What's All This Neatness Stuff, Anyhow?

Oct. 25, 1990
Once upon a time, there was a rapidly converging conflict: My boss thought my office was getting messier and messier, and he wanted me to make it neater. Now, this was just a year or so after my...

Once upon a time, there was a rapidly converging conflict: My boss thought my office was getting messier and messier, and he wanted me to make it neater. Now, this was just a year or so after my desk had won a $500 prize for being the "Ugliest Desk in Northern California." So I guess he thought he was justified in pressuring me to clean up my act. He solved that problem by making it one of my goals to get my office to an acceptable (whatever that meant) level of neatness. Well, we never found out what that meant. Every time he would ask me how I was coming on the neatness campaign, I would tell him all of the other things I was doing to help our customers.

What if I came in on a Saturday with good intentions of neatening up some of my office, and the phone rang. Should I tell the customer, "No, I won't help you, I have more important things to do"?

So every year he would mark me down points in my review for not fulfilling my goals. He finally got so discouraged that he left the company. The poor guy. He just wasn't devious enough! He could have waited until the next earthquake and told one of the guys to knock over a couple of my piles of papers. Then he could then explain that I had to get it at least to a reasonable level of safety. But he never figured that out, and I didn't tell him until after he left.

Some people keep their desk neat because that's what feels good to them. I find that neatness is not a priority compared to a number of other things, such as answering the phone when a guy needs help, or volunteering advice when a customer has a problem. Some people find it easy to keep a neat desk because they throw out things that make it look messy. I just don't operate that way.

One time I was working on a Saturday after being at National just a few months. My desk was already stack up pretty high. Another guy was at his desk, which had just a few dozen things on it. He was picking them up, one by one, studying them, and then throwing most of them in the wastebasket. I commented, "You sure do keep your desk neat." He said, "Yeah, if I find something I don't need, I throw it out." I said, "Doesn't your wife ever get nervous?" He replied, "It's my third wife ..." No, I don't operate that way.

One day, an engineer stepped gingerly into the entry way of my office and asked, "Bob, do you have a Siliconix catalog?" I replied, "Sean ... you're standing on it." He looked down and, indeed, he was. He was impressed. But I knew right where it was, because I had recently tossed it over by the doorway so I could then put it in the bookcase by the door. Sean just happened to walk in before I put it in the bookcase.

More recently, I inherited a couple of filing cabinets and a huge 7 ft. x 3 ft. x 7 ft. cabinet from a Fairchild laboratory. Our secretary explained that I would have to junk it unless I could find a use for it. I said, "Well, I could always put it in my office." She looked at this huge ark and said, aghast, "No, you couldn't do that."

I thought about it. I got a yardstick, and I figured out that, with an inch to spare, I could do that. My technician and I spent nearly all morning reassembling that cabinet and easing it into the corner of my office. I put about 1/3 of a million cubic inches of my paperwork into that, and into the other file cabinets, and improved the appearance of my office so much that our senior secretary admitted that I qualified for an "Enviros Award." In the past, the various departments would vie to achieve cleaner clean rooms and higher-yield fab lines by having better cleanliness. A whole department of 20 or 30 people would work real hard to cut down the number of particles in their area and win an Enviros Award. But I got my Enviros Award single-handedly. I hate to guess how many particles I straightened up.

Right now, my office seems to be in the getting-messier-again phase. When I have to review a mask set, with precision down to the last tenth of a micron, I get my head in the right mood to do that. And when I'm done, in sheer rebellion I guess, I abandon the neatness for a while. I save what seems to me to be of value. Often that includes documents and papers and notes that other people would think aren't very valuable - until they come to see me years later, hoping I might have the information they need. Often I do. Go ahead, call me retentive. See if I care.

Now that the NBS has changed its name to the "NIST" or "National Institute of Standards and Technology," I have figured out the next way to enhance the neatness of my office. I'm going to buy a big dresser with 6 big drawers and a mirror and everything. I'm going to put it right at the entrance of my office, and put our ultra-precision resistors and capacitors in those dresser drawers. And I'm going to call it "The National Bureau of Standards."

Comments invited! / RAP
Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Originally published in Electronic Design, October 25, 1990.

RAP Update: This was the fourth column I wrote, the fourth to be published. And suddenly I began to get some Fan Mail. A lot of people said they had desks that were pretty close behind mine in sheer messiness. My desk still is a Federal Disaster Area. I tried to put a recent picture of my desk in this web page, but it isn't even recognizable as a desk. Is it?

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