Google 20% Time9:16:12 AM
Tony posts some comments about 20% time
at Google and how it might not work at other companies like MS. Scoble responds based
on how he *thinks* 20% time works. In the comments Tony backs down because he
doesn't have specific knowledge of how things work at Microsoft. I'd like to
add some more comments to this conversation.
The Google model of development is more than just information sharing and the ability
to switch projects. Here are the important points as I've seen.
There is, by and large, only one code base at Google. This has many advantages.
Most obvious is that it is really easy to look at and contribute to code in other
projects without having to talk to anyone, get special permissions or fill out forms
in triplicate. That is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Having one
codebase means that there is a very high degree of code sharing. Need to base
64 encode/decode something? No problem, there is a standard Google routine for
that. Found a bug? Just fix it and check it in after getting it code reviewed
by a documented owner. One of the reasons that environments like Perl, Python,
C#, Java, etc. flourish is that they have large and well through out libraries of
useful code. For a variety of reasons, C++ has never had this. (I could
theorize but that would be off topic.) Google has solved this problem by building
up a large library of well documented and easy to integrate code. This not only
lowers the bar for new projects but makes it easy to switch projects as you don't
have to learn new conventions.
Switching teams at Google is a very fluid process. An engineer can
be 40% on one project, 40% on something completely different and 20% on his or her
own thing. That mix can be adjusted as project requirements change. Switching
groups should also not have an affect on your annual review score because of arbitrary
team politics. Joining a new group is more about find a good mutual
fit then going through HR and a formal interview loop. When there is an important
project that needs to be staffed the groups and execs will evangelize that need and
someone who is interested is bound to step up. If it is critical to the business
and no one is stepping up (I don't know if this has occurred or not) then I imagine
it would go come down to a personal appeal by the management team.
The intranet in Google is super transparent. Teams are actively encouraged to
share the most intimate details of their projects with the rest of the company.
This happens through tech talks, design docs, lunch table conversations, etc.
When two teams are doing similar things, people start with the assumption that they
must have their reasons and that the situation will be worked out in time. There
isn't a huge push to over optimize and have only one solution for each problem.
This means that there isn't an adversarial relationship between teams that can lead
to long standing animosities and information hiding.
There is a big difference between pet projects being permitted and being encouraged.
At Google it is actively encouraged for engineers to do a 20% project. This
isn't a matter of doing something in your spare time, but more of actively
making time for it. Heck, I don't have a good 20% project yet and I need one.
If I don't come up with something I'm sure it could negatively impact my review.
The intrapersonal environment at Google is very energizing. When someone comes up
with a new idea, the most common response is excitement and a brainstorming session.
Politics and who owns what area rarely enter into it. I don't think that
I've seen anyone really raise their voice and get into a huge knockdown drag out fight
since coming to Google.
Can 20% time work at other companies? I'm sure that there are going to be others that
try. However, I think that it is important to realize that it is a result of
an environment and philosophy to development more than a cause. I don't think
that it is something that can be imposed in an independent way.
I'd like to stress that these comments are my own and aren't any sort of official
word from Google. Please don't draw any grand conclusions of corporate strategy