10 Ways to Guarantee Your Side Projects Improve Your IT Career

Google, often admired for its forward-thinking business practices, recently encouraged its employees to spend 20% of their time on side projects and 80% on their Google projects. Not every company is this forward thinking yet but, chances are, you’ve always had a side project you were interested in starting, or a hobby you want to pursue in your free time.

The difference between a side project and a hobby is that a side project has a specific end, a final product where as a hobby is a continuous venture, a long-term interest. The dedication required for a side project is admirable on its own, but there are a multitude of other benefits your career can reap if you do it right. Here are a few ways you can make the most of your side project so that it contributes to your IT career in the best way possible.

1) Don’t treat it like a work project: Issuing strict deadlines or expecting compensation immediately won’t produce fruitful efforts. It’s okay to schedule dedicated time to spend on these projects, but don’t make your schedule results-based. Focusing on results will stifle the creative process and freedom that a side project brings. You don’t have to create the next app valued at millions of dollars, you just have to create the app you want to build, however long it takes to get there will be time well spent. If you’re focusing on how this side project will get you to the next level in your career it has the potential to stress you out of making progress. Additionally, you should always prioritize your work projects over your side project. After all, you’re being paid to put those projects first!

2) Love it: Whatever you choose as your side project, make sure it’s something you love. You’ll be spending some of your valuable free time on it, time you could be spending with loved ones or relaxing (which are both things you should absolutely make time for too!) If IT is your passion but you only get to explore one narrow area of it in your current position, make your side project count by learning about a completely different technical field than your own. If the thought of spending extra hours on IT makes you cringe or you think your boss wouldn’t appreciate you pursuing outside technical projects, that’s fine! Creative projects like writing a book or creating stop motion shorts will help you become a more valuable, interested and engaged person in all aspects of your life. Passionate people are hard to ignore, and your boss will recognize your newfound drive as it spills over into your everyday work life. A side project doesn’t have to relate directly to improving your IT skills for it to have immense value in your IT career.

3) You don’t have to pick something you’re already good at: The goal of a side project is to create variety in your repertoire and show that you can produce work outside of your normal output. Talented singers are valued for their range, but so are talented IT employees! Maybe you’re a web developer looking to learn Swift so you can develop that app idea you’ve been dreaming about. Maybe you’re a Jr. business analyst who has always had an interest in graphic design and you’re ready to pursue it. Variety will help your side project create more value in your future career because you’re diversifying your skillset. Your side project doesn’t have to turn into your next career, but knowing you can pitch in on projects outside of your specific role will help you advance your career when you’re ready to make a move.

4) Break your project into parts: Looking at a finished project can sometimes be daunting. While it’s important to have an overall vision of what you’re trying to accomplish with your side project, you should also take the time to break it into manageable pieces. For example, if you want to develop an app, the first thing you do is learn how to develop for Android or iOS. After that, you have to break down your idea into specific functions and overall outcomes. Then, start building! After you’ve built it, will you market it? Do you know how to market an app or do you need to read up on it? Maybe you just want to send it out to your friends to play around with it. Whatever you goals are for your side project, decide what they are and then work backwards. This is just one example of breaking your project into overall parts. Applying this method will help ensure your side project is finished on time, and you can use the same mentality at work to become more efficient in your every day tasks! Breaking large tasks into smaller, more easily digestible pieces is the kind of habit hiring managers and supervisors look for.

5) It’s not a sprint, but a slow crawl: Because you’re doing this project strictly on the side, don’t get stressed out if it takes multiple years to complete. This needs to be an idea you’re interested in pursuing for the long haul. If not, maybe a hobby is more suited to your interests? The nature of side projects is that they are end-goal and outcome oriented. Don’t burn yourself out by trying to do too much in the short amount of time you can dedicate to it each week. Don’t ignore your work—that you’re actually getting paid for—or your other responsibilities in order to finish faster. Realistically, spending only a few hours on a side project a week is fine! Being able to enjoy the process is essential, otherwise, you’ll quit well before you finish.

6) Make the process playful: Side projects aren’t supposed to be all business, so make sure to have some fun along the way! Whether you allow time for creative redirection or pursuing multiple paths until you decide which one meshes you’re your interests, it’s time well spent. Allowing misdirection is half the fun! Work often has strict deadlines, structure and boxes you in. In order to develop your creative problem solving skills, you’ll need to utilize your side projects. These skills will come in handy in the future whether you’re stuck in a tight spot financially, encountering major coding errors right at the end of a big project or simply brainstorming how to get where you want to be in your career. Playing around with multiple avenues and approaches develops your flexibility in a way you’ll find incredibly useful in your IT career as the industry continues to change and evolve. Plus, you’ll be able to treat your projects more like play instead of work, maximizing your enjoyment of them.

7) Consider collaboration: Have a couple of talented friends you’ve always wanted to spend more time with? Why not pursue a side project you can all contribute to? It will hold you accountable to completing the project while providing a helpful backboard to bounce your ideas off of. If this kind of collaborative project doesn’t seem realistic for your schedules, you could try dedicating some hangout time to discussing your side projects instead. This accountability, openness to new ideas and collaboration feeds directly into your essential workplace skills.

8) Progress and achievement are like drugs: Let’s face it, we all love the feeling of making significant progress on a project at work. And achieving one of our goals? It’s like crack! Your side project will provide you with more of these fulfilling milestones in your everyday life. The more you have, the more you’ll want. Your enthusiasm for achievement will steadily increase and spill over into your everyday at work. Pretty soon you’ll be completing goals at record speeds and everyone will be impressed. Plus, this achievement will encourage you to continue to set goals for your future side projects, your career and your personal life. It’s been proven, most notably in the Harvard Business School study of 1979, that having clear goals and writing them down leads to a more successful life. Creating small, side project goals will encourage you to pursue your larger career goals and set you on the track for success.

9) Build skills you couldn’t otherwise build:  Chances are, your current IT role is somewhat limited to the technologies that you specialize in. Do you love your specialties more than anything else? That’s fine, pursue a side project that utilizes your existing techie skills or nontechnical ones. But, if you’d like to expand your technical skillset, a side project is a great way to apply practical learning to new techie knowledge. Think back to college (if you attended), was studying a coding language enough to learn it, or did practical application make all the difference? Chances are the hands on experience was invaluable! Your side project could provide you with new technical skills that you can utilize in your current IT position, or your next one!

10) Learn to let go: When you’ve had a stressful day in the office, you’ll want to go home, curl up with a blanket, plenty of junk food and some even junkier TV. Resist. Side projects will help you have an outlet to funnel your passion and emotions into. If you can learn to let go of workplace stressors and concentrate on this project you love, why wouldn’t it work the other way around? This way, when you’re undergoing a particularly stressful time in your personal life or a creative block in your side project, you’ll be better equipped to put these distractors aside and focus on the work you were hired to do. If you can do this, you’ll become a more productive, reliable employee and your boss will take notice.

If you have the skills to properly manage a side project, it can become the most beneficial contributor to your career outside of the office. Take the time to brainstorm a few ideas for a side project you’d love to work on and use these tips to get started. In a few years you’ll look back and be so glad that you did!