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.

A few notes before turning 21

When I began this article about a week ago I started to write about self-doubt and the toxic, intractable effect it's had on my life. In doing so, it morphed into a piece about self evaluation and personal growth.


In the last 6 months I've learned a great deal about when my personal judgements are wide of, or on the mark and this largely informs whether my opinion of myself is accurate or not. I've found it's incredibly useful to be able to take a step back and assess how well you're doing, both personally and professionally and take action on areas that need improvement.

With my 21st birthday tomorrow, marking almost a year of continuous professional development, I wanted to write a few notes about some things I've been thinking about for a while. While much of this may not be new to you, I encourage you to carefully reconsider these points and take as much meaning from them as you can.

1) Criticism doesn't have to be negative.

2) There's huge value in having the ability to spot your weaknesses and learn from them.

3) There's no ego in self evaluation.

4) A failure is always a learning experience. Don't worry about getting things wrong. You won't do it again.

5) Don't overanalyse. When I had mental health issues, I had a problematic tendency to overanalyse and criticise myself. In hindsight, the only impact this had was that my reduced self confidence caused me to have more of a reason to do this.

6) A team is only as strong as its weakest member.

7) You can't win an argument.

8) If you're wrong, admit it.

My first VR experience

Just five minutes ago I was standing beneath New York's flatiron building, but as you've probably guessed, I wasn't there. It's actually 11:10pm, and for the last ten minutes, my neighbours will probably have seen me pointing my iPhone around my bedroom as if filming an indie documentary about ghosts. This is my second VR experience and I feel truly immersed.

It was only last Thursday that my boss challenged me to 'get that Google Cardboard working'. Within 20 minutes I'd installed the NYTimes' Vrse app and had downloaded a 700mb clip, designed to work with the headset. It took 30 seconds for me to realise what I was seeing was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I passed the device to my colleagues and before I knew it several had gathered round, intrigued by what all the excitement was about. There's no doubt about it, VR is a crowdpleaser.

We've read about how virtual reality is going to take over the world for a while now. Facebook bought Oculus for two billion dollars in July 2014, and is now looking at a 2016 Q1 launch of its 'Rift' headset. Google launched 'Cardboard', a low-tech kit for affordable VR and (it's estimated) has shipped millions of units. 

Dozens of new startups are popping up, like InsiteVR (YC W15). Andreessen Horowitz named VR as one its '16 things' it was interested in investing in, and Y Combinator has updated its 'Request for Startups' to include Virtual Reality.

But it's clear the technology still has a long way to go. Last week, it was revealed that operating the Oculus Rift will require a PC with a specification that off-the-shelf might cost "a thousand dollars". Of course the media often inflate stories like these, although there's no doubt powering a headset like the Oculus is going to need some substantial graphics power. [1]

In the enterprise, there seems to be a trend towards using VR to enhance the roles of the "non-desk workforce", jobs that potentially require a level of foresight or investigation. VR could transform construction/ real-estate/ planning by allowing us to pre-visualise proposed developments within our current environment. Earlier this year Microsoft's Hololens concept trailer alluded to this. We see the device used by mechanics, plumbers, scientists, all non-desk workers.

There'll still be a part of me though that feels like VR is now a missed opportunity in terms of building products. I'm finding Geoffrey Moore's 'Crossing the Chasm' particularly interesting at the moment, and while VR is still probably in the 'innovation' stage of the adoption lifecycle, I can't help but feel the most involvement I can have as a developer is as an early adopter.

When the Rift comes out in 2016 there's a good chance I'll be buying one, but until then it'll be interesting to see how the market unfolds. 

[1] Here lies a potentially huge opportunity - building hardware powerful enough to run such a device. Intel's NUC seems to have lost traction recently, but with Iris integrated graphics now capable of running 4k displays, low energy CPUs could be the way forward.

Edit: At Google I/O this last week, it was reported Google had shipped 'over a million' unit of its 'Cardboard' headset.

One week with NYTimes: Paying out of appreciation

I subscribed to The New York Times' digital plan last week. I'd come to the realisation that I often find myself reading their articles and should therefore pay for something I find valuable. As with many newspapers, NYT has a limit of 10 articles a month for non-paying users. Of course this can be easily bypassed with Chrome's incognito mode, but I wanted no restrictions. I've been thinking about this idea of paying for services we don't strictly need to over the last few days, and asked the Hacker News community with not much of a response.

Upon first logging into the Times website at my desktop I was amazed at the vast wealth of content. This wasn't clear to me as a non-paying user, and NYT should do more to make this apparent to prospective subscribers. As you'd expect there are the general News sections, 'Business', and 'Opinion'. I love that 'Technology' and 'Science' are separate entities, and 'Health' often piques my interest. I dip into 'Art', 'Travel', 'The Upshot' and 'The Magazine' for longer, slower reads.

What I hadn't expected, was how brilliant the Times' mobile app would be. It has all of the same content as above, only in a neat, easily navigable package. Content loads quickly; images render as sharply on my iPhone as they do on my home monitor, and I have no problem playing back some of the engaging video NYT manufactures.

I don't think I've had this kind of experience with a media platform before, except maybe National Geographic who also produce brilliant content and take great care in ensuring it looks fantastic online. (Take for instance an article published last year on the Palaeolithic diet, which I read in both print and online.) There's definitely a sense that a lot of effort has gone into making using the Times' site and app as effortless for me as possible, but on top of that, making it something I love and want to use.

