First Google offered workers “20 percent time” in which to tinker, then Apple reportedly followed with a similar program called “Blue Sky.” Now LinkedIn is quietly offering its own take on letting workers run wild with InCubator, a program that may well top what Google offers.
Under InCubator, engineers can get 30 to 90 days away from their regular work to develop ideas of their own into products. Their ideas must first be developed into prototypes and clear two rounds of judging, with founder Reid Hoffman and CEO Jeff Weiner involved in the final round. Many ideas submitted to InCubator come from LinkedIn’s monthly “hack days,” in which workers can win awards for small bits of quickly written software.
“It’s a little bit like a venture capital thing,” says Kevin Scott, LinkedIn’s senior vice president for engineering and a former Googler. “When we find something we really like, we want to make it successful…. To have Reid Hoffman sit down with you one-on-one to help you make your hack successful is great.”
If LinkedIn can extract profitable, high-impact products from InCubator, it could become a model for other companies trying to foster employee experimentation with their own versions of 20 percent time. At the moment, Silicon Valley companies seem eager to tap into employees’ ideas with such programs, but their approach is largely split between startup-friendly hackathons, which are like short sprints, and Google’s 20 percent time, which can be like a grueling marathon for workers. LinkedIn seems to be trying to find a middle way by making medium-sized investments in the most promising hacks.
The results have been encouraging thus far. The first group of four InCubator projects included some breakout hits, including an internal system for reserving meeting rooms and a toolkit for pointing out new features to users as they surf LinkedIn’s site. That success led to a second round of InCubator projects, which have just been funded and which, according to Scott, “are much more aggressive.” LinkedIn is already planning to bless a third batch in February.
LinkedIn is taking a systematic approach to InCubator. Not only are programs screened by top executives before entry into the program, but InCubator also features a series of checkpoints along the way. Only projects showing promise at 30 days graduate to become 60-day projects, and only those that have made sufficient further progress at day 60 will be allowed to make it to day 90. Along the way, project leaders get coaching from executives like Hoffman, who also works as a venture capitalist.
This structure sets InCubator apart from the more informal 20 percent time at Google, LinkedIn’s Mountain View neighbor. At Google, workers and their supervisors have traditionally been left to sort out for themselves the implementation of 20 percent time, which was more of a policy ideal than a mechanism unto itself.
InCubator is also carefully integrated with LinkedIn’s hackathons. The most promising hacks, for example, can win a “golden egg,” which exempts them from the first round of judging should the project be submitted to InCubator for consideration. This helps differentiate LinkedIn’s hack days from those at many other tech companies. Hackathons have become de rigueur in Silicon Valley but in many instances are not connected with an employee-driven product development pipeline of the sort LinkedIn is building with InCubate.
“There were amazingly creative and inventive applications or services or utilities that people were building [during hackathons], but there’s a time bound on what you can build in a day,” Scott says.
There are, of course, exceptions (which I cataloged at length in a book on this topic). Atlassian, an Australian business software company that convened some of the earliest corporate hackathons, has developed a system in which managers can “steal” engineers from other departments for short periods of time if they like their hacks. Workers, likewise, can obtain more and more time to develop their hacks by getting permission from progressively higher tiers of management. And at Facebook, workers can rotate through other departments for short periods of time.
But offering three full months away from regular work to tinker goes beyond all that; it’s not something generally seen in the tech world. At least not yet. Like any other good idea in Silicon Valley, it’s bound to be copied, riffed on, and maybe even expanded by others. In the meantime, LinkedIn will be an evolving case study.
By Ryan Tate