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Today is Goof Off at Work Day (codinghorror.com)
126 points by MarlonPro on Aug 2, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

Can anybody confirm if the 20% in google still stands?

And, if it does, is it really 20% of the regular work hours? In my experience, 20% usually comes to something like: "Work on the important project 100% of the work week. After that, work 20% more on something you like."

Everybody I know that works in Google, works far more than the standard 40h per week. Even if you cut of 20% of that time, they still work more than usual. Ofc, that doesn't mean it is generally the case, that's why I'm asking.

My "moles" have been telling me it's dead. What it meant in practice during my tenure (which predated most of the corporate hell courtesy of the new CEO) was this: if you want to go noodle around with someone else's code, you have a built-in excuse... and a limiter.

That by itself was useful since you could go play around in other parts of the company and nobody could give you grief for it. Now it seems to have joined many other things which effectively are no more. The old reputation is hard to shake, and that's why you still see these PR pieces about how lovely it is to work there.

Of course, this only makes sense when the code depots are actually open to viewing or modification. When you start having more and more things closed off (how's that components thing going, anyway?), there are fewer opportunities to randomly hack on stuff. Also, if your manager hates you, forget it. It's seen as goofing off.

20% time is a negative space. The distinction (although this wasn't the intent) just reminds you that, during 80% of your time, you're a manager's bitch. It was supposed to set a minimum on self-directed work (i.e. "no manager can deny you this") but it became a maximum. Which might be okay if you're making hedge-fund money and can cash out after a few years, but for typical middle-class compensation, no one is going to work hard (and 40 hpw is working hard if you actually work during most of that time) for more than 2 years without graduating to a position of full autonomy and some influence.

None of us are working to be peons. We're working because we want to be substantial some day, and substantial people aren't happy controlling only 10 or 20 percent of our working time. We'll put up with that in our first 6-12 months on a job because we're FNGs still trying to learn the ropes and become useful, but anyone ambitious is going to want, at least, to be implicitly trusted with his or her time after one year.

One problem with 20%T is that a lot of people end up using it to do work that decent companies would allow people to credit as regular work, such as teaching classes, mentoring interns, and maintaining legacy code on which their product relies. WTF, Google? That is straight-up regular work that deserves credit toward 80% time.

What happens in practice with 20% time, and this is why a lot of managers hate it, is that people who use it for real (not just "goofing off", but actually trying to accomplish something) end up becoming a lot more passionate about it than their regular project. (The few people at Google who are lucky enough to get interesting work rarely use 20% time, at least not officially.) Even if they're technically putting 32 hours into their regular work, their 20%-time project grows from 8 hours to 18, then 30, then 50. Which means that either (a) they're not really putting in 32h on their main project, or (b) they are, but they're working 70+ hour weeks and their per-hour efficiency has plummeted, especially because they're using their best and most energetic hours on side projects.

While something like gmail may have come from 20% time, Google's 20% time is a marketing ploy. I don't think we're going to find a response where it is really 20% instead of 120% at Google.

To make it "stick" I think you really have to block out a specific part of the schedule, if that's possible, like designating Thursdays for only 20%-project work (barring emergencies). Sort of like the way Richard Hamming blocked out a specific 10% of his schedule (past noon on Fridays) in which he refrained from working on his regular projects, and only discussed blue-skies research.

It depends on your manager. Despite Google's claims of being post-managerial and peer-driven, the truth is that your manager has free rein to ass-rape you if he perceives you as being distracted by your 20% project. That's because your actual progress requires both good peer reviews and good "calibration scores"-- which are quarterly, manager-assigned, and secret. (Managers aren't supposed to tell employees their scores aside from a 0.5-point interval on a scale where that's a huge range, and people have gotten in hot water for asking or trying to bargain.)

Since you have to pass two (sometimes) conflicting tests, you get the worst of both systems. You get old-school managerial abuse and the careerist jockeying for visibility that occurs when large companies attempt to be "peer-driven". Instead of offering two paths to success, Google offers two orthogonal roadblocks, both of which must be overcome.

