Side Project Culture: Opportunities and Obstacles for Marginalized People in Tech
While side projects can be a great indicator of personality, ability, and work-ethic, they should not have as much ability to make or break someone’s career.
My first side project was a stock market website that integrated Beyoncé gifs reflecting the state of the exchange. I didn’t know how to code back then, but I helped provide the idea, the gifs, copy editing, and aesthetic feedback. My friends and I grew closer through building the project, and we each had a new shiny trophy to put on our personal websites as the site picked up media attention.
Since building Beyoncé Trader three years ago, I’ve worked on around a dozen other side projects, all ranging in size, impact, and popularity. They’ve taken a lot of my time and energy. My grades were not always perfect because of them. I’ve lost sleep because of them. I’ve wasted a fair amount of time because of them. And yet, a lot of this work has paid off. It’s no secret that side projects can have a huge impact on your life and career in tech. When job hunting, I was regularly asked what kinds of side projects I had worked on in the last few months, and how those projects made me a better candidate. I’ve been asked to speak at conferences and hackathons because of them. Side projects open doors for opportunities through the process of building, collaborating, meeting new people, and sharing your interests and findings with the world.
However, the impact of side projects becomes more complex when you consider how the industry’s emphasis on them inherently disadvantages people who cannot regularly work on them. Yes: in an industry that keeps minorities from educational and career opportunities, working on projects in your free time is one of the best ways to combat an unfair lack of experience. At the same time, the hardships that disproportionately affect minorities make it much more difficult to work on side projects in the first place. In this piece, I provide some tips and insight that marginalized people might find useful to start their own side projects, as well as address ways the tech industry can cultivate a more inclusive culture around this “extra curricular” work.
Side Projects: A How-To
The entry points to building side projects are endless. There are open source communities, volunteer programs, freelance opportunities, classes that need assistance, and of course, free range to build anything from scratch. The best side projects, in my experience, stem from the combination of genuine interest and critical thinking about how to most effectively share something with the world. Last year, I decided to make Name That Drake Song, a data visualization that showcases song titles from Drake’s most recent album. I love data visualizations, and I love smart and sincere pop culture references. I was genuinely interested in learning something new, having fun with it, and sharing what I built with others: these sentiments are often the essence of starting a side project.
The hazy aspect of side projects is that they often fit in an unclear intersection of work and recreation, which makes identifying the right work-life balance a bit tricky. Once you’ve started working on your side project, it’s easy to become invested. Two years ago, a friend of mine and I were working on a side project called Hackers Of. Hackers Of started off as an interview series in New York City, where my friend would interview people in tech and showcase something interesting that they built. Wanting to get involved, I started a Los Angeles branch (where I was living at the time), and within a few months, Hackers Of exploded into a community of interviewers in 13 cities in nine countries worldwide. All of a sudden, this side project, which at first only took an hour or two of my week, demanded a lot more of my time. I had to rethink and restructure the type of commitment I was expending to this project, and how it affected my day-to-day.
When it comes to side projects, burnout can happen very rapidly, which leads to exhaustion and lack of motivation. The best thing you can do is balance making progress on it with staying true to dividing up your work and relaxation time. Learning what it means to plan ahead, and being honest about how I tend to use time, has been a deeply personal, and sometimes frustrating process, but it has allowed me to avoid the (sometimes inevitable) unfinished project, or burnout.
For marginalized people who don’t have the financial privilege to work for free on side projects, seeking funding can be a great way to help incentivise spending your time working on them. To get your projects funded, you can seek out companies, organizations, and grants that do work and possess values that align with what you want to work on. For example, the Awesome Foundation regularly gives grants to people to want to work on anything remotely interesting. There are also crowdfunding options, like Patreon. For students, asking your university for funding, or doing projects through school clubs or organizations, are great options for support. Hackathons, which are primarily student-oriented and often cover expenses, are a great option for this as well. I’ve hosted literally dozens of tech events in my free time with the help of school-affiliated resources, and through these events have been able to work on various side-projects.
As much as I’d like to encourage people to seek funding for all of their work, it’s difficult, and much more time consuming than opting to do your work for free. While side projects are fantastic in a lot of ways, there are definitely costs, which can fluctuate according to circumstance. When working on side projects, you should clarify how much work you are willing to expend outside of your primary responsibilities, and how that amount can change depending on external incentives, such as financial compensation. A tip for budgeting for side projects is to estimate how long a project might take you, consider expected income from other sources during that time, and how working on said project may affect other parts of your life. By writing these factors down, projecting costs becomes easier, and you have a point of reference while building your side project to ensure that you are in a good financial standing.
Side Projects: Community Solutions
Through projects like Beyoncé Trader, Name that Drake Song, and Hackers Of, I’ve learned about how to attempt, make, fail, and succeed at making side projects. There’s no denying that there are a lot of really great aspects of getting started, working on, and ultimately shipping a fantastic side project. Each stage in the process is an opportunity for growth, and that’s something that would be great for most people in tech to experience. But alas, the greatness of side projects begin to stifle when overemphasis on them in the industry puts people at a disadvantage.
For example: The technology industry is notoriously young and privileged, and consequently, many people who work in tech full time don’t have family obligations. Older people in tech, who often have families to attend to, simply have less time to work on side projects. People with mental illness and disabilities may also have a much more strenuous time doing work both in and outside of the office. And some people, quite simply, can’t afford to take on free labor. Whether you’re too busy job hunting, dealing with the emotional stress of regular discrimination and microaggressions, or simply uncomfortable in a system that regularly inhibits you because of your differences, it can be incredibly taxing to also work on side projects, even if they are of interest to you. While discrimination in tech persists, the need for marginalized groups to partake in side projects increases… and their ability to do so decreases.
While side projects can be a great indicator of personality, ability, and work-ethic, they should not have as much ability to make or break someone’s career. A side project is definitely a great talking point, and useful for employers. However, to be fair in hiring and generally more aware of advantages and disadvantages in our society, side projects should not be expected of everyone, and should certainly not be held at a significant disadvantage. While side projects can be great addition to a portfolio, expecting them disadvantages people who do not have the bandwidth to work on them.
To help close the gap and incentivise side projects for people with limited time, companies, grants, and diversity initiatives should look more into funding side projects. With a financial return, people with limited time and resources are better able to invest their time into reaping the benefits of side projects without having to sacrifice free hours in the day. This type of funding could manifest in various ways, simply starting with being receptive to funding requests from people who contact companies with similar missions/values. For larger companies, this could evolve into a dedicated team that works on handling various requests, as well as actively seeks out partnerships and support opportunities for people and teams working on personal projects that happen to align with the mission of the company. The ultimate hope is that with time, the technology industry can establish a culture where people feel comfortable seeking more support for work they do in their free time, and the world of side projects becomes a little more forgiving.
Side projects are great. They can be fun, motivational, and unique. There are a lot of different ways to get started working on side projects, and clear and tangible benefits for sticking to them! For many people who are looking to gain experience or spice up their portfolio, side projects are a wonderful option. But in order to promote equality, and to stress well-being and fairness in the industry, it is essential for technology companies and organizations to not mandate side projects as an “in.” We all have primary responsibilities which are a time priority and may trump our desire to stay up late for the side project we planned on finishing today.
And that’s okay.
At the end of the day, you should work enthusiastically and responsibly, and while that means saying yes, sometimes, it means saying no.