Lessons from side projects

A recent article I read forced me to think about the way I utilise my spare time to work on 'side projects' and the lessons I've learned from (many) failed attempts.

The Problem

In a recent article, Australian PhD student Jack Simpson writes ‘Even if you dedicate many hours to a task and it’s 80% of the way there, if you never finish then no-one will care’. He’s right of course - however brutally honest his words are.

The piece really struck a chord with me because so often I find myself starting new projects that don’t go anywhere. Zuckerberg initially didn’t dream of building Facebook, he created a way to connect with his classmates. I can always say I learned a great deal, but if I don’t have anything to show people I can’t say I ever did anything. I lose interest, or it dawns on me that I’m building something that already exists, or I’ve found a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist - whatever. There has to be that middle step between the grand vision and the smaller tasks like writing lines of code.

Failed project ideas of mine include: an API-driven CRM, a food ordering system for offices, a chat platform for learning how to code and a ticket-trading platform for students. I have hundreds of entries in OneNote titled ‘What’s missing?’ where I’d look at the past week and come up with solutions to the problems I’d encountered. Often these are problems only I’d come across and the scope of the problem was too narrow; Often the problems were of a scope far too broad to ever be solved by a single solution.

The Solution

Looking back as I write this article, these aren’t inherently bad ideas - some of the pieces are there, some aren’t. I don’t think I’m bad at coming up with ideas or identifying which ones will work or not; the crux of the problem is actually attempting to do too much with the time I have.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been working on things that I can build an MVP of in a weekend. I wrote Tweet Thread in a day and I have a few things on the go right now. I’m still interested in solving problems and doing cool shit with technology, but projects should be iterative.