The Third Degree

Gawker’s Ryan Tate On How You Can Do 20 Percent Time Better Than The GOOG

Did you know that the rise of hackathons started with Beck and some hotboxed phonebooths?
tc 112b Gawkers Ryan Tate On How You Can Do 20 Percent Time Better Than The GOOG

Mr. Tate

After years of reading Ryan Tate’s piercing coverage on the free time and foibles of Silicon Valley’s demigods at Gawker, Betabeat finally had the pleasure of making his acquaintance the other night. Spoiler alert: He might be the nicest dude in tech blogging, despite what the press releases regurgitation factories would have you think. Mr. Tate’s former pen pal Steve Jobs probably put it best: “He’s no dummy.”

We also had a chance to peruse his new book “The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business,” which takes its title and subject matter from Google’s much-admired practice of letting employees spent a fifth of their work week building whatever they want to. Like, say, multi-billion dollar revenue streams like AdSense or lifelines like Gmail.

But “The 20% Doctrine” goes beyond GOOG to examine how the idea of allowing free space to fool around led to innovative features and new ventures at Flickr, Odeo (perhaps you’ve heard of a little service called Twttr?), Jupiter Research (ahem, Dodgeball), the Huffington Post, and even in celebuchef Thomas Keller’s empire and at Bronx of Academy of Letters. Mr. Tate talks to a number of familiar names like Caterina Fake, Y Combinator partner Paul Buchheit, and Google Reader creator Chris Wetherell.

The stickiest part of New York techies will likely be chapters tracing the history of hackathons, which crossed over into the mainstream at the Yahoo Hack Day when Beck came out to play for the coders and someone hotboxed the phone booths. (Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, who used to head up Yahoo’s developer networks, wrote the book’s foreward.) We talked to Mr. Tate about goofing off in the era of gChat, when 20 percent doesn’t work, how to make hackathons more productive, and why, contrary to conventional Startupland wisdom, you maybe shouldn’t quit your day job just yet.

Before Gawker, you wrote for Business 2.0 and other more straight-laced publications. Did the Gawker connection make it difficult to get people on the record?
When Caterina Fake wrote me back she said she had done some additional research on me and that I seemed like a good guy. I got the impression that I need a little extra vetting. It really helped to have Chad [Dickerson] because he was one of my very first interviews and he was really generous with his time. I never did get to talk to Marissa [Mayer]. But it pushed me to find people like Chris [Wetherell], which brought a little more diversity to it, because he had an experience that wasn’t quite as positive. At the Huffington Post, some of the people I talked to ran it up the flagpole to try to get Arianna or Roy Sekoff and the response that came back was, you know, cold day in hell or over my dead body or something like that. For the most part, I think people were refreshed to be able to talk about something concrete and constructive.

You mentioned the emotional resonance of 20 percent time. For example, how hard Evan Williams tried to recreate the constraints from his early days after Odeo got derailed by copious funding. It seemed like the common thread was nostalgia for the early-stage experience.
People seem to either get bought into these large companies or they grow their companies into something large and significant and they want to sort of rekindle that early energy. It’s like they bump up against the inherent flaws in having a successful large company. They want to try to find some kind of shortcut back. Then the question becomes: Can they really see it to the point where it’s not just a nostalgia exercise? AdSense is Google’s no. 2 revenue line. But then if you look at a lot of the 20 percent projects that came after that they didn’t get the company to the bottom line growth that they need. They seem to be in the process of reconciling the dream of creating a startup-like atmosphere with reality. With a startup you can either drop that startup or iterate or pivot or just quit and move onto the next one. But Google doesn’t really have that option.

What’s Google’s current stance on it?
I’ve heard repeatedly that it is harder to do 20 percent now at Google. Chris, the Google Reader guy, made this point really well that it’s always been a fuzzy policy: You can do it, but how? What are the costs to you in terms of your bonus or what is the cost to you in terms of your career at Google? When do you start hitting a wall against actually deploying stuff?

Who is doing 20 percent time better than Google?
What I found in talking to other companies, especially at Atlassian and a few others, is that it seems to be quite possible to put filters and gating mechanisms in place. It’s not a complete free-for-all. Because you have to have a successful project at [Atlassian’s] Hack Day to get 20 percent days and once you’ve done a few weeks of 20 percent time, you have to get a peer or like four engineers to sign off on it.

