GitHub Ghost Towns: Part Two

In part one you learned that the purpose of your side projects should be to build a portable reputation.

You're not learning a new thing to put on your resume. You will likely end up with a new thing to put on your resume, but that's not why you work on side projects.

Most side projects are a) not interesting to anyone and b) never finished, two qualities that certainly don't help you build a reputation.

But how do you pick something people will notice, share and appreciate? (We'll get to how to actually finish in the final part of this series).

Four rules for picking a side project

If you follow the rules, you will create something people will use and are likely to share.

If the topic is something people are talking about, they are more likely to share it because your blog post becomes a part of the discussion.

If the topic requires hard work to write about or code, then the work you are doing will save the community countless hours of drudgery. Nobody likes doing boring work, so this is obviously valuable.

On top of all of this, you are solving a problem for other people so you are helping the world in some small way.

I've followed these four rules for the past year and a half for everything that I make, and it applies equally well to products, blog posts, and side projects.

How to get a call from an Apple recruiter

About a year and a half ago Apple launched the new Mac Pro and a marketing site to go with it. It had some pretty slick animations synchronized with some swooping, evocative video of the new Mac Pro, and everyone wanted to know how it worked.

I wanted to know how it worked too, so I spent a day reverse engineering the obfuscated Javascript code until I figured it out. I knew a lot of people were wondering how it worked, so I thought I would do everyone a favor and spare them the hours I had put into figuring it out and put it in a blog post.

The next day I published How the New Mac Pro Site Works. Tons of people shared the post and it ended up being really popular.

I did such a good job reverse engineering the code, I got a call from an Apple recruiter.

This is what happens when you follow the four rules for picking a side project.

This blog post hit all four:

"But wait a minute," you say, "You didn't write any code. How is that a side project?"

You caught me, I didn't write code, at least not code that I shipped. But I read a ton of code, learned new things, grew my reputation and had some fun. Isn't that the purpose of a side project?

For your next project, instead of typing git init ., consider opening up your text editor and banging out a blog post. The end result of a side project doesn't have to be code.

Or better yet ...

Write a blog post AND write code at the same time

The popularity of the Mac Pro post was a clue that people were interested in synchronizing video and CSS animations. So I came up with an idea for an article, (following the four rules), and pitched it to Smashing Magazine. I sent them a draft and they decided to publish it.

And now I'm a writer for Smashing Magazine, which is super cool and definitely helps my reputation.

As I was writing the post I realized it would be more valuable if the article walked through an actual code base, so I whipped together a little library and put it on Github and mentioned it in the article. Hey presto ... my first open source project actually used by other people.

Writing blog posts can lead to writing code and vice versa. The reason this works is because at the core, a blog post or code are just two different ways of solving a problem for someone. And that's what's really at the heart of the four rules: helping other people.

How you help people, code or article or video or whatever, doesn't matter. This whole thing about building your reputation? It's just a nice little side effect.

Now you know why you are creating a side project and how to pick a side project that will accomplish your goals. In part three you'll learn tips and tricks for actually finishing what you start. If you're not already, sign up for the newsletter below to get the next in the series.

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Hey there, I'm Sean.

I'm probably a lot like you. I make stuff for the web. I have a CS degree, but the last 8 years of my career have been a more potent teacher.

Sean Fioritto

Recently, I wrote a book on web development called Sketching with CSS. I also run a training company for developers. I'm an author in Smashing Magazine and I've written some cool open source projects.

Today, I'm an entrepreneur. In the not so distant past I did the usual 9-5 thing doing web development for a couple of big companies.

I'd love to meet you on Twitter.

You can also email me: [email protected]