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The Value of 10% Time

One of the benefits of working at Attest is its 10% time; as an employee you can optionally take 10% of your time to go off and better either yourself or the company. This is quite common amongst tech companies, and in fact Gmail and Maps were both invented in Google's 20% time. It's that short period of time where you're not bound to team responsibilities, or deadlines, and can focus solely on what you (or a team of you) think will improve the platform or yourselves. This short post goes into where I spent my 10% time; what I am proud of, what I regret, and what I would have done differently.

I used to have regular meetings with the COO of Attest - a lot of people did. In these meetings there was an indirect, and underlying set of questions on his side:

Where is the front end chapter now? Where does it need to be? What do we need to do to get where it needs to be?

I found that the first question was an easy one to answer as I lived through it daily, but couldn't answer the second and third questions with nearly as much clarity. And there was frustration, notably, from both parts; my boss couldn't see where the front end needed to be, nor did I have the certainty to tell him with confidence what we needed to do to get there. I used to truly believe and tell him that if we wanted to drive forward as a chapter, then we would need to hire someone very senior that could teach us.

Whilst all this was happening, I decided that I wanted to pursue new opportunities in another country, and so handed my notice in at Attest - a company for which I cannot recommend enough to work at. My notice period, three months, gave me a lot of time to think about what it is I liked about myself at Attest, and what it was that didn't like. Who was it that I wanted to be at my next work place? It dawned on me that the person I wanted to be was someone who would be able to easily answer those two questions that I couldn't: Where does the front end chapter need to get to, and how do we get there?

I've always thought of myself as a good engineer, have read the "bibles" of software engineering, and keep up to date with latest tech. But I wanted to level up, and I did some things which I had rarely done in the past; I bought a number of books on micro frontend architecture, cross-functional squads and scaling front end teams (technical books are something I had previously underestimated, and used more as reference points) and I started listening to podcasts, and really explored the depths and crevices of a lot of major frameworks' codebases. I'm not saying I had never read books, or listened to podcasts, or explored codebases before, but now I explicitly dedicated time to improve myself in areas I knew I hadn't explored to their fullest.

In my mind I started to build a much clearer mental model as to how a front end system can scale, and found more confidence in my opinions. Most importantly, I felt as though those two questions which I looked at with such hesitation were now not as scary. I'm not saying I understand exactly how to answer them in any way or form, but I feel like I started to know what I didn't know.

I started at Attest when it was a small company of nine, and it's now grown to house over one hundred and thirty employees, with a global client base. We've been through a lot, and I like to think I've been an important asset at times. We started out as two front end engineers, and are now a team of twelve, which comes with difficult decisions, both technically and culturally. But over the past few months, where I've started to dedicate focused time to work on myself and limitations in my own knowledge, I have realised one major perspective that I hadn't before: that the path we've come from to where we are now is far shorter than the path between where we are now, to where we need to get to.

Now, where I wanted to get to with this post. I would rarely take my 10% time, and when I did it would be to fix a part of the product that had bugged me for a while. I would improve aspects of our perceived performance and I introduced fragments of optimistic UI, as well as a few other things I'm proud of.

But in these two months leading up to my leaving date, I feel much more confident in answering those two questions that have been at the back of my mind. I now have a more comprehensive understanding of how a chapter can evolve, I have a better grasp of what the unknowns might be, and I have gained a much clearer view of what it is that I don't know.

It's very easy to get absorbed in the products you are working on, it's only natural as you work on them all day, every day. So when given time to "improve the product", one's natural instinct can very often be inclined to automating something that directly affects their work, or improving that part of the product they didn't like. However something I wish I had learned a lot sooner was that a lot of the time by introspecting and understanding your own knowledge gaps and trying to learn how to better yourself in those areas, you will inevitably become a stronger asset to the company you work for. So my suggestion is that if you work at a company as awesome as Attest, which offers 10% time, introduce concepts you feel are missing from the product, but also look outside of the company-spectrum for while, and use that 10% to focus on bettering yourself. It will make you a better, or more knowledgeable person, which in turn will make the company a better one too.