Your Side Projects are Your Future

Note: This is a blog about my thoughts and experiences designing a complete JavaScript website from scratch including payments. The code is rough and being developed in the open for educational purposes. Grab the RSS or follow @lzsthw on Twitter if you want to follow along.

Let me tell you a story about the Enterprise Java Programmers from eBay. When eBay was founded Java was hot. Everyone was using Java. If you were a serious real programmer, you did everything in Java. I know because I got sucked into endless terrible Java projects up until 2008 when the banks collapsed and swirled around the economic toilet, taking the turd Enterprise Java with them. People laugh, but the banks dying in 2008 is really what wiped out Enterprise Java as we know it and killed off Sun.

Apparently, in 2008 about 40-50% of Sun's money came from banks running Java. When the banks collapsed because of the mortgage backed securities fraud a huge chunk of Sun's money evaporated practically overnight. As smaller banks were absorbed into the three remaining larger banks the contractual obligations to Sun were canceled. There was also a form of "guilt by association" because Java was associated with inflexible old systems that couldn't be changed fast enough to survive the 2008 crash. I know this because I literally worked on one of these inflexible Java systems at Bear Stearns and watched this all unfold in real time in 2008.

I say Enterprise Java because Java continued on life support when Google/Android used it in their phones. If it weren't for Android Java--the language--would have died the miserable death it deserved in 2008. That's why I keep saying "Enterprise", because that version of Java was a special brand of obnoxious hell most programmers from then hate. It was this bizarre infinitely indirect convoluted code that seemed to only exist to keep Enterprise Programmers in their jobs. I remember to this day obnoxious "old beard" Java programmers who would brow beat you and harass you if you didn't wrap everything in an AbstractFactoryIndirectFactoryFactory.

This use of convoluted code full of AbstractFactory shibboleths did actually do its job of excluding new entrants to the industry and also keeping programmers employed. You couldn't fire those Enterprise Java programmers because they were the only ones who knew that incredibly convoluted code to fix that bug once a year that weirdly showed up right about the time they were supposed to get bonuses. You had to pay 8000 people a year to basically sit and watch a bunch of Java virtual machines do nothing or else one day (right before bonuses) these VMs would implode and you'd have nobody around to fix them.

The problem with the Enterprise Java Programmer (EJP) and their job protectionism is companies die, and when they do you need to find a new job. You would think the collapse of 2008 would teach these programmers this lesson, but they did not learn it at all. You'd think they'd realize no job is safe anymore, and that they need to always have a second language in their back pocket and a plethora of alternative projects just in case they need to jump off the burning ship.

Nope, and the programmers at eBay are an excellent example.

eBay Wised Up

I used eBay a few times, and even in 2014 it still had old creaky garbage user interfaces. When you did a checkout it would inject <iframe> tags back to its own services to show you simple things like...an invoice. That might be fine here and there, but eBay was riddled with these iframe cockroaches. Paypal (which was owned by eBay at the time) was nearly the same way, with terrible UIs all over and creaky infrastructure.

I'm pretty sure the cause of this perpetual terrible UI was the EJPs and their job protective code. In order to maintain their jobs they created a system that was difficult to change without their help. That also makes the code difficult for them to change, so most likely when they're asked to "please make the UI modern", they claim its "impossible". You'd ask if they can puhhleaze just use something like bootstrap, and the EJP will go look at their creaky old Java code with its hand coded HTML embedded in a FactoryFactoryImplInterface and say, "No that'd be impossible."

This impossibility was demonstrated as a lie. Eventually Paypal was spun off on its own and suddenly their UI started to improve. Paypal shared the same programmers as eBay, but after the spinoff they were able to fire those crotchety old EJPs and hire some better UI designers to improve the application. Paypal had to do this because of competition from Stripe which was owning them in the developer market with nice UIs and documentation.

After Paypal showed you could improve this supposedly "impossible" code I believe it started a war within eBay that eventually culminated in eBay firing about 3000 Enterprise Java Programmers. There's no official number, but the information I have from sources inside puts it at around 3000-8000 fired and the CTO trying to hire anyone else to improve the company.

