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Do you have a personal project?

Cover Image for Do you have a personal project?
How useful are personal projects when it comes to career development, and what does a good personal project look like?

TLDR;

All delegates in Undeveloper Academy, regardless of their specific role in tech or their seniority level, work with a technical supervisor to design and track a personal project to accelerate their growth in a direction that's important to them. In this article we discuss ideas for personal projects and talk about ways in which they can be useful.


My relationship with personal projects

I'm going to come clean: I have a complicated relationships with personal projects!

Whether it's building a new company, renovating a house, learning how to climb or bowl or snowboard, fixing up an old motorbike, long-distance running, learning new programming languages, writing a book, building a retro games console from scratch... you name it, I've probably picked it up as a project at some point and am possibly still tinkering away at it! (all of these examples are things I'm doing or have done, and just those I can think of off the top of my head...)

Aside from launching Undeveloper Academy and the Coaching side of this business recently, the project that's held most of my headspace has been what I call "The Retcon Project". It's essentially a clone of the 1980s home console, the Sega Master System, but with all new parts and constructed in such a way as to teach people about computers and how they work. I'm also writing a book that goes along with the project.

Here's a photo of one of my more recent prototypes:

PCBs with wires, game controller and cartridge games like After Burner and Sonic the Hedgehog next to it

As I'm sure my partner will attest to, to say a lot of work has gone into this project is a ridiculous understatement, and still I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what I want it to be. Sometimes I wonder whether all this obsession with projects and building things is healthy, but when I look back over the last two or so years of building the Retcon I am blown away by just how much I've been able to achieve with what really are scraps of spare time, as well as how much I've learned and grown in the process.

So what are some of the great things about personal projects, and how can they help us with our development, either personal development or career development?

Personal projects are fun!

They're hard work, exhausting, sometimes stressful, occasionally regretful, but almost certainly we are drawn to them because challenging ourselves is fun. Building stuff is fun. Even failing and failing and failing and then finally succeeding is fun!

I've picked up projects before which I knew in my heart of hearts I wouldn't really have fun doing, and I now know that those don't tend to last very long before they get dropped.

Turns out that (as if we really needed a study to prove it...) that having fun with something is a great way to promote learning!

A fun project apart from our business as usual can also keep us motivated and engaged across our whole life, particularly as sometimes everyday life has ups and downs in terms of providing enthusiasm or variety.

Example — Jennifer Dewalt made 180 websites in 180 days (below is a screenshot from day 5!)

Personal projects are challenging

Or at least they often can be. Perhaps in our day job we've hit a place where we're performing well at the level we want to be, but long for those old times where we felt totally out of our depth and like every day was a new mountain to climb. A well-designed, challenging personal project can help plug the gaps in our own personal "risk profile" — we can design safe ways to fail (and therefore to grow) in our personal projects which we perhaps can't find elsewhere.

We know that we need to exercise our bodies to keep them in good working order; why shouldn't it be the same for the mind? A challenging personal project can be like a kind of brain workout. It turns out that when we're dealing with the kind of creativity that projects require, and throw in learning new things, possibly managing social connections as well as normal executive function, our brains are doing an awful lot of work indeed.

Overcoming significant challenge in a controlled manner can also be a great way to build confidence in an area in which we're feeling weak. A good rule of thumb I usually employ is "if it's difficult, it's probably valuable". Being able to overcome challenges that most other people can't is, by definition, rare and the world will often pay a premium for skills which are hard to acquire. At the extreme, consider problems which almost no one in the world is apparently able to solve: these are the kind of problems that have the potential to change lives, and some people devote their lives (indeed, sometimes groups of people devote multiple lifetimes over decades or centuries) to solving extremely really challenging problems.

Example — Ann Morgan decided to expand her exposure to writing from other cultures (not to mention expanding her bookshelf!) by reading one book from each of the 196 countries in the world in a single year!

