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In Defense of Side Projects

By Dan Marley

On Friday, there was a great piece in The American about the importance of side projects—in other words, things you work on while juggling the responsibilities of full-time work—for fostering innovation and entrepreneurial success. In Success on the Side, Ben Casnocha describes some of the transformational products, like Scotch tape and Gmail, that were developed by non-executive workers tinkering on the side. Another example is the Boston Globe's popular Big Picture was started on the side by a software engineer. And in fact, companies like Google even factor in paid time (or at least used to, they may have nixed it in the downturn) where employers are encouraged to work on something beyond their job description, knowing that innovation does not come always come from the top.

Theoretically, this is a great idea for companies where constant innovation is a key to success. Though, in practice, there's clearly going to be a ton of "wasted" time for every big breakthrough. A friend of mine at Microsoft mentioned that Bill Gates once said in a speech to employees that they tried this 15 years ago and it was a failure.

But who cares about the companies' time and money, right!? What Canocha's is talking about is sort of an extreme version of "going above and beyond the call of duty" and actually developing a brand new product that fits into the company's suite of offerings. But what if you want to do something completely different from your line of work? Your own side project if you will? That's what our generation is all about, right? (I won't name any names, but I know people at Google who are certainly working on different projects in their "free time," but they're not necessarily for Google.)

Here are a few tips for pursuing personal side projects without killing your enjoyability:

Side Projects and Interviewing

Being entrepreneurial and having interests beyond your "day job" is generally considered a good thing, so when you interview, don't be afraid to speak about interesting things you've started or been a part of. That said, be smart about it, and understand what the company is looking for and how they will perceive you. The goal is to tell a story with your side projects that displays the skills they helped you acquire or the perspective that made you want to be involved with the company your interviewing for. What you don't want is to look like someone who is going to bounce as soon as one of their ideas takes off, or who just wants to use the company to gain contacts and skills to help them with their own projects.

Side Projects and the Workplace

Once you have a job, pursuing side projects is all about two words you probably don't want to hear: honesty and hard work. (Just kidding—I know those are your top values!). As long as you get your work done and don't let your side projects interfere with your work, everyone's happy. And if you need to make a photo copy or send a fax for a personal project once and awhile, just be discreet about it. The point is, though, that you shouldn't let work be your excuse for not pursuing your passions or trying out new things. Even if you just start a blog about the topic you're interested in or set up some meetings to learn more about what it takes to do what you want to do, try to get the ball rolling and see where it takes you. And if you have ideas for your company but aren't overtly encouraged to share them or work on them, speak to a supervisor. You'll rarely be discouraged from thinking creatively for the good of the company.

As I mentioned, as long as your honest about your ability to keep up with your responsibilities, there's really no issue. Things really get interesting when a side project starts to pick up some momentum and require greater attention, at which point only you can decide if it's worth taking the plunge and leaving your job.

Needless to say, it takes a certain type of individual to be able to work full time and also get another project off the ground. If that life's not for you, remember that there are many ways to make money while giving yourself time to pursue your own project, such as tutoring, dog walking, and freelancing.

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