Are you a bad (software) engineer if you don’t do side projects?

This is a question that recently came up on Quora and something that I’ve personally struggled with during and after college. It’s been especially hard for me ever since I started doing recruiting for Intuit, as one of the things that we look out for in promising candidates (at least at a university recruiting level) is that these students are self starters that have side projects listed on their resume. When students ask me what they can improve about their resume, one of the first things I recommend is that they work on a meaningful side project or get involved in extracurriculars to help bulk up their resume.

For me though, I feel a bit like a hypocrite because spending time on side projects is not something I do on my own time. Working as a full time iOS engineer fulfills my need to build, create, problem solve…etc. – I prefer to spend my time engaged in other meaningful learnings that aren’t as explored in my day job.

That being said, there’s definitely other ways that you can gain knowledge and continue learning without having to do side projects – they can even be your day job! I have a very similar perspective to Tracy Chou’s opinion on the matter – snippet below:

I don’t do side projects and I don’t identify as a hacker, but I do read technical documentation, articles, and books; I do attend (and give) technical talks; and perhaps most importantly, I pick my day job based on learning and growth opportunities: which company I’m working at, which team I’m on, and which projects I take on. I stumbled onto this a little bit by accident, but I discovered that responsibilities in your day job that require you to learn are a great forcing function for learning. 

Aside from these things, I’d also recommend joining Meetup groups and attending technical events/conferences. There’s nothing better than learning first hand from experts on the subject matter, and being able to discuss it with them (networking isn’t a bad idea either). What matters most is that you find what you’re passionate about and make sure that the world knows about it, side projects or not.

****One caveat to this though is that if you are currently a student, side projects are definitely one of the easiest ways to make yourself stand out among the rest of the candidates. I’ll add though, I personally didn’t do that many large side projects in school. I did, however, participate in hackathons and was greatly involved in student leadership. These were the things that made me stand out.

2 thoughts on “Are you a bad (software) engineer if you don’t do side projects?”

  1. side projects tend to be illustrative of a genuine love of engineering – imagine if you had the ability to shape the universe to precisely what you thought it should be – and instead you spent your time watching HGTV. That’s sort of the point – software development is taking the realm of dreams and making them do things. If you can’t think of a way your life could be better with the amazing tools you have in your hands – maybe you’re technically skilled – but are you genuinely interested at the core of who you are?

    In my life I’ve found there’s a 10x engineer and a 1x engineer and a -1x engineer. In recruiting I’m constantly trying to figure out who a person is. I need 1x engineers and need to avoid -1x engineers. But the one I’m really looking for is the 10x engineer. Because that engineer will make my teams blossom and products get delivered. She will see opportunities and instead of hoping someone else does them she will do them on her own and then show me something that works to get sponsorship. If I ask for something to be done it’ll be done exactly what I thought – not even what I said

    The best gauge I’ve found in 20 years of building technology teams is the “need” to use technology. It’s often best articulated by doing things with these amazing tools in their own lives to make their life better in some way. Maybe not today – often senior folks have families etc that prevent that from being possible. But at some point their lives they should have said “wow wouldn’t it be great if…” Then they did it.

    If they didn’t they’re either not very creative, or they’re risk adverse, or writing software is way low on their priority list. All are fine for an average engineer. But a top notch talent is none of these.

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