In BlogPost, Career

The Side Project Hustle Guide

side project

One common meme you’ll hear in the tech industry is to “level up” as a programmer by doing a side project.

I’m a big fan of side projects, as I believe they’ve helped me get better jobs and they will help you do so as well. Yes, I realize this puts me in a privileged position, and I’m ok with that as I believe you shouldn’t feel guilty for the circumstances you were born into.

But I digress.

What do I mean by side project hustle?

Chances are you have a day job plus other responsibilities so making time for a side project can seem burdensome.

This means you need to hustle to get your side project done.

The simple framework I present below should help make it easier. How?

  • It reduces the amount of time you spend thinking which means you can devote more time to actively work on the project
  • By having a system in place with notes and resources you need to complete the project all in one place, you’re less likely to waste time thinking about random things like “now what did I do with that image I needed?”

Why level up?

As I stated above, leveling up is about improving your skills. Hopefully, those higher value skills translate into a higher quality job with awesome team mates and a culture you’re glad to be part of on a daily basis.

Finally, this should translate into more money in your pocket.

How to get started?

I find a systematic process to keep track of my ideas helps. I used to be rather unsystematic and I found I didn’t progress as quickly.

A systematic process keeps me doing the side project hustle. Below is the process I follow.

Step 1 – Brainstorming

I think of brainstorming as a way to capture all your ideas and free up your headspace so you can actually move on to executing.

Without doing this, I dream up a great idea that goes nowhere because I didn’t jot it down.

One thing to keep in mind, some employers emphasize “real world” application projects (e.g., “build me an app that does this”) while some might like to see more of a demonstration of computer science (i.e., “algorithms”) fundamentals.

Actions:
  • The first thing to do is brainstorm a list of ideas in writing. Set a timer for 15 minutes and stop when the timer rings or when you get 50 ideas. If you’re really stuck, you can always google for “side project ideas”. You’ll get some interesting lists.

  • In fact, here’s a link to a list of side projects I found interesting. It’s got some algorithm project ideas as well as some real world application ideas.

Step 2 – Track Your Progress Systematically

I like to know the state of my project and its features (i.e., “is it done yet?”).

To do this, I keep a list of project ideas in Trello with a checklist of features that comprise the minimum viable product (MVP).

I used to put it in Evernote but as I added ideas to each note, it basically became an unorganized text file that was hard to read through.

In each trello card, I also keep a list of resource links and other things (like images) I might need to complete each part of the project.

Actions:
  • Pick a project management tool like Trello (or whatever system you desire) to keep yourself organized.
  • Take 10 minutes to brainstorm an MVP set of features for your project idea. Use a checklist as I do in Trello or whatever project management tool you feel will help keep you organized.

Step 3 – Market Relevance

If you’re trying to start something that makes you a bit of money on the side, it’s best to do some basic customer research. Figure out your target market and then try to speak to a few people (or more) if you can.

The idea is to try and extract the real problems your market is having so you can solve them. You’re really trying to start a business here, so you may find it useful to look at resources specifically geared toward developers in the startup space, such as this podcast by Rob Walling and Mike Taber.

Actions:
  • Find 2-3 people representative of your ideal customer or your network and ask them about the problems they have and how software could help solve them. This is an optional step but can be interesting if you’re serious about using your side project to make $ on the side.

Step 4 – Follow The Secret Trick For Completing Side Projects.

I actually wrote about how I like to approach ensuring I complete side projects in The Secret Trick For Completing Side Projects.

Essentially, I try to build the smallest thing I can get away with.

Actions:

Summary

And that’s pretty much it. I believe doing side projects has led me to better jobs and better teams. More importantly, they’ve helped ensure that I keep developing skills that help me deliver value to the marketplace (a fancy way of saying it helps me pay the rent on time).

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