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NPR tried Google's 20%-time with their developers (niemanlab.org)
126 points by freejoe76 1281 days ago | comments



"Lumbard said the managers had toyed with the idea of adopting Google’s 20 percent time, but they concluded it wouldn’t work for NPR. Google has thousands of employees and extraordinarily deep pockets, which mean it can afford to let employees take a day every week for side projects. Plus, Lumbard says, 20-percent time puts the emphasis on individuality, whereas NPR’s approach values teamwork."

I often hear the 'Google is bigger, so they can afford it' argument... Bigger means they have MORE PEOPLE. That means it costs more.

I can understand a startup saying they can't do it, but an established company with profits? They could, if they wanted to. (Not that it would necessarily make sense, mind you. It depends on the industry.)

And the teamwork thing is nonsense, too. Googlers can work on other peoples' 20% projects in their 20% time. So it encourages teamwork as well. (And I'd likely be one of those, as I have few good ideas, but enjoy helping others flesh theirs out.)

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Speaking as an ex-googler, the 20% time is much more about encouraging side-projects. Time management is completely up to the employee - there is no set day for 20% projects (which leads to the internal joke that it's really 120% time).

Some people choose to make time for their side projects, and some don't. The real benefit to 20% time is fostering the environment where employees are encouraged to help other areas of the company or to step outside of their day to day responsibilities.

This also promotes teamwork across teams, which is really important when you have so many different products that need to feel cohesive.

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Are people at Google really commonly working 80+ hour weeks like I read everywhere?

Assuming that's a myth, why do people leave Google? It seems like a dream place to work.

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I worked for Google as software engineer. Many colleagues left to build their own business, often a start-up. Contrary to the common idea that Google eats up talent, I believe that Google is a great incubator, in fact.

Personally, I left to pursue doctorate studies.

The working hours are not crazy for all, but it's all bout getting things done, and people feel responsible of their tasks, so there is also a significant part of WFH.

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Why do people leave anywhere? If you can believe there's no such thing as "The One" in dating, for example, you can believe people have good reasons for leaving Google. It's all subjective, after all.

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I think the "extraordinarily deep pockets" has much more to do with Google being able to afford it than the "thousands of employees" part. Although the thousands of employees might be a help in terms of providing coverage for time-sensitive projects.

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Google 20% time is very much a myth

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Google 20% time is a way for engineers to provide justification for resource which they may otherwise be unable to get from their managers, and would have to keep secret (as some managers will object to you doing it in your spare time, too). It's a way to mitigate the productivity drain from managerial micromanagement. Whether or not it works for any given project is subject to many other variables.

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Completely disagree. While I was at Google I was encouraged to find another project that I was interested in contributing to in my 20% time. I ended up working on some internal tools, but there's plenty of options.

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None of the Google engineers I've met have had 20% projects. They said 20% projects were uncommon in product groups (that have shipping deadlines), but more common in the web teams.

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As I commented above, I was encouraged to find a 20% project while there, and I worked on the Android team. Only a few people on my team had 20% projects, but none of them actually wanted a 20% project as far as I can tell. Anyone that did, had one.

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When I interviewed there, one of the interviewers jokingly referred to it as "120% time."

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As a parent, that would send me running for the door. I suspect that's a legal way of discriminating against parents or in favor of single people.

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I can understand a startup saying they can't do it, but an established company with profits?

NPR isn't an established company with profits. It's a non-profit funded (in part) by a government always itching for an excuse to withhold all its funding.

"NPR is overfunded. They let their developers do whatever the hell they want for 20% of their time!"

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On the topic of company size and affordability, have you ever heard of any smaller companies (read: startups) that have 20% time?

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We're a small company of 40. If someone wants to take time out to learn something or try an idea or work on a project of their own then they should do that. We don't allocate a specific portion of time to do that but we don't measure hours worked anyway. We only measure what people achieve. If they do meet company objectives by only spending half a day a week hacking on "directed" work then that's great. More time for them to invent something really cool. It helps that everyone in the company has equity and feels like a real owner which means timewasting and abuse is quickly pointed out and stopped.

I'm the CTO. Feel free to ask me anything about the culture we have.

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Kiva is a small non-profit of about 70 employees. Not only do we have 20% time, we have it as a full 2-week iteration where we can work on anything we want. It's awesome.

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I'd be surprised if it was common... if you think about it, startups are basically "20% projects" that everyone in the company is spending 100% of their time on. :-)

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I've heard that ReadyTalk, in Denver, offers it in the form of "eight weeks on, two weeks off" scheduling. A couple of friends from work have interviewed there and said that it seems to be a great motivator for the engineers.

One even rigged up an iPad to their in-house keg that somehow analyzes pours and is working on the "perfect" pour for each beer.

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It's no longer a small company, but I was reading today that SpaceX encourages it, on a "one full week out of every five" basis.

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Not really "tries," per submission headline, but rather "tried, one day."

