Skip to main content

August 1, 2019

Learning Day

At OpenAI, each Thursday is Learning Day: a day where employees have the option to self-study technical skills that will make them better at their job but which aren’t being learned from daily work.

Learning Day

Illustration: Ben Barry

We’ve found that the biggest contributions at OpenAI come from cross-functional experts, so we either need to hire them or grow them here. Before Learning Day, we very rarely saw people grow cross-functionally—for example, employees coming from a software background rarely picked up machine learning (something equally rare in other organizations except academia). Since Learning Day, this kind of growth has become very common.

On a typical learning day, people do things like:

  • Reimplement papers.

  • Follow deep learning tutorials.

  • Play with new tools in cluster management, compilation, virtual world generation, or coding paradigms.

  • Learn how to do research on bite-sized problems.

  • Read about new developments in seemingly unrelated areas of AI.

We think Learning Day might be useful for other organizations, so we’d like to share how it started and works at OpenAI.


We first tried out Learning Day on our Robotics team. Here’s how our Head of Robotics, Wojciech Zaremba (Woj), came up with the idea:


How it works

Learning Day happens each Thursday. Woj wrote the following guidelines for the Robotics team, but we’ve adapted these principles across each team that has adopted Learning Day:


To keep people accountable, we ask everyone to post in Slack what they learned that day.

What we learn on Learning Day

The following are examples of what people learn on a single Learning Day.

Deep learning reading

Deep learning coding

Math and statistics


Historical context on powerful technologies

We also reimburse reasonable self-studying expenses such as books and tutors, used mostly to learn fundamentals in mathematics. These costs are very worthwhile investments!

How we sustain it

Learning Day’s impact comes from being rigorous about how people use it. It’s not a day for leisure, but instead a day for a specific kind of hard work. We see and try to counteract the following failure modes so that we can sustain it long term:

Learning Day could be used for work. Learning Day could turn into a normal working day because people may want to accomplish their main project faster (due to internal or external pressure). We prevent this by having Learning Day on the same day for every team. This creates positive peer pressure and encourages everyone to take advantage of Learning Day.

Learning Day could expand in scope to non–Learning Days. We actually haven’t yet observed this happen. Based on what we’ve seen with other organizations, we think this would most likely indicate that the person isn’t excited enough about their main project, and would be a sign to their manager that the person should switch teams or projects.

Learning Day could be used for leisure. Our solution is for every team member to share their progress on Slack via Geekbot(opens in a new window). This keeps the excitement high and provides an accountability mechanism.

Learning Day Slack

Learning Day beyond Robotics

We’ve recently expanded Learning Day from a subset of our technical teams to the entire company. It’s become a cultural staple—on our most recent internal survey, Learning Day was the aspect of our culture that people talked about the most. We’re excited to see its impact as we continue to evolve and support Learning Day in the future.