Your book also gets into the perils of showboating. At the hackathons I’ve been to, it often seems like developers look for hacks that will crack each other up during the demos.
There’s a danger of hackdays degenerating into just showboating. I think Daniel Raffel nailed it later in the Hack Day chapter when he said, there has to be some prospect of creating an actual product otherwise you’re just gonna get engineers trying to impress each other. At Yahoo’s there were judges that were top executives, but there was no systematic process where those executives are taking the best project and turning them into product. There was no official pipeline. They had a non-technical CEO for a long time, Terry Semel, that the engineers did not connect with, so Hack Day lifted morale, but there were products that could have been very successful.

Like what?
You know how on Google Maps, you can drag the line to change the direction of getting from point A to point B? Like I want to take this freeway instead of that one, you can just drag it on the map. Well, I was told a guy had it at Hack Day at least a year if not years before that and it just never went anywhere. Then Google got all these accolades when they implemented it.

It seems like the other factor is that hackathons have gotten more corporate. You see a lot of sponsorship these days.
I think that’s the risk with any new business, that it will get adopted by the wrong companies in the wrong ways. They’re just totally not going to get it and they’re going to try to do a goofy imitation of it. That has probably happened with virtually every management technique that startups have pioneered so I’m sure there are companies that are giving out stock options that really shouldn’t be giving out stock options because their employees don’t care. Agile development is infamous for this. People say it has a lot of strong points, but it’s completely degenerated into consultants selling something as agile and managers using it to beat engineers over the head.

Who are the “wrong companies” to try something like this?
I had a whole chapter on Nullsoft, which was kind of an early way in which this went wrong. Nullsoft created Winamp, which was one of the first popular mp3 players. It was created by this guy Justin Frankel, who was very young and his company got bought by AOL for around $200 million. He got rich very quickly, but they said okay we’re gonna pull you into AOL, but you’ll be autonomous. We’ll give you your own office in SF. You guys can create whatever you want. They kind of let them play, which sounds like a great idea but then [AOL] got bought by Time Warner. So while they’re still closing the merger, Nullsoft starts churning out these tools that can be used for piracy, like Gnutella which was a very early peer-to-peer network. They created this thing called Waste, which was a way for creating darknets, so like private sharing networks. They also created this thing that took the ads out of AOL Messenger and replaced them with things developers thought were cool.

All of these projects were completely running against what you would want to do at a media company, but they were technologically very cool. When I interviewed Frankel, he thinks something could have come of them commercially, but if you’re doing that stuff in a media company [laughs] it’s not necessarily gonna work. If you’re not a startup and you’ve got to answer to the boss and sometimes the bosses are going to be boneheads.

Did you use the 20 percent time method to write the book?
Absolutely. I did this on Fridays. I was at Gawker Monday through Thursday. It actually made me more productive on Fridays to have this book to work on. Certainly by the end it was pretty tiring. It took me two years, and the original plan was nine months. I’ve been at Gawker four years, so I’ve spent over half my time at Gawker on a four-day week schedule, which is really nice of them let me do that!

Isn’t advocating more free time at work kind of dangerous when gChat, or say, spending time in the comment section of gossip blogs has already vastly diminished productivity levels?
Isn’t this going to distract people even more? I think that’s a totally valid concern. According to my own reporting, it seems like 20 percent time and similar programs is a way to recapture some of that time people might have spent goofing off on gChat or taking long lunches on Fridays. It’s a way to take time when people might be distracted from work and give them something else to do that’s at least potentially productive. From what I can tell, the bigger danger is overworking. Highly-motivated people, they’re not slacking off on their main stuff because they want to continue to be successful in their companies. It turns out they’re doing 120 percent of what they were doing before and 40 percent of the 120 is given to the project.

Management must be pleased!
I’ve been asked: Is this a way to trick employees into doing more work?

You frame setting up some kind of 20 percent program as a way to experiment and innovate while keeping your day job. That goes against what we’ve been hearing from Wall Street refugees and Startupland in general.
If you can bring yourself to do a startup and quit your job you absolutely should because that means you’re highly highly motivated to pursue your idea and you understand the risks and you’re willing to forgot that income. This is still not widespread enough where companies have [this kind of program]. It’s just a low risk way of approaching the idea. It’s good for ideas where you’re not as certain of success. Because with startups there’s a higher bar. That should be a grandslam idea in your head. This is a great way to get your training wheels. Be a serial entrepreneur without actually going to do all these startups. By the time you go to quit, it’s like okay now you’ve got these experiences under your belt.

It’s just interesting how many startup people in New York unequivocally advocate for quitting your job.
It’s a selection bias. But it’s really not as scary as you would think, to quit your job and do something like that . . . from what I’ve read on Hacker News.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com