Google engineers insist 20% time is not dead—it’s just turned into 120% time

Under Larry Page, launching new initiatives is not for the faint of heart.
Under Larry Page, launching new initiatives is not for the faint of heart.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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A lively debate among current and former Google engineers is raging on Hacker News about Quartz’s piece on the death of 20% time at Google—that formerly hallowed portion of an engineer’s week set aside for his or her own projects, which brought us innovations such as Gmail and Adsense.

Update: Google’s official response

Some Google engineers insist that the statements given to Quartz and issued elsewhere in public forums are flat-out wrong: “I don’t have to get approval to take 20% time, and I work with a number of people on their 20% projects,” says one anonymous poster claiming to be an engineer at Google.

But other engineers, even those who say they use the free time at Google, painted a more nuanced picture.

20% time isn’t dead — I have been using it at Google consistently for over 7 years, and it has immensely benefited me. You don’t need any permission, at least in engineering.

However, I would agree that it is “as good as dead”. What killed 20% time? Stack ranking.

Stack ranking is a policy—popularized by former GE CEO Jack Welch—of ranking employees by various metrics and firing the bottom 20%. Google doesn’t enact exactly this policy, and is more focused on helping its bottom 20% improve, but the point is that such policies of measurement don’t exactly lead to intangibles like incubating new initiatives or products.

Google’s [performance] management is basically an elaborate game where using 20% time is a losing move. In my time there, this has become markedly more the case. I have done many engineering/coding 20% projects and other non-engineering projects, with probably 20-40% producing “real” results (which over 7 years I think has been more than worth it for the company). But these projects are generally not rewarded. Part of the problem is that you actually need 40% time now at Google — 20% to do stuff, then 20% to tell everyone what you did (sell it).

Apparently, 20% time is jokingly referred to within Google as “120% time” to indicate that, while engineers have the opportunity to pursue their own projects, it’s only on top of their existing (often quite demanding) schedules. In practice, this means engineers who are especially motivated are free, as at any other job, to use their nights and weekends to do even more work.

Calling 20% time 120% time is fair. […] 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 infrstructure [sic] because we’re intrinsically interested in using these things to make new products.

Whatever the status of 20% time for individual teams at Google—and there appears to be considerable variability, depending on the whims of managers—it’s clear that a minority of Google’s engineers use 20% time. It’s those who are especially motivated who continue to leverage Google’s resources to build their own projects.

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