors tell you to do, and you clock out. When you’re a corporate programmer, aaahhh, this is where the fun part comes. You get people saying to you, “Make it more user friendly” or “The login page doesn’t look nice enough. Fix it.” Then you think to yourself, “But I’m supposed to just write code!” Think again.

When I started doing graphics work because there’s no web designer nor graphics artist in my team, I fell back on the good old Windows Paint program. Yes, I can hear people laughing from as far away as the United States…


Now that you’ve calmed down, you have to realise that I don’t have professional graphics software, so I make do with what I have. Which isn’t much. So I branched out. I found this wonderful free software that forms the integral part of my graphics work. It’s Paint.NET, and it’s packed with lots of stuff comparable to Photoshop. And together with Windows Paint, I have in possession the basis of my image processing skills.

And for those with Photoshop: more power to you.