20% time is alive and well if you have a supportive (i.e. good) manager. If you have a typical manager, you can probably get away with 20%T as long as it's not obvious. If you have an evil manager, then watch the fuck out. There's a 5% cutoff for PIPs (the bureaucratic humiliation derived from the principle that it's better to keep a fired employee around for 2 months pissing all over morale than to cut a severance check) and having a 20%T project is an easy way to end up on the hitlist.

The danger of 20% time at a place like Google is that (a) the best work is awesome, but most of the work isn't very interesting, so (b) pretty much everyone is trying to get on a better project (and starts campaigning from about the 7th week) and (c) managers know this and don't like people who make it obvious. 20-percenters are either trying to transfer (that's the best use of 20%T) or to start something up within Google (which expresses the same flight risk, but is far less likely to work). So if a manager has to throw someone under the bus because a team is underperforming and doesn't have enough "calibration" points, 20-percenters (flight risks) are the first ones to go.

On Pref, from http://piaw.blogspot.com/2010/05/promotion-systems-redux.htm... : “In any case, I think it’s very healthy for Google to have an internal discussion about this. But do I expect the system to change? No. The super-star rule I referred to in that previous post would prevent that. I did have a discussion with a VP about this. He told me that when he first joined Google, he tried to change the promotion criteria to better formally recognize leadership, mentoring, and the importance of spreading knowledge (technical or otherwise) throughout the organization. The result? A bunch of very senior engineers (who had all benefited under the current regime, and were understandably worried about their career prospects under a different system) shouted him down.” How would you suggest solving this problem?

How would you suggest solving this problem?

Fire Larry Page. [i.e., it ain't gonna happen]

What is the problem with Larry Page that require him to go?

I'm agnostic on whether Page is really responsible in any way for Google's decline. I joined after he stepped in. I don't know anything about Page, but he seems to be a bad judge of character because of some of the things he has allowed and some policies he's supported.

What happened post-Schmidt wasn't directly Page's fault, so much as a lot of the other executives were waiting in the wings with shitty ideas that they now saw a chance to push through. Execs will attempt that any time there's a guard change, and I can't say that Page did a worse job of handling it than I would have done.

I asked a successful business owner what the hardest thing was about being CEO and he said (paraphrased) that "The job is easy, in that you have the power to have work done, but the hard part is that everyone is fucking lying to you." I don't think Page is a good judge of when people are lying to him.

I don't think any of Google's triumvirate (Page, Brin, Schmidt) are bad men. I think they're very good men who built an admirable company and kept it intact for a long time. I think they lack something in the ability to judge character (mea culpa: so do I; I tend to be too trusting of individuals despite my intellectual cynicism) which is why a lot of the middle managers and executives are problematic.

Then again, 90% of the cultural rot occurred before Page. Google's hideous "calibration score" system wasn't built in a day.

Yea, that is why I ask questions like what would you suggest to the Google founders.

Bring me on as a consultant. I could have saved Google+ Games; the documentation is probably still there.

This was incredibly insightful. How long ago do you think it all changed? Do you think it's a function of the size that Google has grown to?

I wish more places operated like this here in Australia. Sadly the consensus at every single company I've ever worked for is if you don't have an IDE, debugger or textpad instance open on your screen you're slacking off. You don't succeed in business by burning out the talent that drives your company, you nurture it and if 20% of spare time yields you no result 80% of the time you'll be getting better output from your team because they're focused.

  —What are you doing there?
  —Can't you think at home?

--I never had you down as so progressive, sure I'll work from home the rest of the week, here's my number ...

Sure, I can work at home too

I've worked for HP (one of the examples in the article) since 1999 and even back then the free-time thing has been talked about as something from the "old days" when the HP way was still intact. I also did a stint at HP labs in 1988 and back then I remember my mentor showing me labstock and he told me that if I needed any stuff for a side project, even outside of work, I could use what was there. However, I never witnessed anyone taking advantage of that, people were way too busy on their main projects and had other hobbies outside of work (not many PCs and no internet back then).

