Ideal battlestation setup for firmware engineers

neo and morpheus fight in dojo

I treat my work place as a code-dojo. Work setup to us engineers, is what bed setup is for our brain; just as a good mattress, comfy sheets, and solid pillows optimize our sleep, so too an ideal setup optimizes our output.

Needless to say, I am meticulous about my setup. Why shouldn’t I be? The work place is where I make my money. It’s a fountain of creativity and self-expression and more importantly, something I believe should be configured to give you an advantage in your long-term growth as an engineer. So, in the words of Bill Nye, seriously consider investing in the following.

1. Expensive chair & standing desk

Like climate change, ergonomics and its impact to your health are real. Unfortunately many developers, especially older folks, don’t take this seriously enough. At my work, I was fortunate to have an on-site EHS (environment, health, safety) rep to help me ergonomically optimize my setup. But whether you have EHS support or not, do whatever you can to get an expensive chair (yes, all good ones are expensive) and a standing desk. I feel so strongly about the chair in particular that I wrote extensively on the topic here so I’ll talk more about the desk.

engineer working at standing desk

Most hip companies these days have electric standing desks you can control with the touch of a button, but there are more affordable alternatives. My $300 Varidesk works perfectly well. I only work standing for at most 2 hours a day, in 30 minute bursts and still feel I work best sitting down. However, being a chair potato at work, especially if you’re tall, has been linked to some serious health problems, so really take this to heart. Any company worth its salt should accommodate for you to have a comfortable and healthy work setup. If they don’t readily accommodate, fight for it. If they still won’t budge, start applying elsewhere.

2.  Noise cancelling headphones

There are 3 electronics in my life that I’m constantly amazed by their utility, performance, and build quality  — my 2012 Macbook Air, the Kindle Paperwhite, and the Bose QC20; and this last one really takes the cake. I use my headphones for ~8 hours a day —  1.5 hours during my commutes, 1+ hour during chores to listen to audiobooks, and most important, 5+ hours at work to block out the noise and get into the zone. To this end, the QC20 is truly a godsend.

By now, we all know that programmers need to maximize their time in the “zone” to maximize their output. If you’re part of the 1% of programmers with an office, congratulations. But the rest of us that have to deal with cubes, or god forbid, open offices, need to block out surrounding noise to stay in the zone throughout the day. So as soon as I sit down in my cube to focus on that one bug, I put on the headphones, activate, turn on noise cancelling, and ——– I can’t hear shit.

I still don’t believe that some people work better while listening to music. Any unwanted noise or conversations are distractions and my QC20 drastically improves my productivity in my cube farm. Open office people — I understand your pain. But unless you’re willing to go Trump and build a wall around your desk, invest in a QC20. It’s worth every penny.

3. Mechanical keyboard

mechanical keyboard with custom keycaps

I’ve only recently converted to the mechanical keyboard movement (thanks /r/mechanicalkeyboards) but have admired their beauty and clicking sounds for years. I bit the bullet after paying closer attention to the pain and fatigue in my fingers after a full day of heavy typing on the rubber-dome keyboards (if you don’t know what this is, you probably are typing on one). Since getting a mechanical keyboard (TKL CM Storm MX Blues), the pain in my fingers during/after typing has been reduced, and I can actually type faster for longer periods of time.

More important, the keyboard makes typing amazingly fun. As stupid as it sounds, one of the things I look most forward to at work is being able to type on my beautiful keyboard. In addition, it’s a creative way to express yourself, kind of like how everyone has their own configurations for syntax highlighting. How can you not love this?

4. Vertical monitor

battlestation setup with vertical monitor

You’re probably reading this on a dual monitor setup. Some prefer a single monitor, but as a firmware engineer, you really need 2 monitors if you’re working with hardware level code. Having a secondary vertical monitor allows you to read through any datasheet or pdf without page scrolling. It makes it much easier to search through datasheets since you can move through pages using your left/right arrow keys. This is glorious when you need to reference register details, read a recap of I2C on Wikipedia, watch a YouTube tutorial on bootstrap loaders, or step through code.

Firmware engineers need extra IDE real estate to not only track variables, but assembly instructions, memory, and register values, and a vertical monitor accommodates those needs perfectly. Most companies have monitors lying around empty desks so grab one, tilt it, and give the vertical monitor setup a try.

5. A clean work area

My high school volleyball coaches were big fans of Coach John Wooden. After every practice, they’d read a Coach Wooden quote or an anecdote from his days at UCLA. The most memorable story I recall is how every year, at the first team meeting, he’d teach his freshmen players how to properly put on their socks to minimize risk of calluses, then move on to teaching them how to tie their shoelaces. As silly as this sounds, I believe there’s great value in being purposeful towards every aspect of your craft. As Coach Wooden put it, “it’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.

I’ve always found that having a clutter-free environment gives me a clearer mindset that is more ready to take on the intellectual challenges at both school and work. As firmware engineers, our desks are often filled with PCBs, wires, books, schematics, and various electronics and sometimes the clutter can be overwhelming. Put in the time to neaten up your work area during your breaks. Organize your wires, put away unused items, and sanitize your work area.

Whether you’re a mechanic, a banker, or an engineer, there is such a thing as an ideal setup or daily regimen that maximizes your performance. In the 60s, most NBA players did not believe in weight training and nutrition. Over time, athletes like Wilt Chamberlain who caught onto the movement, reaped the benefits of weight training, and dominated the league, rapidly convinced the rest of the league to get on with it. These days, all NBA athletes have strict strength and nutrition programs designed to maximize their on-court performances.

coach John Wooden statue at UCLA

So it should be with our profession. Over the course of a 40-year career as an engineer, seemingly little things like your posture and activity level, truly matter. Extended stress to your fingers and wrists from typing on heavier keyboards matter. A daily 10% productivity gain from a dual monitor setup with noise cancelling headphones, compounded over 80,000 hours of an average engineer’s career, really matters.

So go do something about it, and remember, it’s the little things that make big things happen.

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