If you’re a programmer, particularly early in your career, there’s no better way to learn new skills, promote yourself, and improve your job prospects than working on side projects. Full stop. Brainstorming, developing, and releasing side projects has been a force multiplier in my career — and it can do the same for you.
Always working on side projects comes naturally to me, but I know that isn’t the case for everyone. Why should you spend your precious free time coding when you could be watching TV, hanging out with friends, or playing video games?
It’s a question worth examining; why are side projects so important?
The answer to this issue has a few different angles — and it’s going to be a little bit different for everyone. But here’s five reasons I think you should be working on a side project.
We all know how important it is to stay on top of changes in the programming landscape. There’s always a new technology, library, technique, or platform to learn. Things are moving fast and, if you don’t keep up, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself out of date. Working on a side project gives you the opportunity to pick up new skills in a low-stakes environment. If a side project fails, you don’t need to worry about letting down your team, pissing off your boss, or not being able to pay rent. You can try new things and learn from your mistakes, all at your pace.
Becoming an expert
If you’re willing to jump on new platforms before anyone else, you can quickly become the resident expert at work. When the Apple Watch SDK came out, I poured hours into building apps, mocking up potential interfaces, and sharing what I learned.
When the opportunity to do an Apple Watch project came up at work, I was the natural choice to lead it. Now, when new Watch projects pop up, I’m often asked for guidance and advice. It’s just one way I’ve increased my value at work and differentiated myself from others.
Landing your first job
If you’re a junior developer, looking to land your first job, side projects can help. There’s one big thing holding you back; your resume is more Sales Associate at Home Depot, less, Front-End Developer at Company X.
A lot of junior developers bump up against that wall for far too long, stuck at a crappy job with no real opportunity to learn and grow. Side projects give you a way out, building a reputation and portfolio for yourself.
Cultivating a portable reputation
Working on side projects can give you what Sean Fioritto calls “portable reputation.” If you’ve worked at one place for a long time, there’s a good chance you’ve built up a fantastic reputation and a fair bit of credibility. But there’s a big problem; that status is locked up with your employer.
If you leave, and you haven’t put time into cultivating a portable reputation, you’ll be relying primarily on your resume to help you stand out from the crowd. Can you land a job solely on the strength of your resume? Of course. But why not take every advantage you can get? The demand for developers is huge right now, but it won’t last at this level forever. Side projects give you the opportunity to build a reputation independent of your employer. And reputation is leverage.
Sweet, sweet cash (maybe!)
While it shouldn’t always be your primary goal, there’s also the possibility of a side project turning into a side business. Some of the most successful companies were born out side projects — Gmail, Buffer, and Todoist come to mind.
Between apps and other digital products, I’ve managed to make some significant money from my side projects. Nothing life-changing, mind you. But once you start making money from a product or service of your creation, you’re forever changed. When you know how to plan, execute, promote, and sell your work, you become more self-sufficient. Once you realize you can generate income based on value, and not time spent, there’s no going back.
Until next week,