Side projects are the things you do at home, after work, for your own “entertainment”, or to satisfy your desire to learn new stuff, in case your workplace doesn’t give you that opportunity (or at least not enough of it). Side projects are also a way to build stuff that you think is valuable but not necessarily “commercialisable”. Many side projects are open-sourced sooner or later and some of them contribute to the pool of tools at other people’s disposal.
I’ve outlined one recommendation about side projects before – do them with technologies that are new to you, so that you learn important things that will keep you better positioned in the software world.
But there are more benefits than that – serendipitous benefits, for example. And I’d like to tell some personal stories about that. I’ll focus on a few examples from my list of side projects to show how, through a sort-of butterfly effect, they helped shape my career.
The computoser project, no matter how cool algorithmic music composition, didn’t manage to have much of a long term impact. But it did teach me something apart from niche musical theory – how to read a bulk of scientific papers (mostly computer science) and understand them without being formally trained in the particular field. We’ll see how that was useful later.
Then there was the “State alerts” project – a website that scraped content from public institutions in my country (legislation, legislation proposals, decisions by regulators, new tenders, etc.), made them searchable, and “subscribable” – so that you get notified when a keyword of interest is mentioned in newly proposed legislation, for example. (I obviously subscribed for “information technologies” and “electronic”).
And that project turned out to have a significant impact on the following years. First, I chose a new technology to write it with – Scala. Which turned out to be of great use when I started working at TomTom, and on the 3rd day I was transferred to a Scala project, which was way cooler and much more complex than the original one I was hired for. It was a bit ironic, as my colleagues had just read that “I don’t like Scala” a few weeks earlier, but nevertheless, that was one of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on, and it went on for two years. Had I not known Scala, I’d probably be gone from TomTom much earlier (as the other project was restructured a few times), and I would not have learned many of the scalability, architecture and AWS lessons that I did learn there.
But the very same project had an even more important follow-up. Because if its “civic hacking” flavour, I was invited to join an informal group of developers (later officiated as an NGO) who create tools that are useful for society (something like MySociety.org). That group gathered regularly, discussed both tools and policies, and at some point we put up a list of policy priorities that we wanted to lobby policy makers. One of them was open source for the government, the other one was open data. As a result of our interaction with an interim government, we donated the official open data portal of my country, functioning to this day.
As a result of that, a few months later we got a proposal from the deputy prime minister’s office to “elect” one of the group for an advisor to the cabinet. And we decided that could be me. So I went for it and became advisor to the deputy prime minister. The job has nothing to do with anything one could imagine, and it was challenging and fascinating. We managed to pass legislation, including one that requires open source for custom projects, eID and open data. And all of that would not have been possible without my little side project.
As for my latest side project, LogSentinel – it became my current startup company. And not without help from the previous two mentioned above – the computer science paper reading was of great use when I was navigating the crypto papers landscape, and from the government job I not only gained invaluable legal knowledge, but I also “got” a co-founder.
Some other side projects died without much fanfare, and that’s fine. But the ones above shaped my “story” in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
And I agree that such serendipitous chain of events could have happened without side projects – I could’ve gotten these opportunities by meeting someone at a bar (unlikely, but who knows). But we, as software engineers, are capable of tilting chance towards us by utilizing our skills. Side projects are our “extracurricular activities”, and they often lead to unpredictable, but rather positive chains of events. They would rarely be the only factor, but they are certainly great at unlocking potential.