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I think it's true for the average Googler as in "wasn't a brand name superstar when they joined". You do usually need at least one solid win (= launched feature that's reasonably successful with users) working on somebody else's team before you get the autonomy to propose and pursue your own stuff - Google wants to make back their investment in you before you go off and pursue some crazy idea, and you usually need that sort of experience with the production infrastructure and internal data sources to have any chance of success. But 20% time exists even for Nooglers, and is a good way to get experience in parts of the company you wouldn't otherwise see, develop skills you wouldn't otherwise have, or prepare for a transfer if you don't like your initial team.

I've got pretty much complete freedom to work on what I want as long as it's related to Search and will benefit the company if it succeeds. I came into Google with some minor name recognition in the startup & Haskell communities (I wrote a top Haskell tutorial and a blog about my experiences founding a failed startup) but no world-changing accomplishments, and between then and getting my current project I contributed to 4 major "wins" in search (Search Options, moving the individual property searches to www.google.com, the visual redesign of 2010, and the Authorship program), plus some pinch-hitting on the Google+ and Doodle teams.

I think this type of freedom does differ among departments. G+, Docs, and Android are very command-and-control, with somebody at the top deciding exactly which features everyone will be working on and relatively little individual discretion for engineers. Research is the complete opposite end of the spectrum - usually researchers are brought into Research, and then they keep doing their specialty but with more data available. Search, Chrome, YouTube, GMail, and Maps all give engineers a large amount of discretion in proposing projects from the ground up and then working on them.

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