Eventually companies like eBay either die, or get smart and realize that firing inflexible "impossible" programmers is the only way forward. When you look at many of the banks from 2008, you can always find some piece of inflexible technology controlled by a programmer who thinks keeping it inflexible will save their job. The irony of this attitude is that being inflexible eventually kills the company, costing them their job, but also makes it difficult for them to find work after.

The eBay programmers are excellent demonstrations of this effect. Many of them couldn't even switch over to Android development. I know many that switched over to non-programming jobs or just retired entirely. Most of them didn't have anything else to show for their decades at eBay and had no ability to learn any new languages. They had no potential side businesses to start, no additional demonstrations of skill, and no way to explain how they spent 20 years keeping invoicing AbstractInterfaceImpl <iframe> Virtual Machine running.

The Truths

A lot of the people who tell you not to code at home try to cast this viewpoint as some sort of proletariat revolt against the machinery of late capitalism. I grew up extremely poor and I can tell you that none of these people have ever been truly poor. People who are actually poor want to work, and know that you can lose everything in an instant so they do everything they can to keep working. Work is not shameful or a sign that you're a loser. Many people want to work and people saying they don't doesn't make them edgy or socialist. It makes them privileged.

Anyone telling you to work less is not your friend. The same goes for anyone shaming you for wanting to make more money. Usually these people are privileged with a family or spouse who can take care of them. If they suddenly lose their job, they have an alternative degree and programming is just a minor stepping stone to something else, or they're just delusional and think they'll have their cushy job forever. Their experience is completely different from mine and yours, so if you need to work, and you want to keep working in programming, then you definitely should ignore someone who has the luxury of learning one programming language to work at one company.

The truth is having side projects is the main way you build leverage against corporate greed. It's harder to exploit someone who has options, and in my experience working on additional projects after work has given me far more benefit than any job has. I can safely say that everything I learned over my career has been from the personal work I do, not from any job I've had. I can also say that the most fun and enjoyment I've had in programming has been working on my own projects.

Therefore, I'm going to give you my list of true reasons that side projects benefit you as a programmer of any experience level.

Truth 0: Side Projects Mean Freedom

To this day there's hordes of programmers who think it's a form of oppression to have to work on side projects, when the truth is side projects give you choice, and choice is freedom. With additional code done outside of work in another language you can choose to leave when you find a better position in the new language. You can also potentially turn these side projects into new businesses you own.

If all you do is work on your company's code you effectively become stuck in their particular brand of code and their way of doing things. Unless that company is one of the FAANGs your experience is in many ways going to work against you when trying to find new work. That's because (as I'll explain later), your version of a language is almost always totally weird and incompatible with all the other totally weird uses of that language.

The company you work for likes this situation because they know you'll never leave since you have lost your experience with new technology, and learning it is difficult. You'll just sit there babysitting the JVM that keeps the cornflower blue buttons running and not try to find a job doing Go because that's harder.

You shouldn't think of your side projects as some kind of calling card that you reluctantly do so you can get a job after your big mega corp dies. You should think of it as keeping your options open through training and study so that you are free to get a new job when you see one or need one.

Truth 1: You Never Get a Raise

Why would you need to go get a new job if you're making decent money at a nice and easy job? Because companies never give programmers wages that match their impact. You might get a 2% raise a year, which is less than the inflation of your currency. You might get a tiny bonus. Meanwhile, your code will be the main reason your company makes billions and trillions of dollars. You might be able to get some stock options, and that's about the only way you'll get a raise. Ever.

However, the industry frequently needs people at new companies, so one of the easiest ways to get a raise is to just get a new job. Changing jobs can get you a 20% to a whopping 100% or more pay raise for doing the same thing.

Companies will do anything to keep you from changing jobs. Just read about the Apple/Google/Intel wage theft scandal to see how far they'll go to keep you from following the money. If you think your boss has your best interests in mind then you're delusional. They want to get the most they can from you while paying you the least money possible, and you should act accordingly by keeping your skills portable and finding the best jobs you can.

