Every engineer should have a project on the side. An initiative focused on improving the business, controlled completely by the engineer. My side projects get me up in the morning and get me excited about coming to work. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my normal work activities, but my side projects are green field, controlled 100% by me and are exciting.
These types of projects are the reason you got into computer science in the first place. Who comes up with the feature requirements? You do. Who defines the development process? You do. Who gets the glory when the project is the next big thing? You get the idea.
Engineer driven projects are becoming increasingly important to keep businesses relevant and evolving. They keep products fresh, technology fresher, and can help make a lot of money. You should be a leader in your company to push this movement forward. You should be an intrapreneur.
Where do I get ideas for projects?
The first criteria for picking a side project is that you are excited about it. No one is asking you to get this work done so if you’re not exciting about blazing the trail with your ideas and passion, the project isn’t going to go anywhere. You should feel a deep sense of ownership that its fate is in your hands. No one is going check up on it and see how it is going. Own it. Get it done. Next, start listening. Everybody’s got problems. Listen closely to the problems that are opportunities for improvement. “I wish I had a tool that…”, “Our API is clunky, I wish…”, “There gotta be a better way to do…”, there is no shortage of needs if you are listening for them. Keep a catalog of potential ideas and keep listening even when your bandwidth is maxed out and save them for later. Now that you have a list, you just need to pick one. Pick the one that you are both excited about and has the largest potential impact. Imagine the smiles on the faces of the people when they are pleasantly surprised that you secretly fixed their problem in your spare time.
What is Success?
It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Some projects are internal to your team and success is other team members approving your code branch to be merged in. Some are small independent tools that are developed end to end and given directly to the end user. If they use it and it is helpful, success!
My favorite type of project is the new product feature proof of concept. Success means proving that the concept of a large scale change works or it doesn’t. The end result needs to be testable and verifiable to be valuable. Product developers are always looking for fresh ideas that they can confidently invest in. If you prove your own ideas should be invested in, you’ll get the resources to do so. And you’ll likely be the visionary that will get to lead it to even more success.
The Best Part
The best part is that it’s all risk free. If you try something new and crazy and it flops, who cares. All you’re out is the spare time it took to build it. Now, don’t get me wrong, time is very valuable and I don’t recommend failing. Time working on a failing idea could be spent on a successful one, but if you do fail, learn something and move on to the next project.
The second best part is that you work for a company that (likely) has resources. You have access to people, software and hardware (you might need to get permission first) that can help you succeed. As long as you can fit it into your spare time and your ask isn’t too taxing.
It sounds like I’m going to be doing a bunch of optional hard work. Why should I work so hard for a company that doesn’t care about me? Well, you shouldn’t. If you truly believe your company doesn’t care if you innovate or not and you don’t see other innovators being rewarded for their achievements, do yourself a favor and find a company that does. Many companies know the value of intrapreneur innovation and you should find one of those. Oh, and InfoSpace is hiring.