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Some employers offer, as an employee benefit, a guarantee that employees may work on their personal projects during some part (usually a percentage) of their time at work.[1][2] Side project time is limited by two stipulations: what the employee works on is the intellectual property of their employer, and if requested, an explanation must be able to be given as to how the project benefits the company in some way, even tangentially.[3][4]

Google is credited for popularizing the practice that 20 percent of an employee's time may be used for side projects.[5] At Google, this led to the development of products such as AdSense.[6][7] While Gmail is frequently described as a 20% project, its creator Paul Buchheit states that it was never one.[8] Though the program's continuity has been questioned,[9] Google claims that it remains an active program.[10]

Other major companies that have at one time or another offered some or all of their employees the benefit include the BBC (10 percent of employee time),[11] Apple (a few contiguous weeks yearly),[2] and Atlassian (20 percent of employee time).[5] Some companies, such as LinkedIn, have experimented with more restrictive versions in which employees must first pitch their projects receive approval to work on it during company time.[5]

Side project time has been criticized by some academics, such as Queens College sociology professor Abraham Walker, as "exploitative" because of how it grants employers the intellectual property rights over the personal business ideas of their employees that the employer would never have requested to be worked on otherwise.[12]


3M and 15% time

The 15% project was an initiative established by 3M. At the time of this program's implementation, the United States' workforce was composed of highly inflexible employment opportunities in rigid business structures.[13][14] WWII created an existential threat to 3M as Natural rubber was needed for the war effort and scientists at 3M were given the freedom to work on a synthetic rubber.[15] As WWII ended, 3M developed an ethos, "Innovate or die," that inspired the launch of this program.[16] This original project had some successful outcomes; for example, during this side project time, Arthur Fry invented the Post-It Note.[13]

Google implementation

In 2004,[17] the founders of Google encouraged the system. Within Google, this initiative became known as the "20% Project."[5] Employees were encouraged to spend up to 20 percent of their paid work time pursuing personal projects. The objective of the program was to inspire innovation in participating employees and ultimately increase company potential. Google's 20% Project was influenced by 3M's program.[18][14] At Google, Gmail and AdSense both arose out of side projects.[6][7]

As recognition of the benefits of retaining such a scheme grew, schools have replicated this system for their students in the classroom environment. The production of such creatively stimulated, ungraded work allows for students to experiment with ideas without fear of assessment and may increase their involvement in their general studies.[19] Some Google employees claim that the company has discontinued 20 percent time entirely or has it reworked from its original concept.[9][20] However, the company states that 20 percent time still exists.[10]

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The 20% Project is responsible for the development of many Google services. Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page advised that workers "spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google".[21] Google's email service 'Gmail' was created by the developer Paul Buchheit on his 20% time. In his project "Caribou", Buchheit used his knowledge from university software experience to create the service. The freedom to use his time in such a way allowed him to ultimately develop a fundamental Google service.[vague] Buchheit's colleague, Susan Wojcicki, utilised her time to create their product AdSense.[22] Finally, developer Krishna Bharat created Google News as an individual pursuit and hobby.[citation needed]

Other companies

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Australian enterprise company Atlassian has been using the 20% project since 2008.[23] Co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes stated that "innovation slows as the company grows".[24] And as such the scheme was introduced to re-inspire innovation. The induction of the system was a six-month trial, granting $1 million to engineers and allowing them to work on private projects based on personal interests.[25] Part of this 20% time is their annual "Ship It'"day, where employees are challenged with a task to create any product and then ship this item within 24 hours.[26] Workers created products which ranged from refined beer to 'Jira' software updates.

Notable projects

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Main article: Google AdSense

The 20% Project aided in the development of AdSense, a program where publishers can produce media advertisements for a targeted audience. This service allows website publishers to generate revenue on a per-click basis. This service was publicly released on June 18, 2003. This service was envisioned by Gmail's founder Paul Buchheit, who wanted appropriate ads to run throughout the Gmail service, but the project was pursued by Susan Wojcicki, who curated a team of developers who created the platform in their dedicated 20% time.[citation needed] After two years of its inception, the service was generating 15 percent of the company's revenue.[citation needed] The service can now offer ads in the form of simple text, flash video or rich media.