On the other hand I'm extrememly fortunate that I've always worked on projects where 80% of the time felt like working on my favorite hobby - building prototypes, coding, working with other HP sites across the globe.

I think if I had to look for 20% of "fun" time I'd surely look for a different job. I think a better strategy for large companies would be to get your employees to spend 20% on learning new stuff and I'm not talking about online classes or touchy-feely offsites.

He didn't - IIRC - talk about "20% time" specifically, but Tom DeMarco wrote a whole book about the importance of "slack" time at work. One point he makes is that if everyone is too busy doing the routine stuff 100% of the time, then the firm can't adapt quickly, because nobody has time to learn anything new, do exploratory / speculative work, etc.

His book Slack is a fascinating read, and I'd recommend it to any HN'er who hasn't read it yet:


damn, I totally should have mentioned that in the post. I'll add it via an edit.

I'm doing this as well as freelancer. Mostly I work on an opensource project that day, sometimes I use it for learning something new. Reason I started this was that I do not have the energy to do such things on the weekend (otherwise I'm constantly tired at work) and I still did want some productive spare-time. Unfortunately as freelancer this means 20% less pay (at least in the short run) and you need a client allowing for that, but after doing that for more than year now I still feel it's worth it.

On my team at Blizzard we really did have "good off" time, in that it was dedicated to playing games. Any games: mobile games, the latest Call of Duty, classic Nintendo games on the 50" TV behind the bar in the break room, pool, volleyball. It amounted to more like 4% time than 20% time, but still, there was no expectation of people coming up with new products as a result of it. I do wonder of it was seen as an additional motivator to ensure people were getting their work completed on time and without needing to stay late working overtime... But I think it was probably just what it seemed like: a fun perk.

Brief report of the work rules I have had:

- On this ships, we had to be in for Officer's call at 0700, then Quarters at 0730 to deliver the plan to the troops, but from there it was off to the races. Leave when done. Manpower studies said my job in port was 69 hours a week. Underway? Add 12 hours of watch daily.

- When I checked in on staff at the Academy, I was told "I don't care what you're schedule is, just get the work done." I was in the office from 7:30 to 5:30, but often did homework before heading to night school.

- Medical school. No rules, no assigned work. Pass the tests.

- Internship: Only 80 hours a week, but every second was accounted for and usually assumed you were wearing running shoes.

- Current job: doing QA on Navy corpsmen trained to something between an EMT and a nurse, assigned to small ships (300-400 mostly young healthy people). show up by 8, see clinic, get the work done.

- Pathology residency (next job, knock on wood): have to get to work by 0645 because that's when parking fills up. People are usually around until 5. Get the work done. Side projects are required to graduate.

In my experience, all these formal 20% things are just too artificial, and usually just marketing. The only important thing (but also the most challenging) is to ensure that there is enough slack in the schedule.

If you can manage that, well, you've got a bunch of hackers with some hardware, an internet connection and time on their hands. The rest will pretty much sort itself out.

Lots of comments on the effectiveness of a 20% policy - I'm curious what other folks experience is like with an internal hack day? It seems that if a company's culture isn't suitable for 20% time (for whatever reason), that an internal hack day might be a useful alternative (scratching developer itches but not "wasting" 20% of developer time on non-core projects). Any insight/recommendations from anyone who's done this?

We do an internal hack day modeled after Atlassian ShipIt (or as they called it and we do 'Fedex Day'). We've only had two since we started (year and a half) but aim to have one per quarter or every other quarter.

In our experience, they were a major boost to morale and some really interesting ideas came out of them, several of which have been implemented fully in our core products.

I'm a big advocate for these. We couldn't really pull off 20% but giving developers opportunities to work on their ideas within the company is really important.