One great way to keep your options open is to have publicly available side projects.

Truth 2: New Languages Pay More

Changing jobs to a new hot programming language is one sure fire way to boost your pay, but, you can't jump jobs to a higher paying position if you're still the troll who keeps a single ancient code working. You need to demonstrate you can code in Go, Rust, Nim, Zig, or whatever else is hot. Companies hire you to be able to build something, and you can most easily demonstrate that by...building things using new technologies in side projects.

Truth 3: You Never Get Training

Hold on a minute! If a language is new, then how do you have the job experience to get that job? IBM recently demanded 12 years experience in Kubernetes when Kubernetes has only been around for 6 years. This is actually very common, with companies demanding experience in new technologies even though nobody actually has experience in those technologies.

How do you get experience in fresh new technologies? Side projects.

Companies know that if they train you in new technologies then you'll leave. Why wouldn't you leave a company that refuses to give you a pay raise when your code is the reason the company is worth a trillion dollars? If you get training it will most likely be trips to conferences where you'll learn nothing. At work, you'll be chastised as a "snowflake" for trying to use any new technology as it's "risky", even if that technology is a massive jump in capability and used by Google or Facebook.

The only way you can get training in new technologies is to train yourself, and the only training that actually works in programming is building things. People don't pay you to know how a Monad works in Haskell. They pay you to build things with Monads in Haskell, so if you've never built something then they don't trust you can actually do what they need.

Truth 4: You Never Get Recognition

You will never get your name in any kind of credits for your work. The gaming industry is the one place I see credit for people's work, and outside of that you are a faceless cog in a machine. You actually have no proof you did anything at most companies, which is why new jobs want to see side projects. It's too easy to lie and say you did all this work at eBay when you actually just kept an iframe working, but a side project in a new language shows that you can actually do the work.

Until movie style credits are a norm in programming, you need side projects to show your skills. Probably even after that.

Truth 5: You Don't Know Java

You might be wondering why the eBay Java programmers couldn't just go do another Java job. Why not just quickly slip into Android development? Oh silly goose, that's because they don't know Java, they know eBay Enterprise Java.

Every programmer working at a company in any programming language is operating under the delusion that their use of that language is "standard" when the truth is it's not. Your usage of that language is very specific and tailored to that company and based on a history of convolution that makes it weird compared to everyone else's use of the language (who all also think their use of the language is standard).

The only way to break this delusion (and to keep yourself sane) is to work on a side project that is outside of your company's code base, and in a totally different programming language. This will help you land future jobs because you'll be more in line with the new trends in programming usage from your outside experience.

Programming only in eBay Java means you can only work on eBay Java. The industry changes fast, and the new jobs follow trends, so you should keep up on the trends in the event you need or want a new job.

Truth 6: MBAs Love Cogs

The work environment at many companies is incredibly oppressive for programmers given the creative nature of the discipline. When you go work at a company you will be forced to use whatever tools they think you should use, not what works best for you. If they are an Eclipse+Java shop, then you will use their specific brand of Eclipse. If they use WebStorm you will use WebStorm. You will be ridiculed and harassed constantly for using anything different. Many programming environments are oppressive abusive threats to your efficiency and skills, and they want it that way so you can be replaced.

The reason is MBAs love nicely uniform slotted cogs they can replace at any notice. You are not a creative human making intelligent educated creative decisions. You are a piece of machinery they feed vague sentences into and expect solid software out the back end. Anything that threatens your generic nature is seen as an affront to the business and is shut down, and it's shut down by other programmers who have internalized this abusive attitude. This is quadruple true if you are in any shop that uses Pair Programming.

If you value your sanity you'll spend some of your free time using and doing things you enjoy with computers, and that means working on side projects you enjoy with the text editor you enjoy.

Truth 7: It Is a Performance, Fair or Not

One complaint people have about side projects is they think it's unfair that companies ask to see their published work before hiring. They find it offensive that some corporation would dare to ask them to prove they can code. Programming isn't a performance art!

