You can ring my Cubicaller

September 24, 2007|By KEVIN COWHERD

Years ago, some management genius decided that the best way to improve production in an office setting was to wall off employees in drab gray cubicles.

Apparently, the theory was this: Lonely, isolated, with nothing more stimulating to look at than the occasional bowling trophy or Chinese takeout menu tacked to a wall, the employees would better concentrate on their jobs and provide more value to the company - if they didn't blow their brains out from boredom.

Yet the Cubicle Culture also ushered in another big, fat, straight-out-of-Dilbert headache: co-workers who appeared in your cubicle without warning and startled the hell out of you.

Now, one far-thinking young man has done something about that.

His name is Mike Mussoline, and he's invented a new gadget called the Cubicaller, which is essentially a doorbell for your cubicle to keep stealth visitors at bay.

Mussoline, 32, is a software engineer from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., who has worked in Cubicle Hell the past 10 years.

He says his back has always faced the cubicle's entrance, meaning he never knew when a colleague had materialized behind him and wanted his attention.

Some would knock real loud, as if Mussoline was out by the pool of a huge mansion instead of two feet away in a tiny cubicle.

"The worst one is when they stand behind you and wait for you to realize they're there," says Mussoline, who calls this phenomenon "hovering until detected."

"One guy I used to work with would say `ding-dong.' Another guy was really good at shuffling his feet until you noticed him."

So, a few years ago, he came up with the idea of the Cubicaller, although he's not exactly sure when the brainstorm hit.

"After you spend so much time in a cubicle, time seems to warp," he says.

Yes, I know that feeling.

Anyway, one day Mussoline gathered some "electrical stuff" lying around the house - he's an electrical engineer by training - and fashioned a crude cubicle doorbell.

It was not exactly an engineering marvel - all it did was sound "ding-dong" when you pushed the button.

But he brought it to his office and affixed it to the entrance of his cubicle, where he was surrounded by some 200 other software-engineer geeks, all of them sequestered in their own little cubicles and bathed in a greenish glow as they tapped manically at their computers.

His fellow geeks, being geeks, didn't immediately catch on to the first Cubicaller - probably because the concept was so simple.

"It took some explaining about why it was there and how to use it," recalls Mussoline.

But after they got the hang of it, the other geeks were impressed.

"They thought it was pretty cool," Mussoline says. "They'd say: `Wow, that's pretty easy to make. You should make them and sell them."

This did not strike Mussoline as a bad idea.

He says he's an inventor by inclination. But with his day job and his family responsibilities - he and his wife, Kristine, have two young kids - it was not until some 18 months ago that he completed the prototype for the present Cubicaller.

It finally hit the market six weeks ago and quickly attracted the attention of tech writers and gadget bloggers, and it's been featured on a number of morning radio and TV programs around the country.

People have taken to it, proving either that office workers have a sense of humor or that impromptu cubicle visits annoy them no end.

Mussoline says the Cubicaller's initial manufacturing run of several thousands pieces is selling quickly, and a second larger run will follow soon.

It sells for $11.99 (go to cubicaller.com for details), comes with a snazzy fabric fastener and offers a dozen different ring tones, including standard "ding-dong," chimes, car horns, lasers and cats meowing.

(Whoa, you talk about annoying. Cats meowing? Every time someone comes into your cubicle? I'd be looking for a new job in a heartbeat if I sat next to a cubicle with that ring tone.)

And who knows? Maybe if the Cubicaller catches on as something more than a gag item, it'll change the culture of cubicle visiting altogether.

Maybe it really will usher in "a civilized way for visitors to announce their arrival at your cubicle entrance," as the Cubicaller Web site promises.

God knows the workplace could use a little civilizing amid those drab gray walls.

Not to mention a little fun, too.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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