Freak Systems

Office Space and the Reality of Computer Programming


One of the most famous movies about software engineers is Office Space. It may have bombed when it first came out, but it become the kind of cult hit that manages to last for decades. I think some of the Office Space workers may be among the most realistic software engineers that I’ve ever seen. A lot of times, when you see someone who knows a lot about computers in a Hollywood movie, they’re ace hackers who can do things that no real hacker could ever hope to accomplish in the amount of time that it takes to watch a movie.

The protagonist of Office Space says that in a given week, he probably only does fifteen minutes of actual work, and he seems to imply that he might be rounding up when he says that. I think half of the programmers that I’ve ever worked with would say that exact same thing if they were being honest, which they probably wouldn’t be in the interest of protecting their jobs and their credibility.

The protagonist of Office Space assures other characters onscreen and the audience that he isn’t lazy, and I believe him. What he’s going through is by no means a function of laziness. A lot of the work that software engineers and computer programmers do is just really boring. Work isn’t supposed to be fun, and almost everyone you meet will tell you that. However, it really doesn’t have to be as deadly dull as the kind of work that software engineers have to do on a daily basis.

The fact that the protagonist seems to have gotten away with such extreme procrastination for years also doesn’t surprise me in the least. Most likely, he was surrounded by a bunch of people doing the exact same thing at the same company.

This might be lost on some modern viewers, but I also loved the fact that the movie made the preparation for the 2000 switch seem completely mundane, which it was. There was a lot of paranoia about Y2K going on in 1999. To programmers, the 2000 switch was just another annoying set of tasks, although it was fun to think of ourselves as the people who were preventing the apocalypse. We knew we weren’t, but it helped keep us going.

One of the things that stands out to me about the culture of Initech in the first place is the obsession with documentation. We spend more time watching the bosses obsess about that than we do watching anyone do coding in Office Space. Indeed, older companies like Initech spend more time on documentation than almost anything else. It isn’t real work, but it feels like it, and that’s usually enough for everyone involved.

The protagonist plays Tetris at work at one point to signify just how much he has abandoned his duties at work. The thing is, I bet he was playing Tetris anyway at work, just like most of us. The temptation is too difficult to resist when you’re working on a computer all day long. Really, the only change was this time he was being completely honest about it.