How Google Workers Create Products When They’re Not Working

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Google’s unorthodox corporate culture has long sparked the interest of the tech community and the general public, with the goings-on of its Mountain View headquarters inspiring speculation, analysis, and even movies. One of the company’s most famous policies — of giving its employees what the company refers to as “20 percent time” — has granted engineers time away from their primary responsibilities, with the surprising effect of incubating some of the company’s most successful products.

At the time of Google’s 2004 IPO, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin released a “Founders’ IPO Letter,” subtitled “‘An Owner’s Manual’ for Google’s Shareholders,” that explained how the company operated to potential shareholders. The letter pushed 20 percent time into the public’s consciousness, and cited the program as an important part of the company’s process of innovation:

We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in ’20% time.’ Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.”

The idea of 20 percent time was also cited in a post on Google’s Official Blog in May of 2006, when technical solutions engineer “Alex K.” detailed the process of creating a keyboard shortcut to skip sections of stories in the now-defunct Google Reader as an example of a 20 percent time project:

“The 20 percent time is a well-known part of our philosophy here, enabling engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions. You can use the time to develop something new, or if you see something that’s broken, you can use the time to fix it.”

Though Google engineers used 20 percent time to prototype Gmail, Google Transit, Google Talk, and Google News, Quartz’s Christopher Mims reported in August of 2013 that some former Google employees said that 20 percent time was “as good as dead,” though the piece sparked such debate that he posted two follow-up articles detailing how Google said that 20 percent time was “alive and well” and engineers noted that it had simply turned into 120 percent time.

At the time, Quartz heard from some former employees that Google had begun to require engineers to get a manager’s approval to take 20 percent time to work on independent projects. Google’s upper management reportedly began discouraging managers from approving 20 percent time projects, and  the company’s internal analytics team expected levels of productivity predicated on the assumption that all employees are working on their primary responsibilities 100 percent of the time.

The shift seemed consistent with Page’s announcement that Google would put “more wood behind fewer arrows,” putting more employees and resources behind fewer projects and killing off Google Labs, which had been Google’s showcase for its experimental projects, many of them products of employees’ 20 percent time. Experimental projects that weren’t part of Google’s core mission seemed consolidated to the Google X lab, where Google Glass, the driverless car, and Project Loon were conceived.

But a Google spokesman noted that Google Now and Google’s Transparency Report were recent examples of 20 percent time, and engineer Andrew Kirmse explained that Google Now began “when a few of us on the Maps team thought there was some really useful information we could show you on your phone based on where you are.”

Other engineers said that it was untrue that 20 percent time projects needed to be approved, and some noted that 20 percent time is jokingly referred to as “120 percent time,” indicating that engineers could pursue their own projects on top of their regular schedules, with the most motivated taking advantage of the availability of Google infrastructure and resources to build their own projects.

It seems that Google engineers do, indeed, take advantage of 20 percent — or 120 percent — time, with The Verge reporting that Google’s new Cartographer indoor mapping project began as a 20 percent project. Wearing a backpack-mounted computer with Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) connected to an Android tablet, a person can walk around a building and create a map that’s accurate to within 5 centimeters, about 1.9 inches. He or she can watch the map being created on the tablet, and add points of interest. Google thinks that Cartographer will be especially useful for events like concerts, conferences, and trade shows. Cartographer is a joint project between Google’s Cultural Institute and its indoor maps team, and started as a 20 percent project.

A number of now-essential Google products and services are known to have started as 20 percent projects. They include AdSense, Google’s advertising engine; Google’s autocomplete system, originally called Google Suggest; Gmail, Google’s free web-based email service; Google News, a computer-generated site that aggregates headlines; Google Now, a digital personal assistant; Google Talk, an instant messaging service; Google Transit, a feature of Google Maps that incorporates information on transit systems’ schedules and routes; the Google Transparency Report, in which the company explains how laws and policies affect internet users; and even Google’s San Francisco shuttle buses for the company’s employees.

Many companies, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Apple have implemented their own version of the 20 percent time program. But at Wired, Ryan Tate wrote that the idea behind 20 percent time — that employees’ knowledge is most valuable when they’re given time and space to experiment and innovate with it – is a core part of Silicon Valley’s corporate culture. The culture of side projects flourishes not because it’s a corporate program with its own managers and policies — it’s not, Tate assures readers — but because it enables a company’s most motivated, restless, persistent employees to see a project through from concept to completion.

Tate notes that availing oneself of 20 percent time has always entailed sacrifices, and various company and team policies cause the attraction of 20 percent time projects to wax and wane. In some way, it seems inevitable that tech companies will always encourage their employees to run with their own ideas, through 20 percent time, hackathons, programming marathons, or other iterations. It’s that part of tech companies’ culture that helps keep companies experimenting, innovating, and learning. And that, after all, should always remain core to what Google and all of its neighbors in Silicon Valley, will need to accomplish to build the apps, services, gadgets, and tools of the future.

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