Google News

Main article: Google News

The news aggregator Google News is another result of the 20% Project. Google News was released in 2006, though the beta was introduced in September 2002. The creator of this service was Krishna Bharat, who developed this software in his dedicated project time. The service sources from 20,000 different publishers, providing articles in 28 languages. Now, the service has many new features, including Google News Alerts, which emails "alerts" on chosen keyword topics.[citation needed]

Google Dremel

Main article: Dremel (software)

Dremel was conceived at Google in 2006 as a "20 percent" project by Andrey Gubarev.[27]


Main article: Atlassian

In 2008, Atlassian announced its "20% Time Experiment", a six-month trial that was later extended to a full year.[28][29] After six months of the project initiating, the company saw major improvements to Jira, Bamboo and Confluence. The Bamboo team introduced Stash 1.0 in May throughout the dedicated project time.[24] Throughout two designated 'Innovation Week' workshops, the company shipped 12 features. At the end of the experiment, surveyed developers expressed that the biggest problem they faced was scheduling time for 20% work on top of the pressure to deliver new features and fix bugs. As a result, based on the number of developers who actually participated, the time allocated was closer to "1.1% Time."[29]

A related initiative is Atlassian's quarterly 24-hour "ShipIt" hackathon, which allows employees to pursue any project. In the past, employees have used this time to refine Jira Service Desk[30] and improve the Jira software for loading screens.[citation needed]

Benefits and detriments

The 20% Project is designed to let employees experiment without the pressure of company decline or the threat of unemployment. For companies that thrive from the conception of services and products, innovative and entrepreneurial thought is vital to success.[18]

However, for an operating business, productivity can be negatively affected by the 20% Project. The loss of time previously spent on major company-aligned projects can negatively affect a company's overall performance.[31]

The allocation of this project time is not consistent. Former Google employee and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer once stated "I've got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google's 20% time. It's really 120% time."[21]

Chris Mims mentioned that the 20% Project was "as good as dead".[6] This is a concern as it suggests that this project is destructive over long-term periods. In Google executive Laszlo Bock's book, Work Rules!, he mentions that the concept has "waxed and waned." He states that workers in fact dedicate 10% of their time on personal projects, increasing focus time after the idea begins to "demonstrate impact." He mentions that "the idea of 20 per cent time is more important than the reality of it." Workers should always be driven towards individual innovation, yet it should operate "somewhat outside the lines of formal management."[citation needed]