"Lumbard said the managers had toyed with the idea of adopting Google’s 20 percent time, but they concluded it wouldn’t work for NPR. Google has thousands of employees and extraordinarily deep pockets, which mean it can afford to let employees take a day every week for side projects. Plus, Lumbard says, 20-percent time puts the emphasis on individuality, whereas NPR’s approach values teamwork."

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You're right, thanks, I updated the headline.

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NPR is not trying Google's 20% time, per se; what they call "Serendipity Day" is simply their adaptation of the idea. The next one is planned for September, and the goal is to make it a quarterly event.

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Yeah I wouldn't call that 20% time at all, it's just a quarterly hack day, which I think is also a cool way to get employees excited about working on cool things and ideas.

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Yeah, internal hackathon. But if they want to make it really work, they should do the Silicon Valley long-weekend style hackathons:

1. Let your employees decide/vote on the weekend, so as few miss it due to vacation and whatnot as possible.

2. Make it Thursday night - Sunday afternoon, and give them Monday off to recuperate/run errands/catch up on life. 8 days off/year instead of 52 should be much more doable for a smaller operation like NPR.

3. Schedule it far in advance, encourage people/teams to brainstorm ideas and have a rough project plan or three ready to go Thursday night.

4. Provide all the junk food, health food, and caffeine they can eat, free. Let them choose the menu when they're voting on the dates. Set up an internal website for all of this.

5. Make sure they've got all the hardware and software they could anticipate needing all on-site and ready go at the start. Minimize setup time.

6. Have something for planned for families as well, involve them if possible. Imagine, instead of going to watch a baseball game on the weekend with your mom and/or dad, going to a hackathon with them. Have a mini-hackathon on the side for the kids.

7. Have demo night Sunday at the end, fun/funny awards as well. For example, I dig Foursquare's 'Bender' badge for someone who goes out 4+ nights in a row. A hackathon equivalent would be whoever worked on site the longest and slept the least.

8. etc.

I don't think one work day every quarter is going to do much for them, but if they set it up like a hackathon sprint party over a very long weekend, they might get some interesting results.

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>they should do the Silicon Valley long-weekend style hackathons

>Make it Thursday night - Sunday afternoon,

>8 days off/year instead of 52 should be much more doable for a smaller operation like NPR.

Yeah, if I want to spend extra time at work I can focus on whatever the hell I'd like to, too.

You seem to be missing the point of a "20% time" or "serendipity day" if you think it can be duplicated by giving extra work to people in a salary exempt position.

One provides periods of autonomy without asking any more from workers, it only gives. The other asks for a huge time commitment. It shifts a big portion of benefit from employee to employer.

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Where I work, TechSmith, we've been trying the 20% time thing on different teams. We call it "TechSmith Fridays" and the goal is to make TechSmith better by Monday.

That goal is pretty loose and many people have spent their time working on their own cool ideas as well as internal tools that our sales team can use to make their lives easier.

I've found having a "free day" to look forward to makes it easier to focus on my regular tasks the first 4 days of the week.We also have the rule that the project needs to be shown off so you're accountable for the time. Nobody uses it just to goof off.

I know at least one new product is likely to come from this already and we've only been doing it for a few months. I'm really excited to see what comes out of it in the future.

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> Where I work, TechSmith, we've been trying the 20% time thing on different teams. We call it "TechSmith Fridays" and the goal is to make TechSmith better by Monday.

Soo... it has fuck-all to do with Google's 20%?

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Could a Googler give their input on this? Having spoken to a couple of Google fulltimers on this note, the general impression I've received is that 20% time is largely a myth and that spending this time working on alternate projects is widely acknowledged to not being conducive to moving up the company hierarchy.

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I assumed that 20% time was a clever way to harness engineers' idle time and redirect it from "dickin' around" (and Hacker News ;) to projects that may benefit the company.

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Where does one "move up" to at Google?

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Not to be cynical, but I bet the devs at NPR are already working on interesting side projects about 20% of their time, because if they don't they quickly become obsolete, and if they are grown ups their managements isn't monitoring them so closely they would even know. It's just that management (often) likes to pretend that they are completely in charge; "giving" devs 20% is sort of like "letting" a teen age son or daughter drink an occasional beer at a party.

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Exactly. It's estimated that out of a eight-hour day only four hours of actual work gets done. I can easily believe that figure. The other four hours get dissolved into various events and distractions, including coding something that nobody asked but you just have to do so that you can do something else better and easier.

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Every manager in the world needs to spend 10 minutes and watch that video.

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I just posted a blog post related to this. My company has done a similar thing to NPR, we call it "build it in a day". I see it as a step towards 20% time projects being encouraged. I know one of the contractors with us at the moment has what they call "innovation friday" every 2nd friday. So be it a spin on the idea, I find it encouraging companies are realising there's better ways to motivate people and increase their productivity.

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If your company ever tries this, please try harder so word gets out that it causes your developers to try harder, so I will get 20% time as well.

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Who is NPR? The article doesn't say.

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http://www.npr.org/

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National Public Radio, source of much good reportage and interesting infographics.

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