By Craig Buckler

Are 20% projects profitable?

By 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?

  • Astro Multimedia is still a very small business, but the idea of allocating one day per week to fun/stress-free projects has always appealled to me greatly. It can be a very attractive feature for a potential team member to know that they could have the opportunity to be paid to build something they always wanted to build, but never had the resources. It also builds love for the company, gives people a break from higher-pressure tasks and an opportunity to spend time together and build relationships on a more relaxed day, and can be a great catalyst for creativity and inspiration. I’m planning to allocate Fridays to either Drupal contrib, computer games/VR dev, web tech dev (such as language and compiler design and dev), or other personal projects, just as long as they somehow fit the company philosophy and ambitions.

  • Javier Aprea

    At our company, which is a tiny fraction of Google or Apple, we support 10% projects as a means to gain insight in new technologies. Those projects are not completely unrelated to our business, though they are proposed by employees. We can’t speak of profitability yet, even after two years. But those who can afford the time to dedicate to them are, generally speaking, more efficient in their daily work and truly engaged.

  • krdr

    We all know that there’s no engineer that can give 100% at work. At least 30 or 40% goes on stuff not related to the job or project. It is big problem for companies to utilize that “lost” time. While working on company’s project, programmer is motivated to complete project as fast as he can by using techniques he/she already have. There’s no room for innovative stuff. “Pet time” motivates employees to test and accept new ideas, concepts, methodologies, languages or develop new technologies.

  • Q.E.D.

    Craig, you’re right that this would not work for most companies. Google and Apple are in unique positions that allow them to move in many directions, but they are not alone. Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL, Intel, Adobe, Oracle and many others have the potential to stretch out in various directions like this.

    You know what might be even more effective is a 25% solution where employees have an innovation coach to help them launch their new projects and give them one week per month + a few hours per normal week to dedicate to their pet project. That way they are not spending actual work time dwelling on their project and when they have the time to work on it, they really have the time to work on it. The coach can help with brainstorming and setting up collaborations between employees with similar ideas.

  • Steve Holton

    Your comment: “…less productive when they have to concentrate on two or more…” holds true when rapidly flipping between “solutions” in a short time period (working in – say – 10 or 20 minute blocks, then switching, or taking a phone call, for example).

    But “taking FULL a day off” each week and working on something else (that is, concentrating on something other than the 80% project for most or all of a day – with no “switching” during that day) can lead to “aha” realizations of easier/faster/less complicated solutions for the 80% project. Many times, doggedly toiling with a single project results in “tunnel vision”, and less-than-stellar results.

    Additionally, it is difficult to “keep up” with current programming technologies/methodologies. Learning “new tricks” is much easier if you actually work with them (at least, it is for me…), as opposed to just reading about them.

    And enthusiasm and morale tends wane agfter you are “chained” to the same project day after day, month after month. A “personal” project can provide a welcome respite, and opportunity to “re-charge” .

    For these reasons, I contend that a “one-off” project that allows you to experiment with new technologies/methodologies (no deadlines, no project managers, no status meetings, etc.) and let your sub-conscious digest the 80% project “in the background” can be very beneficial (not to mention that you MIGHT come up with the next “Google Maps” – perhaps not with the universal appeal of Maps, but certainly a “unique” and valuable asset for your company.)

    Who enjoys working on the same {payroll | web | HR | other} project for 6 months (or longer) straight?

  • Todd

    Small Picture Thinking

    You are worrying about 20% time for expensive resources (developers) when most companies waste 40% or more of those resources time on other completely unproductive tasks (meetings, time tracking, paper work, etc.).

    In addition, who said that 20% time would be spent on coming up with a “new product”? Most developers would use that time to scratch and itch — fix a problem they haven’t had time to work on, improve performance, reduce pain of deployment or maintenance, update skills, learn to solve an old problem in a new way, automate some painful task, etc. Most of the time this is going to relate to a frustration your developers currently have that there is not time in the schedule to tackle.

    Yes, sometimes this leads to new products and direct business payoff. All of the time it leads to indirect benefits to the company.

    Your developers are bright, creative resources. They have good ideas that can lead to improvements in your companies bottom line, directly or indirectly. That doesn’t mean it needs to be 20%, find something that works for the size of company you have — one Friday a month, etc. Instead of being skeptical, give it a try. Management should do anything they can to foster and encourage this type of environment.

  • I would’ve commented sooner, but I fell off my chair laughing.

    While not naming names, I used to work for a really big international company that made business machines. We were in a department meeting being chastised for not furthering our development by pursuing education opportunities. Someone asked when we were supposed to do that, given the 60+ hours that each of us were putting in each week.

    The response from management: We were given the bright and shining example of one of our co-workers who took 2 of her vacation weeks to study for her PMP certification.

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