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The ROI of Self-Directed Investment Time for Software Engineers

Mike Cavaliere
Mike Cavaliere
November 27, 2019
The ROI of Self-Directed Investment Time for Software Engineers

For those unfamiliar with the term, “investment time” refers to free time employees are given on a regular basis, in which they can experiment, learn, and create without any employer-enforced agenda. Google, for example, has been known to allow their employees to use 20% of their time working on self-directed projects they’re passionate about. At Echobind, we do it too. But the reason behind it may surprise you.

Conceptually, the notion of giving people a chunk of “do whatever you want” time seems like a pie-in-the-sky idea that only happens at places like Google, where chairs are made of air, robots give you massages at your desk, and lunch is catered every day. At best, it sounds like a luxury, and at worst, a fantasy.

The truth is, investment time is good for business. This is why we are proud that we can offer up to one full day of investment time to our people every week; it’s selfishly motivated since it increases our bottom line.

To understand how investment time makes us more profitable, let’s take a look at the different things that software engineers, designers, project managers, and strategists can produce in their time to roam free.

Learning

Taking the opportunity to learn a new topic of their choosing is an endeavor that motivates itself. It’s a welcome departure from the tasks you’re required to do for your job, even if you happen to love doing them. It’s a mental shift from a “doing” mode into a “playing” or “absorbing” mode.

Indulging in fun, inquisitive endeavors begets more motivation for the required work tasks. It refreshes people (albeit, on a smaller scale) in the same way that a vacation can.

Outside of just motivation, learning new things means a better quality of work. New tools and technologies mean more (and sometimes better) methods for getting things done that the team may not have had exposure to before. Or for a consultancy like ours, it may mean a completely new service we can offer to clients.

And even if it doesn’t turn into a new service, it often helps our clients out directly. Quite often, the things our employees learn in their investment time turn into actionable skills that get used the very next week in the course of client work.

Motivation == Happier Engineers == Less Employee Turnover

That motivation I mentioned above compounds over time. It’s a lot easier to get through a tough week of client work when you know there’s some self-directed innovation time at the end of it. But just by virtue of having investment time at all — the gesture of it — means that the company is investing in you as an employee; that alone makes many people want to work harder at their jobs.

And that’s also true of applicants as well; many of the people who we’ve hired said that the investment time was a major selling point for wanting to work with us, along with the fully remote work and this overall vibe of investing in our employees. The more happy people are, the better their work is and the longer they’ll stick around.

New Developer Tools

Every good dev knows the DRY principle: Don’t Repeat Yourself. This extends to, “Don’t do the same laborious task twice.” Sometimes we use investment time to make our non-investment time a lot easier by writing code (or creating design templates, process-simplifying tools, etc) that will simplify other tasks.

These can be command-line tools, templated code generation (which we love), web-based tools, open-source packages, and so on. Each complex task you pop into a module means a lot less typing, and time to worry about other, more complex tasks.

The open-source packages also contribute to the community, which is good for geek cred and fosters collaboration with other engineers. It’s even helped with hiring since it connects our engineers with other talented people out there in the world.

All of this also means better, faster, more significant output for our daily work lives. Which, in turn, affects everyone’s bottom line, regardless of the business type.

Content Creation

Another thing our team members spend time on is writing up their investment learnings. Sometimes this turns into lunch-and-learn sessions that teach others, which raises the team’s shared knowledge levels. Sometimes these lunch-and-learn sessions, like one I did on Chatbots, help inspire and motivate others to take further action on the same topic. In fact, one of our engineers, Deen, started building her own chatbot with her investment time. (For those interested, it’s called Sparklebot. It gives sparkles to people that deserve them ✨✨)

Often these learnings turn into part of our shared knowledge base in our company wiki so that others working on the same topic can get a quick start off of work that was already done, and avoid problems that have already been solved. At other times, this content turns into blog posts, which demonstrate our experience to potential clients and help build our search rankings and online credibility. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Products

Lastly, one hope for the use of investment time is that some of these tools prove so useful that they ultimately turn into public-facing or B2B SaaS products. Naturally, there’s a bit more that goes into things like this before they’re successful, but plenty of products have been started this way. Gmail and Basecamp may be the classic examples, but there are lots of others — take a read through indiehackers.com, and you’ll find a bunch.

The bottom line is that investment time for software engineers isn’t just a luxury; it’s something smart companies should invest in since it will create concrete returns on their investment. At a minimum, it’ll help keep their employees from getting bored, unhappy, or stale in their technical skills. At best, it could lead to new revenue streams, or potentially change the future direction of your company. Don’t miss out on the opportunity.

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