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GitHub Ghost Towns: Part One

Published: 1/15/2015

Is there anything better than starting a new side project?

An empty text editor. A shiny new framework. A boldly colored O'Reilly book with intriguing animal print. A fresh cup of coffee and hours of totally unstructured, uninterruptible time in front of you.

Fast forward a month later and your side project languishes, unloved and unfinished. Another GitHub ghost town.

How many of these projects do you have? Personally, I have too many to count, so I'm right there with you. But recently I've been finishing what I start, and it's had a huge impact on my career and my business.

You need a portable reputation

If you've worked somewhere for a long time and you're good at what you do, you probably have a pile of credibility and favors you can cash in. Credibility and consistency are valuable to your company. You're a known entity, and so your reputation turns into a raise every year or so and on occasion, a promotion. But your reputation is locked up in your company. If you leave, you throw most of it away. Even your code is locked up behind the corporate firewall.

You may not care about this, because in our industry there are so many high paying jobs floating around you can snag one with nothing but a basic resume. It's easy, and we're lucky, but it's not going to last forever.

Lately things have felt a little bubbly to me, reminding me of the not so distant dot-com boom and bust. After that crash there were thousands of developers left without jobs. So many in fact that one of my old employers, (a huge technology consulting company), saw an opportunity. They started a brand new division so they could hire these developers at much lower salaries and churn out lower priced projects for clients and/or make higher margins.

These developers were just meat for the grinder. If all you have to differentiate yourself is a resume and a collection of open source projects nobody cares about, you are meat. Your career is tied to the ups and downs of the developer job market.

Even in the current, ridiculous job market, a resume limits your options. You list skills on a resume and match them to job descriptions. When you get an offer, the HR person looks up your salary somewhere based on those skills, the market and your experience. You can tweak this number a little with some negotiating skills, but if all you bring to table is a list of skills and years of experience you don't have much control over salary or even job description.

The best jobs at the best companies go to people with an excellent reputation, but if nobody at your new company knows you, you have no reputation. Maybe one person helped you get your foot in the door, but you are a stranger to the rest of the company. You have no reputation, even if you kicked ass at your previous gig. Your reputation is leverage, but you left your reputation at your last job. Oops.

A successful side project makes your reputation portable. That nasty habit of starting projects and not finishing is putting your career at risk, leaving you at the mercy of the job market. What you need is a step by step plan and system for picking good side projects and finishing them.

The first step in finishing your side projects is to know why you started it to begin with.

Don't start a side project to learn a new skill and add it to your resume. Hopefully you now understand why this has very little impact on your career and leaves you mostly at the whim of the market. You have to keep your skills up to date, yes, but what I'm suggesting is to put a little more thought into your side project. The side project is not an addition to your resume.

Don't start a side project "just for fun". Hopefully it is fun, but having fun can't be the only reason. Saying you're doing it "just for fun" is often an excuse in advance. Your brain knows you won't finish, and so you can say, "Oh well, I was really only doing it for fun." Your brain is very good at letting you off the hook.

The other problem with doing something "just for fun" is ALL PROJECTS ARE NOT FUN AT SOME POINT and you have to grind through the boring bits in order to finish. If you are only doing it for fun, you probably won't push through the boring bits.

You are starting your next side project to create a portable reputation you can take from company to company, (or turn into a consultancy or even a product business if you're so inclined).

What types of projects will help you build a reputation? How do you make something other people will care about? That's what we'll talk about in part two of this short series on side projects.

If you liked this, check out parts two and three in this series.