Personal projects give us deep understanding

It's easy enough to learn new things at a surface level: we can read a book or watch a video online or go on a course. These things are often great for sparking that initial inspiration, and for broadening our general awareness. To develop deep new knowledge and mastery of a new skill, however, there's no substitute for time spent grappling with a challenge. We've all heard the "rule" from Malcom Gladwell about needing 10,000 hours to develop mastery of a skill. Personally I don't think it's particularly helpful to quantify the value of learning time in hours (one hour of really intense struggle could be worth a hundred hours of moderate struggle, for example), however it certainly does make intuitive sense that the more experience we have of solving a problem the more about the fundamental nature of that problem we'll understand.

There comes a point with personal projects when we realise we are even becoming an expert amongst our peers. Suddenly people start reaching out to us because they know we're the one person they know who might have the answer to their obscure question. Or we might find that we're spending more and more time on forums or user groups helping people out as they get started on the journey we've been on for a while with our project. I don't know about you, but helping people makes me feel good — it reassures me that what I've learned has some extrinsic value and also helps me feel connected with other similarly minded people.

Example — Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) probably now knows much more about infectious diseases than most of us would ever comfortably want to, thanks to his personal philanthropy projects post-Microsoft

Personal projects can be designed the way we want

Much more so than projects we are assigned by others (e.g. at work), or which we assign to ourselves just to get by in our lives, personal projects can be completely designed by us to push all the learning buttons we want them to. We can make them hard or easy, broad or narrow, quick sprints or endurance events.

We can design our personal projects around a specific area of weakness we've identified in our skill-set; or around a specific curiosity we have with some concept or technology for example; or even around a subject we think will bring more fun, joy, excitement or connection with other communities into our lives.

What's more, we can even re-design personal projects as we go along. They can evolve with our lifestyles and our constraints, our hopes and plans and desires and they can adapt according to whether we think we're getting out of them what we originally planned to.

Example — Elin Lööw decided to face her creative fears by dedicating a whole year to identifying those fears and trying to create in those places where her fears were strongest

Personal projects can bring us closer to others

I usually find not long after diving into a personal project just how many people around me are interested in the same things. It could be in real life (example: turns out if you go down to a climbing gym and strike up a conversion with any random person, you'll find someone who absolutely loves to talk about climbing and doesn't care that you're a perfect stranger!); or in the virtual world.

I recently read that over 500 minutes of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Needless to say this means that we can never in our lifetime hope to watch all the videos on YouTube posted from now on, let alone those posted in the past (and before you say it, even 2x speed won't get close to making this possible)! So it's safe to imagine that whatever our personal project is about, someone else — and likely hundreds or even thousands of other people — will already be sharing content on the same subject.

Interacting with community peers is one step along the collaboration journey, but often personal projects turn into joint ventures with many other people. Many popular open source projects have started life as one person's personal project, for example. Who knows, our personal project today might be the start of a huge technical or social revolution in years to come...

Example — the absolutely incredible a11y Project, a site aimed at demonstrating how to build accessible and inclusive websites. It was started by one person in 2013. To date there have been over 215 community contributors!

Personal projects give us something interesting to talk about

If you have a personal project on the go and have ever been asked in an interview what you do "outside work" to keep up to date with your chosen profession, you'll know what a boon personal projects can be in these situations. Now I'm not talking about scratching the surface stuff like "oh I'm really interested in 3D printing; I don't actually have a 3D printer but I've read a couple of articles about it..."; I mean the kind of project that when somebody pushes your button you could talk animatedly for hours about it. These type of experiences really do help separate you from other candidates. They show that you are passionate enough about your field that it's not just a 9-5 thing; they show that you're not afraid to take your own initiative and take charge of your own learning experiences; if you've designed them well around areas of weakness or interest they can demonstrate the kind of introspection, self-awareness and sense of responsibility that most employers would fall over to have; and — perhaps most importantly — when you can speak confidently and passionately about something you deeply care about, it typically has the effect of endearing you to the other person. To put it another way, if we show that we care deeply about something, people — especially empathetic people — are more inclined to start caring about us.

