On workplace ergonomics and motivation

In tech, we’re always talking about workplace ergonomics, the fine points of Aeron chairs and standing desks, the wretchedness of open-plan spaces and cubicle farms versus private offices, how many monitors to have, and so on. Usually, I’m an eager participant, very much attuned to the idea that comfort and pleasant aesthetics are essential to output, motivation, and sustained concentration in high-focus, specialised creative labour.

But sometimes it does help to get a little perspective. A glance at the work environments of many world-class musicians, scholars, authors and researchers from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, or at the cramped physical environments in which highly capable, clever IT people work in developing countries, may convey a useful reminder that if you really want to do something, you can do it just about anywhere.

 

office-space-copierFor that matter, my first job, as a technical hand and later sysadmin at a small-town ISP, when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-20 year old, was in office space not altogether Class A; it was a freezing, windowless dungeon in a small 4-room suite whose HVAC controls were shared with a machine room in need of constant, high-intensity cooling, and the rooms were littered with stray computer hardware and accessorised with fairly second-rate furniture. Yet, I’ve never been so productive or so excited to go to work since those days.

In fact, the physical configurations in which I eagerly wrote code for many hours as a teenager are downright sadistic by cushy Silicon Valley standards; a crude wooden desk from Big Lots, a far too low wooden dining room chair, a 7 lbs (~3.1 kg) laptop, a shared family PC in the tiny living room of graduate student barracks. And what a PC that was–a 386SX/40 with 2 MB of RAM, at a time when most respectable citizens were packing 60 and 90 MHz Pentiums. We were poor–by American standards, anyway–but I didn’t really notice.

I have a friend and colleague who travels around the world, living his digital life out of a rather clunky Lenovo ThinkPad, sat on a variety of surfaces, whichever are available at the moment. While he’s not usually staying in mosquito-ridden youth hostels in the Congolese jungle, I fully grant, he doesn’t have 30″ IPS displays or wrist rests, to say nothing of a snazzy office with an adjustable-height desk and a foosball table–you know, the bare essentials for Ruby on Rails jockeys in the Bay Area. Yet he’s one of the most disciplined and entrepreneurially successful people I know. I think of him every time someone says that they “literally cannot work” without a chair with proper lumbar support.

More extremely, some of my Armenian colleagues learned to code in a time when Yerevan was largely without grid electricity, during the disastrous Nagorno-Karabakh War and its contemporaneous power crisis. They hooked up their clobbered-together computers to car batteries for a few hours day, batteries which they improvised some means of charging occasionally, usually by leeching surplus electricity from cables to critical facilities that did have it.  They’re some of the most capable and multifarious IT guys (not to mention electrical engineers!) I know.

Yes, one’s eyes, back, wrists, etc. become more fragile and capricious with age, and it would be prudent to afford them some care. As I near 30, I’m acutely aware of that fact, having all sorts of aches and pains I didn’t used to have.

Nevertheless, my conclusion on the psychological purpose of constant twiddling of small features of our environment – desks, monitor sizes and so forth – is that it’s more about tricking yourself into working on stuff you don’t really want to do. It’s to create the illusion that now everything is truly right with the world, and productivity will seamlessly spring forth from one’s fingers. It’s a means of papering over the fact that you’d rather be doing something else. If most of us were actually doing something stimulating, we’d probably be happy enough doing it on a rooftop while it’s snowing.

To drive that point home, a story:

I rented an office in a repurposed Soviet-era building in Yerevan, Armenia for a while. I should pause to say that this was very much a “you get what you pay for” kind of thing, so please don’t think all life in Yerevan looks like this. Anyway, here’s what was going on in the very room next door some of the time (“renovation”), and also a picture of the ice that formed under my doorway some winter days:

1538950_10102885224718380_539324755_n

 

10169320_10103206049512920_3452546932364153491_n

The “included” Internet connectivity was sorely lacking; in the end, I ended up with some WiMax receiver that gave me 384k/128k on a good day. I grumbled about it some of the time, sure. But I also wrote much of our product’s middleware, user interface and API documentation there. I was furiously productive, and it would not be unreasonable to say that our product made a titanic generational leap whilst I was there. Some other parts of this product infrastructure were written, also at a very impressive clip, whilst sat in a stiff chair and Spartan metal table in the rentable upstairs workspace at Sankt Oberholz, a Berlin coffee shop and coworking enterprise situated in a late 19th century building. I was hunched over uncomfortably, my nose stuck in a 13″ ultrabook with a loathsome keyboard. My eyes burned and my wrists tingled by the end of most days.

Now I’m sitting in my eminently comfortable Class A office in Atlanta, with great connectivity and a 32″ LED display on my desk, a favourite Das Keyboard at my fingertips, and I’m writing blog posts, poking around on Facebook. The difference is pretty clear to me: when I was in Yerevan and Berlin, I wanted to work, and now I don’t.

