I usually give my students and junior developers two pieces of advice: practice your skills and work on strong side projects. Practice is a given, but projects on your own time are a greatly underrated and often forgotten asset.
Strong projects challenge you in at least one way. If you’re focusing on development, maybe you’ll target a framework or an aspect of a programming language you haven’t used yet. If you’re a designer, it could be a new tool or workflow. Remember, the side project needs elements of the familiar to make regular progress so you do not get frustrated and give up, yet remain achievable over time.
Great side projects are a mix of what you can execute quickly but are also somewhat foreign and difficult. It’s a twist on your existing point of view, not one that’s completely coming from left field. One personal example: a refresh of this very site (familiar), but undertaken with a fresh set of responsive design tools and Sass underpinning the styling (foreign).
It’s not an accident I generated my latest project after work hours; the best side projects are almost always outside the day job. Because you’re free from work interference, it can and should move at your own pace. It’s ok to be disorganized too. You don’t even have to finish; the project can flounder and die days, weeks or months down line. As long as you grow from it, it’s still a success. And above all, side projects should be fun.
Shouldn’t a good job nullify the need for side projects? Not exactly. Even with the best jobs, your personal growth goals are never perfectly aligned with the company you work for. And some work, even with the best intentions, can get stuck in a boring, repetitive rut. A strong side project provides an opportunity to escape that.
At the very least, even a so-so side project teaches you something new on your own timetable. And at its best, side projects can establish your “niche” as a designer or developer, a critical way to stand out from your tech peers. They did for me; three years at Gucci, my first formalized web job, pushed me most of the way. However, it’s my Hacker News and Rdio browser extensions on my own time, along with some minimal Tumblr themes, that confirmed my interests as a web developer on the very front of front-end development that often drifts into UX and aesthetic design.
Good jobs push your career far. Good side projects push it further. Make time and a commitment to both.