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Atomic Object: A Good Example of What Corporate IT Isn’t Like

April 24th, 2008 · 1 Comment

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Tuesday night I spoke at XP Western Michigan, an XP user group in Grand Rapids Michigan. Here’s a link to the presentation – “Pulling Your Head Out of Your… Budget: Mental Re-tooling for Agile Project Management.” It was a great time – thanks to XPWM for having me out and to Matt Heusser for introducing me.

While I was there I was lucky enough to meet Carl Erickson, one of the owners of Atomic Object, and check out their office in Grand Rapids. It’s hard to think of what I saw there as an office – it had more in common with a grad school lab than an IT department. I thought it was awesome. One of the first employees to greet me was Carl’s dog, a friendly blue-eyed boy with a rather frightening resemblance to a wolf. Not only was he very well-behaved and quite used to strangers visiting their lab, he’s a perfect example of what you’re not going to run into in your typical corporate IT office building.

There are no cubical walls at Atomic Object, nor are there any offices for “The Boss”. In fact, the office was just a big, enthusiastically messy and non-sterile open space, with desks scattered around the room almost randomly. A hodge-podge of computers covered the flat spaces, most of them macs, nearly all of them with multiple monitors. One of the developers was even pounding away at a Macbook Air, the first I’ve seen in the wild.

The focal point of the office is the little kitchen, which was well-stocked with all the unhealthy snacks a code-warrior needs to be productive. Note the movie-theater style popcorn maker on top of the dishwasher. Carl told me the kitchen area is where many of their design sessions occur – it’s the creative mecca of their organization.

Hung on a pole in the center of the room is a huge stop light, the kind I dreamed about stealing as a teenager. Hooked up to their continuous integration environment by X10, the stop light lets them know when the build is broken (the CI environment, incidentally, is driven by an older iMac that sits on a bookshelf that looks like it was made from leftover parts of a crate).

I guess some people would find this kind of randomly distributed, inherently disorganized seeming workspace as a turn-off, but it felt full of creative energy to me. It screamed fun, creativity, and constant learning the minute I walked in. It seemed to be the antithesis of all things corporate IT – it was pragmatic, minimalistic, and devoid of pretense. It wasn’t hard to figure out that Atomic Object is a company whose primary concern is writing valuable software that works.

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