Can Google’s 20% time really work for your startup?

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Google’s 20 percent time is one of the most famous, and arguably successful, management practices of all time. In their 2004 IPO letter, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin revealed that the policy of allowing employees to take time out of their core jobs to be creative and experimental had led to some of the company’s most successful products. AdSense, which now accounts for about 25 percent of Google’s total revenue, Gmail, Google Transit and Google News were all born out of 20 percent time.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Apple have all implemented their own versions of 20 percent time, but as huge and highly successful technology companies with money to spare, it’s a bet they can afford to make. How does a small or medium sized business free up 20 percent of its employees’ time without jeopardizing the bottom line?

Adapt to suit your business

At Google employees are allowed to use their 20 percent time when they like, but in a small company a more planned approach may be necessary to ensure there’s always enough resource working on the core product or business. At Server Density we give our engineers a quota of one week out of every six to work on whatever they like, as long as it’s relevant to the company; something we call a “random week.” This policy has resulted in some key product innovations for us.

For example, one of our developers chose to use several of his random weeks over a period of several months to refactor and reimplement our server-monitoring time series graphing engine. We would get regular reports of minor graphing bugs, which were small on their own but added up to make our graphing a pain point for customers. We didn’t focus on it in our usual roadmap because we had higher priority feature requests. After several of our larger customers made similar complaints, we decided to take our developer’s random-week work and have the entire frontend team focus on it to completion.

Guide how employees use their time

It seems an obvious point, but the spirit of 20 percent time is to allow as much free rein to your employees as possible. Small businesses that need to keep a closer eye on return on time investment could set some parameters on how the time is used, or alternatively set up some kind of ranking of pain points that need solving within the business, with an incentive system for coming up with solutions. That way you can gently encourage creativity in the most useful direction. LinkedIn held regular hack days giving awards to people who wrote snippets of code quickly. Later they introduced the LinkedIn InCubator, where employees were allowed up to 90 days to work on a project, with check points at each month to check the projects were worthwhile. InCubator gave rise to a number of useful products, including a toolkit for pointing out new features as users move around the LinkedIn site.

Encourage positive slacking

When struggling with the idea of giving your employees one day in five, or whatever proportion of time you decide, to use as they wish, remember that no one is ever 100 percent productive with their time. By encouraging employees to work on side projects you are at least allowing them to “slack off” productively. You will also ensure they feel valued and encourage a positive, engaged culture, especially if those projects then get incorporated into core (or new) products.

It’s also a very good way to allow your team time to learn new technologies, improve their skills, and stay up to date with the industry. This can be difficult to achieve given how fast things move in tech and when formal “training” sessions and conferences can often be boring or not particularly useful.

Although the graphing rewrite project at our company was started by one engineer as a way to move an old area of code from the Backbone to Facebook’s React framework, the rest of the team also learned new techniques from the migration. Updating legacy code is always challenging. One of the engineers on the project wrote a blog post about the lessons learned; another was able to explore some complex color selection algorithms, an area of particular interest to her. What started as an engineering project crossed over to help our marketing team publish high quality content, which our customer success team is now using as part of an upcoming webinar to existing customers. The benefits can be seen across the business.

Whatever system you come up with, encouraging creativity among your developers not only makes sound business sense from a product development point of view, it will also help you attract the best talent. A recent report from Stack Overflow ranked the opportunity for professional development as one of the top five job benefits for developers, so offering this policy will help with recruiting and retention, which, in today’s increasingly competitive market for talent, is almost reason enough.

David Mytton is founder and CEO of Server Density.

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