20 percent time

Written on December 21, 2015

You might have heard about the concept of “20 percent time” before. It basically means that you’re encouraged to work on pet projects, during 20 percent of your regular work hours. That’s a whole day per week, four days per month, or even a couple of months per year.

The premise is that you ideally pick up new skills you wouldn’t have otherwise. By doing so 20 percent time can be a significant contributor to making your company more innovative by driving new and emerging technologies into your product.

Sometimes these pet projects even turn into real products. Probably the most famous example being Gmail, Google’s email service, which serves today about 900 million users worldwide and is one of their flagship products. If you give smart creatives [1] - employees that don’t chase compensation but rather the ability to cause change and disrupt industries - enough time and space to tinker, you might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of the concept and truly believe in its benefits. It’s a cornerstone of our engineering culture at my workplace and definitely the perk I get most asked about.

A lot of people seem to have trouble understanding what makes a great 20 percent project, though. It needs some clarification, a guideline to maximize its benefits. It’s not good enough to say “we have 20 percent time” and let people do whatever they want. So here’s my take on it:

An “ideal” 20 percent project

  • is innovative
  • has a defined scope
  • should be open to collaboration
  • could benefit the company

Innovation is all about change. It’s about trying something you haven’t done before. Get out of your comfort zone and shake up these neural pathways of yours. Take risks, make mistakes and expect that most ideas will fail in the process of learning.

Choose at least one technology or programming language you haven’t worked with before, or have little to no experience with, to build your 20 percent project. The learning curve might be a bit steeper, but be assured that you’ll pick up a thing or two - and that’s the point.

Treat your 20 percent projects the same way you approach user stories. They need a defined scope, otherwise they’ll turn into neverending stories. Start small and think minimum viable product (MVP). You can always iterate and build new features on top.

Write the scope down (e.g. in your README) and don’t make the mistake of introducing too many new technologies at once. Avoid project scopes like “Learning Python,” and instead come up with a project where learning Python is part of the journey.

Communicate your 20 percent project to the rest of the company. Maybe you’re sparking a colleague’s interest and can work on it together. You can challenge each other, and learning together is always more fun.

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to learn the same things. Working cross-functionally on 20 percent projects can be particularly productive and even more rewarding.

Overall, your company is trusting you by giving you the freedom to learn on your own in a fun and engaging way. So in order to court management buy-in, it’s never wrong to give back by building useful things.

Note that this is a suggestion, and never let it inhibit your creativity. Afterall, nobody knows what types of projects eventually benefit your company - and that’s part of the charm here.

Enjoy your 20 percent time.

  1. The term “smart creatives” was coined in a book, called How Google Works, by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg.

Martin Buberl

Purveyor of Internet duct tape.
If you'd like to get in touch, feel free to shout @martinbuberl.