Free friday for all - Chapters in Sense/Net

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In their 2004 IPO letter, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin highlighted their idea of the famous “Google 20%”. A lot of time has passed since then and the legend faded too: is it really 20% of their time, or is it more like “Google 120%”?


Nonetheless, we wanted to empower our people so we decided to give it - or at least a version of it - a go.

We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in “20% time.” Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.

They wrote. It almost sounds too good to be true: our people do what they think is best for us, and it truly gets better. It is always important to remind ourselves before getting overly excited about things like this, that we are not Google. So before rushing to the solution, we need to think about our own corporate structure, and problems we need to be solved.

How Sense/Net Inc. works

Sense/Net Inc. - the company behind sensenet ECM - has two products. One actual product (sensenet ECM) and a solution integrator service: since we know our product the best, we can create unique solutions for companies all around the world (we also do training and quite a lot of support, but let’s just consider these parts of one or both of the products I just mentioned).

This results in teams that not just work on different projects, they do different kinds of things. In time, people end up with vastly different know-hows and knowledge levels. It is hard to admit, but sometimes there are multiple solutions for the same problem. Or worse, there are the same solutions implemented several times for the same problem.

The problems

Lacking Communication

This all comes down to communication. As a small company, communication should not be a problem. However, since there are a lot of demanding projects, teams can become project-silos, working hard on solutions for large periods of time, without having a direct contact with any other team. Team members rarely mix, so over time, company culture can degrade.

Fading Motivation

Working on repetitive business solutions can become demotivating after a while. Software development supposed to be a creative craft, so solving client problems day after day can make Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jaca dyll boy

No Empowerment

It is a good feeling to really own a project. If it is yours, you’ll work on it all the time (at home, at night, in the morning), because it is your brainchild. It is your responsibility. Our developers are our cleverest people in our company. Some of them have pretty good ideas on what should we be working on, so our organization would benefit the most of the work done. So why not let them?

The possible solution

Let them

Let them come up with ideas and realize them during work hours. Let them form teams and incentivize them to finish their projects. Let them try different team roles and techniques. Let them build their tools and make sensenet great. Help them form bonds with each other and learn the viewpoint of others. Rebuild our network of connections inside the company.

The rules

To help start this endeavor, all parties (executives, managers, PO’s, scrum masters, developers) needed to agree on the rules of the game. These rules are:

  • The time is “sacred”

    That is, first of all it is important that “free-friday” time is sacred time: otherwise, the 10 or 20% can be overwritten by any enthusiastic PO so “we can just fix one more bug this friday afternoon” or “can we just add this one more feature here please”.

  • Working in these projects is not mandatory

    You can continue working on anything work-related during ‘free-friday’.

  • Anyone can create a team

    You just need to be more than one person. One of the goals is to make communication better - you know yourself, now you may get to know other people. If the other ones are from different teams, it is all for the better.

  • You will need a project you think is most beneficial for Sense/Net, the company

    If you think it’s a tool, or a new module for the platform, it’s great. If you think the thing you’ll build will help us communicating the awesomeness of us, it’s great too! Tell us all about your ideas and on how you plan on implementing them.

  • Transparency is key

    Don’t hide in your team-cave with your new found team-friends for 6 months. You need to get out and tell us about what you’re going through. Every month, we use a TGIF so you can tell everybody about the hardships of forming a team and communicating an idea. You can show everyone, how you conquered a problem or how you failed (which happens all the time, and is okay most of the time if we learn from our mistakes).

It’s happening

We started this project with a kickoff presentation, where we gave people time to come up with project ideas. This was not very hard, since practically everyone has a long-cherished brainchild in the back room of their mind.

After vetting these ideas, there were 3 that had enough people and reasonable planning behind (we are a small company after all :) ).

It's-a-happening

These three (a knowledge base for our company, a reposync tool for making our developers’ lives easier, and our new community site) are progressing quite well. Since “Transparency is key”, I’m sure you’ll hear about them soon enough. :)

Is it any good?

All three pilot projects are progressing reasonably since our kickoff presentation. We have an internal virtual scrum master, who helps these teams gel and work more efficiently. The first two project status TGIF’s were also promising and it seems that developers like the authority they get in their side projects.

But is it any good for the company?

Definitely. It wasn’t possible to allocate resources for either a knowledgebase or a community site project. The knowledgebase serves as our internal repository of thoughts and resources and helps keeping together our company-hivemind. This community site since became of strategic importance. We need it for external communication, for storing our documentation and for community building. There’s also the reposync tool, which boosts business solution teams’ productivity tremendously.

What’s next?

We have three months left of this pilot. We plan to organize a Fedex Day type event at the end to celebrate the successes and ponder on the failures. Until then, we’ll keep you posted on these projects.

Have feedback on this post? Let @sensenet know on Twitter.

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