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How Googlers Use Their 20% Time

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This article contains comments from googlers providing insight in how Google’s engineers use their 20% time on pet projects.

Recently, Quartz published a report claiming that Google’s famous “20% time” – the time allowed to any Google engineer to pursue any project he/she likes – is “now as good as dead.” They quoted an unnamed internal source:

Google’s “20% time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects, effectively no longer exists. …

Here’s how Google has effectively shut down 20% time without actually ending the program, says our source: First, as has been reported previously, Google began to require that engineers get approval from management to take 20% time in order to work on independent projects, a marked departure from the company’s previous policy of making 20% time a right of all Googlers.

Recently, however, Google’s upper management has clamped down even further, by strongly discouraging managers from approving any 20% projects at all.

The report has generated a lot of debate on Hacker News, but among all sorts of positions it surfaced comments from googlers disclosing details about the 20% program and its current status. Following are quotes from people claiming as being googlers. Their identity has not been authenticated, by they seem to be real Google employees.

dekhn denies 20% time as being dead, but acknowledges that 20% is actually part of 120%, as ridiculed in this Dilbert cartoon:

20% time still exists …

My last three years were spent turning my 20% project into a product, and my job now is spent turning another 20% project into a product. There was never any management pressure from any of my managers to not work on 20% projects; my performance reviews were consistent with a productive Googler.

Calling 20% time 120% time is fair. Realistically it's hard to do your day job productively and also build a new project from scratch. You have to be willing to put in hours outside of your normal job to be successful.

What 20% time really means is that you- as a Google eng- have access to, and can use, Google's compute infrastructure to experiment and build new systems. The infrastructure, and the associated software tools, can be leveraged in 20% time to make an eng far more productive than they normally would be. Certainly I, and many other Googlers, are simply super-motivated and willing to use our free time to work on projects that use our infrastructure because we're intrinsically interested in using these things to make new products.

spankalee also said that they can take 20% time for the projects they like, but adds that most people don’t do that:

I don't have to get approval to take 20% time, and I work with a number of people on their 20% projects.

I can also confirm that many people don't take their 20% time. Whether it's culture change due to new hiring, lack of imagination, pressure to excel on their primary project, I'm not sure, but it is disappointing. Still, in engineering No permission is needed.

He adds that a project manager can request deferring the 20% time for a quarter if the main project is on a very tight schedule:

If your manager needs you to focus on your primary project, she can ask you to bank your 20% time for up to a quarter, but then you get to use that saved time.

spankalee acknowledged that every department may have a different policy:

I agree it depends on the culture in each department. For someone already working long hours and under constant deadlines, I can imagine how they don't feel like they have 20% time. That's not a good way to work continuously, and hearing of certain departments or projects doing that to their teams is really saddening.

Personally, I did have very soft discouragement against wide-open 20% time. I asked around and a lot of people I talked to initially advised me against starting a 20% project so early, and especially against starting a new project rather than working on an existing one with engineers at a higher level than me. At least, they said, make sure I could get reviews out of it. That's not policy, but advice. People have their own theories about how best to get noticed and get promoted. Some of that has to do with 20% time. I guess if you're solely interested in promotion then you give more weight to such advice. I hope most Googler's aren't solely interested in promotion.

I'm very glad I ignored that advice, both because I got to do very interesting things and because I got recognized for it, and I'm glad that I could ignore the advice because of our policy.

Cookingboy said that his manager told them to take 20% only on a project related to the primary one:

I'm a Googler myself and my manager has told us that although 20% time is ok, we should only do it if the project has some direct contribution to the core work we work on. Really depends on the team/department you work at, the policy is there to allow it, but different team have different culture. I believe it's more discouraged in certain departments such as Android and Social (G+) (those teams are probably under more constant pressure to "produce") than some of the more "old school" departments.

Another Googler, zhyder, added that although one can take the 20% time, most engineers don’t do it because there is already too much work to do:

I'm a Googler, and comments here from other Googlers are correct: 20% time still exists and requires no manager approval, but only a minority of engineers take advantage of it. For instance, in my team of 14, only 2 work on 20% projects.

I haven't been at Google long enough, but I doubt there was ever a time when a majority of engineers did 20% work. It's hard: you have to take away not only time, but also focus from your main project (which like all software is probably already taking longer to build than you'd like). Most engineers aren't motivated enough.

Other somewhat similar positions from googlers or ex-googlers: billnguyen, So8res, nappy-doo, plywoodtrees.

These comments shed some light on the inner workings of a company that is pretty secretive and tightly controls all relations with the press. They also show that 20% time is not as spread inside Google as someone might think, many engineers having their hands already full with the project allocated to them. Perhaps, after the initial years when Google launched hundreds of internal projects, the flurry has faded and the company has entered into a more standard approach to new ideas where a minority of engineers devote time to research.

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