Douwe Osinga's Blog: The Freedom to Work

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Freedom to Work

People sometimes ask me if I don't miss the freedom of being my own boss now that I work for Google. The thing is, I think I'm freer now than I was when I ran my own company. Being your own boss usually means that your customer is your boss and they have never heard of any employment protection laws. Being free to make sure all computers and the network work the way they are supposed to be can be a bit overbearing. But it is not just that; working for Google involves a lot of freedom in itself.

Everybody by now probably has heard of the 20% rule, i.e. you get to spend 20% of your time on whatever project you like. A lot of the rest of the work, however, is like that too. The rest of your time you work on an official project that was handed down to you, though they do ask you what would interest you. But they don't tell you what to do. You have to understand the why of the project and then come up with targets and a plan yourself. Then you go do it and afterwards you evaluate yourself. It's not so different from running your own company.

In my old company we had this rule that you had to be in at 10:00 am, except for one day in the week where you had to be there at 9:00 (we rotated, this way every day at least somebody would be there at 9:00 and could answer the phone for any calling customers). Missing any of those deadlines would mean buying cake for everybody else. Well, no more of that. At Google you come in when you want, you go when you want and generally work when you want. Nobody checks.

Weirdly enough it works. People tend to keep long hours and pick tough assignments to do. There probably are some slackers at Google, but I've never heard of them. It is the same as with the 20%. Some publications suggested that people walk their dogs, read to their children in the 20%. They don't. They try their best to come up with the next big thing and do it. Freedom is a demanding mistress.

Partly this is of course due to the fact that most of my colleagues used to be the best engineers by far in the place where they worked. Then they moved to Google and suddenly they were just one of the many brilliant people. So now they suddenly need to work hard to make it clear to everybody that they are still the best. The other part is of course that the work is really interesting. Most Googlers would answer the question 'what would you do if you got a few million dollars' answer with 'still work for Google.' Quite some have answered that question that way.