Why I code: How to think about side projects

Side projects help you open new doors, explore new vistas, and keep you sharp in your career. In this article, David Gewirtz shows how side projects can pay out in completely unexpected and wonderful ways.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
In this article, I'm going to share with you one of the most powerful career-building practices I've ever come across. I've been actively using this approach for about a decade now, and it's been nothing short of transformative.

I'm talking about side projects.

I've mentioned my practice of side projects in a number of my productivity articles, but I've never devoted an article to describing what they are and why they're so powerful. So I'll do that for you now.

First, a simple definition: a side project is a project with a tangible, measurable goal that is not part of your normal work activity.

Let's use my work as an example. My daily work activity consists of the normal email, meetings, student grading, and random administrivia most of us have to deal with. I also do special projects for work (briefing papers, white papers, analysis, class plans, presentations, webcasts, etc). As you know, I regularly write these articles. Finally, I do media appearances, which are either online or on the air.

Your work may differ, but the point is that there is a regular part of your job that constitutes the work you do for a living.

Side projects are projects you can do during work lulls. Don't tell me how busy you are. There are always work lulls. There's the afternoon when the meeting you are expecting to attend gets suddenly canceled.

There's the day a piece of equipment doesn't show up and you can't do the install you're expecting to do. And what about the two weeks that are suddenly free because your client hasn't signed off yet on starting a project? There are busy seasons and slow seasons.

If you aggregate all these somewhat dead times across the space of a year, you might find yourself with two or three months of potentially productive time. If you add in some nights and weekends, you can actually carve out enough time to do something that makes a difference.

Side projects fit into this time. For me, I get slow times when students are on break, when a client hasn't reviewed something according to schedule, or during a wait for a project to get officially kicked off or be approved by the byzantine approval processes huge corporations and agencies often require.

Over the past ten years or so, I've put these slow times to use. I wrote two books (one of which led to my writing here at ZDNet). I got a graduate degree. I built a powerful piece of artificial intelligence-based content analysis software. I wrote 40 silly iPhone apps. I built out the server and networking infrastructure in my fixer-upper house. I built my Skype studio. I started a nonprofit that helps people stay safe online. I built a membership website for one of my professional organizations. And now, I've started coding WordPress plugins.

That's a lot, isn't it? It almost sounds like I'm bragging, but I don't mean it that way. Most of these projects were not even paying gigs. A hallmark of a side project is that it's not necessarily meant to be part of your income stream. I'm trying to emphasize that side projects are an important and doable investment in your professional future.

For me, they help me explore new areas and build up my expertise in areas where I'm either curious or have felt my skills were lacking. I make my living as a professional expert, which means I need to keep up a level of expertise in a relatively broad range of subjects.

Taking nine months to dig into a topic and write a book about it is a great way to build up expertise. In addition, both books turned out to be very high-interest topics (one on White House email and the other on jobs), which resulted in them getting a ton of media attention -- including one of them being excerpted on CNN.com weekly from 2009 through 2010.

As you can see, while they didn't generate much in the way of income (I gave the books away for free through a grant to the nonprofit), they were amazing tools for building up my career.

That's the point. Side projects take that slow time, that dead time, that time you wish you were working on something new and cool, and let you work on something that's new and cool. You never know where that work will pay off, but having new expertise, increasing and improving your skills, and keeping your chops up can't help but benefit you in your career.

When I pick a side project, I pick something I'm interested in or feel like doing. My current side project is coding WordPress plugins. I'm working on rebuilding one that manages donations.

After having spent the last few years of side project time writing academic papers for grad school, I now get to do something different.

I realized I missed coding. A lot.

Programming is a skill like any other skill. Sure, I teach object oriented programming at UC Berkeley. But teaching and doing are two very different things.

Doing a side project that defines a goal, working towards that goal, and -- when done -- being able to point back at the completed goal make for a powerful sense of completion (and something exciting to discuss with clients, constituents, students, and potential employers).

I keep in touch with many of the engineering students I went to school with back in the 80s. Many of them programmed in school, but today wouldn't know a Github from a Composer or a Grunt from a Groot. For those of you non-programmers, the first three are programming tools and the last is a large tree that says "I am Groot" in Vin Diesel's voice.

Being an engineer who can't program or build things anymore is like being a music teacher who can no longer play an instrument. Sure, the theory is there, and sure, you can do the job, but there's a depth of skill, knowledge and experience you can no longer call on. That's sad... and at some point that might prove to be a dangerous weakness that could catch you off guard.

I don't program for a living, so I'm never going to be as good as the best Google or Microsoft programmers out there. I don't need to be. But I need to keep my chops up so I know how to communicate with them, I understand the challenges they have, I can grok the tools they use and the changes in the industry. And I can write about them for you.

Sometimes side projects help open new doors, help you explore new vistas, and help you experience new things. Sometimes side projects keep you sharp in your career.

No matter what, if you can make time for side projects (and you can, because the time is there if you look hard enough for it), what you put into your side projects will pay out in completely unexpected and wonderful ways across your entire career.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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