Saving the Testing Zone

I was reading up on something concerning productivity in a software development environment and I found question 8 in the Joel Test. An excerpt can be found below.

8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
Here’s the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.

The trouble is, getting into “the zone” is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you’re tired or have already done a lot of creative work that day, you just can’t get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, reading the web, playing Tetris.

The other trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — especially interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If a coworker asks you a question, causing a 1 minute interruption, but this knocks you out of the zone badly enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you’re in a noisy bullpen environment like the type that caffeinated dotcoms love to create, with marketing guys screaming on the phone next to programmers, your productivity will plunge as knowledge workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.

In reading over this, this struck a chord in me. How many times have I gotten into the “testing zone”, working on a project or an issue to find myself interrupted by an e-mail, an IM, or even a coworker stopping by to say, “I just wanted to check with you on something…”? For the most part, these are probably work related items. I mean, after all, we work on a team and team members need to communicate, right? Sometimes we just need to get interrupted to get information from someone, or to learn about a change in focus, or to learn about an emergency item that needs attended to right away. But even work related items can be unnecessary distractions that can prevent productivity in our work environment. If you have a large project to get done, you need to concentrate fully on it and focus a lot of energy on the minute details of the software under test. Especially with short deadlines and needing to document test plans as you go, keeping the mind process unpolluted by those interruptions will go a long way to getting things done a lot smoother and a lot faster.

While we don’t have the luxury of having closed offices where we can close the door and work (well… not ALL of us do…), there are still things that we can do to minimize the distractions.

1) Turn off IM – Something about that little IM pop-up with that pretty little sound just SCREAMS for attention. We’ve gotta answer it. Kind of like the telephone. If it rings, pick it up (see below on that one). But think about the Mutt and Jeff scenario in the Joel Test. It may only take a few seconds to respond to an IM question but then you’ve lost 15 minutes of productivity on your testing. It’s best if you turn off IM completely. If it’s REALLY important, the person may find some other means of finding their information or, if you’re the ONLY person who has the information, they’ll find some other way of contacting you.

2) Turn off E-mail – “Wait a minute! E-mail is the only way that I know of to learn some of the things that I need to know!” However, think on this. Of all the e-mails that you get during the day, how many of them are “You must answer this NOW” variety. Certainly not every e-mail. And even so, there probably won’t be THAT much you’ll miss out on if you don’t answer right away. After all, in general, e-mail is not best utilized for instantaneous communication since with e-mail servers being what they are and the general content of e-mails, it doesn’t lend itself well to rapid communication. It would be best to schedule your e-mail monitoring for certain times of day. Say, for example, first thing in the morning, right after lunch, and an hour before you leave at the end of the day. This way you catch those e-mails from over night, those e-mails from the morning, and those e-mails from the afternoon with time to address any vital communications. You can then shut down your e-mail again and move on. Our job however, requires us to send e-mails for message communications to other staff members on issues found, corrected, or failed. You can effectively turn off e-mail, though, without really “turning it off”. There are options within outlook to minimize interruptions (Tools | Options | Preferences | Email Options | Advanced options). By turning off most if not all of those little “notification” alerts, you can minimize outlook and only use it for those vital communications. For e-mails you absolutely HAVE to answer right away, you can set up outlook rules and alerts to notify you if e-mails on specific topics or specific types come in. But we get a lot of Spam during the course of the day (issue team, issue completion team, etc) that, honestly, we really don’t need to check out right away.

3) Turn off your phone – You may have an extremely tight deadline you’re working on that all it will take is one phone call, no matter how short, to totally blow away your concentration. Our phone system in the office has a Do Not Disturb feature that is easily activated. You can call out but no one can call in. At that point, you’re voice mail can pick it up and you can take care of it later. Again, if they REALLY need to get ahold of you, they’ll find a way. For those of us with cell phones, turn them off. After all, you’re in the office at your desk, there’s other ways of people to reach you. And, again, if it’s REALLY important, they’ll find a way.

4) “Shut the door” – Some of us have an office that we can close the door and work in peace. To those people I say, “I’m jealous”. Frequently, as people go back and forth in the office, they see me and say, “Oh, yeah, I meant to ask him this…” and they come on over and say, “Do you have a minute?” Wham… there goes my concentration because now they are standing there and needing my attention. And, if the measurements indicated in the Joel test are correct, that minute will destroy 15 minutes of my time to save that person 5 minutes of their time. When I’m working in the zone, I’ve started saying, “Honestly, no. I need to focus on this project. If this is something that can’t wait a while, I’ll help you but if it’s not extremely urgent, could you send it to me in an e-mail? I’ll answer it when I get a free moment. Thanks.” Effectively, this is the same as closing the door and putting a DND sign on it. It’s polite, honest, and, truthfully, not as disruptive as taking that minute to shift concentration to an entirely different task. You may have lost a little bit just in that response, but it’s a lot easier to get back than to have to do a “core dump” of what you were working on before, “reload” a new set of information and start processing a completely different task.

5) Use a filter – We have leads and managers on our teams whose responsibility it is to make sure the team is working smoothly and getting assigned tasks done. Utilize them. If someone is asking for your attention and you’re working deeply on a task that requires a lot of focus, you can always say, “I’m working really hard on this one task. If this is something really important, can you check with my lead/manager? I need to know whether or not they can afford me to shift focus. If they say it’s okay, then I’ll do what I can for you.” Of course, this is not necessarily something you want to do for every little question, concern, etc, that comes to you. After all, leads and managers have their own “zone” they get into. However, if you suspect a request is going to take away a good bit of your time from an assigned project, it’s best to let your lead and/or manager know so that they are aware of these interruptions and the impact it will have on your productivity.

One final word: All these things are GOOD things to do to increase your personal productivity. However, keep in mind these 5 things when you need to request information from someone else. They may have their own zone they are working in and, while you may have a legitimate question on a project you’re working on, consider how much productivity is REALLY being saved by contacting that person. Are you saving yourself 5 minutes at the expense of the other person’s 15 minutes?

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