Despite now paying for a subscription to the content I love, Facebook recently announced their intent to host articles from NYT and National Geographic, among others. For mobile users, some articles will launch inside the Facebook app, instead of in a new browser window; the ultimate goal here is speed. According to a statement made by Facebook, this should allow articles to load up to 10x faster. Product Manager at Facebook, Chris Cox said, “We’re starting with something that we think is going to work for some publishers for some articles and for some business models... We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.”
My instant reaction was that Facebook had created something truly innovative, but then I began to question how this might affect subscription rates. From what I've read, I don't get the impression the publishers are concerned, but will use this tool to compliment their online presence.

I've been reading Dale Carnegie's 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' and have taken much from it, most notably Chapter 3 which concludes with the message, 'Arouse in the other person an eager want'. Only the best marketers can do this. The reason I subscribe to the Times isn't because their articles limit makes it marginally less convenient for me to read the content I like, but because it's a service that I want to use and deem worthy of payment. The same goes for the movies I watch. Of course I could download a pirated copy of the latest Mad Max film, and cover any trace of me having done so, but I want to pay to see it in the cinema as a token of my appreciation for the hard work that went into its making. (One might argue that a major benefit of seeing a film in the cinema is the sound and picture quality, which is virtually impossible to replicate in one's own home.)

Many software companies have free tiers for their products, which come with limited features or usage caps. Atlassian's Bitbucket free tier and pricing model has worked well, but Slack seems to have found a strong balance. I don't get the impression that Butterfield is concerned that the product won't sufficiently monetise, especially when a subscription costs just $7 per month per user.
That said, I'm sure many companies will abstain from payment despite the productivity and efficiency gains they'll undoubtedly experience.

For consumers, it comes down to whether you think the product is worth paying for, but for businesses the stakes are a little higher, and the motivations are probably a bit different. With a product like Slack, other than time saved, I can see how small to mid-level businesses might struggle to judge what gains in productivity are doing to their revenue, or whether these gains are even attributable to the product itself. Enterprise applications therefore need to better show their customers what the benefits of using their products are, both before and during use. It astonishes me that Slack doesn't generate a summary of group usage data, or have any kind of management dashboard with usage and performance metrics for its non-paying business users.

All kinds of companies have the ability to make me want to use their product, but so often choose to employ some devious marketing scheme to pressure me into buying. Undoubtedly the best products are the ones that don't convince or persuade, but prove to me that I'd benefit from using them, and as a customer that's the best way to make me want them.

Finding purpose in side projects

I'd be lying if I didn't say founding, or at least working for, a SaaS startup was a long term aspiration of mine. 

I'm currently in the 'learn everything I possibly can' part of my career. I spend a great deal of time reading about not only startups but other things that interest me, like conservation, technology, business, journalism and current affairs, often in the belief that I'll be forced to question the world around me, and therefore identify problems to which I can invent effective solutions.

A large part of web development is identifying these problems, and designing apps and websites to best solve them. I guess that's why so many developers work on side projects: because they're an opportunity tackle real problems [1]. It's no secret that some of the world's largest technology companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft) began as 'side projects'.

Unfortunately, so many side projects I see online operate under the guise of 'research' and while they may be impressive from a technical point of view, have few real-world applications. I personally struggle to find meaningful projects to work on, ones that might actually make an impact on somebody, somewhere.

It often seems like a struggle. You commit your time to something, only to realise you've been looking in entirely the wrong place, or that the idea that seemed so original actually already exists. Paul Graham's essay 'How to Get Startup Ideas' explains how often the ideas that are most successful are the ones that occur 'organically' [2], where a founder identifies an opportunity out of an experience of their own. The best approach to coming up with project ideas therefore is to 'not "think up" but "notice"', in other words, put oneself in a situation in which they're more likely to identify real world problems.

A thread on Hacker News highlights a general consensus that is, if you want to come up with lots of ideas, read a lot. Immerse yourself in subject areas that you might not have thought would interest you. Personally, I try to read at least 4-5 articles a day on any number of things. In print, I'm an avid subscriber to National Geographic, but I sometimes dip into New Scientist, and of course I always read the weekend papers, which so often turn out to be waffle. Online, HN often points me towards articles I like to read. I frequent the Verge, Wired and New York Times websites for technology updates, and I can sometimes rely on my cultivated Twitter feed to send me in interesting directions.

Of course many of the opportunities that I do identify will lose traction, and I make a note of those and put them in a draw for a rainy day. I came across a site online, similar to an idea I had 6 months or so ago, that was a sort of food recommendation engine. My project had conservation in mind, but this one was built more around baking. I guess in a sense I dodged a bullet [3], but it's interesting to see someone have a similar idea and run with it. Often I look back on ideas from as recent as weeks ago, and as writers do, ask myself, 'How could I ever have thought that was a good idea?'

I think therefore, to come up with meaningful side project and startup ideas, it's so important to question, 'Does anyone really want this?', and these ideas must come from actual problems people face. Do they have to be world-changing to be meaningful? Perhaps not, but the best startups are, and came from side projects that may not have seemed like they were.

[1] And learn in the process.

[2] "At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders' own experiences 'organic' startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way." - Paul Graham, 'How to Get Startup Ideas'.

[3] Or missed an opportunity. Who knows?