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We know about Google's 20% projects, whereby a developer can spend up to 20% of their time on a personal project which interests them.

If your employer let you spend 20% of your time on a project that wasn't part of your day-to-day work, would you make use of it?

I can think of a couple of reasons why not:

  • It would make your normal work take 20% longer (extended deadline)
  • You might want to keep your personal idea "personal."
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3 Answers 3

First of all, Google's policy around the 20% time is that you can use it if your other commitments and responsibilities are being met. I doubt they would happy if you were late on your team's project because you were focusing your energy on the 20% project.

Personally, I think that Google's 20% idea is simply an official recognition of something that most great programmers are doing already anyway: spending some portion of their time on non-assigned project work attempting to make improvements wherever they can.

If my employer made this an official policy then sure I'd take advantage of it as I'm already spending some amount of my time working on improving random processes and tools that we use.

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Cheers for the clarification re timescales. I doubt that I'll end up getting time for 20% as there always seems more than enough project work to keep me busy! –  Chris Buckett Sep 25 '10 at 16:58
When I interviewed at Google, they also said you can't just do personal projects. Instead, you can only work on projects that have been approved by a special committee. So until you can get a 20% idea of yours approved by the committee, any 20% project you work on will be someone else's idea. –  Bob Murphy Oct 6 '10 at 6:23

You must see that as an opportunity.

Regarding extra 20% work necessary to meet a deadline, it's not directly your problem. You have already big responsibilities, such as doing good work, taking the responsibilities of your management is not a good idea.

Regarding keeping your ideas for you, you have the choice:

  • Create your own company and develop your wonderful ideas. With chance you'll get 100% of the hypothetical return.

  • Stay at work, but keep your wonderful idea in your safe. Nobody will look at it, not even you. Good way to kill it.

  • Use your employer's resources to develop it without risks. If it work you may not get 100%, but you will get valuable experience without risking anything, and you'll be famous in both your company and the industry you are in. This will provide you with lots of new opportunities.

IMHO, if you have a good idea that can make the world a better place, and the free time + free resources to develop it, not going ahead is pure craziness.

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Having done both in the past (paid work for employer and trying to sell my own software), I think that my preference at the moment would be to do personal project work with the backing of my employer. There's too much non programming stuff to deal with (sales, contracts, licensing etc...) –  Chris Buckett Sep 25 '10 at 17:00
Exactly, and when you are all the experience (required), you can create a company by yourself with less risks. –  user2567 Sep 25 '10 at 17:32
Unless I'm mistaken, Google owns anything you create with you 20% time. Using company paid time and equipment for starting your own company (no matter where you work) may have both legal and ethical implications. –  DaveK Nov 25 '11 at 20:45

Yes because many times my employers focus on chasing the next customer/corporate initiative so trying to do things quick/dirty without thinking of ways to make things easier. So you have one hack on top of another hack (granted I'm sure this does not apply to Google) and there is a cost in maintenance but the employer refuses to acknowledge technical debt....

So using the 20% of time you can go after technical debt, automating annoying processes, etc... Many times you have a manual process and it is way quicker to do it than to automate it, but it does distract, and take a toll on morale because repeating the same thing is boring, and as a developer it is annoying and probably will have you seeking other employment if it gets annoying enough. This way you can automate those manual steps even though it may take a long time to pay for itself.

One example from a prior job: Instead of chasing around e-mails for auditors, just set up a quick e-mail bot that can parse change request forms and the correspondence behind them (e.g. just CC the e-mail bot). Then when it is time for the audit, either send the bot a message to get the entire issue in a zip file with all correspondence, or retrieve via a web interface.... Ultimately it will take longer than manually hunting for e-mails. But over time considering the number of people involved this will probably pay for itself in a few years....

Another example: They had a hosted application and the database was too big to restore locally. They were creating DTS packages against the database (quite challenging to do without a copy of the database), sending it remotely and having technical support at the hosted application install the package. Often technical support were idiots and would install the wrong package several times, or install an older one somehow messing things up between the e-mail, their ticket system, and the DBA. Additionally the only real test of the package with full data is in the hosted environment. Still creating a DTS package is much quicker than a .NET application to manage data exports via database tables where we could control the deployment of new data feeds in the short term. I suspect in the long term it would have paid for itself within a year or two. But anyway without hard proof (and even with hard proof) there is no chance to be able to work on it. But with a 20% project it would be done, over time it would pay for itself, and future employees would be quite grateful for having such a tool instead of the old painful method with DTS packages.....

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