I take the 20% free time even if my employer doesn’t allot it

Today, I’m going to talk about my friend Tim (not his real name, but a real person nonetheless). Tim and I have been talking about development and programming for a while, ever since we worked together at a marketing companies a few years back.

When we first heard of Google doing the 20% time, we were excited. It clicked with us. This is the way of the future, we thought. There’s no way any employer will deny us 20% after Google showed how effective it is.

But nothing changed. A few startups offered it as a “benefit” but most of the time, lone developers discussed the power of the practice and the taboo surrounding it.

And eventually, the practice died down before it could ever get big.

Recently, this discussion was reopened with the idea of “daylighting” which is the idea that an employee works on their projects during work time without any prior authorization. It reminds me a lot of this idea of “unsanctioned 20%”. Check out the original Quora discussion on this.

What is it?

I couldn’t find the original article but if you google it, you’ll get millions of results discussing the “20%”. And of course, you’ll find a ton of information about how Google’s 20% is actually a 120%, meaning that the “free 20%” is actually on top of your regular amount of work.

Let’s talk about the utopic view of this practice.

It’s supposed to provide a programmer the space to be creative and “mess around”. It’s a space to work on personal projects or work-related projects of low priority. Basically, what a developer wants to do, they can.

Google cited several big projects stemming from it:

  1. Gmail
  2. Google Maps
  3. AdSense
  4. Google Talk
  5. and lots of others

That’s a lot of money-driving products. To me, it feels like spinning the lottery with 20% of your employees’ time but at such a magnitude that you’re bound to win.

In a way, it’s like taking monetary investment into a thousands of little startups (developers) and as long as enough of them pay off, you end up profiting from the practice.

So Tim started doing it

I’ve yet to meet an employer that says “Hey dude, take Friday to work on whatever you want. Personal projects even!”. Tim shares my experience but he took matters into his own hands. He started daylighting.

The last time we talked, he told me that he’s been taking a “20% time”, so around 8 hours a week. I asked him if I could write a post on it, anonymize it and publish it. I got his OK and we started digging into this idea further.

His reasoning is that the 8 hours a week is 8 hours he’d normally waste and the time benefits him and his employer in the long term. For him, because he can learn new technologies. For the employer, same reason.

I’ve seen this happen. I do my fair share of side projects but that basically equates to 110% (10% on top of my 100% of working).

How does he do it?

But Tim pressed that he’s not stealing time from his employer, he’s making better use of it. An average developer, he reasoned, can only do so much every day on a single project. Trying to max out on a single task can lead to burn out. Switching tracks is not always possible and other projects at work might be just as arduous.

Usually, he and his team spend some time every day “slacking off” because they just can’t keep going, they want to stay away from a burn out, and there’s “nothing else to do”. Every developer hits that point in the day, Tim told me. I definitely agree with him.

Instead of spending that time on Facebook, on Reddit, or tweaking his editor non-stop, he decided to utilize that time to work on his own personal projects.

It’s a dangerous route because that time belongs to his employer and his work belongs to his employer. But he shrugged.

On average, he spends eight hours a week but sometimes much longer on his projects. So far he’s built a few fun applications:

  1. a Trello clone with React/Redux
  2. a small blogging engine SPA
  3. a simple app “homepage” that shows him the weather forecast when he leaves work and a neural network that tries to figure out how accurate tomorrow’s forecast will be.
  4. a “response” generator that uses his past canned email responses to generate a new unique one (still work in progress that I desperately want to use as well)

The thing most of these apps have in common is that they use technology and concepts that aren’t utilized at his job. And none of these have a direct application to anything he’s doing. His job pays for Trello and its integrations, his job uses Wordpress, his job doesn’t care about the weather, and I believe they’d prefer hand-written email responses that make sense.

Where’s the benefit?

Unlike the benefits that Google cites, Tim’s benefit list has more to do with his own quality of work and his own abilities than an actual product. Over the past two years, he’s introduced a number of cost-saving techniques and development processes he wouldn’t have come across without that “10%”:

  1. using Webpack to do incremental builds (Trello clone) which cut down compiling time from 30 seconds to under 1s
  2. using TypeScript and Jest for core internal modules that required lots of code coverage and reliability
  3. his intro into “machine learning” is already giving him a head start in a new internal initiative to use machine learning to categorize customer’s data and provide better suggestions for them
  4. using Redux in their backbone app for better state management.

There’s definitely more but I spent the entire time asking him about ML since that’s a new topic for me as well.

It reminds me of interviewing and getting a leg up just because you’ve worked with the company’s specific stack. Those 8 hours/week created time-saving measures in the future that no company would authorize spending time researching. It also gave them a head start on a topic Tim figured they’d come across but no one wanted to admit it (like ML or automatic deployments or code quality tests).

Let’s look at the rest of my interview with him

I wanted to write a cohesive article but there are so many small bits of information that add up and can’t flow very well without a Q&A format. So I decided to publish (an edited) version of my conversation with Tim:

Here’s my thing, Tim, you’re still stealing time from your employer. I can’t imagine that being ethical.

Ethics? None of us play by the rules because the rules don’t make sense. I don’t know a single developer that codes 8 hours straight a day even if they have no meetings and no interruptions. All I’m doing is utilizing that “extra” time by context switching to an activity that’s not only productive but also helps me relax: coding my personal projects

So how is it exactly different than work? Shouldn’t you at least try to spend those remaining few hours developing work-related techs?

Yeah, but then my “relax” coding would fall back into that “work” bucket. With non-work projects, I get the freedom of expression and creativity and also, no pressure to show any kind of progress or utility. You know, one time, I spent three hours building a D3 graph. We don’t use D3. The graph sucked. But I had fun.

Okay but still, code is code.

Now you’re just baiting me to explain for your article. Fine. Let’s put coding aside and try a simpler example. Imagine you paint houses as work. Would you consider painting portraits at home after hours work? I don’t think so. Similar elements are involved but one is creative, inquisitive, and self-driven. The other is mandated by the company.

We talked about some of the residual applications of your 20% time. What about the times when you never get to apply the new knowledge?

To be honest, I rarely get into a situation where all of my efforts are in vein. The flip side is just as true. I honestly believe that learning, any kind of learning, contributes to one’s ability to think and solve problems. Even if I never use Haskell at work, it sure got me thinking differently about programming.

Have you seen any of your colleagues “daylight”?

Not exactly daylight. A few of my co-workers will do “prototypes” for things that don’t need prototyping, or rewrite a part of the system that doesn’t need refactoring. I feel like we are all looking for some escape. My non-technical colleagues just get on facebook or shop on Ebay.

What do you plan to do if your boss finds out?

I don’t think it would be a surprise to him but I pretty much expect a stern talking-to and not much else. I probably won’t quit doing it.
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