Engineers' desks can alternate between spartan and fodder for a hazmat team. What's yours look like?
Engineering desks can be an art form all their own. Consider these shots from late analog design legends Bob Pease and Jim Williams.
Jim Williams' bench:
It's clear in the cases of Pease and Williams that cluttered, "messy" spaces may actually spawn genius, to paraphrase the famous quotation.
Are you a genius? Send me photos of your "work space" (the soulless phrase for where you invent), whether it's in the office or your garage. We'd love to see the environment in which you create cool stuff!
By the way, here's a shot of mine, which today doesn't resemble the homeless encampment it usually does. Clearly, nothing in this shot shouts "genius," alas.
When I was studying engineering the most popular professor of our Electrical engineering department was known for his messy desk. He used to display a board on his messy table with the message:
"Creative Mess Is Better Than Idle Tidiness".
Long story but bear with me: I was interviewing for a job 20 years ago (pre-EET). We're sitting in the publisher's office and he spreads his arms wide and gazes around his space.
"What do you notice about this office?"
This was a question I had not anticipated, and for a moment I was stumped. He had the usual groupie pictures with famous people, a stand-up carboard cutout of some actor, a marlin hanging on the wall, etc.
All I could muster in response was "Um, it's neat?"
He nearly jumped across his desk to hug me. "Exactly! I'm a fanatic about neatness."
It turns out he was feuding with a reporter who had mounds of press releases and reporters notebooks spilling off his desk, onto the floor and out into the cubicle walk way. That pissed him off.
How would I handle a situation like that, he asked, pointedly.
"If it deters his ability to break stories and make deadlines, it's a problem."
I didn't yet know the reporter, but he turned out to be one of our best.
I'm no genius, but my desk is sure messy. Not only that, my "stuff" also occupies the other two positions in my cube effectively giving me a "private" office. I think I would rather be the guy helping clean out Jim's place versus Bob's. We had a genius guy Fred G. (now retired) whose desk looked almost identical to Bob's. :-)
Ha! Well, I have a couple stories along these lines: 20 some odd years ago I worked at what is now called the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. There was a rumor that Sherm Mullin, who assumed the role of president for part of the time I was there, had seen a guy's very neat desk and had fired the guy on the spot! The idea being that if he had time to clean up his desk, he was not working hard enough! I took that as job security for me with my messy (not quite like Pease [RIP, RAP]).
Later, I worked at a small startup and had my own bench in the back of the lab, messy as all get-out. The technician was a real neat freak and commented one day how he couldn't understand how I could get any work done in such a mess (again not quite as bad as Jim Williams' bench, RIP). I said that it was very simple; I don't waste any time cleaning up!
I have always had a messy desk! I am sure it is a reflection of my genius. That said, every so often (once a year..) I do clean it up (mostly rearrange the piles) and then can't find anything for weeks.. I think it is most efficient to keep things "where I left them".
The messy desk observation may be related to another well-known phenomenon, captured in the late urban critic Jane Jacobs’s famous dictum, “New ideas need old buildings.” I understand that FE Terman, when he was dean of the Stanford school of engineering, firmly resisted moving the engineering school out of its WWII-era quonset huts and into a new building, on the grounds that "no work gets done in new buildings." Investors who have funded a company's move into a beautiful new building just before the company spirals in might agree.
I call BS.
Although I have an amazingly messy desk (well actually three desks, as well as a floor), I also know many excellent engineers that are incredibly fastidious, right down to keeping their pencils in an orderly arrangement.
Ron, my colleague at EET/UBM Electronics, with whom I've worked for 20 years, taught me an important lesson in the '90s. His desk was reasonably orderly save for a mounting pile of paper on one side. It grew as the months passed in a given year. He used no file cabinet.
These were press releases back before email became the favorite medium for distributing such, um, information. Normally reporters have these strewn all over the place. But Ron's method was to simply stack them in chronological order. He had a reasonable sense for when something was sent over, so he'd just thumb through the stack until he found it. Then, on Dec. 31, it took a forklift to dump the pile!
I agree that this is rubbish. If you actually take a close look at the picture of Jim Williams desk in this article, it is incredibly neat! There are a lot of things there but everything is meticulously positioned. Just thought I would bring that up!
I don't know of any correlation between the messiness of one's desk and genius, but I can relate to the earlier comment about the engineer who was fired on the spot for having a perfectly neat desk. That's rather extreme, but the point is well made that if your desk is so tidy, then you must not have enough real work to do.
For years now, I have been trying to go more and more paperless, with only modest degrees of success. My desk isn't as bad as it used to be in the days before email & internet, but it has gotten better. Still, there is no way to avoid having some documents lying around in hard copy form.
Ok, Allwires is right about Williams' desk, but take a look at the photos rolling in. Not everything is meticulously placed!
I would never say my desk was extremely messy though one of my bosses would have. I use to have two shelves of databooks plus several others, which I most often used, within easy reach at the back of my desk. I tended to keep older versions of databooks also because often they had good technical information that sometimes wasn't found in the latest databook. My boss would walk by every once in a while and comment about all the literature, but I never gave it too much thought. After all, he must have some idea of their real value, right? Now as it is said, it's a digital world, so I guess his comments were just registering as 0's, 0's until one day, that is. One day, he wheeled a large blue recycling bin outside of my office and left it there. That clearly registered as a digital "1". Vth (V-threshold-hint) had clearly been exceeded. I parted with some of those data books with deep regrets however--true gems all of them.
