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Developers! Here’s how to create a side project that will make you stand out

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This one article was originally published on .cult by Jurn Van Wissen.sect is a Berlin-based developer community platform. We write about all things career, create original documentaries and share countless other untold stories from developers around the world.

One of the most underrated things you can do in your career is learn to stand out.

If you want to find a new job, get projects as a freelancer, or increase your chances of a promotion, you need to stand out. In each of these cases, there is a person on the other end that you need to pick, and for that they need to notice you and trust that you are the right person.

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But how do you stand out?

Why are you the React developer who stands out from a crowd of React developers?

Many developers rely heavily on open source software, believing that being an administrator of a popular library or having a GitHub profile with a consistent commit history makes them more rentable.

The truth is, your resume will likely be reviewed by recruiters, non-technical managers, or C-level employees. It’s unlikely they’ll spend a lot of time reviewing your latest pull request, great as it is.

Why every developer should have a side project

Besides being something that helps you stand out and showcase your interests and skills, starting a side project has many other benefits

  1. It keeps you from burning out: you can choose what you want to work on, whenever you want, whatever language, tool or framework you want.
  2. It is challenging: if you feel like your work has become routine, you can choose how difficult you want to make your side project.
  3. It’s a great networking tool: your side project can be a great way to interact with different communities and find people with similar interests.
  4. It’s educational: in your job, you spend most of your time applying your existing skills to new problems. Side projects allow you to dip your toes into multiple related skills, which can come in handy later.
  5. It is free of restrictions: you can choose your deadlines, which technologies to work with, which features to implement, and explore any topic that interests you. It’s all up to you.

How do you find a great idea for a side project?

Starting a new side project can be quite overwhelming. How do you find a good idea to work on?

Reflect on your daily life

One of the best ways to find an idea to work on is to think about your life and see what problems you are dealing with or what frustrations you face repeatedly. Focusing on your own problems will keep you motivated as you work on your side project, knowing you can make your own life a little easier.

An example. As a freelance designer and front-end engineer, I sent screenshots to clients and colleagues several times a day. I wanted to send them nice mockups, but I didn’t want to spend the time doing that multiple times a day.

I solved my own problem by building a tool that converts screenshots into browser mockups that are called automatically screely† The first week I launched it already had it more than 31,000 usersand it has been a fantastic lead generation tool for my freelance business for the past three years.

Emerging trends

Technology moves fast and some new technologies are enabling brand new trends that grow into big companies. New industries and niches can also be born overnight with new hardware or software.

Jumping on a new trend early makes it easier to get noticed.

For example, the pandemic made working from home and video calling the new normal. AirPods sparked users’ interest in audio such as podcasts and audiobooks. 5G enables many bandwidth-intensive applications on your phone.

Another prime example of this strategy happened last year when Apple released iOS 14. This update marked the first time iOS users could customize their home screen with widgets and custom icons. James (@Traf), a designer, saw an opportunity and created an icon pack for iOS; he generated more than 100k sales in just six days after many media outlets and prominent YouTubers like MKBHD talked about the ability to customize your home screen.

Jumping into a new trend early also means you’re less likely to face stiff competition and it’s easier to get noticed. It’s unlikely that a designer releasing a new icon pack today would be able to generate the number of sales that Traf did.

New technology

Many of the technologies we work with evolve and enable new possibilities. For example, cloud providers no longer need to purchase and manage their own servers. You can just pay for servers that are strong enough to support hardware-intensive tasks.

That means you don’t have to buy a solid desktop system yourself just because you want to play around with Machine Learning or some other hardware-intensive process.

Am I Pwned?, a tool that collects data breaches to see if you’ve been affected, is an example of a project that started with this idea. The main reason was not to look for data breaches; it’s because Troy Hunt wanted to play with Microsoft Azure, as he explained herein conference call† He used the popularity of this project to land more consulting work and speaking engagements and sold multiple web security courses.

Keep an eye out for new technologies, tools, APIs or frameworks that seem exciting, and see if you can find a problem to apply that new technology to.

Get involved in communities around your interests

Hang out with people with similar interests, and soon enough you’ll find a common problem within that community.

Perhaps you are trying to learn Japanese and notice that many people have difficulty learning the alphabet, so you build a website that makes it easier.

Maybe you are a collector of coins and you have trouble keeping track of which coins you have and which ones you want to buy, so create a website that makes it easier to keep track of your collection

Patrick McKenzie found that many teachers used bingo cards in their classes, but they were difficult to make. He built Bingo card maker, making it easier to make bingo cards and selling the program to teachers. It generated up to $60,000 in revenue per year. By blogging about his side projects, he also expanded his audience and used that for consulting work, launching new side projects and investment opportunities.

Remix the products you use

We all use a myriad of software in our lives, but rarely are these tools exactly as we want them to be. This can also be a starting point for your new side project.

What software frustrates you and how would you improve it? Is there a small feature that you think should be expanded further into a standalone product? What software you use has become so bloated that it has become difficult to use and you want to build a simpler version of it?

You can also start a blog, newsletter, or YouTube channel.

Nathan Barry sold books and courses online, but found that the existing tools he used to email his audience lacked certain features, such as landing pages and email threads. He built ConvertKit to make it easier for himself to launch his courses and books and grew into a company that now generates $15+ million a year in revenue

There’s no perfect way to find a side project idea, and there are no guarantees as to how successful it can become.

Don’t be too hard on yourself when evaluating side project ideas. It doesn’t have to be a multi-billion dollar company and it doesn’t have to use state-of-the-art technology. The important thing is that you are personally interested in it and have the motivation to keep working on it.

As developers, we tend to build SaaS applications, online tools or mobile apps, but you can also start a blog, newsletter or YouTube channel. Start a community or launch an (e)book or course.

Common pitfalls

Many people who start a side project never finish it. Some of the most common pitfalls I’ve seen people encounter are:

  1. Goes too big: it’s just you (and maybe a few friends or colleagues), don’t try to build a new social network to compete with Facebook or Twitter. First, create a small minimum viable product (MVP) and repeat.
  2. Losing motivation: pick something you’re interested in and you’ll be thrilled with the final product; otherwise you’ll probably stop when things get a little difficult.
  3. Burning out: It’s just a side project, so treat it as such. Don’t force yourself to work on it after a long day if you don’t feel like it. Don’t give up your whole weekend to make progress. Keep it balanced, even if it means moving a little slower.

Conclusion

If you want to advance your career, you need to demonstrate your competence and reach the right people. A side project will help you do both of those things and, in many cases, could advance your career much faster than studying for a new certification.

Side projects are a great excuse to play with new technologies, work on completely new ideas and be completely free of the limitations we have in our work.

My side projects have made a huge difference in my career, and I’m confident it will do the same for you, whether you’re trying to build an audience or use it for job openings and freelance clients.

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