Psychological Safety and the Unix Room

2021 Apr 16, Timid Robot Zehta

Ever since I first read it in 2004, the following quote has stuck with me. I've added it almost every internal company wiki I've managed.

One odd detail that I think was vital to how the group [at Bell Labs] functioned was a result of the first Unix being run on a clunky minicomputer with terminals in the machine room.
People working on the system congregated in the room - to use the computer, you pretty much had to be there. (This idea didn't seem odd back then; it was a natural evolution of the old hour-at-a-time way of booking machines like the IBM 7090.) The folks liked working that way, so when the machine was moved to a different room from the terminals, even when it was possible to connect from your private office, there was still a `Unix room' with a bunch of terminals where people would congregate, code, design, and just hang out. (The coffee machine was there too.) The Unix room still exists, and it may be the greatest cultural reason for the success of Unix as a technology. More groups could profit from its lesson, but it's really hard to add a Unix-room-like space to an existing organization. You need the culture to encourage people not to hide in their offices, you need a way of using systems that makes a public machine a viable place to work - typically by storing the data somewhere other than the 'desktop' - and you need people [...] hanging out in the room, but if you can make it work, it's magical.

(Rob Pike Responds - Slashdot, 2004-10-18, retreived 2021-04-17)

There's a lot of reasons I like this quote. It offers a historical example of the importance of socializing and building trust for teams to have brilliant output (ex. psychological safety).

One thing that it illustrates that I haven't read much about is how often relationships and collaborations are driven by unrelated circumstances. The Unix room was created by the reality of terminals in the machine room. Similarly, in college I observed that most of the long lasting friendships were based on first year dorm assignments. I've also seen a good amount of media about long lasting friendships based on traumatic circumstances and shared adversity.

As I think about remote working, I wonder how people can be pushed together by circumstances and whether those circumstances can be designed instead of identified after the fact. I wonder how companies and organizations can create virtual Unix rooms. I do not hope for awkward Unix room skeuomorphismis, but intentional constraints that make it more likely for people to be close enough to offer help and create positive feedback loops of excitement.