Heikki Hellgren

@drodil

Granting developers some playtime

All work and no play makes jack a dull boy — Unknown, 1659

In software business it is a necessity to come up with new ideas once in a while. It’s important both for the business and for the individuals. It keeps everyone motivated and can create new business opportunities. But innovation doesn’t just happen if you don’t give it the time and the resources.

In some cases companies try to solve the need of innovation by creating a new team or organization that is solely responsible of coming up with new things. I personally believe the best results can be found from utilizing all the people inside the company and not just the ones from the “innovation team”.

I was happy enough to work for a company (Max Technologies Ltd.) where spending time for innovating things was possible. Every Friday we had possibility to play around for the last 3 hours of the day and we used to do this in smaller teams or alone. This was very good for employees’ attitude in the company and also actually produced some cool things that could have been developed into an actual product. While this was possible for all employees, only around 20–30% actually used this time for innovation.

At that time I was also responsible for some job interviews for developers. Telling the new candidates about our Friday policy made them really thrilled of our company. It was a good boost for the reputation among local developers and I can see that it might be one of the keys to attract the best talents to join you.

Few years back the technology giant Google allowed their employees to use whole Friday for innovation. It was called the ‘Google’s 20% time policy’. For some reason they abandoned this idea but I am sure that they are now selling some products that are based on ideas done during those Fridays. What I liked about their way of doing this was the idea that employees should use the time for what they think will most benefit Google. I think that is good basic principle for this kind of freedom.

Not only new products

The “free-time” that employees are allowed to use for some other things than their main project should not only focus on coming up with new products. Also personal development and general improvement ideas during this time should be encouraged.

As a software developer I see there are few things that you could do during this time:

  • New products. You know your business and you know what is possible with the technology. You are the best expert to think of new products or improvements for existing ones don’t you think? Well, I think so too.
  • Personal development. Learn a new programming language, discover new tools to make your work more productive, dive in to some new tech area you are interested in, bend a spoon… And the list goes on. There is just not enough time to improve yourself while working 9 to 5 (unless you do it at home).
  • Improvements for your project or company. Think about your project or company. What could be done better? Is there some tools that could actually save a huge amount of time and money for the company just by taking them into use?

But it costs money!

Yes, everything costs money.

That is true especially if you are bigger company with lots of employees and everyone’s spending their Friday afternoons out of the project. But it will eventually pay back:

  • Think of a developer who uses 3 hours every Friday to learn a new tool. The tool improves productivity of the developer 10% in one month (for example finding better code editor or improving skills in using one). Now think that the developer can now do 11 hours of work in 10 hours. In a week that’s already covering the time spent for the Friday afternoon and more.
  • Think of a developer who finds a way to improve productivity of all developers in the project (for example a way to build source code faster). He documents the findings and distributes those to his co-workers. Now all developers in the project gain the same productivity boost and it pays back the lost time with a huge multiplier. Developers win, company wins.
  • Now think of a developer who uses his Fridays to improve his skills on the programming language used in the project. The developer finds out new ways to improve quality, performance, design or stability with the skills he just learned because he had time to do so. It’s another win-win situation for the project and the individual.

The costs should not be limited to the time used for innovation and self improvement. The company should also support by providing the people enablers for example micro-controllers or other electronic devices that can be used for playing around. This way the innovation is possible and doesn’t always have to be bound to programming.

Open source it!

While all that has been done during the “free-time” is company’s intellectual property, it might be a good idea to open source at least some of the things. When open sourcing a project it:

  • Gives the company and the developers good reputation in the open source community
  • Can remove the burden of maintenance of the component from the developers as the community members can take over

Most of the times projects that are only used internally in the company die young. Sometimes it’s unfortunate and could be prevented by open sourcing the project and let it live free. Of course you don’t want to open source the project that could revolutionize the whole industry, but for some smaller projects it might be just the right thing to do.

Other businesses

While the freedom of innovation is mostly related to artistic careers and, as seen in the major tech companies to software business, it is not limited only to those. Basically you could allow innovation on almost any job whether it is car mechanic, dentist or construction worker. I am sure each one of these positions would benefit a lot to have some time to improve themselves on what they are doing.

Task for you

Start small. Just pick for example 3–4 developers and allow them to freely do whatever they wish for a month every Friday for few hours. I am sure you, and the developers, will find it promising and fun. You just might also get some concrete results out of the first month. And it doesn’t cost that much money with the limited resources either. Later this can be expanded easily to match the whole company.

Also tell me what you thought about this article? Do you think giving some freedom in your company could actually do something good or is it just waste of time?

About me

I am Heikki Hellgren, Software developer and technology enthusiast working at Elektrobit Automotive. My interests are in software construction, tools, automatic testing and all the new and cool stuff like AI and autonomous driving. You can follow me on Medium and Twitter. Also you can check out my website for more information.

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