Reading some of the comments on this thread and others about Google (disclaimer: I work for Google), I feel it necessary to point out that much of the time when people criticise Google that:

1. They're pushing their own agenda;

2. Such comments are typically one-sided Google can't or won't comment; and

3. That observation or opinion is often selective, misrepresentative, biased or a combination thereof.

So the next time you read a post about, oh I don't know, how someone's Adwords account was unfairly banned for no good reason and you see that the person claiming such just so happens to sell Valentine's Day gifts and it's the week of Valentine's Day then maybe just maybe that post is a misrepresentative PR stunt.

Likewise if you see people who worked for Google for a matter of months posting on every Google-related thread as some kind of self-proclaimed expert you should realize that they're pushing a particular viewpoint that paints the company in a worse light and them in a better light.

Chances are it didn't work out for them. Perhaps they have legitimate gripes. Perhaps they just didn't fit in. Maybe they even self-destructed and burned all their bridges. Whatever the case, their accounts of Google should at least be viewed skeptically.

So please apply some filters to such comments like:

- does this person know what they're talking about?

- what agenda are they pushing?

Now I'm no expert on Google (having worked here <2 years now) but let me give you my observations.

20% does still exist although from what I gather the nature of it has changed somewhat. It's probably fair to say that 20% time is less used now and when it is it's more for trying out or auditioning for a new team.

Personally I find it difficult to split my focus this way. This kind of compartmentalization is not my strong suit. I have the same issue with personal projects. When not at work I'll often think about work anyway. YMMV.

That all being said, I know of recent examples of people doing 20% time and I know of some cases where those 20% ideas turned into 100% time (if you will) on something new.

As far as daydreaming and other "lateral thinking" time goes, I'd say Google is by far the most accepting of this than any other company I personally have worked for. There are massage chairs, pool tables, tennis tables, consoles, etc around and people use them. They're not just decorative.

Google also as far as I've seen tolerates failure. I mean don't get me wrong, you're still better off succeeding than failing :) but you won't get fired if your project fails.

As far as individual experimentation goes I'll say this: Google is an example of something that I believe holds true for life in general: you get out of it as much as you put in. This goes to the "individual experimentation" point. If you want to check out someone else's code, fix or add something and raise a CL for it you can. The other side will need to accept it of course. If you just want to dick around with something you can do that too.

I worked at Google for four years, so I think I can speak with a bit more authority than the 'matter of month'ers you criticize, when I say:

Yes, some of the criticisms, especially those by outsiders with clear agendas, are overblown. That said, a lot of them are very real. Most of the Google employees who openly criticize the company were there for a lot more than 'months' (and I'm pretty sure I know who you're targeting with that epithet.)

I would say that one can build a somewhat realistic picture of the environment inside the company from the postings of ex-employees on HN. It's a lagging indicator, obviously. But the complaints aren't made up.

As for 20% time itself: it's always been somewhere between fiction and fact, in the sense that, in practice, you had to be very assertive or have a very supportive manager to use it, and you were generally cutting into your performance review scores by not using that time on your main project. My understanding now is that it's more or less officially dead, but that postdates my tenure at the company, so I can't confirm it.

The other part of making the "20% time" idea work I suppose is the ability of a company to rally behind what shows potential.

In two places that I've worked, the pendulum swung quite far in the other direction -- 20% time was instituted because the people whose roles involved creating a product vision (business development, management, etc.) were unable to introduce successful changes. Not only would the company leadership rally behind any promising output from 20% time, they were practically counting on it, putting additional responsibility on the developers without any additional reward -- and naturally, the stagnant creative/leadership roles would subsume a successful project.

To any managers/leaders out there thinking of instituting 20% time: please, please don't do it if it's a last-ditch effort to innovate. Your employees may put up with it if they value job security, but they can tell that the resulting power dynamics within the organization are unfavorable to them.

