Bill Roper (billroper) wrote,
Bill Roper

Don't Let Your Architect Win a Design Award

On the occasion of our latest rearrangement of office space at the former Alcar, I'm moved to recall how we moved into the space and a few of the subsequent bits of office space entertainment that have occurred in the almost 20 years we've been at this location.

We were a software startup in the early 1980s, long before the phrases "dot com" and "dot bomb" were invented. We had a mainframe program that we were selling through timesharing, but it was pretty obvious that we were going to need to get this to run on a PC. And we did. But now we needed more bodies. And we couldn't work out of our homes any more. So we got our first office space.

Our original office space was wonderfully normal. We had a hallway, with reasonable size offices on one side and a bullpen for the programmers on the other side. I had an office. I had a wooden desk -- particle board, to be sure, but expensive particle board, because we'd managed to raise a bit of venture capital, so we could afford moderately expensive desks. I was offered a desk and a credenza when we were buying the furniture and I looked at them like they'd grown horns. I wanted -- and got! -- a desk with a return, because that's what you want when you're spending all of your time working on a computer, unless you are a more typical MBA who wouldn't be caught dead at a "secretary's" desk.

As we added staff, we needed more space. The programmers were kicked out of the main office space, because no one comes to the office to see programmers, right? We spent some time as nomads, moving from one unleased (but cheap!) section of the building to another, until Alcar saw the prospect of raising some more venture capital and decided that it was time to move to a larger space.

We ended up with a whole floor in a new building, not far away from our first office. The wonderful thing about starting with a blank floor is that you could bring in an architect to design the space for you with a minimum of constraints. It appeared that budget was not one of the constraints.

We had a training center, which was a good idea at the time and which eventually turned out to be an excellent place to hold the post-wedding reception filksing when Carol and I got married. We had a lot of expensive, but really nice, modular Herman Miller cubicles for most of the folks to sit in. It was decided that almost everyone would sit in cubicle land instead of having an office. It's more egalitarian that way. Except, of course, for the half dozen or so people who had offices, a count that sadly excluded me. (Did I mention that I'm fond of having a door?)

Our architect put together "the building within a building" concept. The central core of the building contained the rest rooms, the elevators, the copy room, and such. The elevator lobby was tiled with expensive imported Italian floor tile (with little bumps that made a tremedous racket when you rolled anything over them), contrasting nicely with the cinder block walls, which would then contrast again with the expensive imported ceiling, which was made of slats of red metal. To add to the overall impression of stability, the space was crisscrossed with a metal structure of poles, girders, and connecting rods, all thoroughly non-structural, and all painted bright red.

Just off the elevator lobby were two small semicircular cinder-block-walled conference rooms, lit by a single bulb hanging from a wide yellow conical fixture that looked like nothing so much as an enormous coolie hat and with a slit window that would have looked into the rest of the space, but which was blocked by translucent glass. These rooms were usually referred to as "the dungeons", which probably would have given the architect a heart attack.

The central core was surrounded by gray carpet, representing the sidewalk around the building. Cubicle Land, the lovely parkland area, was past the "sidewalk" towards the windows. The Herman Miller modules came in blue, green, and purple, so each section used two of the colors for the modules, with the third color in the carpeting. This was not as hideous as it sounds, at least as long as you ignored the red poles and girders that were artistically arranged at the edges of the "parkland". Why there was a requirement for girders in the parkland is a mystery to me.

The offices were all in one corner of the floor, fitted out with the expensive imported Italian tile, cinder block edging, the expensive imported red ceiling, and still more of the red girders. Of course, since the lighting was coming from the yellow coolie hats, if you painted the poles and girders red, they appeared to be orange, which caused a good bit of experimentation to find out what color would actually look red under very yellow light.

Actually, there was one office on the far side of the floor that had been built out because we thought that someone who was working with us might have his group in the space as well and he would need an office. But that didn't work out, so we had an empty office there for a while. Later, it was given to Jay, who was hired to manage the programming group. Sadly, Jay mostly mismanaged the programming group and eventually was promoted to President, where he made enough bad decisions to be let go, shortly before I would have given up and quit myself. (The worst decision of the lot was contracting with an outside consulting firm, Computer Innovations, to build the next generation of our software. A three month project ballooned to fifteen months and the software, when finally delivered, was the most godawful bug-ridden mess I have ever seen. This was one of the sad occasions where I listened to the consultant's presentation, heard what they said, explained -- after the consultant left -- exactly why this company should not be allowed to build the software, and turned out to be right in almost every detail. I should have had Cassandra tattood on my forehead. Nobody listened to her either.)

