You’ll have all heard the story of how Gmail — now the most popular email service on the planet — originated as a side project. It was built as a passion project under Google’s famed 20% rule as employees were encouraged to “spend 20% of their time working what they think will most benefit Google”.
This type of model has been implemented across the tech industry. Sometimes it’s a 20% of time figure. Other companies dedicate an entire day to the side project hustle. More recently with the rise of Agile and SAFE planning I’ve seen development squads given a standalone sprint to work on their own projects or run research and learning sessions.
Personal development or hidden overtime?
The success of these initiatives is possibly debateable. Obviously Google rolled out a few success stories, though the Yahoo CEO and former Googlebot Marissa Mayer cast doubt on the system, suggesting it encouraged workers to do overtime — “It’s really 120% time”. In organisations where tech teams work alongside other business-focused, commercial or sales departments 20% time schemes often cause friction across departments.
I get that. It’s a tough call to explain to your overworked sales team or customer care department that you’re not just letting your developers spend a chunk of their time having ‘fun’. Even if it does sometimes sound like it.
The challenge for me is that as an owner of a small app development agency it’s exceptionally tough to try to work out how to integrate something like this into our development culture. I’m not a techy myself, so I don’t understand the sense of reward that can come from building something ‘different’ or learning a new way of coding that will improve you as a developer. But I want to give my developers that opportunity.
Where I come up with the killer obstacle is that all of our projects are meticulously planned out, costed and scheduled. If we’re building an app that communicates with an air filter via bluetooth — that’s what we’re going to build. Our client needs the app to fit into their business needs, whatever they are. In this case we’ve got to deliver the app to the specifications requested by the client. We can’t drop one of their requested features to build in Alexa or Siri integration, for example. Yes, it might make their app a better piece of tech — but that missing feature will still need to be completed because that’s what we’re under contract for.
And ultimately as the commercial driver of the business, I want to upsell our client and get them to sign up for new feature builds, including that voice assistant integration.
So how do I find that balance?
I’ve been trialling setting aside designated Growth, Learning and Knowledge days (cunningly called GLaKs) where our developers can take time away from project work to upskill, learn new things or just read and research. That’s obviously ultimately a big win for the business. But my dream would be to find a way to integrate the development of side projects into our business model.
Anyone out there done it? Anyone got a suggestion? Hit me up!
Thom Gibbons is CEO of Apptaura. He’s a Liverpool supporter and hates avocado. Even if it’s on toast. His app development agency, based in Hampshire, specialised in building apps for SMEs and start-ups.