Now I have hundreds of bookmarks, well categorized. And my desk is neat. But I wonder, am I really a different person? ;)
Usually messy desks mean that the person is either very busy or very lazy or uses it as a filing system for ideas to get back to, or is a pack rat, or all of the above to one degree or another.
All I know is I do not like another person dealing with items in or on my desk since then I loose track of where something was before.
If you focus on the person's desk, mostly likely you will miss their genius, and if not genius, their contributions.
The only clean desk situation I ever really had to deal with was when working on top secret DOD and Military projects. The policy was - not a single thing on the desk, and every drawer locked. Unless your office had a name tag, a passerby would not know who sat where. Of course, this was when the Cold War was in full swing.
The messy desk = genius myth is a ruse to defend laziness and protect idiots. After all, even a lazy idiot can figure out if all that is necessary to be considered a genius is having a messy desk, well then just don't ever clean up!
Of course, there are lazy geniuses too...
I saw this messiness/genius correlation also applied to garages, believe it or not. Years ago, I saw a piece on PBS, I think it was, about Silicon Valley. The reporter commented on how messy the garage of some of the Silicon Valley originals were. And then he proudly showed his own messy garage, on TV. I suppose we were meant to infer that this reporter was a genius too? All I could think was, what a wannabe!
I won't deny the possibility that genuine genii probably do suffer from some form of attention deficit disorder in other facets of their lives, and that this could lead to messy desks and households, or other manifestations of ADD that have nothing to do with surrounding oneself in a mess. I also don't deny the obvious existence of poseurs, in regard to messiness. Putting your stuff away at the end of the day takes a handful minutes, at most.
This is the problem with messy desks. If you work with a lot of hardware and prototyping, you have a lot stuff needed to do your work. Some of my larger prototype projects looked like I had dumped pots of spaghetti on several desks. Then add on to that test equipment, meters, parts, tools, and computers then you have what seems a cacophony of chaos. Surfing this undulating wave of disparate hardware is likely an engineer who is probably the only one in the company that fully understands that it is not chaos in their workspace but progress. Then enters the manager who job is to make everything follow “the plan”, reduce costs, systemize, “motivate” the workforce, and meet deadlines. In other words minimize chaos and promote order. When a manager sees what the engineer is doing, the manager skin crawls and seeks to help the engineer improve his productivity by introducing his version of order. To engineers, this is called stress. Managers look at engineers as hoarders and want them to get rid of the “junk” from previous projects. Then the same manager complains that following projects are continually delayed because the engineer keeps ordering and waiting for parts. The manager wants the engineer to clean up their work area to look pretty for customers who tour the area. Then the same manager complains that the engineer is wasting too much time searching for stored equipment and setting up projects. Then the manager makes everybody’s work space the same size then wonders why the hardware engineer has a rat’s nest of several projects on a single desk unlike the cooperative software engineers who can manage several programs on their computers just like the managers. When I had several desks and a larger room, my productivity increased. There are several other ways managers try to help engineers and then wonder why the engineer has a failure to thrive.
Any good engineer will realize when his workspace is too cluttered to get his work done, and clean up as needed. The sad part is that we have managers that spend their obviously copious free time to examine the cleanliness of engineer's desks. The solution is to replace those managers with ones who will do work that contributes to the bottom line. This leads to a similar need, which is to make sure managers do not have windows in their offices because they spend too much time looking out of them.....
I used to think that having a messy desk somehow implies that the person is smart and a wiz or something to that effect. However, I don't believe in that anymore. I believe that a person's desk should not be messy and it should be organized. To me if someone's desk is messy, this implies how this person might also deal with other things in his life or anything else related to work. However, this is not a general rule. It is just my opinion. I don't mind if there are drawings or other items on the desk during the day, but at the end of the day, the desk has to be clean.
Some degree of messiness comes from having more important things to do than put every pencil in the right place. At Methode Electronics division we got a new manager, (MBA, of course), and he decided that since certain customers were of an ethnic group that fixates on neatness, we must all fixate on neatness. So we had weekly cubicle neatness audits. Then things got slow, so we had layoffs, because "we can always get more engineers-they're all the same", and now I see that most of the engineers don't work there any more, and business is slower yet. And all the empty cubicles are so clean and neat. And business is getting slower.
My stuff is spread out over my space (but not onto other's space). Periodically, at the appropriate time, I tidy up.
For 2 years the company tried to enforce "5S" on R&D (Sort, Shine, Set in order, Sustain, and something else I can't remember now). This is very successful in our factory, but really hard to implement in a creative environment where you need to come up with fresh ideas all the time. Most guys are now doing "5S" only to please management, and the sensible (genius) guys use "5S" to get inconsiderate guys to clean up the mess they make in common areas.
If your desk is tidy, then the mess must be stored in your head ;-).
I was also messy, but I owned the company. When things got too overwhelming on my bench, I would move to a bench in the production area. When the employees came in, they would often demand that I clean off their benches, otherwise work would not get done. Some employees were actually afraid to enter my office!