I won’t end with some hackneyed and nauseating Millenial “thought leadership” about “doing what you love”, nor the facile conclusion that it’s all in your head. I would just offer the modest speculation that an ounce of tweaks to the intellectual content of one’s work, or other, more existential life issues that inform your inner drive, is probably worth a pound of major adjustments to one’s office furniture, seating, barriers, and computer peripherals.


Armenia as an IT export powerhouse

Armenian economists, diaspora repatriates, and development evangelists offer many idealistic proposals about how Armenia can reverse its inexorable decline and parlay the forces of its gradual disintegration into positive economic growth and regional leadership. Most of these are plainly quixotic, at least to anyone with even cursory insight into everyday Armenian reality and demographic trends. They do not give one the sense of having been united with the probable.

However, on this spectrum of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pronouncements, the idea of Armenia becoming a major IT centre is one of the less wholly implausible ones. Politicians and self-appointed diaspora luminaries say the darndest, most fantastical things; of all of their grandiose ideas, for Armenia to traffic in virtual goods is probably not the most far-fetched, if only because the messengers of progress have set a high standard with their pompous rhetoric.

I don’t have much experience working within the local IT market, though I do have plenty of colleagues in the IT field in Yerevan. Nevertheless, true to my well-established tendency, I’ll dubiously anoint myself enough of an authority to give an outsider’s impression about the merits of this thesis that Armenia should hitch its wagon to tech. Then, maybe insiders can tell me why I’ve got it all wrong.

Talent

The backdrop of strong Soviet-era fundamentals in science and engineering helps in Armenia, too. Armenian engineers are, classically, quite capable. Moreover, the hardships this generation of IT people have had to live through in the bedlam of the 1990s has given them a lot of adaptability, flexibility, and resolve. They’ve definitely got the stereotypical Soviet MacGyver-type knack for improvisation. Among my circle of acquaintances are many people who learned to program during the dark years of the electrical crisis and the Nagorno-Karabakh War, squeezing a few hours a day of power for their third-rate computers out of car batteries, charged by tenuous methods of dubious legality, at a time when Yerevan was plunged into near-total darkness and bitter winter cold. People were burning books and random objects at the time for heating fuel. They pioneered low-baud Internet connectivity through Moscow in extremely inhospitable conditions. They paid obscene rates for Internet and telephone service in the heyday of the ArmenTel monopoly, and still more obscene black market rates for aftermarket mobile devices. As far as the pampered, effete cubicle-dwellers of the “developed world” are concerned, these guys might as well have been working on punchcards by candlelight. They would’ve given a lot to have had mere Office Space problems.

But, for the most part these people left a long time ago. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that with these kinds of skills, one could make proportionally better money abroad, even offset against higher living costs, while opening greater career development and life opportunities for themselves and their families. Moreover, these guys have an advantage that many other Armenians trying to leave the country don’t. Steeped in the Western-rooted shared culture of the Internet, they have a good command of the English language and soaked up a lot of globalist ideas that make them highly fraternal with their nerdy American and European counterparts. They’ve also got the Russian IT culture and language angle, which is very influential in Armenia as well, so they can migrate to Eastern Europe, too. Economically speaking, it’s a lot easier for foreign companies to plug clever Armenian technologists straight into their workforce, because they’re not so different from the domestic clever technologists. The homogenising force of the Internet definitely offers an efficiency benefit to both labour and management.

Understand, too, that there are ways to eke out a meager living doing IT in developing economies that effectively don’t exist in the developed world anymore, because they’ve been obsoleted, rationalised and optimised away. When’s the last time you saw a general, all-inclusive computer store in First World countries (Chinese importers notwithstanding)? Non-tech people may be forgiven for thinking that the guys at one of Yerevan’s innumerable computer stores that know how to repair PCs, clean spyware, make some simple web sites, and wire up small business LANs are pretty sharp, but their skill set is not globally competitive. They can’t emigrate on that basis. All that stuff is long commoditised. To find work abroad, one has to have specialised, nontrivial and current skills that are intra-industrially useful. However, the same applies to Armenia: this tier of technicians isn’t qualified to hold up the weight of Armenian infrastructure and economic development on their shoulders either. All in all, there may be a fair amount of computer-savvy guys in Yerevan, but there are actually very few, if you see what I mean.

