When someone starts talking about working at Google, one thing that usually comes up is the 20% time. Google employees, engineers in particular, are supposed to be given one day per week to work on a project of their choosing. On the Google Jobs page it talks about “The Engineer’s life at Google” and one of the perks they mention is just this. They say, “We offer our engineers “20-percent time” so that they’re free to work on what they’re really passionate about. Google News, Google Suggest, AdSense for Content and Orkut are among the many products of this perk.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
The problem is that the 20% time really may not be as great as it sounds and from the looks of it, Google may be distorting information about it. Google Blogoscoped wrote an interesting article about this topic where he quoted different Google or ex-Google employees talking about it. In the video below, an ex-Google employee Joseph O’Sullivan said:
So innovation comes from the employees often. One example is Gmail, something I worked on. That came from one employee, that thought that he could make a much better mail client. This seemed crazy, but he worked on it in his 20% spare time, and convinced some other people, such as myself… we convinced more people, such as Larry and Sergey, and I believe we made one of the best mail clients in the world.
As it turns out, Gmail “predates the 20% time rule” says ex-Google employee Paul Buchheit who said working on Gmail was his regular project. Another ex-Google employee commented over at Valleywag that Google recruiters were simply out of touch because they’re promoting the 20% time and it’s a concept of the past.
So what do we make out of all of this? Well, in the comments over at Google Blogoscoped, a couple of Google employees commented. One of them talked about how Google Reader actually started out as a 20% project and now many of the features we see were side-projects for the engineers. Then Matt Cutts, a well-known Google employee made a comment and said “Google is better than most companies at supporting engineers who want to try out a new idea or a side project.”
Perhaps Google has distorted some information on 20% time projects that their engineers have done and made it sound better than it is, but the bottom line is that Google does give their employees time for side-projects. It probably doesn’t end up being 1 day every single week because the employees have deadlines for their main projects, but once those are met, they likely have some time to work on a project of their choosing.
Whether employees get 20% or 5% to work on projects of their choice, it’s way more than most people in the working world get!