'10% Time' fuels innovation and learning at Azavea - Technical.ly Philly

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Oct. 3, 2018 1:02 pm

‘10% Time’ fuels innovation and learning at Azavea

Work at Azavea and you get to use a tenth of your work week to tackle side projects.

Jenny Fung, a software engineer on Azavea's Civic Apps team.

(Photo by Abby Mosconi)

To challenge what’s possible and change the world, tech companies rely on employees to continually sharpen their skills and explore new technologies. But as any technologist knows, carving out time to try new things during an average day at the office can feel close to impossible.

Unless you work at Azavea.

It’s no accident the Center City civtech company has been on the cutting-edge of geospatial technology since its founding in 2001. When it comes to backing up its commitment to research and innovation, Azavea walks the talk with a benefit called “10% Time.”

The gist is, full-time employees can use up to 10 percent of their working hours to tackle any side project they want within the realm of learning, research and development.

View open positions at Azavea

Employees have full agency over what they work on, whether it’s taking a course to learn new skills, building a tool, conducting research or evaluating new technologies, frameworks and libraries.

“I like that it gives us latitude to explore. A lot of our work here is exploratory. It’s good if you’re an especially curious person,” said Jenny Fung, a software engineer on the Civic Apps team.

10% Time in action

“One of the top reasons candidates cite wanting to work at Azavea is 10% Time,” said Manager of People Operations Karissa Justice. “But their interest is quickly followed by the question, ‘What do people actually do with their time?’”

To crack the code on this coveted employee benefit, we spoke with a handful of Azavea team members about their favorite 10% Time projects, and the unique ways they’ve used the perk to make an impact.

Civic Engagement

UX designer Jeff Frankl has completed many 10% Time projects over his five years at Azavea, but was particularly “obsessed” with his time spent re-visualizing a political redistricting tool called DistrictBuilder. The tool was designed to enable engaged citizens and advocacy groups to easily and affordably create and edit district maps, but the original version had become clunky. (Editor’s note: The tool was recently used by good-government group Committee of Seventy in a project meant to fight gerrymandering.)

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“I wanted to know if we could do this without a database involved, and make the functionality faster,” Frankl said. “I wanted to build features that I weren’t sure were technically possible, so I used my 10% Time to evaluate front-end geospatial frameworks.”

A map made with DistrictBuilder. (Screenshot)

A map made with DistrictBuilder. (Screenshot)

Utilizing libraries that didn’t exist when they built the first version of DistrictBuilder, Frankl designed an upgraded prototype, disconnected from a server, that was faster, more responsive and able to deliver real-time data feedback.

The project was a success for Frankl, who was able to introduce new libraries to the company and pursue a project he was passionate about, but it was an even bigger win for the company. Frankl’s prototype reduced the budget to build Azavea’s next version of DistrictBuilder from a whopping $1,200,00 down to $400,000.

Workplace Improvement

As a project manager on the Civic Apps team, Arianna Robbins wanted a better system for estimating her department’s spend on projects in real-time. But first, she’d have to take on the notoriously challenging task of persuading employees to submit billable hours more frequently.

Together with a colleague, Robbins spent 10% Time reworking internal processes and assembling tools to tighten the timeframe between when employees submitted hours and when the final tab for services was produced.

Arianna Robbins, a project manager on the Civic Apps team. (Photo by Abby Mosconi)

Arianna Robbins, a project manager on the Civic Apps team. (Photo by Abby Mosconi)

“We reduced the lag [in getting hours] from a six-week turnaround to one week,” Robbins said. “The impact was that every project but one was in five percent of its targeted budget.”

The new process made a tangible impact on the entire organization, motivating employees in all departments to voluntarily submit their hours weekly, and saving the company money, month over month.

Information Sharing

Two years ago, Fung was working on a new feature for Azavea’s Climate API. Tired of their current framework and fresh off a conference where she’d learned about Angular, she decided to give the new front-end framework a try.

“Two years later, I still hadn’t found any new documentation [on Angular] that would have helped me build that feature,” said Fung. “As a developer, I depend a lot on other people’s blog posts where they explained what they did. It’s an altruistic thing to put out there. So I thought I would do the same.”

She used her 10% Time to write a detailed blog post about her use of Angular to build an interactive chart that could visually customize and interpret NASA climate projections from 1950–2100.

“It was our first public-facing project trying out this framework,” she said. “At the time, it took a lot of problem-solving that was pretty new to the field.”

Her experience turned out to be highly valuable. After her post was published, Fung won Azavea’s “High Traffic Blog Post” award, as well as a treasured enameled coin emblazoned with a rocketship (created by Azavea designer Alexandra Lash) that accompanies the honor.

Personal Development

Frankl and Robbins have also used 10% Time to expand their skillsets through programming courses. Being on the UX and PM teams respectively, both felt the classes positively enhanced their understanding of the company’s work and helped them do their jobs even better.

“I’m doing design work for some machine learning tools that we’re developing to detect patterns in satellite imagery,” said Frankl. “So I spent time in a Coursera class to understand the field better. It’s been especially useful for talking with the devs working on it.”

UX Designer Jeff Frankl. (Photo by Abby Mosconi)

UX Designer Jeff Frankl. (Photo by Abby Mosconi)

Time well spent

As a company determined to always be innovating, 10% Time has become a core facet of Azavea culture. Ideas are regularly showcased at “R&D socials” where team members share what they’re working on and receive support and productive feedback.

In addition to the professional benefits of 10% Time, a number of the projects have had a measurable impact on Azavea, its clients and outside civic and social institutions.

“What starts as a 10% project may have the potential to develop into something that’s used on client projects, or turned into a product or an open source library we support,” said Justice. “It can be translated into something our people are using in a broader sense.”

Employees see 10% Time it as a living, breathing example of Azavea’s mission to positively impact civic, social and environmental impact through technology.

As Frankl said, “There aren’t a ton of opportunities to do tech work that also is focused on trying to improve the world. It’s pretty rare.”

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