Are 20% projects profitable?

Craig Buckler
Craig Buckler

Apple has launched an internal initiative named “Blue Sky” which allows a number of employees to work on personal projects. Blue Sky appears similar to Google’s 20% time where engineers spend one day per week working on systems which aren’t related to their job. Employees are encouraged to develop something new or fix something which is broken. The policy led to the introduction of GMail and Maps — two of Google’s most successful offerings.

While I don’t doubt those accomplishments, are 20% projects generally successful?

Coming up with a new project idea is incredibly difficult — especially when 80% of your time is spent working on other tasks. Google has hundreds of dedicated engineers but it’s been some time since they launched a service which started as a pet project. Even then, Google did not invent web-based email or mapping; they only improved what already existed and offered it as a free service. And I bet neither remained a pet project for long.

Google is also fortunate since it offers a diverse range of products. Employees can research whatever interests them because the company is happy to move into any sector regardless of competition. However, if you were working for a company specializing in, say, tax software, would your project manager let you devote time project totally unrelated to the core business, e.g. an iOS game? Even if you created the next Angry Birds, your employer would not necessarily appreciate what you’d achieved or have the skills to launch and market it effectively.

Google can also fall back on its huge advertising revenues. Many projects succeed. Many fail — Wave, Notebook, Video, etc. How many other employers are prepared to take risks in business areas they don’t understand?

Finally, software engineers are less productive when they have to concentrate on two or more solutions. Few people are good at multi-tasking and switching between tasks takes time. I doubt Google employees actually spend one day every week working on their own ideas — it would be too disruptive. It’s more effective to devote a week or two for pet projects once other jobs have been completed. But that’s no different to normal work scheduling.

I like the idea of 20% projects. It’s a great way of working, good for staff morale and encourages employee engagement. But I’m less convinced it leads to profitable solutions when employees are mostly concentrating on other tasks. Google and Apple can take that gamble, but you’ll have a much tougher job persuading your boss.

Does your company allow pet projects? Has it been successful?