Atlassian can be used as an example of the detriments of 20% time. Atlassian Co-Founder Mike Cannon-Brookes implemented the 20% Project as a test to see if it produced any notable improvements or detriments to the company's output. They funded a six-month trial with one million Australian dollars. During this process, workers tackled inherent structural difficulties within the scheme. An employee mentioned that it was difficult to balance this 20% time "amongst all the pressures to deliver new features and bug fixes.";[25] the program introduced more deadlines for their employees. As a result, the company found that this 20% Project in fact became 1.1% of their working time.[25] Another issue faced was the difficulty in the organisation and team-work involved in the projects. As employees would organise groups to create new software, they would struggle to work with employees who had other commitments and alternate time schedules.[32] The company blogs have included fewer references to the 20% Project over the last decade with references that this scheme loses effect in long-term practices.[21] The company's 'Ship It' day still highlights the prosperity of time dedicated to employee-based innovation.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Robinson, Adam (12 March 2018). "Google Employees Dedicate 20 Percent of Their Time to Side Projects. Here's How It Works". Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  2. ^ a b Cheng, Jacqui (13 November 2012). "Apple's Tim Cook beefing up employee perks, personal project time". Ars Technica. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  3. ^ Geitz, Samantha (6 December 2016). "Why You Should be Giving Your Developers 20% time". Tighten. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  4. ^ Bick, Julie; Mediratta, Bharat (21 October 2007). "The Google Way: Give Engineers Room". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d Xu, Tammy (6 October 2020). "How Side Project Programs Foster Creativity at Work". Built In. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  6. ^ a b c Mims, Christopher (16 August 2013). "Google's "20% time," which brought you Gmail and AdSense, is now as good as dead". Quartz. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  7. ^ a b D'Onfro, Jillian (18 April 2015). "The truth about Google's famous '20% time' policy". Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  8. ^ "How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of Its Launch 10 Years Ago". April 2014.
  9. ^ a b Nisen, Max (16 August 2013). "Google's Obsession With Efficiency Has Killed Its Most Famous Perk". Business Insider. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  10. ^ a b Murphy, Bill Jr. (1 November 2020). "Google Says It Still Swears By the 20 Percent Rule to Find Big Ideas, and You Should Totally Copy It". Retrieved 17 August 2022.
  11. ^ Ferne, Tristan (8 January 2008). "BBC - Radio Labs: 10 percent time". Retrieved 8 November 2021.
  12. ^ Walker, Abe (2011). "Creativity loves constraints": The paradox of Google's twenty percent time. Ephemera, 11: 369–386.
  13. ^ a b Goetz, Kaomi (1 February 2011). "How 3M Gave Everyone Days Off and Created an Innovation Dynamo". Fast Company. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  14. ^ a b Kretkowski, Paul D. "The 15 Percent Solution". Wired.
  15. ^ "A Century of Innovation: The 3M Story" (PDF).
  16. ^ Farrel, Ashley (3 October 2023). ""Innovate or Die": The Surprising Origins of "Side Project Time"".
  17. ^ ""An Owner's Manual" for Google's Shareholders". Alphabet Investors Relations. Retrieved 28 June 2021.
  18. ^ a b "The Tech Classroom - What is the 20% Project in Education?". Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  19. ^ "The Tech Classroom - What is the 20% Project in Education?". Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  20. ^ Mims, Christopher (16 August 2013). "The '20% Time' Perk at Google Is No More". The Atlantic. Retrieved 11 April 2023.
  21. ^ a b c D'Onfro, Jillian (18 April 2015). "The truth about Google's famous '20% time' policy". Business Insider Australia. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  22. ^ "Susan Wojcicki: The most important Googler you've never heard of". The Mercury News. 3 February 2011. Retrieved 11 April 2023.
  23. ^ "Atlassian's 20% Time Experiment". Work Life by Atlassian. 10 March 2008. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  24. ^ a b "Atlassian's 20% Time Experiment". Work Life by Atlassian. 10 March 2008. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  25. ^ a b c "Atlassian's 20% Time: A Year in Review". Work Life by Atlassian. 19 February 2009. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  26. ^ a b Atlassian. "ShipIt Days". Atlassian. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  27. ^ Andrey Gubarev; Dan Delorey; Geoffrey Michael Romer; Hossein Ahmadi; Jeff Shute; Jing Jing Long; Matt Tolton; Mosha Pasumansky; Narayanan Shivakumar; Sergey Melnik; Slava Min; Theo Vassilakis (2020). "Dremel: A Decade of Interactive SQL Analysis at Web Scale". PVLDB: 3461–3472. Retrieved 30 September 2022.
  28. ^ Cannon-Brookes, Mike (10 March 2008). "Atlassian's 20% Time Experiment". Atlassian. Retrieved 12 June 2022.
  29. ^ a b Rotenstein, John (19 February 2009). "Atlassian's 20% Time: A Year in Review". Atlassian. Retrieved 12 June 2022.
  30. ^ Price, Dominic; Braddock, Philip (14 October 2019). ""24 hours of opportunity": behind the scenes of ShipIt". Work Life by Atlassian.
  31. ^ Ross, Alastair (3 June 2015). "Why did Google abandon 20% time for innovation?". HRZone. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  32. ^ "Innovation Week – 20% time in a box". Work Life by Atlassian. 10 September 2012. Retrieved 31 May 2019.