It’s okay not to have a side project
In software development, there is a widely-held belief that you must always have a side project, with a strong preference for side projects that involve writing code. The story is told that if you get home from work and you’re not brimming with enthusiasm to write more code, then you’re not passionate about your job, you’re not interested in honing your craft, and you’re stagnating.
There is value in side projects, of course. I have some myself. If you want to read about how to manage side projects in addition to full-time work, there are hundreds of articles about that already. But the most important piece of advice I can share with you about side projects is that it’s perfectly okay not to have them.
In truth, having the time, energy, and focus to work on a side project is a privilege. Treating side projects as a defining feature of a good software developer excludes a huge number of people. We don’t need that kind of gate-keeping in our industry.
Who is excluded?
When I first started working full-time, I came home from work each day and went straight to bed. I didn’t have the energy and focus to decide what to eat for dinner, let alone to be creative and start to build something. I was suffering from anxiety. Trying to keep up with the household chores made me feel like I was drowning, and I lived with a partner who wouldn’t lift a finger to help. Making sure we both had clean shirts for work was the biggest challenge I could handle outside business hours.
A few years later, my home life had improved a lot. I had a new partner who took on a fair share of the housework. I felt supported and better able to manage my anxiety. But my job was sucking the life out of me. I didn’t agree with my employer’s priorities, I believed the work we were doing was unsafe, and every day was a battle. I came home every evening feeling angry and powerless. In the moments when I could muster up the energy to do something productive, I wasn’t writing code. I was looking for a new job.
My experiences are not unique. In fact, many people face greater barriers. But if I had subscribed to the belief that not having side projects meant I was not a good software developer, I would not be in the industry today.
And who else?
For another large group of people, side projects are just not a priority. These might be people who value work-life balance and don’t feel that coding in their free time represents balance for them. They could be people who prefer to spend all their free time outside, or doing non-tech activities with their loved ones. Maybe they have an awesome job that completely fulfils all their code-related passions and they just don’t need a side project.
If everyone in our teams shared the same priorities and interests, our work would be informed by a very narrow range of experiences and perspectives. This is not a good thing when you consider that we build software for all kinds of people, not just for software developers.
Keeping it up
I have reached a point now, personally and professionally, where I am able to pursue a few side projects. Some of my projects involve code, and some involve other activities directly or indirectly related to technology, like writing, connecting with other developers, designing printed circuit boards, soldering and learning about electronics. When people ask me how I manage to keep all of these things up, I tell them honestly “sometimes I don’t”.
I posted the below tweet back in May, excusing myself from side projects for a week. Then I didn’t write anything for two months.
I am letting myself off the hook from any non-essential effort expenditure this week (side projects, writing) because I have something hard going on. My thanks go to the people who tweet reminders that green squares on github are not a measure of self-worth.
That’s okay. I focused on some other priorities for a while. I still spent some time here and there working on my electronics. But I didn’t have the mental space to sit down and write words, and I didn’t write much code either. It happens.
Having side projects is an optional part of being a software developer. It’s not a prerequisite to your right to be in the tech industry. There are lots of different ways of being a software developer, and we don’t all have to fit the same mould.