The reality is that programming is now a performance art. You have to show your work when you are at a job. You have to work on a team. You have to submit to code reviews. You have to whiteboard ideas and speak intelligently about what you are trying to do. You have to write about it. You have to attend conferences to sell your things to programmers. Let's not forget that there's an entire contingent of programmers who fervently claim that code is political and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

If code is political, then it is also performative. Sorry, but you can't have it both ways. You don't have politics without performance, and the people who lament the performance aspects of the profession have only their self to blame for turning code political.

But, what we see from the people who lament having to prove they can code with side projects is they seem to have no problem with every other form of industry performance. They manage a perfectly curated LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter that espouses their awesome job in developer relations speaking at 30 conferences a year with fantastic high gloss professional head shots....but yeah, showing me 2 small JavaScript projects is demanding performance from them.

The truth is your side projects demonstrate that you can do the job, and that you can do it on your own. It sucks that programming is performative now, but if code is political now then, oh well, I guess we all have to suck it up and put on a show.

Truth 8: You Can Use Code Everywhere

You don't have to code what your boss makes you code. You can make anything you want, so why not make code that improves your life? If your entire experience of programming is just what you do at your company then obviously you're going to hate it.

If you're going home and working on things that interest you or have direct impact on your life, then that's where the power of learning to code comes from. I can see why some new programmers think programming is only what they do in their first job, but it's so much more. You have this skill that allows you to automate almost any part of your life, so why would you complain about...having that skill?

I've used code to figure out new theories of music, automate boring tax collection, create life changing business websites for friends and relatives, and to create my entire online business which started as a side project. Side projects literally gave me freedom to move, travel, and not be afraid to take chances. They were and are my safety net against bad economies, bad bosses, bad companies, and global pandemics. I have confidence that I can work anywhere on anything and that I can prove I can work on anything anywhere.

You don't have to code after you get off work, but if you want to have options in your career and utilize this skill you have to its full potential, then I highly recommend you do.

Truth 9: You Own The Means of Production

I find it bizarre that the people who are lamenting having to work on side projects also seem to be incredibly Marxist and then don't realize that being able to code is the ultimate ownership of the means of production. You can start an online business for almost zero dollars these days. So many services are free to start, and simply skim off the top that you don't even need to be a programmer to start one. Hardest thing about starting a business is paying for all the government licenses and requirements.

As a programmer you have the ultimate tool for starting your own business with almost zero capital and totally owning it. You can setup your own hosting, register your company, create your domain, even accept your own Bitcoin with something like btcpayserver and honestly never really have to talk to anyone. You can also work as a consultant, offer programming services in your local area, help out small businesses, and so many other things.

For many people a side project is the difference between being homeless after they're ticket to independence, so shaming people who are working on a potential side business is stupid. Many people who work on something else are doing it to improve their lives by...owning the means of production.

Sucks for the complainer if they're so risk averse they never think to do that too.

Truth 10: The Lack of Time

I understand people who have children, families, or similar social commitments might not have the time, but the vast majority of people who complain they have no time for side projects clearly do have the time. I'm thinking of one person who probably posts about 200 Twitter posts a day but has "no time to work on side projects" (that they posted in their 200th tweet that day).

I suggest that if you think you don't have time for anything else then prove it. Track every half hour of your day for 2 weeks and see where you spend your time. Be honest, and I bet you'll find out you've got loads of time if you just cut out something stupid. I'm positive people have lots of free time they don't want to admit they have, but analyzing your time will help you find it and be honest with what you have to work on your own things.

But, remember Truth 9? I bet if you tracked where you spend time, you might find a programming project that can automate something out of the way to free up some of your time so you can do more programming.

Welcome to Yak Shaving my favorite kind of programming side project.

Conclusion

I'm a huge fan of people doing what ultimately makes them happy. If it makes you sad and angry to have to work on side projects at home then don't. Find something else to fill your time. But, if you want to have a long career and the ultimate freedom in this profession then you have to accept the performative nature of the job and work on your own in your spare time. Side projects are honestly the only way to make sure that you aren't blind sided by a tragic turn of events that makes you unemployable, and side projects are also where the real fun in programming resides.

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