Last August I took a two week tour of Europe. One of my favorite parts of the trip was the two days we spent in Germany. The tour included stops in St. Goar (the Rhine Valley) and Munich. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time on the Autobahn as we drove from place to place. The Autobahn is most famous for its fast drivers, but I didn’t get to experience that myself. (The tour bus I was on had its speed electronically governed, but even if that weren’t the case I doubt the laws of physics would have allowed the big beast to go much faster than 65mph anyway.) Instead of high speed driving, what I’ll always remember the most about the Autobahn are its rest stop bathrooms.
Unlike the bathrooms here in the United States, the bathrooms along the Autobahn are not free to use. In fact, it costs half a euro to answer the call of nature along the Autobahn. When I learned this, it led me to wonder if this is why so many people drive fast on their roads. Hey, if my bladder were full and I was short the requisite 50 cents I’d probably be driving 140mph too!
At first I was a little pissed off (pun intended) at having to pay to use the bathroom, but this went away once I saw how nice the facilities were. The restrooms, run by a company named Sanifair, were the cleanest and most modern public bathrooms I had ever seen. The walls were decorated with a cobalt blue tile that put my home bathroom to shame. The self cleaning toilets looked as if they had never been used. The bathroom floors were cleaner than my kitchen floors, which is especially impressive considering that I never use my kitchen. To top it off, the 50 cents it costs to use the bathrooms are refundable if you make a purchase in the rest stop restaurant. This is particularly clever since encouraging people to eat and drink is good for repeat business!
A few days after visiting Germany, the tour took us into Italy. By contrast, the bathrooms at the Italian rest stops were among the crappiest (pun intended) I have ever seen. The floors were dirty, the sinks were wet, the paper towel was often missing in action, and at one stop every single toilet seat had been removed from the stalls. On the bright side, these bathrooms were free to use.
What’s the moral of this story? German and Italian bathrooms are perfect examples that, often in life, you get what you pay for.
When running a company, it’s very important to be careful with your money. This is especially true in today’s not-so-hot economy. At my company, I do my best to watch expenses and look for ways to save money that won’t affect the happiness of my employees or the quality of our products and services. However, in some areas of the business, I’ve learned that it never pays to be cheap.
A large part of what my company does is custom software development. This makes our computers the most important tool of our trade. For this reason, I buy the top of the line computer for each new employee. The last employee I hired one month ago is now working on a MacBook Pro with 4 Gigs of Ram. The total cost of his machine, including the purchase of additional software, came to about $5,000. Sure, I could have saved a thousand dollars by purchasing a Dell, but I like to know that my developers won’t be slowed by spyware, viruses and buggy operating systems.
I also do my best to ensure that my employees are working in the most comfortable conditions. When working in the office, each of my developers sits in an extremely comfortable and ergonomic Aeron chair. On eBay, a brand new Aeron chair will cost you about $800, including shipping. This is obviously much more expensive than a “normal” office chair, but I find the price to be well worth it. The chairs are immensely more comfortable than a typical office chair, and although we’ve only owned ours for a couple of years I’m told that they will last at least a decade.
Joel Spolsky does a very good job of praising Aeron chairs in his Field Guide to Developers:
[Aeron chairs] are much more comfortable than cheap chairs. If you get the right size and adjust it properly, most people can sit in them all day long without feeling uncomfortable. The back and seat are made out of a kind of mesh that lets air flow so you don’t get sweaty. The ergonomics, especially of the newer models with lumbar support, are excellent.
They last longer than cheap chairs. We’ve been in business for six years and every Aeron is literally in mint condition: I challenge anyone to see the difference between the chairs we bought in 2000 and the chairs we bought three months ago. They easily last for ten years. The cheap chairs literally start falling apart after a matter of months. You’ll need at least four $100 chairs to last as long as an Aeron.
So the bottom line is that an Aeron only really costs $500 more over ten years, or $50 a year. One dollar per week per programmer.
A nice roll of toilet paper runs about a buck. Your programmers are probably using about one roll a week, each.
So upgrading them to an Aeron chair literally costs the same amount as you’re spending on their toilet paper, and I assure you that if you tried to bring up toilet paper in the budget committee you would be sternly told not to mess around, there were important things to discuss.
Joel was even kind enough to bring the topic full circle, back to bathrooms. Thank you, Joel. The point I’m making is that just like with European bathrooms, when it comes to office chairs you get what you pay for.
In addition to developing software, my company also provides technical training at the corporate level. As a trainer, I have the opportunity to work with software developers at a number of large business and government organizations throughout North America. I’m sad to see that many programmers in the corporate world are forced to work on old, slow computers, seated on cheap, uncomfortable chairs. I think this is being penny wise and pound foolish.
Cheap computers end up being more expensive because they slow down their well paid users. Spending an extra $1,000 on a faster computer might save a given developer twenty minutes a day in not having to wait for the compiler to return. Twenty minutes doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that’s over 83 hours per year. If a given developer makes $50,000 per year, $2,000 of their salary is being made staring at an animated hourglass. An extra $1,000 spent on a faster computer would have paid for itself in six months.
Cheap office chairs also end up being more expensive over time because they need to be replaced more often. Replacing chairs requires time ordering them, money shipping them, time assembling them, and money having the old ones hauled away. This doesn’t even include the cost of lost productivity caused by the back pain brought on by sitting in a really bad chair.
As if all of this weren’t enough, I imagine that there’s also an opportunity cost that must be paid by being cheap with your employees. If an intelligent job candidate realizes that working for your company will require them to use sub-par equipment, seated in a sub-par chair, they will seek greener pastures.
I’m not advocating wasteful spending. On the contrary, I think that companies should be cheap where they can get away with it, and “lavish” with the pocketbook when it matters. Specifically, if it effects the happiness of customers and employees, or the quality of a product or service, then liberal spending will often pay for itself many times over. The Germans seemed to have learned this lesson. Now if somebody could please translate this page into Italian, I might be able to make a big difference in this world.