We developers constantly have ideas floating around our heads. There’s always something shiny and new that we want to put in a definite form. Often it’s an excuse to fiddle around with a new programming language that we’re not familiar with or to take a break from the monotony of the same old codebase (a new codebase is as appealing as a new pair of pants). So playing with a new technology and getting to know a new codebase can induce the wish to work on side projects, but how can we know when it’s worth it to do that?
As a lifelong entrepreneur, and only a recent developer, I’ve always had side projects in my life. When I was running my first company, TypeFrag, I worked my off-hours on a little web hosting company on the side. Then at Carbonmade, I ran a now defunct but at the time very popular art and design blog. Now at Uncover, I’ve been working on writing a book on startups and bootstrapping and chipping away at a website for fans of slow cooking that will one day see the light of day. It’s always been a part of my nature to do something on the side. Over beers last night, Gregg Carey, Marc Lizoain and I talked a bit about it.
While it was hard to say you could really hear conversation over the noise of the SoHo dive bar where we were putting away pints of Brooklyn Lager, we did all agree that there was value in side projects. For me it breaks down to a few different things:
1. Side projects exercise your creativity. When I’m at home after work or I’ve got free time over the weekend, I like to be creative on projects that I don’t consider my job. It keeps my thoughts sharp, and because they’re side projects, my only goal is to produce something I enjoy working on and to have while fun doing it.
2. Side projects are an escape from your job. One of the best things about having a side project is that when you’re working on it, you’re not thinking about your job. You’re totally focused on what you’re working on at the time and you forget all your worries while you’re engrossed in your side project.
3. You can apply the skills you’ve learned at your job to your side project and vice versa. As entrepreneurs and developers, we are always learning new things. Working on a side project is a great way for you to apply what you’ve learned at your job to something new. Conversely, if you’re applying new technologies to your side project, you can bring those to your job.
4. You’re refreshed when you’re back working at your job. After having worked on a side project for a few hours, I have no reluctance at all to work at my job. For me it’s the same feeling you get from taking a nap during the middle of the afternoon. There’s something about the freedom of messing about on a side project the clears your mind.
The hardest part of doing a side project is getting it started. Set yourself the goal of starting a side project by the end of the year if you don’t already have one. One of my best friends made himself the goal of earning at least $1 on the Web this year from a side project. He met that goal earlier this month and he’s incredibly happy he did so. All you have to do is get started.