I recently read Joe Beda's post on Google 20% Time and it actually left me with a lot of questions as well as a better understanding of why there is a steady flow of ex-B0rg to Google's Kirkland office. I found some of his points interesting, specifically
Switching teams at Google is a very fluid process. An engineer can be 40% on one project, 40% on something completely different and 20% on his or her own thing. That mix can be adjusted as project requirements change. Switching groups should also not have an affect on your annual review score because of arbitrary team politics. Joining a new group is more about find a good mutual fit then going through HR and a formal interview loop. When there is an important project that needs to be staffed the groups and execs will evangelize that need and someone who is interested is bound to step up. If it is critical to the business and no one is stepping up (I don't know if this has occurred or not) then I imagine it would go come down to a personal appeal by the management team
There is a big difference between pet projects being permitted and being encouraged. At Google it is actively encouraged for engineers to do a 20% project. This isn't a matter of doing something in your spare time, but more of actively making time for it. Heck, I don't have a good 20% project yet and I need one. If I don't come up with something I'm sure it could negatively impact my review.
He also mentions the openness of the Google intranet which I find less interesting because I expect that as the company grows it will have to start dealing with the kind of leaks that Apple and Microsoft has. Given the company's history of tightly controlling its message (the extremely boring press release style posts on the Google blog, the firing of Mark Jen, etc) I expect that once leak sites in the style of Neowin and Microsoft-Watch spring up around Google's actions, there will be tighter control over access to internal content.
The first set of questions I have are around his comments on switching teams. At Microsoft it is common knowledge that switching teams in the middle of the annual review cycle is guaranteed to screw up your score. Due to stack ranking managers are obligated to give some people low scores and it is always easy to tell the new guy "Everyone's been here for a year you were only here for a few months so you didn't contribute as much". My first manager at Microsoft was actually pretty good about this which I'm thankful for. This is the main reason I left the XML team without waiting for the release [or even the second beta] of version 2.0 of the .NET Framework which I spent about two years working on. Once I had decided I was going to leave it made the most sense to do so at the beginning of the next review cycle independent of where we were in the ship cycle of the product. The first question swirling through my mind about Joe's post is how does Google allow people to fluidly move between teams yet not get screwed during annual reviews?
The other thing I find interesting are his comments on 20% projects. I was recently part of a leadership training class where we were supposed to come up with a presentation as a team and the topic we chose was launching a 20% project at Microsoft. One of the things we got hung up on was deciding what exactly constituted a valid 20% project. If the company
mandates strongly encourages me to have a 'pet' project then what guidelines is the project expected to follow? If my pet project isn't software related, such as a woodworking project, can it be considered a valid use of my 20% time? What if my pet project benefits a competitor such as Mark Pilgrim's Butler which ads links to competing services to Google pages?
I personally haven't needed a formal 20% program while at Microsoft. I've written lots of articles and worked on RSS Bandit while still being able to deliver on my day job. Having flex time and reasonable autonomy from management is all I've needed.
My suspicion is that 20% pet projects are a cheap way for Google to do new product development and prototyping in a light weight manner as opposed to being a way to encourage people to spend time working on their hobbies. This is a 'code first' approach to launching new products. Developers actually write cool apps and then someone decides whether there is a market or business model for it or not. This is in contrast to the 'VP first' or 'talk first' approach of new product development at places like Microsoft where new projects need to be pitched to a wide array of middle and upper management folks to get the green light unless the person creating the project is in upper management. At the end of the day with either approach one has to pitch the product to some management person to actually ship it but at least with Google's "code first" approach there already is a working app not just a dollar and a dream.