So, as far as I can tell, the main limitation on any Armenian aspiration to become an IT major is the severe shortage of qualified people. Everyone prattles on about a shortage of qualified tech people in every market, but as with all other problems, in Armenia the problem is much more acute, sharp and concentrated, due to its tiny size. There’s a small skeleton crew of highly competent remnants holding down the fort (i.e. people who didn’t manage to leave for one reason or another, usually family or personal reasons rather than lack of opportunities to do so), but even among them, emigration is a major theme of discussion. As all other highly qualified specialists, productive workers and capable entrepreneurs in Armenia, they’re getting fed up and leaving. Many developing countries and ex-Soviet republics are bleeding specialists, but other countries have a lot more people to bleed. Armenia is haemorrhaging.

I don’t see a crop of up-and-coming youngsters that stand to viably replace the classic hackers of the 1990s. The few especially capable ones generally take the shortcut of leaving. It’s the same old song of Armenia: everybody’s leaving. Thus, I take no pleasure in elucidating the obvious conclusion to anyone thinking of turning Armenia into a globally competitive IT centre: where’s your globally competitive work force?

Domestic demand

Any IT business in Armenia with aspirations of making real money must, by definition, be export-oriented. There’s no money to be made in selling into the local market. The only IT companies in Armenia I’m familiar with that make any money–and I’m not counting outsourced development or engineering divisions of foreign companies here–are ones that service government contracts and foreign orders.

The local market has IT needs, of course, but they’re pretty pedestrian and connected to low-margin products and services–the kinds of things that are, in terms of their global cost structure, only viable at a large scale. The killer is a triple curse:

  • Small market size, and therefore, no economies of scale, as well as fierce competition and saturation;
  • Poverty; it is possible to sell into a small market, but only if it’s a rich economy. Armenia is basically city-state size, but it’s no Singapore;
  • Relatively undeveloped, traditional economy. There’s not that many businesses in Armenia that have a need for sophisticated technological capital goods.

There’s other problems related to the last point as well. Armenian businesses are, as a matter of cultural disposition, cheap quite apart from their relative poverty, as Armenians are historically given to commerce with an Eastern bent. Few proprietors seem to have made the shift to a post-industrial mindset that divorces the subconscious perception of “value” from the idea of “tangible goods” while strongly incorporating the idea of shopping on value rather than price.

Traditional economies have never lent themselves especially well to Western-style economic rationalism and efficiency, either. Say what you will about the humanistic effects of that rationalism (which I would characterise somewhat ambivalently), but the reality is that a strong cultural focus on optimising workflows and business processes drives much of the demand for IT universally.

Infrastructure

Yerevan actually has rather good and ubiquitous FTTH-based consumer broadband. However, it’s easy to forget that the country’s connections to the outside world are tenuous and reflect its geopolitically precarious position. Armenia’s only real connection to the greater Internet is through the neighbouring republic of Georgia, and it’s quite easy to take the whole country offline, as the world learned in April 2011 (The Guardian).

I’m told that the fibre paths have got a bit more diverse now, but there’s not that much diversity you can add to a largely mountainous, landlocked country most of whose land borders are closed. Armenia’s border with Turkey has been closed since 1994 and has no cross-border telecommunication connections, and the border with Azerbaijan is ever-so-slightly militarised, you might say. Together with the Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan, that’s about 85% of Armenia’s land borders. As with many other things, Armenia clings to life through Georgia, subject to its whims and caprices, as well as the geophysical realities of doing so. To the south, Iran is connected to some very robust, high-bandwidth Persian Gulf cable systems, but, I’m told that for fairly obvious political reasons, the Internet link through Iran isn’t used much (if at all).

The inability to build redundant, multilateral physical connections to its neighbours makes Armenia quite ill-suited to the operation of any regionally significant Internet interconnection exchange or peering point. Armenian utility power is fairly reliable (as long as the Metsamor reactor keeps running), but definitely at “developing world” levels of redundancy. The power frequency isn’t terribly clean. There is high seismic risk. Wholesale IP bandwidth to the outside world is quite expensive. All these things likely preclude the possibility of Armenia hosting a real data centre or getting into the hosting or “cloud” business in a big way. So you want to operate a network? Who are you going to network with?

IT also depends on strong logistical links to the outside world and benefits from proximity to supply chains. Armenia is landlocked and largely blockaded, and, on account of its small size, constitutes an exotic, high-cost shipping destination. No access to open water means expensive transit through Georgia’s Black Sea ports, or even more expensive air cargo. Slow and unreliable internal logistics, as well as high import duties, are also a killer.

Ecosystem

It takes more than just electricity, Internet connectivity and low labour costs to create or sustain a significant IT sector. IT is highly interdependent and horizontally allied with a variety of other inputs, all of which require a critical mass of economic activity and sophistication to sustain.

