Today is Goof Off at Work Day

When you're hired at Google, you only have to do the job you were hired for 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, you can work on whatever you like – provided it advances Google in some way. At least, that's the theory.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

What about Valve? Their official company policy is not 20% time for personal projects, but 100%. It is still fascinating to me that with that and their flat company structure* they still manage to ship so many great products (not just single game projects, but things like Steam).

*: “…we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports
to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but
even he isn’t your manager.” - Valve: Handbook for new employees

My experience with this idea is that it doesn’t work unless you have good people who are actually -capable- of using their creative brains and doing things with their own initiative.

I offered this to my software team, but am yet to see them actually doing anything with their time. I have to really push them to make them use it. I guess it’s my fault for hiring them, but still, it bugs me.

I have to agree with cbp. I think the ability to get something good out of these initiatives depends on the people that you have to work with.

You really need people who are passionate about creating new things. Some developers at my current company seem to only focus on the job in hand, and don’t provide input into future products or experimentation. Maybe we’ve got the wrong people here and maybe that’s a reflection on our hiring process.

I really agree with that philosophy; working on or with something you really want is always going to be more productive and motivating than anything else.

Then again people must share the enthusiasm, and not least also understand it, for this idea to be succesful. I wish my company had this policy… :slight_smile:

Regarding #2. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t refer to one of my favorite scenes from Lost.

Yesterday at work we formed our new product team, part of this was me giving a quick presentation on our vision for the year, vision for our main product, goals for Q1 and I highlighted that I was implementing a sacred 20% policy. I’m very excited to see what it will enable, and I think we’ve got the right mix of people to create some really great products.

What timing - the company where I work is doing its very first ever “Innovation Days,” modeled after Atlassian’s ShipIt Days, today. I’m skeptical that it will bear fruit given the culture at this company, but hey, I’m open to being surprised.

We’ve just started doing 10% time. In terms of scheduling, we’re doing it on a Friday afternoon for the whole company. I’m hoping that this will make it easier for teams to find time for doing it because it’ll be more of a “hey it’s Friday afternoon, time for 10% time” rather than “I’ll try and do some 10% time tomorrow afternoon if I manage to finish this feature”.

It’ll also make it easier to for people from different teams to work together if they want to.

Thanks for posting about this!
When I emailed you on the matter the last thing I expected was a whole blog post to read about.
I’ll be sure to forward this to my boss, and again; thanks a bunch!

20% at Atlassian is actually going pretty strong. Every team in the company does it slightly differently—some teams schedule a day a week, others set aside a “20% week” between releases—but it’s much rarer these days that you hear complaints that developers don’t get the opportunity to exercise their time.

It took a while, and I think part of that process was proving that the programme actually produces results sufficient to justify its existence. These days it’s rare that we have a release of our products where one of the marquee features isn’t something that came out of a 20% project or ShipIt competition.

Someone else already mentioned Valve which has basically very little defined structure and supposedly gives employees 100% of the time to work on whatever they want. If you haven’t read their handbook, I totally recommend it:

There’s another angle to this as well, that no one seems to have considered:

Some of us love experimentation and creating stuff - but hate having to present it, or restrict it to something useful to the company. So we avoid taking advantage of this time, and wait until we have full freedom at home.

My company (a small real estate brokerage with a few developers) had a hackfest and it was great! I wrote up my experiences here:

So, don’t limit this type of free thinking work just to development staff–some great ideas came from people who couldn’t code. One difficulty is the deliverable–instead of running code, powerpoints or presentations were given.

I see two main benefits of hackfest (or 20% time, etc).

  • new ideas that come from the time spent, even if they take some time to be fully incorporated
  • a culture of innovation and respect for ideas from anyone

The second benefit is a concept that is not revolutionary at small tech companies, but for lots of other organizations it is.

We’ll be doing another hackfest this year–I’d like to ramp it up to at least twice a year.


In relation to the daydreaming comment, have you seen the talk by Rich Hickey, the creator of Clojure, “Hammock Driven Development”?

Almost a month ago I started a thread at Real World Technologies ( ) asking about the origin of 20% time. Responses there pointed to Valve and HP but did not mention 3M. (In my post I pointed to a vaguely similar concept presented in A Canticle for Liebowitz, where monks were allowed to work on side projects after their copying quota was met.)

It was nice to read about more examples.

We have a similar policy where I work. The only problem is I don’t think anyone has ever taken the time because they already have more work than they can handle. The few people that have come up with major innovations have done it in addition to their existing overtime.

It’d be great to have time to work on new and innovative ideas. Though I think a lot of companies struggle at giving employees enough time to do innovative or even adequate work on what they are already required to do.

“Oddly enough, I can’t find any mention of the 20% time benefit listed on the current Google jobs page, but it’s an integral part of Google’s culture.”

I don’t find this odd at all. They’re downplaying it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re phasing it out entirely. All the Google people I know barely have time for it any more. They call it “120% time” – what you do after you work a full week, if you want to stay late. I don’t know of anyone who’s spent a full day a week on a personal project, even once, in the past 5 years. While we were watching, Google became a Big Company, with all the good and bad that comes with that.

Due to mergers and splits, “HP” today isn’t the same company as “HP” in 1939, but I’d be surprised if either HP or Agilent still had something similar.

I think 10%/15%/20%/hack time is very important for new ideas, but it seems that the ingredients you identify as crucial for its success are fundamentally incompatible with Big Company culture.

I think people are missing the biggest problem with these ‘work on whatever you want programs’. And that’s ownership.

Let’s say I have a great idea. Great ideas are cheap. But it’s still my idea. Someone else might have came up with his own, identical or similar idea, and that’s his idea. But my idea is my own. And maybe it’s the next Facebook or Twitter. Maybe it will change the world. Probably not - but maybe.

If I use my spare time and turn my idea into a reality - it might make me a millionare. It might lead to my own company. It might make me famous. Because it’s mine I can use my idea to explore all of the possibilities.

But what happens when you use work time and resources to work on your idea? Who owns it now? THEY do. Not you. Will you be rewarded for it? Maybe. Will you have control over it No.

Maybe you get paid well enough that you don’t care. But when I look at hourly rates people get as contractors and consultants - that’s what you can earn PER HOUR doing assigned work. I’d need to make a lot more to hand over every awesome idea I may or may not have that may or may not be profitable, in addition to the regular work I do.

Some notes about 3M:

• All employees must prove that they have spent the appropriate amount of time working on their own projects. If, during their performance review, they can’t prove it, they are immediately suspended from their regular duties until they make up the time.

• All managers are chemical engineers. Not only that, every one has developed and sold a product of their own invention.

• The president is the manager who sells the most products. If some young engineer develops a product that out-sells the president’s products, guess who becomes the new president next quarter.

Some notes about HP (when Packard and Hewlett were running it):

• All engineers must has an electronic gizmo of their own creation on their desk at all times. This is in case Hewlett or Packard stopped by to visit; they should have something to play with while they’re there.

• HP developed Management by Walking Around. This was because Hewlett and Packard loved to talk about hardware and wandered around talking to their engineers. (Sadly, other companies which try to implement this don’t realize it does not work if employees cannot talk about their work. Just walking around and handing out dictates does not work.)

• All HP engineers had to spend two weeks in sales talking directly to customers. Most computers firms won’t let their developers so much as smile at customers.