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The Importance of Side Projects

Aug 1, 2008
Being genuinely and productively busy is one thing that most of the programmers I interviewed for my new book, "Secrets of the Rockstar Programmers: Riding the IT Crest" have in common. Certainly, this state of affairs is something most of the top notch programmers I've met have in common, interviewee or not. It's important to distinguish "productively busy" from just "busy." Many people are busy, but how much are they actually getting done?

For programmers, the single most important contributor to productive busy-ness is having lots of side projects going on, aside from your main "day job." For some of the rock stars, the side projects were not related to IT; ranging from fronting a rock-band to coaching kids sports, to photography. These are all great and it happens that many a-list programmers have this sort of stuff going on, but I want to talk about side projects that ARE related to IT.

Let's take three examples from the book: Dick Wall, Kohsuke Kawaguchi, and Nikhil Kothari.

Dick Wall was working in the IT group at Siemens New Energy in 2002. While it wasn't the main emphasis of his employment there, he did spend a lot of time staying current on IT trends, and when the idea of podcasting came around, he jumped right on it as a means to share his findings with a wider audience. Through a partnership between Sun and Siemens New Energy, Dick began working with a team of programmers that included the individuals with whom he would eventually form the Java Posse, the most popular Java Technology podcast. Dick's hobby project eventually became the thing for which he was most widely known, and the thing that helped break him out of Siemens and into an elite team at Google.

Kohsuke Kawaguchi just loves to program, and he loves making users happy. Looking at his homepage kohsuke dot org you see an enormous list of side projects that have various levels of relevance to his day job at Sun. Some of his projects, the Hudson continuous integration engine, for example, are enormously successful and popular. It is this productivity and breadth of side projects that make me consider Kohsuke the most productive programmer I know.

Nikhil Kothari is the leading force behind Microsoft's ASP dot NET and Silverlight projects and also an avid photographer. But, he's also one to keep a stable of IT related side projects. One such project, WebMatrix, helped propel Nikhil into is current role of influence at Microsoft. When asked about side projects in the book, Nikhil says, "Invariably, anything I start as a hobby project somehow, in the future, has some element of alignment in the day job. Even if I'm trying to do something that's completely not aligned, just for the sake of doing it, I somehow end up finding a way to align it. Not necessarily all of the project, but parts of it."

Of course, not every hobby project will be hugely successful, nor should it be. One of my side projects is to maintain Webclient, a Java API wrapper around the XULRunner browser engine. It has a small set of users and isn't well supported, but it helps me keep my C++ chops from getting too rusty, as well as being a fun project to play around with.

It's important to note that my side projects, some of Nikhil's, and most of Kohsuke's are done in the open source development style. The rise of open source has made the practice of doing side projects even more career enhancing, because now you can often share your code outside of your current employer, and, more importantly, take it along with you when you change jobs, depending of course on the specifics of your employment contract.

So next time you find yourself looking for a job, if you have a portfolio of hobby projects showing your dedication to the craft, and your programming chops in general, you'll be ahead of most of the competition!
About the Author
Ed Burns has worked on a variety of client and server side web technologies since 1994, including NCSA Mosaic, Netscape 6, Mozilla, the Sun Java Plugin, Jakarta Tomcat and, most recently JavaServer Faces. Ed has published two books with McGraw-Hill, JavaServerFaces: The Complete Reference (2006), and Secrets of the Rockstar Programmers: Riding the IT Crest (2008). Visit Riding the Crest. To subscribe to his list, email subscribe@ridingthecrest.com.
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