Make sure your side project isn’t a waste of your time
For the distinct purpose of getting a job in tech, side projects are either a great use of your time or a great waste of your time.
A side project, especially if you have a non-traditional background, can help you break into the tech industry. Or, it can have no impact at all, even if you spend a lot of time on it.
Just having a side project doesn’t mean it’ll actually help you land a job.
Your side project, by itself, probably won’t get you a job
For the purposes of differentiating or strengthening your experience to land a job, there are two types of side projects:
1. “Field of Dreams” side projects
This is the “If you build it, they will come”* side project. Your project is so remarkable that just by its existence, you get job offers, even if you’re not actively looking for a job.
*If you don’t get this reference, watch “Field of Dreams.”
There’s always a story every year about some person who has an amazing side project that leads to unsolicited job offers.
The story I think about is Feross Aboukhadijeh’s 2010 side project, YouTube Instant, which he built in less that 6 hours. This became a media sensation and netted him a job offer at YouTube directly from co-founder Chad Hurley.
I remember reading about this and being inspired that a side project could garner so much attention and an instant job offer, especially since it was around the time I was starting to aim for jobs at brand name tech companies. Yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help but be a little demoralized, was YouTube Instant the standard for side projects to get a tech job? (Not the case!)
Needless to say, even if the project itself didn’t take that long to produce, the “Field of Dreams” side project is rooted in world class skills that probably took years to develop.
2. “A for effort” side projects
“A for effort” side projects show you’ve gone out of your way to dedicate your extra time and to produce something interesting. However, what you’ve produced may not be so incredible that employers instantly hand over a job offer. Let’s be honest, your side project will be of this kind, as are most side projects.
Maybe you learned to code and built a small app to track books you’ve read. Maybe you have a photo blog with stories from your travels. Or, maybe you’ve produced a library of creative YouTube videos about a topic you’re passionate about, like cooking.
Whatever it may be, the “A of effort” side project is something you’re proud of to put on your resume and a manifestation of the quality of work you produce.
So how do you make sure your “A for effort” side project adds value to your application rather than becoming a wasted effort?
The 3 principles of a good side project
A good side project that adds value to your job application is relevant, has depth, and has at least two iterations.
1. Is your side project relevant to the job you’re applying to?
Relevant side projects can provide more evidence of the strengths in your resume, but more importantly, they can help address concerns about your experience.
For instance, if you have a non-technical background and the role you’re applying to strongly prefers a technical background (e.g. some product management roles), learning enough programming to build a simple iPhone app could be a good side project. Successfully shipping an iPhone app to the AppStore tangibly shows you can not only learn technical concepts, but also apply them to build a software product from scratch.
Or, maybe you’re applying to a content marketing role, but you don’t have direct work experience. A relevant side project could be a blog about a niche topic you’re passionate about that has a loyal and engaged audience, even if it’s small.
2. Does your side project have depth?
This is a subjective principle. Another way to ask this question is, does your side project show that you’ve put thought and effort into it or is it just something you hastily put together just to say you have a side project?
Your side project doesn’t have to be the next new viral social media app, but it does have to be something you’re proud to say you’ve made.
Continuing with the iPhone app side project example, if someone downloads it, at a baseline, does it work and even further, does it show you actually thought about the user experience, making it relatively easy to use? Did you think through edge cases and solve for them?
At the end of the day, ask yourself if you think your side project is an accurate representation of the quality of work you produce on the job — because that’s what the company you’re applying to will think.
3. Has your side project at least had 2 iterations?
Give evidence that you care enough about the work you produce that you actively seek to make improvements.
If you made an app, after you launched the initial version, did you stop there or did you get some feedback from a few users and make improvements?
If you started a blog, do you just have a few posts or do you have over a dozen posts, showing you’ve committed to not only producing quality content, but also a body of work?
Demonstrate your side project wasn’t just a resume filler by showing that it was something you were willing to invest in and that it’s worth an extra few minutes of the resume screener’s or interviewer’s time to check out.
You have to bring attention to your side project
Even if your side project adheres to these 3 principles, it means nothing if your side project goes unnoticed by whomever is reviewing your resume or interviewing you.
If you think your side project is going to really help your application, make it obvious in your resume. List it near the top of your resume. Be thoughtful about how you describe what it is and how you produced it to give this experience weight. If you’re able, provide credibility indicators, such as metrics or achievements e.g. number of users, App Store ratings, publication features.
In addition, whatever your side project is, document the process you took to make it in a publicly accessible post e.g. your personal blog or Medium and include the link in your resume.
In the post, reflect on what you learned, what went well, and what challenges you faced while working on your side project. Also, showcase your project with screenshots, demo videos, or other relevant highlights. Make sure to include the link in all of your digital profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.
You spent a lot of your time working on this side project, time you could have spent in a million other ways, show that you’re proud of your work!