Making 20% time work for your engineering team

At PipelineDeals, we believe in 20% time. We call it Investment Time. Each Friday, engineers are free from the shackles of our backlog to work on creative projects. It feeds an enormous amount of creativity and happiness with our teams. Also, it helps other departments run better, and pushes our goals as a team forward.

Allowing engineers to work on their own is not a new concept.

In 1974, 3M scientist Art Fry came up with a clever invention. He thought if he could apply an adhesive (dreamed up by colleague Spencer Silver several years earlier) to the back of a piece of paper, he could create the perfect bookmark, one that kept place in his church hymnal. He called it the Post-It Note.

What you might not know is that Fry came up with the now iconic product (he talks to the Smithsonian about it here) during his 15 percent time, a program at 3M that allows employees to use a portion of their paid time to chase rainbows and hatch their own ideas. It might seem like a squishy employee benefit. But the time has actually produced many of the company’s best-selling products and has set a precedent for some of the top technology companies of the day, like Google and Hewlett-Packard.

Unlike HP, PipelineDeals is a small company with a small amount of engineers (< 15). Are we still able to effectively use 20% time, even though we’re orders of magnitude smaller? The answer is yes! But for very different reasons.

For our team, Investment Time is a fundamental underpinning of our healthy engineering culture.

Why to do it

We’ve shipped projects that have made other teams more productive. We’ve had the time to execute on our team goals. We’ve made deployments much faster. We have accrued knowledge that we otherwise wouldn’t have gained. But the largest benefit are the intangibles which are hard to put a metric around. All our engineers have mentioned that working at PipelineDeals is the best job they have ever had, because of Investment Time. Each member of our team is extremely appreciative of the time, and they use it in creative and awesome ways.

Our engineers are super excited to have the opportunity to hack on something that is interesting to them. Most of our team is senior and have families at home, so they wouldn’t necessarily have the time to really dive deep into interesting projects. Because investment time is so important to our team, there is a strong sense of motivation to get all the work done the other 4 days of the week.

Investment Time is a hard sell if your office culture is not supportive of it. It doesn’t need to be a full 20%. Even carving off a couple hours during the week is enough to see a real benefit.

How to do it

The first component is your engineers. Are they already highly motivated? Are they constantly learning and pushing themselves? These are great traits to look for when hiring. An engineer having these traits will be motivated to use the time wisely.

The team lead is the 2nd component. They should help guide engineers to ensure they use the time effectively. There should always be some tie-back to furthering the goals of the team or the company. It’s the job of the team lead to ensure this is the case.

The last component is keeping the perception that this is worth it to the company. The benefits of Investment Time are immediately clear to Engineering, but not as clear to the rest of the company. The key is to find a way to make the time beneficial to everyone else as well. The reason it’s been so effective for us is because we have buy-in from the rest of the company about the value it brings.

It’s hard to knock it when engineering teams are cranking out cool internal tools that other departments can enjoy. One of our engineers rewrote our backend using Ember.js, because he wanted to learn it. It took about 6 weeks but at the end, our COO and the customer care team loved the new interface and speed. It saved them a ton of clicks and allowed them to help customers faster. Building internal tools to help another department is a great way of demonstrating the value of Investment Time to the rest of the company.

The core components of Investment time

The general guideline when we have Investment Time is there must be some sort of tie back to the company or team goals. Also, while deliverables are nice, they are not a requirement. Learning about new tech can prove its value when solving problems down the line.

The engineer and team lead will collaborate to find a project that can cover at least one of the following components:

  • Write a tool which helps another team
  • Evaluates a new technology, language, or framework
  • Pushes our goals as an engineering team forward

Internal projects and tools

Part of what makes engineers and engineering so cool is that we can solve problems and create efficiency in a process by applying technology. Across your organization there are countless problems. Having a simple conversation with the head of another department can bring up all sorts of opportunities.

Evaluating new technologies

Sometimes it’s only learning about a new technology. For example, one engineer spins up a test project to test if ElasticSearch is a viable solution to making our global search feature faster. Over the course of a few weeks she determines it was not the right solution. That’s a huge lesson learned! Choosing which technologies to invest in (or more importantly not to invest in) is a huge decision. The more data you can bring to the party, the better your decisions will be as a team.

Pushing your team’s goals forward

Not only can Investment Time be used to help other departments further their goals, they can also be used to further your own team’s goals as well. Perhaps your team has a goal of getting the test suite to run in under 5 minutes. Or maybe you want to enhance your deployment process. Or contribute back to the open source projects we use. Or blog about your experiences.

Having effective Investment Time takes discipline and rigor, especially at the team lead level. The team lead needs to help engineers choose ways to intersect as many core components as possible when choosing how to invest.

It’s worth noting that Google has killed its 20% time because of their effort to consolidate their overall strategy. Investment Time is not, nor will it be a core part of our strategy as a company. PipelineDeals has one product with a focused vision. Instead, it is a core and very positive part of our engineering culture, and results are felt throughout the company.

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