We have something similar at Microsoft... but only on the SQL team. It's called 'No Meeting Wednesdays', while it's not really a goof off day, it does let you focus entirely on whatever you want to focus on for an entire (relatively) uninterrupted day.

Great idea in principle. In practice there's always too much to do to respect this in a lot of places, even where it's nominally part of operating policy.

There will always be too much to do, even if everyone worked on the urgent stuff 100% of the time. As such, taking some time every week to work on the stuff you think is important-but-not-urgent isn't going to change that.

That's my thinking, anyway.

In practice there's always too much to do to respect this in a lot of places, even where it's nominally part of operating policy.

That's not the problem. Most companies operate at about 30 to 40 percent efficiency. That's not to say that most workers could achieve as much working 2/5 as much, because a lot of the inefficiency is structural and intrinsic, but the idea that long hours and high managerial demands come from "too much to do" rather than deep structural problems with the modern corporation is hogwash.

Rackspace is making it easy for me right now..

Ironically I suppose, it's the first outage I've had with them while actively working in a long time.

Thought this was going to be about watching the London Olympics at your desk!

I sat and watched the mens time trials yesterday whilst working, the commentary seemed to help my brain focus on doing a really, really tedious task and I got it done without messing round on the internet and taking twice as long.

I need music when doing a tedious task at work, otherwise I get distracted too easily.

I'm taking a few CS courses online, and find that I have to play solitaire while listening to them (usually at overspeed) to keep from zoning out.

I wish that 20%-time policies worked, but they don't.

I think they're actually quite bad for morale in the long run. Why? People who have good rapport with their managers and are implicitly trusted will graduate to self-directed work within less than a year and be full-fledged "intrapreneurs" (i.e. have most of the autonomy that a startup founder would have, if not the same upside) within 2 or 3. You don't need a 20%-time policy to back that up. It naturally happens. So 20%-time policies exist to set a minimum on the allowance for self-directed work, but here's the problem: people who don't win the implicit trust of their managers get pissed off and disgusted-- regardless of whether they're working 32 or 40 or 50 hours per week-- and no side project can fix that: the only solution is for the employee to transfer before he burns out and gets fired.

A 20%-time policy dangles a carrot. It reminds the people who don't have autonomy and implicit trust of what their work lives would be like if they had better managers.

20%-time often becomes a negative space and a justification for reducing employee autonomy during the other 80%. You want to mentor interns? Maintain a legacy module you depend on? Work on a cross-hierarchical project (from a cynical manager's PoV, this looks like a careerist attempt to become a "socialite" within the company rather than remaining under one thumb)? That's what 20% time is for.

Also, 20% time might have been a real benefit in 1975 when average people didn't have access to a computer, but in 2012, most people would be happier just taking a day off to work on a side project. If you get fired or quit, you still have your side projects, but your 20%-time project ends up in /dev/null.

Finally, here's a dirty secret about what has happened in the professions. Until about 1980, it was typically understood that metered work (i.e. what your boss is directly asking you do to) expectations in the professions would be about 20 to 25 hours per week. A boss who asked for more than that, except with an aggressive once-in-a-career type deadline, was setting an unreasonable expectation. The other 20-25 hours were to be spent on off-meter work, such as networking, continued education, and research-oriented side projects that might not work out but would teach something in the process, all of which were intended to keep the professional current and improve his or her long-term career. After the slow-motion terrorist attack that was the Reagan era and aggressive corporate cost-cutting, that devolved. The new expectation, after that, became 40+ hours of metered work, and any off-meter work was to happen on your own time. (The consequence of this is that most professionals don't learn much and are replaced by younger versions of themselves when they burn out.) So "20% time" is just a ghost to remind us of what things were like back when the professions really were professions.

> Until about 1980, it was typically understood that metered work (i.e. what your boss is directly asking you do to) expectations in the professions would be about 20 to 25 hours per week.

I would love to read more about this, if you have any links or such.

I second this. Sounds like it might be a bit too good to be true.

