Google's 20% Reported To Be Dead, Then Reported To Be Not Dead By Same Publication

Chris CrumTechnology

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Update: Quartz has posted a follow-up after Googlers came out and said that 20% time is still part of the company's culture.

Google has long had an interesting approach to innovation called 20% time, which has historically enabled Google employees to take one day out of each work week to work on side projects, which if good enough, could go on to become real Google products and/or features. Now, that's apparently no longer happening.

Quartz says it spoke with some former Googlers, who wished to remain anonymous, who told them that 20% time no longer exists.

20% time ushered in products that would become staples of Google like AdSense, Google News and Gmail. Here's a Google engineer talking about it in 2006:

I love what I do (I work for Google's Partner Solutions Organization, writing internal programs and tools to help better manage our partner relationships--check out our job listings), but Google's "20 percent time" recently came in handy. The 20 percent time is a well-known part of our philosophy here, enabling engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren't necessarily in our job descriptions. You can use the time to develop something new, or if you see something that's broken, you can use the time to fix it. And this is how I recently worked up a new feature for Google Reader.

I really like the keyboard shortcuts in Gmail, and they work in Reader too. But when using Reader, I found myself wanting to skip whole sections of stories, and I was wearing out my "N" key (which moves the browser down one item). There are buttons on the screen to scroll up and down a whole page at a time, but I thought it would be nice to have a keyboard shortcut too. I could have hacked something together with Greasemonkey or a Firefox extension, but that would've only helped me and the three other people who read my blog.

So I fired off an email to the Reader team, hoping that they'd be able to add a keyboard shortcut. The team got back to me right away, and they told me how easy it would be to add the shortcut myself. They were right--it was easy, because the internal documentation was good and the code was really easy to work with. Once my change had been reviewed, it went live.

Well, I guess that didn't work out too well in the end. We all know what happened to Reader, but this is an interesting anecdote about how 20% could work from idea to implementation.

But the end of 20% time is not a complete surprise, given the many talks Larry Page has given about focusing on key products since coming back as CEO.

Back in Page and Sergey Brin's famous founders letter when Google went public, the co-founders touted the 20% as a significant contributor to the company's innovation (and with Gmail, AdSense and Google News, it clearly was the case).

Here's the relevant portion:

We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in "20% time." Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.

At least there's still Google[x], which in all fairness, has been responsible for Google's most interesting innovations of late (self-driving cars, Google Glass and Project Loon).

Google also killed Google Labs a couple years ago.

Chris Crum

Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.