Google Exec Builds YouTube for Good With 20 Percent Time

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 Inc. 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 the online video site’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 a day a week to a side project, reported on its Tech Blog. He promoted his effort as a way to make YouTube, which Google bought in 2006, 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 almost nine years ago, Walk has helped shape Google’s advertising network and grow YouTube into an online video giant with more than 800 million viewers a month.

While he has become an expert at harnessing 20 percent time, 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.”

Risk Taking

While 20 percent time 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 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.

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