When Jay was let go, he brought in what turned out to be an incredible amount of hardware and software that he had purchased for purposes of "research". This was all dumped in his former office, making an impressive mess. The new powers-that-be concluded that I was the best person to sort this out. I said "Fine, but if I clean out the office, I get to keep it." They agreed, I did, and I did. A door again at last!

Several of Jay's other bad decisions had come home to roost around this time and we were desperately cash-short and were fighting with our own consultants over promises that Jay had made them. At this point, a deal was struck to sell the company to LEK, a consulting firm. This was good for the consultants, but looked really bad for the programmers, especially when the LEK consultant who was going to be put in charge of the programming group walked in and announced that our future was going to be writing add-ins for Lotus 123. Eep!

We were saved from this horrible fate by happenstance -- Lawrence, the L in "LEK", left the consulting partnership and had to be bought out. This meant that they didn't have enough cash to buy all of Alcar, so we sold them the consulting business and kept the software business independent. Al, one of the two founders, went with LEK, leaving Carl the software business. (Eventually, Carl bought Al out completely, which improved life substantially. And now you know where the company name came from: "Al+Carl = Alcar".) Of the four original MBA principals who Al and Carl had hired, Robert and I were still there. We ended up teamed with Chris and Walter as a gang of four steering committee. I did get a substantial raise at the time, which I deserved. (Hey, I'm writing this! And I did deserve the raise.)

We brought on Bob as a financial manager. This was good, because Bob could squeeze a nickel until it screamed. I'm pretty cheap too, so Bob and I got along well. I would explain to Bob that I would need some money at a future date when he could spare it; Bob realized that I never asked for anything that I didn't actually need to spend.

One thing we needed to do, now that we had fewer employees and a lot less cash, was to have a lot less lease. Bob moved everyone out of "Green 17", the NW quarter of the space, and managed to give it back to the building. Met Life leased the space for a few years before they moved out. Later, we gave up the SW quarter of the space, which was where the programmers sat and which -- unhappily -- included my office. However, we carved a bit of space out of a hallway and the back of the training center and built two offices near the area the programmers moved to, one for me and one for Mac, who was running the programming group. In order to fit more cubes in, we moved the cubicles from attractive architect-designed diagonals onto straight lines -- where, of course, none of the power receptacles in the floor were actually in the right place to power the cubes. And in order to do that, we had to remove the girders from the parkland. We'd already had to remove the girders from the elevator lobby, since that was now shared with the other tenants on the floor. So the only remaining red girders were in Officers Row.

At least, they were red until someone two administrations later decided they could no longer stand them and had the whole thing painted gray. They might be silly looking, but gray girders were less silly looking than red girders and paint was cheap!

At some point, we needed more space again for our marketing and sales folks, so we took the Green 17 space back, Met Life having vacated. Later, we needed still more space, so we tore out the under-used training center and replaced it with four small offices and more cubicles.

A bit less than three years ago, we were bought by Hyperion Solutions. We knew that something would be happening with our office space, because the lease was expiring in April of 2006. Hyperion has a sales office in Lisle in the western suburbs; our space in Skokie is in the northern suburbs. We didn't want to go to Lisle, the folks in Lisle didn't want to go to Skokie, and we thought for a time that we'd all end up together near O'Hare, which is in the northwest suburbs. (And my commute would have dropped to fifteen minutes or so.)

It didn't happen. Instead, we're staying in the current space. But we're giving up the SE corner of the space, including Officers Row, so the last of the girders will be gone.

Our architect won an award for that design. The people who gave him the award never had to live in the space that he'd designed. If they had, their opinion might have been different. Or not. The people who give out awards like that have funny ideas.

In the meantime, we're losing one of our conference rooms, so Doug and I are being booted out of our larger offices (which will now be conference rooms of too small a size to be really helpful) and into smaller ones.

But I still have an office. And that's a good thing.
Tags: musings, work
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