"Too good" to be true is a bit of a stretch, because it wasn't all good. The professions in that day were ethnically exclusive, connections driven, and the everyday work was generally pretty dull. Also, getting fired seriously fucked up your life and reputation (rather than being the mild annoyance it is today, for a skilled software engineer) and so offices tended to be a lot more authoritarian. Watch Mad Men to get a sense of it. Sticking around the office till 6:30 meant you were a hard worker, but it wasn't all pleasant, and for a lot of people who, by all rights, would deserve the chance to get in, couldn't.

However, the professions did expect people to dedicate half their time to off-meter work, and were more reasonable about allowing people to do that and have 40-50 hour work weeks. That aspect of it is true. This doesn't mean that you could work only 20 hours per week if you decided off-meter work wasn't your thing. It does mean that you had the autonomy of an actual professional.

I don't have any off-hand, but one well-studied case in point is the concept of "billable hours" in law firms. Attorney were expected to bill 1200 hours to the client. They were still working 40 hours per week, but the other 880 were spent on continuing education, meeting clients, etc.

Today, the expectation is 2000 billable hours. That makes for about a 60-hour work week. If you're a 7th-year associate trying to make partner, you have to bill 2000 hours (metered work) and drum up business on your own time.

This is 1200/2000 billable hours per year? I'm not following the math.

In the white-shoe days, attorneys were expected to bill 1200 hours per year, which comes out to 23 per week. There was still a 40-hour expectation, but they could spend the rest of their time on self-directed pursuits professional/career development, networking, looking for clients, and call it "work".

Now, attorneys in those firms are expected to bill 2000 hours, which means they have to be putting a full-time commitment to just billing, and any professional development or networking has to come on top of that.

While your statements may be true for a larger company, 20% time is working quite well for our consulting company for myriad reasons.

First, of course, there's the opportunity to work on side projects. The only stipulation is that it implicitly (for very loose definitions of implicitly) helps the company. Write open source code, write a blog post, work on your own internal project... but mostly it's been OSS hacking.

Second, it builds slack into our schedule. We (http://bendyworks.com) are a consulting company, and 20% time frees us to "promise" 4 days of work to our clients. And when the inevitable vacation day, sick day or holiday comes up, the client still gets their 4 days of work.

It also lets us push our book club into Friday, which makes it affect our clients' projects even less.

And for a good portion of us, a single day simply isn't enough to satisfy our hunger, so you'll often see a few hanging out at the office, hacking away on the latest clojure, ruby, raspberry pi, or life-hacking project.

I don't think it has that much to do with the size of the company though, but more with the difference between a consulting company and a product company.

In a consulting company, work is time-driven: every hour of work is intended to be billed to a customer. This makes the company very focused on time which makes it easier to dedicate X% of that time to individual's projects. In product companies, work is typically much more result-driven, which makes it more difficult to correctly attribute each worked hour of time to any specific activity. As a consequence, it is much more difficult to do these "X% projects" in part because the X is tricky to correctly measure and attribute.

[disclaimer: I work for Google] First point: 20% can work very well. Michael misrepresents the scope of 20% time in one signficant way: it need not be self-directed work at all. One of my 20%s was in fact contributing to the Ads pipeline, for the simple reasons that I was interested in learning about what they did, liked the people who worked on it and with them identified a project that they would not be able to get to soon.

I've also had the other type of 20%: A Program manager I knew had an idea and after a hallway conversation, we turned it into a 2 and then 3 person 20% project which involved hardware, embedded and server-side software development and deployment.

In neither of these cases was my manager particularly adept at managing either my time or my main project; it was my doing. I assumed that I had the right to 20% time and basically forged ahead until I was told otherwise, which I never was.

Michael, your repetitive anti-Google (in every aspect) speeches lack credibility for a number of reasons; the most blatant of which is that you simply did not work here long enough to have suffered the injustices that you claim to have. If you had been here longer or made any kind of effort to adapt to your environment, you may have found that 20% time can really be rewarding.

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