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9/9/2013
06:52 AM
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Eulogy For The Google 20

Why we should both love and hate the practice of giving employees one day a week to work on side projects.



The end of Google's "20% time" doesn't qualify as news. The only people it surprised were the sleepy folks at 3M, who've long wondered how Google could keep taking credit for a 3M innovation that started back in 1948.

To be fair, 3M called it 15% time. Google added 5 percentage points. Which -- in management speak -- is like an amplifier knob that goes to 11. It's one louder.

This whole thing got me thinking: If the obvious qualifies as news, then it can also qualify as commentary.

The Audacity Of Bloat

There's a bittersweet moment as any engineering company scales -- between the first 30 and 60 employees -- when the builders are suddenly outnumbered by the help. After that point, it's only a matter of time before the help gets uppity and the Google 20% becomes little more than talent bait, a poisonous lure for the most creative engineering minds, a recruitment tool that shamelessly sells the fiction of autonomy and self-actualization.

If that outcome weren't bad enough, some fear-mongering lawyers inevitably step in and frame every employee's personal time, nights and weekends included, as the intellectual property of the new venture. It's the same kind of prima nocta for your dreams and aspirations that Banks sneak into their employee manuals, the message very clearly being that what was good for the founder isn't good for the gander.

And then, finally, to top it all off an unspoken demand is made of employees that redraws the line of work-life balance so that the 80-hour work week is the new black. Yes, that demand is made at the societal level and written off as a cost of global competition, but management rarely owns up to its complicity or the massive windfall the company receives in free labor.

"First they came for my weeknights."

Nazi references aside, what makes the Google 20% hilarious is that it's an elaborate con that gives back to employees 20% of time that wasn't the company’s to begin with.

I don't know Paul Buchheit, the guy who built Gmail with his Google 20%, but if I had to guess he was probably putting in 100-hour work weeks at the time. Lawyers would disagree with me (because they have no souls), but I'd say that with hours like that, Paul -- not Google -- owns Gmail.

And in that light, the Google 20 sounds more like 40 acres and a mule.

False promises aside, there's still reason to mourn the death of the Google 20%.

Learning From History

I don't want to keep writing the words "Google 20%," so I'll anthropomorphize it by calling him Steve.

Steve is what makes an engineering company great. He is, first and foremost, an engineer. A passionate builder. A visionary. The embodiment of the idea that science is itself an art form -- creative work that, like all creative processes, doesn't behave rationally or lend itself to structured, corporate management. Steve is stereotypically temperamental because he's stereotypically creative, a caricature unto himself.

He isn't always right but (and this is huge) because he's in the details -- in the code or in the silicon-- he understands better than any non-technical manager what's possible and how quickly; where a technology's adjacencies lie and which paths can potentially create breakthrough moments.

The difference between Steve and the clowns that they'll inevitably bring in to manage him is as stark as the difference between writing and reading, creating and consuming.

Let's call those clowns Sculleys.

The fun question to ask is, "What can Sculley do with his 20%? Meditate on the seventh, hidden sigma? Throw some imaginary numbers into a spreadsheet? Get random people on a conference call?

The answer to this question is ultimately what drives the death of Steve.

A long time ago, when Sculley made the move from hands-on technologist to twice-removed technologish (the executive version of someone with technical depth), he convinced himself that generating ideas was as important as building, that saying "let's cure cancer" was as meaningful as curing it.

It was around the same time that he also realized that his business experience gave him the kind of strategic insight that Steve could never have.

Cough.

Here's the uncomfortable reality: The only thing that Sculley can do during his 20% is to ask Steve to stop working on Steve's ideas and focus instead on Sculley's.

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Sculley is Management with a capital M. Hierarchical. Top-down. Corporate. If you gave him a box of Legos, he'd hire a child.

Steve is … well, not enough has been written about Steve to really understand him.

So when CEO Sculley gets rid of poor naive Steve in favor of "more wood behind fewer arrows," it's not really a newsworthy moment. It's a natural progression.

Some would even argue that it’s a symptom of scale. As companies grow larger, the Sculleys of the world make sure that the Steves lose autonomy. They do it in a million different ways, but the saddest is when they say: "Look, my ideas are the ones worth investing in. Yours? Well … too many arrows." Whatever the hell that means.

Having come out of corporate America, Sculleys don't appreciate what it means to ask an engineer, a builder, a visionary to step down from the very thing he or she believed was going to change the world.

And That Is Worth Mourning

Smart, passionate people across the world -- people who weren't lucky enough to be born independently wealthy -- are resigned to work endlessly and exclusively on the ideas of others. The same "others" who have long since lost the ability to execute on their own lame visions.

Here's the thing: No one who you'd want to join your company -- or keep as company -- would join if they thought they were leaving their souls at the door. And no one wants to join a soulless venture.

And whether it was an elaborate con or not, the Google 20% allowed the mechanistic routines of business to have the illusion of a soul.

RIP, Steve.

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