Recently Chad Fowler wrote a great
job description for a software engineer. I replied that a
person like that is currently un-hireable in Silicon Valley.
Another fellow asked me, how would I change the list for technical instructors rather than straight-up engineers?
And if they offered something like 20% time to let somebody keep their skills that sharp, what are the really key components
of that program?
Those are great questions. Here’s how I answered:
I’d have nearly the same list of qualities for a great instructor. It
might change which items were most important — teaching and
learning are obvious choices to put higher on the list, clearly. But
that list is already focused on somebody who is big on communicating
and instructing, and that’s part of why it doesn’t feel like standard
developer job descriptions.
A lot of what killed 20% time at Google was that it was at manager’s
discretion. And “at manager’s discretion” turns instantly into “is
awarded politically.” As went around on Twitter recently, most things
at Google (and to be fair, elsewhere) are like that, which is why Peer
Bonuses have the same problem. They’re at manager’s discretion, so
they can be turned down by the manager. So they become power games.
Unfortunately, “don’t hire people who play power games” is a terrible
solution to this problem, because everybody defines “power games” as
“the kind of politics I don’t like.” Which means they have a huge
blind spot for the kind of politics they benefit from. There’s not
really a way around it. I’m not being holier-than-thou, for the record
— my blind spots are as big as anybody else’s.
To answer your question as directly as I can: make 20% time
sacrosanct. Don’t give recommendations on what to do with it, don’t
require a focus on a technology being taught, don’t make it
conditional on performance (and “performance” is a highly political
and subjective thing, alas.) You can consider requiring some kind of
report on what was done. But even that can be abused, and most people
have blind spots about how it’s abused.
Basically, make it very hard for managers to pressure people to work
in particular directions with 20% time. The problems with that are the
worst with the employees who fit in the least – who tend to be
disliked by their managers, who tend to be called “not a culture fit”,
and who tend to have the most actually different ideas. Those, in
other words, with the greatest potential benefit to themselves and
your company from 20% time.
They are also the ones that your smartest employees look to as a
bellwether of whether you’re cracking down — whether smart
people need to “look productive”, which is usually the enemy of “being
productive on the important stuff.”
Managers dictating terms also makes it clear that 20% time is part of
the standard company work. That would mean it’s useless for
reinforcing most of what you want for the employee described in the
blog post. Much like current Hackathons, you’re making it clear that
it’s for the company’s benefit, not for yours. Except the company
needs a bunch of stuff that isn’t (directly) for its own benefit from
employees like the ones in the blog post. 20% time becomes one more
thing added on top of your current job description, not a way for
employees to feel okay about expanding their own competence outside
of current business goals.
And as I wrote in my response, Chad Fowler’s job description requires
doing three or four full-time jobs. Anything else you add on top of it
is going to seriously reduce the applicant pool. 3-4 jobs’ worth of skills is
ridiculous, the equivalent of “I only date ballerinas over five-foot-ten with a
Ph.D.” You’re also requiring people who are,
by their nature, perfectly capable of starting their own company,
which pays much better on average than you’re willing to, and comes
with way more respect.
The 20% time I have described is clearly not doable at almost any
large company. It requires making a lot of managers act against their
natural inclinations. When you have something “fun” like 20% time, why
would you not use it as a reward and motivator?
(For the answer, look up “intrinsic motivation” or watch the Dan Pink TED talk.)
20% time is valuable because often your company is doing many of the
wrong things, and smart employees can fix that somewhat. Which means
the more it’s affected by your existing culture, the more of the
advantage you’re throwing away in favor of conformity.
Managers are in the business of generating conformity. Also of
reducing risks, increasing repeatability and increasing
consistency. In other words, they specialize in all of the mortal
enemies of 20% time.
(Don’t get me wrong. The results of 20% time can be help those same
things. But 20% time itself is a highly creative activity, and dies
from repeatability, de-risking and extrinsic motivation.)