When I first heard about 20% Time, I was young and didn’t know any better, so it sounded really cool, but over time I’ve become skeptical. It’s a negative space. Employers know that people are going to put a large proportion of their time into self-directed stuff anyway, so 20% Time seems to be a negative space to me. It’s essentially saying, “We want total control over 32+ hours of your week.”
Programming, when it’s not overseen by idiots, is more like an R&D job than the ticket-processing user-story hellfest that it’s become in a lot of companies. When it’s done right, time doesn’t need to be tracked and programmers aren’t seen as resources to be allocated, because they’re the one’s deciding what they’re going to work on and how they’re going to make the business better.
What I’ve seen is that 20% Time usually ends up becoming only successful as a mechanism for transfer. Some people use it to maintain other code that they rely on, or to teach classes, but as far as I’m concerned, that qualifies as regular work unless your manager is a prick. It doesn’t work very well for fresh efforts because it’s hard to build something out on 8 hours per week, especially if that means building it out to a Google standard with regard to operations and internationalization and the like, and even if you beat the odds and succeed, you can always be accused of having worked too hard on it (i.e. you made it a “60% Time” project). If your manager is decent and supportive, then you’re fine. If the stack-rank gods decide that a manager has to throw people under the bus, it’s usually 20%-ers who go first. It’s not a real protection.
Individually, you can make a transfer to a better team work using 20% time. Whether this is good for the workers as a group is unclear. Ultimately, you end up with an arrangement where getting a transfer pretty much requires doing an audition project, and even with a formal “right” to 20%T, that still means that you have to put your credibility/reputation on your existing team at risk. I’m not sure of it and it’d be interesting to see if any papers have been written, but I think that “20% time” programs actually reduce internal mobility by adding one more hurdle you have to clear to get a favorable transfer.
In other words, “20% Time” sounds great from a peon’s standpoint, but what you really want is an actual decent job where the delineation between “80% Time” and “20% Time” doesn’t exist. The truth is that 20% Time is for losers (political losers, not necessarily bad people) because people who are winning never have to justify their time.
I owe my career to 20% time. I’ve joined projects. I’ve started them. I like the goal of this post, but the advice is a bit too formulaic or prescriptive in my opinion. Using 20% time effectively either comes naturally or it doesn’t. You shouldn’t need a manual or a spreadsheet. My advice is you should hook up with other people who are using their 20% time well and learn from them. When you’re ready, you’ll be able to define your own path.