The Development Cockpit

Computer vendors often describe their latest wares with terms borrowed from speed-oriented endeavors, such as auto racing and flying: "Burn rubber," "Launch your Web pages at lightspeed," or "If your network were an airplane, would you fly it?" The truth is, computer hardware advancements easily outpace developments in transportation. Two decades ago I heard this analogy: If the automotive industry advanced at the same pace as the computer industry, a Rolls Royce would cost $100 and get 1,000 miles to the gallon. Today, the analogy has to be adjusted. The top automotive vendor would have to give away 1 million Porsches, each getting 10,000 miles to the gallon of water, just to get market share. Despite the fantastic advances in most aspects of the computing environment, one spot remains decidedly low tech: the cockpit.

The lowly computer desk, the center of the development process, is inexplicably caught in a downdraft. A Stealth Bomber’s cockpit is designed around a specific function: flying into battle. A pilot does not have to make any unnecessary moves -- even the gauges are projected on the windshield so that he doesn’t have to change his focus. By contrast, computer desks are barely designed to hold a computer, much less allow a developer to concentrate and excel at programming.

You may feel as though you have little voice in your office when it comes to facilities like computer desks, but don’t be so sure. Ergonomics, productivity, and liability are terms well understood by management, who are often willing to bend over backwards to accommodate special needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you are looking for, they won’t be able to help you. In addition, with the explosion of programmers telecommuting at least occasionally, you may find your home computing area is inadequate. Recent announcements and renouncements from OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) muddy the water about who is responsible for telecommuter safety.

Since I started telecommuting exclusively, I found my computer cockpit wasn’t designed for speed or comfort. I was excited to find almost 100 different computer desk designs available from office supply stores, warehouse clubs, fine furniture stores, and our low-tech friends the Amish. Unfortunately, only a handful of the available units were suitable for hard-core development. My cockpit criteria was simple: The cockpit should let you comfortably perform development tasks on a fully loaded desktop or tower computer, while having space to handle a limited amount of paperwork.

The following is a flight-check of the simple features that I feel are required for an effective computer desk and the annoying truth about their availability. There are two popular types of computer desks: traditional and armoire. The computer armoire is a relatively new furniture item. It has doors that can be closed to hide and protect all of your computer goodies. Either type is appropriate, but I find the desktop variety typically gives you more usable space to shovel papers.

Leg clearance. A computer cockpit should allow you to sit with your knees at a right angle. Surprisingly few computer desks, including fine computer furniture that costs upward of $4,000, have the clearance for an average height male to get his knees under the keyboard tray.

Usable keyboard tray. The mouse has been a computer necessity for a decade, yet finding a computer-desk keyboard tray that can hold a keyboard, mouse-pad, and wrist supports for each, is a challenge. Even if you find one, the clearance around the tray may be too tight to work comfortably. Left-handers may have even more trouble.

CPU space. I now own two computer desks and three CPU towers. None of the towers will fit in either desk’s CPU storage area. If this is important to you, carry all necessary dimensions, including cord clearances, with you.

Monitor clearance and position. Most computer desks in the showroom are demonstrated with a 14" monitor sitting on the desk. Reality is at least a 17" monitor, often sitting on top of a desktop machine. Be sure yours will fit before you buy. Also, avoid workstations that place your monitor in the back corner of an L-shaped desk, unless you have eagle eyes or binoculars.

Slide-out work surfaces. Many computer armoires feature a full-size, slide-out desktop. While handy, the desktop often is mutually exclusive of the keyboard and coffee drinkers may cause an expensive mess when they accidentally close the work surface that is holding their cup. Search for one that allows you to use both the keyboard and desktop simultaneously.

Once you’ve juggled the tradeoffs and selected an appropriate desk, you can comfortably tackle problems that require dozens of open windows and sustained staring, typing, and clicking. If you’re like me, you’ll find a bigger productivity gain from a well-designed cockpit, than from another 100 MHz of CPU speed. --Eric Binary Anderson is a development manager at PeopleSoft’s PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at