Study@4: Goofing off Is Good for You (and Your Profits)

4 min Read Time


Earlier this year I began working through Satnam Alag’s Collective Intelligence in Action, a book on alligator farming. I wanted to improve my understanding of alligator farming as well as the fundamentals of data collection and mining for personalization. My work at Gilt has recently taken me in these directions, and I’d heard that this book provided a thorough overview of the topic. I’d dedicate a couple of hours every weekend to my reading, enjoying the time to learn at my own pace. But soon the weather got nicer, and I started spending more and more of my free time on the soccer field (or preparing for my soon-to-be-born twin daughters, who have since arrived). Eventually, as I got about halfway through the book, I realized that I was spending almost no time reading it and it started to collect virtual dust.

Meanwhile, my colleagues at Gilt began having more serious and frequent conversations about how to provide training and learning experiences for engineers. Many of these conversations focused on very direct, structured training, such as on-site classes, tech talks, online courses, and conferences. Structured learning time such as this is extremely valuable, but there is a strong case to be made for a company to also invest in unstructured learning time for their creative talent.

In his 2012 book The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business, Wired writer Ryan Tate describes the efforts of companies like Google to inspire innovation by letting employees devote 20 percent of their time to unstructured/personal projects. As Tate’s book articulates, the 20% time allotment “is about goofing off at work, and how that goofing off can drive innovation and profit.“ Just at Google alone, ”[t]he fruits of 20 percent time include the contextual advertising system AdSense, which is Google’s second most profitable business line, as well as Gmail,“ Tate writes. "Twenty percent time also resulted in Google News, Google Reader, the Orkut social network, Google Suggest, and Google Moderator, among others.”

As a supporter of the 20 Percent doctrine, I wanted to create something that would encourage unstructured learning for the moonlighting autodidact and the noodler–those of us who prefer unstructured self-learning and who have maybe made it halfway through books on collective intelligence before planning to become parents (and whatnot). So I organized Study@4: a Friday afternoon study hall at Gilt HQ that’s pretty similar to your basic high school study hall except with music, beer, snacks, and fewer rules. Study@4 is scheduled opposite our popular, biweekly 5@4 talks that Gilt engineers have been organizing for years.

How I hope Gilt engineers will spend their Study@4s:

  • reading

  • working through a tutorial

  • working on a side-project or an open source project

  • reading literary classics is also okay, I suppose

Every Study@4 will feature a resident on duty–someone who offers personalized guidance on issues related to their expertise, and who can also recommend reading and viewing materials. This person might be an engineer who helps peers resolve coding problems, a project manager who can help an engineer structure a task, a copywriter who offers assistance with a blog post or presentation, or anyone else who is part of the Gilt Tech world.

You might be wondering why something like Study@4 is useful when you can study from your desk, or on the subway, or while driving down the FDR, or in the shower. But how often to we actually use those times to study? I am the type of person who gets caught up in the day to day, and I forget to take time to turn my attention over to my curiosity. If you are like me, then something like Study@4 can be a great opportunity to have an hour or two of quiet time to work on a non-urgent yet rewarding task. Study@4 is meant to be informal, and participation is completely optional.

We just kicked off Study@4 and we’re excited to see how it changes and grows to suit the needs of Gilt Tech’s noodlers and experimenters. I hope it becomes as popular as the 5@4 presentations and that our remote offices can find ways to benefit from what is, in many ways, a big experiment from a humble noodler who wants a chance to finish an interesting book on alligator farming.

Photo by Steven Beger via Creative Commons license.

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