I don't want to give the impression here that personal projects should only be "outside work" things. I was once speaking to a UI designer who had done a big design system project in their previous job. It was not their normal business as usual — it was something totally new which had stretched them considerably but they were so invested in that project that they spoke about it almost like they were talking about their baby. Clearly it had meant something very special to them.

Similarly, a project needn't be wholly tangible. I was once talking to a person who was interviewing with companies at C-suite level and who had turned the last few years of their career into a big experiment. They had deliberately tried to acquire two years of C-level experience in three different sized companies: early-stage startup, scale-up and corporate. Having completed this 5 or 6 year experiment they had identified that they most loved working with scale-up companies. I was really struck with the intentionality and sheer timescale of this experiment. What a great way to push our boundaries and explore all the corners of our work self fully.

To those reading this now who point out that this is all well and good for job interviews, but surely nerding out on a personal project can only hurt us when it comes to, say, the dating scene; I can assure you that regardless of the context, someone who can talk passionately and confidently about something that means a great deal to them will always be able to draw others to them and many people find this admirable and even attractive. (I mean, seems to have worked somehow for this motorcycling rock-climbing nerd who can fix your home plumbing and electrics... 🤷‍♂️)

Example — basically any video of someone addressing an audience is proof that personal projects are interesting, but as a somewhat light-hearted example I love this Ted Talk of a guy in Canada who decided one day to see how far he could get by trading a red paperclip he found, and ended up with a whole house! It's also a great example of how we can create opportunity from the unlikeliest of assets.

Personal projects open new doors

We never really know where our lives are heading. When I think back to all of the incredible experiences I've had so far in life (and I calculate I must be roughly halfway through at this point!) almost none of them have come as a result of careful planning, but rather from serendipity, chance encounters and unexpected discoveries — about myself and about other people around me. In fact, I never planned on having a career in the software industry — it was a childhood hobby that turned into more...

Inevitably, if we devote enough time to a personal project, and especially if we engage with other communities and people in the process, all those little rolls of the dice will almost certainly add up to really big opportunities to shift the direction of our lives in unexpected ways. Sometimes it's the gradual realisation that we like our personal project more than our day job. Perhaps we have the opportunity to make a living from our hobby, or maybe we can work with our employers to change our roles into something new that could benefit both us and them? Sometimes it's the connections with new people that spur on change. New people come with new ideas and perspectives. Over time, those new perspectives can shift our way of thinking quite dramatically. Or more mundanely new connections can simply lead to opportunities through networking. The more people we know, the more people there are in our network to help us out when we need it, or to have us in mind when they have resources or benefits to share, like business leads etc.

Example — Micha Frazer-Carroll started writing in school, became more involved in writing about race and mental health at University, and ended up turning what was a initially a hobby into a career as a journalist at The Guardian.

— Will


A little more about personal projects in Undeveloper Academy

One of the four pillars of Undeveloper Academy (the others being one-on-one coaching, group mentoring and community / accreditation) is the completion of a year long personal project, and the provision of a personal technical supervisor to help guide and assist.

For all the wonderful things detailed above that truly personal projects can do for us, they can sometimes be hard to manage, especially for those of us who are maybe a little unsure of where to start, or who have trouble keeping on track of our goals. This is where the technical supervision comes in: delegates will initially work with a technical supervisor to design a project that can best facilitate their growth and personal goals. The technical supervisor is then available for regular meetings (we suggest fortnightly) where their advice, support and experience can be leveraged.

This model is inspired by higher education where it's common for students to complete a dissertation or final project and be assigned a supervisor from the teaching staff to assist and support. Unlike these examples however, the personal projects forming part of the Undeveloper Academy programme are designed to last at least one whole year. In fact, we recommend that projects are designed in such a way that they should take over a year to complete. This ensures that the work is challenging enough that it's unlikely to be finished before the programme year is complete. We believe that the value of a personal project is not in its completion but in the challenges it presents on the long journey.

To find out more about the Undeveloper Academy programme, for yourself or for your employees, please do fill in a contact form. There's no commitment to enquire, and we'd love to hear from you.