Why I often prefer Prototype too Google Latitude; Get your explaining ready
Jan 22

The genius behind the Google 20% time; It isn’t the time

Google, Tech Add comments


Paul Buchheit has a really nice post on the power of code over talk and has one item that resonated with me:

This is where Google’s “20% time” comes in — if you want innovation, it’s critical that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid. The real value of “20%” is not the time, but rather the “license” it gives to work on things that “aren’t important”. (perhaps I should do a post on “20% time” at some point…)

That is exactly how I felt about 20% time. It wasn’t about the time. In fact, I didn’t actually know that many people who took the time! The key was the following effect:

  • In order for 20% time to work, anyone must be able to see what is out there
  • In fact, if you want to get some people working “for free” you need to both advertise your project, and write it in such a way that it is easy to get ramped up and productive (end result: better code)

The end result is the culture HAS to be kept very open. The ability to see the projects that are worked on, check out the code, see presentations and design docs, is a key reason why Google does so well at engineering in my opinion.

Compare this to companies such as Apple where you don’t know what the chap sitting on the other side of the cube is doing. Therefore, even if you have some amazing wisdom that could be game changing for his project, it will never happen.

20% time means that sparks of genius can happen. If you copy anything about it, ignore the “time” part, and go with the open culture part.

Whenever I saw projects that were secret within Google it irked me. It stopped this from happening. It was as though that project was going walkabout instead of joining the party.

5 Responses to “The genius behind the Google 20% time; It isn’t the time”

  1. biker dude Says:

    I can say I envy the idea, I can so feel I have more to give to my employer but no time to show my self of. google knows what they are doing…

  2. Tristan Says:

    Hey Dion,

    Thanks for pointing this article. It’s very interesting. I’m sure there are more things to be said about the principles explained here and how they apply to open and distributed innovations as it’s taking place at Moz Labs and the whole extensions system.

    I wish I had time to whip something on this topic, hoping that it would launch a thread on this. I think Mozilla has a lot to share on open innovation, I just wish it could be more publicly discussed.


  3. Jon Tirsen Says:


    FWIW I do agree with you.

  4. benballs Says:

    Google is we all know the powerhouse in search applications and I am sure will come out on top.

  5. nickler Says:

    of course! google knows what they are doing heh

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