Pouring My Whole Self Into Work10 Jan 2017
Lately, I’ve had little desire to tackle side projects. This realization caught me off guard, especially as someone who participated in countless hackathons, helped start one at their school, and whose side project landed him and his friends a trip to visit Snapchat’s HQ. Our industry tends to espouse the idea that you must always have a side project—often citing them as a factor in hiring decisions. Thinking more deeply about this change, I reflected on my decision to join Peloton, our industry’s assumption of the privilege to work on side projects, and how I’d like to incorporate my experience with side projects into my future management style.
Since joining Peloton, I’ve almost had to throttle my drive for the product. I’m finally in a domain in which I could see myself working for the next 50+ years. I’m pouring my whole self into work, leaving little energy for side projects. The inverse of this pattern became evident when I looked back at my previous jobs, during which I juggled multiple side projects. I cared deeply about my time at Imgur and Tumblr—and couldn’t be more thankful for how the people there molded me—but the vectors of the companies’ missions and my personal one weren’t completely aligned1. Side projects made up for this. Generalizing, this could2 be a useful test for determining if you’ve diverged from your personal trajectory.
When it comes to hiring, filtering based on side projects can accidentally rule out great candidates. Tess Rinearson captured this really well:
Actually, I "get" it with students, since school doesn't necessarily teach you how to build. But otherwise it seems like a false filter.— Tess Rinearson (@_tessr) May 7, 2015
Having the time and energy to work on side projects is a form of privilege. “The people most likely to have spare time to do outside projects are people who don’t have families to take care of (kids, parents, whatever), who have a good, steady income (i.e. not learning while, say, balancing two part-time jobs), or who live close to work (minimizing a commute)3.” On the other hand, “some folks are permitted [and encouraged] to work on [side projects], as a part of their full-time work, so [we] shouldn’t [completely] ignore [them]4.” It’s a balance. If a candidate has side projects that they’re open to talking about, fantastic! If not, that’s perfectly fine (and normal). Having hobbies and responsibilities outside of programming doesn’t mean they’re not a committed developer.
How This Could Apply to Management
There might be an important management lesson buried in the concept of putting your “whole self” into work. When I’m a manager, I’d like to structure sprints with the most important and most interesting work. The latter shouldn’t be relegated to 20% time. It should be a first-class citizen, as it affects the team’s momentum (and excitement) in tangible ways. Moreover, this is especially important for one-person shops. A gauge to see if your engineers are disengaged from their current workload might be the presence of side projects (if they’re open to sharing and noting that this doesn’t paint a complete picture). If business needs make it impossible to harmonize the most important and the most interesting, I’d add items to be excited about in future sprints. Doing so generally builds anticipation, making the current sprint more tolerable.
I’ll likely start a few side projects again at some point that are rooted in deeper motivations, as opposed to addressing a disconnect from my full-time work. The fact that I’m pouring all of my engineering love into work lets me wake up energized and go to sleep excited. For the first time in my life, I’m catching myself smiling on the way to work ❤️
1: And that’s okay! Our personal missions and those of the companies we work for won’t always be.
3: From “So You Want to Be a (Compiler) Wizard”