The topic of side projects or personal projects for software professionals (commonly in the form of mobile apps, websites, various GitHub repos, and even technical blogs) has been fairly well-documented in the past few years. The concept of side projects as hiring barometer is still a relatively nascent industry phenomenon that emerged in parallel with the rising popularity and eventual ubiquity of open source software, web-based repository hosting, and usable blogging platforms. I distinctly remember the first time a client of mine indicated a preference (however slight) for candidates that could demonstrate coding from outside their employment. It was 2004, still a few years before GitHub.
The growth of SourceForge and then GitHub provided the opportunity to collaborate easily and effectively with friends, colleagues, or even strangers. Some engineers chose to code off-hours and some chose not to. As has been written before, others may not have had the time. Whether engineers did or did not contribute to open source or create side projects, all eventually became aware of the trend, and some likely predicted that the landscape for job search may be changing.
Flash-forward to today, where we commonly see job advertisements requesting a résumé and links to GitHub or personal projects. College seniors scramble to assemble a code portfolio while balancing internships and coursework in their final semesters. Highly experienced engineers with 20 years of stable employment and a formidable list of professional accomplishments still wonder if their work alone is enough to compete for jobs. Even high school students ask questions about starting to build things in preparation for a job search several years down the line.
It’s clear that many engineers are concerned with the perceived necessity for personal projects, regardless of experience. Blogs like mine are probably guilty of unintentionally feeding fears, as career advice is not one-size-fits-all. It’s a useful exercise to clarify the benefit of side projects for different groups.
Who benefits most from side projects?
Entry-level candidates, new college graduates – When a group of largely homogenous candidates compete for positions, side projects are a differentiator. Typical résumés for new grads list GPA and select courses. Without internships or projects, they are virtually identical in every way. Even a link to rather mundane GitHub repos might give employers a bit of insight into ability.
Recent industry entrants without marketable experience - Many professionals are forced to accept undesirable jobs due to personal circumstances, while others make poor career choices early on. Two or three years of professional experience in the wrong shop might not lead to any real accomplishments. Side projects may be the best method to demonstrate skill early in a career.
Stagnant employment history - Candidates who have held the same position in the same company for many years are subject to somewhat unique scrutiny, with the most common theme being the concept of whether someone has “ten years of experience or only one year of experience ten times“. Showing some other skills gained outside work might shed the one-trick pony image and demonstrate an interest in learning.
Dated skill set, limited technical environment – For some engineers, side work might be the only opportunity to play with the new and shiny toys that other employers use. If the day job only allows archaic languages and tools, future marketability may depend upon side projects.
Those looking to change their path - Similar to entry-level candidates, professionals attempting to alter career direction may look to side projects as their most powerful strategy to gain some credibility. A good example of this is the large number of budding engineers who accepted QA positions while intending to move into development roles, or web developers who seek employment in mobile.
Side projects are often effectively used in lieu of work experience and tangible accomplishments in order to establish credibility and demonstrate skills. Their importance fades over time for professionals in ideal technical environments, defined as places where engineers are productive, learn continuously, move between projects and groups, and are able to develop a varied set of marketable skills. The value of side projects may vary over the course of a career depending on factors in the workplace, which are usually beyond the employee’s control. The groups outlined above derive the most benefit from side projects. For established and highly accomplished professionals, side projects can be completely unnecessary.