How to have a side project

If there’s one part of a programmer’s professional development that is harder than it seems, it’s starting a side project. I, for instance, love to program. The funny thing is, that programming is the easiest part of programming (those of you who are true programmers will know what I mean). The hardest part is starting to program and finishing your work.

That said, I do have a few bits of advice for programmers who want to start a side project. If you follow my advice, you probably won’t write the next big thing, nor will you have a side project that will stand out particularly well on your resume. But you’ll probably write something that will make you a better programmer, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Here’s what I’ve learned about starting a side project:

#1 – Have a good time

This is the first point on here for a reason. And I should hope it’s self explanatory. However, note that there are good reasons for making tradeoffs here. I’ll note them below, but there are some things that shouldn’t be tradeoffs. For instance, don’t make tradeoffs based on how it will look on your resume or what the latest and greatest technology is (not that either of these can’t be fun).

#2 – Learn something

I’ve known some programmers who live by the mantra “I’ll learn it later”. Here’s the problem: later never comes. You’re just going to have to accept the fact that you as a professional need to have some responsibility for your own development. Fortunately, a side project is just the way to take on that learning.

#3 – Make it timeless

Here’s where you may have to make tradeoffs in terms of fun. The most fun things are usually a hassle to maintain. For instance, suppose you write a new twitter client. I can guarantee you that at some point in time, the twitter people will change their API in such a way that will break your code. Granted, this isn’t a big deal if you put a lot of time into it. But that’s the problem: no matter what you do, there’s going to come a point in time in your life that you have something else to spend your time on or otherwise just won’t want to deal with your side project. That’s normal. What you want is something that you can come back to after that time is up.

This is part of the reason why I chose pysistence for my project. Aside from keeping up with language changes, it’s doubtful that functional data structures are ever going to change such that my code will break.

#4 – It doesn’t have to be code

I’d probably say that the blog you’re reading right now is my most rewarding side project. Don’t underestimate the value of doing things that aren’t coding. It’s fashionable to talk about how bad it is to be “all talk and no game”, but the fact of the matter is that reading and writing about programming helps you to solidify some of the ideas that may be forming in your head.

#5 – Make it something you’ll use

This is the last point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. If you write something fun, you’ll abandon it as soon as it stops being fun. If you write something useful, you’ll have a reason to keep coming back!