Let Them Eat Cake… Or Not

Non-verbal communication is fraught with peril.

I arrived at work to find the place in quiet chaos Monday morning. The server migration that the system administrator had attempted on Sunday had not gone well. Rather than revert to the old one, he had stayed the night attempting to fix the problems.

He had not been successful by the time I arrived at 8:30 and I got an earful from my disgruntled engineers unable to make progress on their own tasks. After getting the state of things, I was standing in a hallway talking to some of them when Sam arrived at work.

Sam is very knowledgeable in all things sys-admin and is often pulled in to help when things go awry, as is Bob, one of the people I was talking to. When Sam came into view, Bob drew his hand across his neck in a slashing motion.

Sam stopped about 20 feet away and raised his eyebrows.

I widened my eyes and shook my head.

He gave us a questioning look and raised his hand, as if gesturing toward his cube.

I gave a thumbs-down.

Bob shook his head and mouthed Not Good.

I waved my arms in front of me.

Still a third person indicated the situation was not good.

Sam looked unhappy but shrugged and entered his cube.

When he exited to put his breakfast in the microwave, I approached and said, “Even though the server migration didn’t go well, I need you to stay focused on your project. We can’t afford for you to help out.”

“Ok,” he replied. “But what does that have to do with my cake?”

“What?” I asked.

“My cake. Why was my cake bad?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I walked in and everyone started making all these gestures about something being bad so I held up the cake I was holding in my hand {which he had retrieved from the front sharing table} and everyone made more emphatic gestures. And I didn’t see how the cake could be that bad but figured if you guys felt that strongly about it, I’d just throw it away.”

“Wait. You were holding cake in your hand?”

“Yes and I threw it away.”

“But we were talking about the server migration!”

“I see that now.”

“The cake is wonderful!” said Bob.

“Well it’s in the trash can now and I don’t think they change the liners that often so I’m not going to retrieve it.”

“Oh man, we didn’t mean that!” one of us said as everyone dissolved into laughter. The laughter resumed when Sam returned to the table to find that all the cake was now gone.

Meanwhile, in a nearby cube, Dan glanced at his cake sitting next to him. He didn’t catch the whole conversation but heard that the cake was bad. He pondered for a moment. And then he broke off a small piece and tasted it. He shrugged. Tastes fine to me! he thought before quietly consuming the cake.

So the lesson for today is this: Don’t attempt silent communication unless both parties know sign language… or you are an accomplished mime.

Oh, and trust but verify. Be like Dan, not Sam.

Or be like Sam… life is a lot funnier for the rest of us!


Charge Ahead!

The aisles between the cubicles where I work are very long and very narrow.  I’ve worked in this space for over a year now and I’ve made a few observations about the choices my co-workers and I make while navigating the cubicle aisles.

When you enter the aisle and see that someone else is heading toward you, you have a choice.  You can charge ahead or you can step aside.  Most people appear to have a strong preference for one action or the other although mood and circumstance can cause some to act out of character.

The Step-Asiders are going to step into the nearest cubicle opening or side aisle to give the other room to pass.  This can be a bit awkward if the other person wished to enter the space that they have moved into, but for the most part, all is good.

The Charge-Aheaders are going to walk down the aisle on the assumption that the situation will resolve itself without collision.

If a Charge-Aheader encounters a Step-Asider, life is good.  The two parties are able to go about their business without conflict.

Life is also good when two Charge-Aheaders meet up.  I’ve yet to see a showdown in an aisle with neither party making way for the other.  No, the usual behavior of two Charge-Aheaders is to simultaneously pivot toward the near wall and quickly sidestep past each other.  It’s a very efficient group.

The only problem, as I see it, is when two Step-Asiders try to walk down the aisle.  They each dart into the nearest cubicle opening and wait, sometimes without looking up, for the other to pass.  Eventually, they gaze down the aisle to see the other person doing the same.  Then there’s handwaving or verbal encouragement or maybe both parties trying to resume progress and then stepping aside again when they see the other moving.  It’s a very friendly and selfless group but can be exhausting to get caught up in.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life in here.  Something about the relative success and opportunities for people who take charge vs. those that take the back seat and wait on others.  I’m definitely a Charge-Aheader in Cubicleville.  In life?  I’m trying.

Oh, and if you think I’m rather neurotic or warped for analyzing the walking patterns of my co-workers, you should read my analysis of public bathroom toilet paper dispensers and this post won’t sound so odd to you.  Plus, you should keep in mind that engineers get paid well to solve problems and analyze.  It’s not like we can just turn it off when we step out of our cube!

One final note:  I wanted to measure the aisle width for you.  I didn’t have a tape measure but I did have an extra long (18 inch) ruler.  I poked my head out of my cubicle and when I didn’t see anyone, began to measure – not on the floor, just waist level.  I didn’t care if I was really exact.  Well, as I tried to read the result (it was less than two rulers wide), someone stepped out into the aisle.  I tried to hurry back in my cube but she had seen me.  She asked what I was doing.  I said I was curious how wide the aisle was.

“Why? They aren’t going to change it.”

“I know.  I’m not asking anyone to change it.  I was just curious.”

She responded, “You know if they were to change it, they’d just take the space out of your cube.”

“I know,” I said, exasperated. “I don’t plan on saying anything to anyone.  I just wanted to know how wide it was.”

She didn’t understand.  I didn’t even bother to say I planned on blogging about it.  If she couldn’t understand my curiosity, she would certainly not understand my desire to write about it.  I guess not all programmers have the same level of curiosity and analysis about everything around them.  Oh, well.