How a YouTube Exec Built an Army With Google’s ’20 Percent Time’

Photograph by Erin Lubin/Bloomberg

Google has promoted its "20 percent time" option as a way to encourage employees to be entrepreneurial.

Officially, Hunter Walk has fewer than a dozen engineers working for him at YouTube on developing services for nonprofits and activists. Unofficially, the longtime Google executive has amassed an army of about 200.

Over the past year, Walk has been quietly evangelizing within Google for his initiative called YouTube for Good. He has convinced about a fifth of YouTube’s 1,000 or so employees, as well as some from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to set aside a chunk of their time to build online tools used by organizations including the United Nations World Food Program and Charity: Water.

Walk pulled this off by taking advantage of Google’s “20 percent time,” the well-known program that allows employees to devote about a day per week to a side project. He promoted his effort as a way to make YouTube a place to learn about serious topics, not just a venue to watch music videos and animal clips.

“There is a real desire for YouTube to be a global classroom and a global town square, not just a global living room,” Walk said in an interview. “I just needed to make a compelling, enthusiastic pitch.”

Since joining Google almost nine years ago, Walk has helped shape the company’s advertising network and grow YouTube into an online video giant with more than 800 million viewers per month. During that time, he has also become an expert at harnessing Google’s 20 percent time.

When building a 20 percent team at Google, discretion is a virtue, Walk has learned.

“I don’t tell people my headcount,” he said. “I know the organization. I know how to get things done.”

While 20 percent continues today, questions arose last year about whether it would be shut down after Chief Executive Officer Larry Page closed Google Labs. That part of the website housed many of the experimental online tools that came out of the 20 percent time program.

“A lot of 20 percent projects satisfy the need of having that risk in your life,” said Jason Shellen, a former employee at the online search company who started Google Reader as a side project. “That’s why I was drawn to 20 percent projects. It’s a lot like a startup.”

Hit products including Gmail and Google News were also created out of the 20 percent program.

With YouTube for Good, its innovative efforts have benefited the entire video site. For example, the use of live streaming, such as for last year’s AIDS symposium by the ONE Campaign, was first tested with nonprofits. Walk’s group has also developed new tools such as automatic face blurring — designed to protect activists appearing in protest videos — that was later adapted broadly across the site.

One of Walk’s main partners in crime is Nathalie Arbel, who has been at Google for two years. Her business card says she’s in product marketing at YouTube, but she dedicates much of her work time to the YouTube for Good effort.

Since October, Arbel has helped to get employees to use their 20 percent time to contribute to the Good initiative. Finding participants, most of whom contribute at least three months of their time, hasn’t been a problem.

“The momentum of the whole program kind of swept me up,” Arbel said. “It’s contagious.”

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