I hear all kinds of nonsense from diaspora tech people about how Armenia can be an incredible startup hub because of its low costs. However, startups need clean business climates, low barriers to entry, transparent financial institutions, easy access to relatively abundant financing, and a critical mass of other startups that concentrates talented, experienced people in one place. There must be some sort of established and humming growth, exit and/or liquidation track. Armenia doesn’t offer much of that. Cheap labour does not a startup hub make. Without the right factors of production (principally human ones), any spark will quickly fizzle out.

None of this is to denigrate the efforts of the Yerevan tech startup community to do what it can with what it’s got. However, the chances of an Asian Tiger-type economic miracle there are vanishingly slim in my estimation.

It seems to me that government officials haven’t actually caught onto IT as a source of wealth or value yet. For the most part, they are rather sclerotic, stuck in the mindset of twentieth century industrialists and in keeping with Armenia’s largely traditional economic composition: if it’s not a physical good, it’s not a real thing that actually matters. Actually, this is probably a good thing; if technology companies weren’t so “under the radar”, they’d be subject to the same harsh extortion and shakedown racket that the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy, in concert with large business interests, visits upon most businesses in Armenia. It’s only a matter of time until they fully realise that there’s more to IT than just a bunch of guys sat at desks typing or whatnot.

In light of this, talk of crafty government policy incentives to lure startups or foster a more teeming IT investment climate seems like a very distant pipe dream.

IT is a globally competitive field. If you want to compete, you have to answer the fundamental question of just what it is that you can offer that is better than other countries or locales, or at least on par with other countries and locales. Generally-accepted criteria for a market poised to break out in IT include:

  • Abundant human capital at a low cost (Armenia’s got the low cost, but not the abundant human capital);
  • Adequate physical infrastructure;
  • Logistical integration with the outside world — easy to travel to, ship to and do business with (this is particularly important if Armenia’s destiny were to become an “outsourcing centre” rather than a “startup hub”, and the “outsourcing centre” seems like a more practical step);
  • Relatively transparent regulatory and legal climate;
  • Location that is in some way central or regionally significant;
  • Established education pipeline to feed the human talent pool, in some significant volume;
  • Concentrated networks of financing resources, advisors, mentors and talent.

Does Armenia have any of this?

Hope?

Rather than becoming a startup zoo, the more likely emergent development track for a place like Armenia is to work on becoming an offshore development centre, which is a simpler, dumber configuration that doesn’t make such enormous demands on its scarce and ill-prepared ecosystem.

This is the same sort of thing that propelled India to IT-led economic growth, and in principle, it seems possible. I’ve seen a number of American companies move their development offices to Yerevan, or acquire Armenian companies seemingly for the purpose of leveraging their existing engineering talent.

If this trend were to gain any traction, it might help to retain Armenian IT talent in Armenia. However, there is a natural tension between this and the downward wage pressure that gives offshoring its competitive edge from the point of view of the arbitrageur.

Still, I think if there’s any hope of IT taking a real hold in Armenia as an export, it’s probably going to proceed down this route. However, it would benefit a lot from government incentives to nurture it, as well as movement toward greater administrative and financial transparency that is going to be at odds with Armenia’s endemic corruption.

The biggest cause for pessimism is, in my mind, the lack of a critical mass of local talent. I don’t see where these companies are going to find enough local bodies. Seemingly in recognition of this fact, I’ve even heard proposals to convince IT-able diaspora Armenians to move to Armenia and ply their craft there for foreign companies, but when pressing for details on how to pull off this feat of psychological alchemy? I get crickets. Diaspora Armenians are sometimes strongly receptive to nationalist-irredentist demagoguery, though, so I suppose one could do it with ideological bombardment. The sorts of people who are easily persuaded by that sort of claptrap don’t tend to make very talented engineers, though; computing work requires good critical thinking.

A side note about Tumo

Tumo has occasionally been trotted out to me as a vanguard of Armenia’s high-technology future. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a very in-depth tour once and see it firsthand before passing judgment.

I’m afraid I have little to say in praise of Tumo as a job skills creation engine, at least from the perspective of an engineer. They’ve taken what was fundamentally a rather good idea, backed by very significant money, lots of good hardware, a nice in-house curriculum management and interactive lesson delivery platform, and squandered it on teaching kids “lite” stuff that doesn’t matter. This focus on animation, design and media may be sexy, but if they want to give kids the foundation for skills that will actually help them thrive in critical, high-value roles, they need to put all this fluffy multimedia away and focus on serious software engineering and operations. That would take a rather radical retooling away from what they’re set up for now.

I’m all for artistic endeavours, but if you want to talk about Tumo as a player in some possibility of a serious future for Armenia through IT, these design-oriented skill sets do not represent an effective vehicle for investment in that viewpoint. They need to learn a thing or two from the people that went to the 1990s school of hard knocks.

If there are still any left in Armenia by the time this goes to press.