The Importance of Side Projects at Patientco

By Matt McCoy

Larry Page, of Google, famously touted the 70-20-10 culture of Silicon Valley in a 2004 investor letter.

Google employees have “20 percent time” – effectively one day per week – in which they are free to pursue projects they are passionate about and think will benefit Google. The results of this creative effort already include products such as Google News, Google Suggest, and Orkut – products which otherwise might have taken an entire start-up company to create and launch.

The philosophy of giving employees time to be creative wasn’t new, but Google definitely made it famous. The whole idea of a “Google-ish” workplace revolves around, and evolved from, this idea that employees work best when they have some time to screw around. It’s the force that drives in-office nap rooms, company paid meals, giant bean bag chairs, scooters, and Nerf guns. And in case you’re a purist who doesn’t think any of the above could result in a productive office, Google posted Q4 revenues of almost $40 billion last year. They’re doing just fine.

At Patientco, we have a similar philosophy. If you finish what you have to get done, feel free to use our resources to work on something you need or care about that. Have an idea for a new support service? Go ahead. One tiny bug somewhere that keeps bothering you? Go and fix it.

Why is this freedom so important? Does it actually make people more productive? Well, yeah. In fact, a 2015 SMF study revealed that happy employees are 12% more productive. So how do side projects and 20% free time make people happier?

The Self-Esteem Dream

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph / Unsplash


To understand what makes people happy at work, we have to understand what makes people unhappy at work. The leading cause turns out to be a lack of respect and engagement. An employee who feels that their opinion isn’t respected or feels disengaged is bound to have a poor opinion of their career as a whole. We humans need some level of esteem (see Maslow). We need to feel that we have dignity and worth. A lack of respect or responsibility in the workplace means that employees no longer feel a sense of ownership around a product or process. They don’t feel needed.

Patientco has an entire team of people dedicated to improving our product. It’s their job to own our applications and improve on them. In addition to that, our product team and engineering departments work very close together. This means that as a product owner sees something that can be improved upon, engineering is nearby to lend a hand. If an engineer sees an opportunity for a side project, product can easily give use cases, constraints and support.

Side projects address both the issue of responsibility and the issue of engagement. When an employee has the opportunity to own a new process or product, they immediately find self-worth in that. Subconsciously, they are able to say “I made this” or “I fixed that.” Once a side project is complete, that employee then feels they are responsible for it. They want to maintain or improve it, instead of feeling like they have to maintain it. They become engaged with it. Suddenly, they have a reason for coming to work beyond putting in their eight hours and getting a paycheck. They feel like they’re growing and making themselves better (see the tip-top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Now you have an employee who’s engaged in their work, wants to be there, and feels fulfilled. Sounds like a happy person, right?

Failure is Always an Option


Photo by Louis Hansel / Unsplash


What about the business benefits? Well, actually there aren’t any (wait, what?). Yeah, you read that right. There aren’t any. A common rumor around Google’s 20% time is that the world’s most popular email service, Gmail, originated from one developers 20% time. But, in a 2017 interview, Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail) said that “Larry Page assigned the project to me.”

He said, “Build some kind of email something” and chose me because I had an interest in email. I tried to create a web-based email service in 1996, shortly before Hotmail, but didn’t complete it.

In fact, very few side projects at Google actually went on to become large scale products (the biggest being Google News and Adsense). Laszlo Bock, legendary Google HR manager, even pointed out that “the idea of 20 percent time is more important than the reality of it” in his book Work Rules!

“It operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can’t be forced to work,” Bock goes on to say. You see, the value of side projects isn’t about creating innovation or new products. That’s a different monster all together. The point, and importance, of side projects is about creating a culture that is allowed to fail. It’s about giving your smartest people the ability to tinker, fall down, get back up, and try again. That’s how people learn. Every now and then you may get something really good out of it that you can sell, but don’t count on it.

I’ve seen quite a few side projects come and go at Patientco. There have been little applications that make a process easier, tickers that show dollars disbursed, and Easter eggs worked into existing applications. All but a handful no longer see the light of day. Again, the point of side projects isn’t to make new applications, it’s about being given the freedom to play. Out of the many side projects I’ve worked on at Patientco, I can think of only one that is still in use. But, I learned something important from each of the other ones. They each presented unique challenges and required unique solutions that I hadn’t thought of before. I was able to pull other people into those projects when I needed help, and those people learned new things as well.

Like we saw above, people want to feel responsible and respected for their work. The actual work itself isn’t that important. The feeling of getting there and the lessons you learned are. After all, fulfillment isn’t found at the top of a mountain without putting in the work to climb to the top.

Smooth Seas Never Made a Skilled Sailor

Photo by Oliver Raatz / Unsplash


I challenge you to implement the idea of side projects at your own company. Don’t make it mandated or required or managed. Give people the freedom to try something new and make mistakes. You’ll find that not that many people utilize that time, but the ones that do will quickly become dedicated to improving the way you do business, and will be much more fulfilled, loyal, happier in the long run.

Remember: you don’t get better by succeeding, you get better by failing and trying again.

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