When I first started working as a technologist some 17 years ago, I was doing fairly low-level stuff: moving and reimaging computers, network cabling, and basic desktop support were the extent of my responsibilities. I decided early on that I wanted to move into a more advanced role, but faced a common quandary: I couldn’t get the job I wanted without experience, and I couldn’t get the experience I needed without first doing the job.
I realized that I was spinning my wheels, so I did something that seemed counterintuitive at the time. I started the job I wanted, but did it without pay in my spare time. While it was challenging at times, my new side project would turn out to be much more than just that.
The Side Project
I knew that I needed developer skills, so I started out volunteering in web development for a nonprofit. Because this organization was limited on funds and staff, they were more than happy to have the free help. My skills were limited, so I started with the basics; I began working with plain HTML, slowly teaching myself scripting (mostly in Perl) once I had a handle on web development essentials. Along the way, I accidentally learned a bit about networking, server management, security, and other topics outside the realm of pure development.
I started the side project as a means to an end: I wanted to learn to code. What I ended up with was much more valuable. Not only had I learned a good bit about software development and a few related topics, but I had also picked up a success story and a body of work that could be professionally referenced. Just as importantly, I gained confidence that I wasn’t just a poser; I had built a successful solution, albeit a small one. Through this journey I also made some good professional contacts that remain to in my virtual Rolodex to this day.
Though I never made a dime from this side project, what I gained in experience and confidence was worth more than what I would have been paid for the work.
A Side Project Culture
That first side project led to a lot of good things. Though I never became a professional web developer, taking on that side project opened doors to other areas that would have otherwise taken much longer to discover. Since then, I have actively sought out side projects, and I frequently have several of these going at any one time. Most are unpaid but benefit me in other ways, and some let me volunteer my skills to a good cause.
The future appears to be geared toward a gig economy, in which the hiring paradigm moves from full-time employment to project-by-project hiring. This is fits very well with the concept of the side project; those who are used to taking initiative to find this type of work will be well-positioned for success in a gig economy.
Can You Benefit from a Side Project?
The answer is almost certainly, “Yes!” A side project need not be all-consuming nor stressful. Essentially, it is a learning opportunity in which you produce some sort of deliverable. The scope and schedule can be flexible, and you get to be selective about what you take on.
Among the benefits of working on a side project:
- You learn something new, or improve upon a skill you already know
- You gain practical experience building something real, not just working through theory
- You can build documentable experience which can be used to increase your responsibilities in your job (or find a new one)
- You make new professional contacts
- Often, your efforts are going to a good cause
If you’re not sure where to find a side project, here are a few suggestions:
Charitable organizations or nonprofits. Religious entities, public assistance charities, and the like are often limited in what they can spend in infrastructure, so volunteering here is a great way to build skills and support a cause you believe in.
Community organizations. There are more of these than you realize. I have done several side projects for PASS, for example. Look into professional guilds, car clubs, local Toastmasters groups – they all use data in some way, and would probably welcome volunteers to help.
Chambers of commerce. If you are building a business, volunteering for a CoC is a great way to gain experience as well as visibility. Just ask, “How do you manage your list of members?” and you’ll probably discover at least a few ways to help.
Your current employer. Yes, even in your current workplace there are probably ways to expand your skills without taking on a different job. This takes a bit more finesse, but finding additional projects where you already work can be a great way to earn while you learn.
Public development projects. Think of CodePlex and other similar entities here. Contributing to an open source project can build your skills while you learn from other experienced professionals.
Roll your own. Have you always wanted to build a widget? Set it up as a project and get started!
Working on a side project can be a great way to build skills and professional contacts. When you need experience in an area where you’ve never specialized professionally, volunteering your time to build something can improve those skills and make a difference in your career down the road.