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My Process of Building Side Projects

For those who don't know, I'm a Computer Science major and I enjoy programming outside of school and work. There's something about getting to make whatever you want while also having total ownership of a project that makes building side projects so addicting. I've heard it compared to other hobbies such as gaming or playing sports.

Although many side projects may go unfinished or unreleased, I feel as though there is still a lot of experience to gain from simply starting a project in the first place. In this post, I will walk you through my process of coming up with an idea of what to make, taking said idea and turning it into something tangible, to putting the project out in the world.

Before we begin, I will warn you that my process is by no means perfect. As I'll discuss later, there are a few things I would like to do differently in the future since my current process of building side projects can seem anomalous at times.

Coming Up with an Idea ðŸ’Ą

In order to build something, you first need an idea. I find this to be one of the hardest parts of side projects. This is simply because if there is no idea, there can't be a project. To get around this potential roadblock, I like to examine my own daily life and see what areas I could possibly speed up or improve. Having intimate knowledge of the problem you're trying to solve will make building a side project that much easier.

Preliminary Research 🧐

Once I have an idea in mind, I like to see what existing solutions already exist. Now, if I find more than a few existing projects that solve the same issue that I was hoping to tackle, then I usually will not continue with that project. This is one of those situations that I mentioned earlier where I'm sort of peculiar-- the fact that there are already projects that try to solve an issue means that your idea has already been validated--this is good news! Don't be discouraged if there are already other projects out there.

I find that if I do try to tackle such problems, I will often mimic the existing projects' solutions rather than building something unique. Although imitating one project's solution to help you solve an issue can be helpful, I have found that relying too much on this method then makes it harder for me to build projects that require unique and sophisticated solutions later on.

Choosing a Tech Stack ðŸĨž

Now that I have an idea and know I want to commit to this side project, the next thing I do is research what tech stack I will use to turn the idea into a real thing. This step assumes you've already determined the area or type of project you are going to make--be it a browser extension, CLI tool, a web or mobile app, etc. I love JavaScript and thanks to the run-time environment Node.js, I can make projects as just about any application type. With the language selected, I then will decide if I want to use any libraries that could help speed up the development time and if I'm unfamiliar with a particular library, I will read their documentation.

Coding → MVP ðŸĶī

Time for the fun part: coding! With an idea in mind and the right tools selected to build said idea, I get to work. Programming can be a double-edged sword when creating a side project: when it's going well, I love it. But when I get stuck on an issue that I can't immediately solve, I also really hate it. Throughout the development process, these two emotions can cycle between overpowering one another. At times, I feel so defeated by a bug and want to give up entirely only to get the biggest boost of confidence after stepping away and figuring out how to squash the bug. I like to say making side projects can be like war--it's essentially a series of battles composed of wins and losses, me versus my code.

Eventually I come out victorious and emerge with something that works and solves the original problem. This will almost always be a minimum viable product, or MVP. The MVP serves as the skeleton for the finished product without all the bells and whistles that will eventually make it complete.

Break from Code--Design Time ðŸŽĻ

This is the step in the process where I like to start thinking about how I will market my side project while also giving myself a break from coding. Like a newborn baby, the project needs a name. This can be as simple or extravagant as you would like. Once a name is selected, I think about branding. What will the main colors of the project be? What graphic or logo can best represent this project? What font? Having answers to those questions then allows me to put my creativity to use. Using design software (I'm a big fan of Sketch), I will put together a press kit or package of promotional material (namely good-looking graphics) to be used later on for open graph meta tags or product launches on sites like Product Hunt or Reddit.

Wrapping Up 🎀

Seem like a long process yet? Luckily, we're just about done. After my creative sprint, I go back to programming and flesh out the MVP. On goes the remaining features I thought would be useful and any bug fixes that are critical.

Note: there will always be bugs, so do not try to fix them all before launching your product.

Launching 🚀

By now, I have a finished product and I'm ready to show it to the world. With the press kit I made earlier, I hit up several relevant subreddits to the project I just made and create posts that describe what the project is, why I made it, and where to find it. Posting on Reddit will give my project some exposure and feedback that I can then use to fix or tweak before launching on Product Hunt.

Looking Ahead 🔭

After having gone through this entire process several times and starting the process but not finishing many more times, I feel as though there is room for improvement.

Firstly, deciding whether or not to build something based on the number of existing projects is kind of silly. Even if there are many solutions out there, your take and solution to the problem is unique and therefore could end up being a better solution than all the other projects.

Lastly, it's really important to get your project out in the hands of the public as soon as possible as this will significantly improve your chances of actually completing it. Too many times to count have I worked on a project in isolation without letting others try it which resulted in a "failed" launch. This is simply due to the fact that I assumed I knew what people would want, rather than actually letting them tell me. A costly mistake if you're hoping to have users other than yourself use the project.

So what's in store? I hope to work on the above issues while also continually improving the process I've since been following. I feel as though the side projects I've made up until this point have been quite small in scope, so in the future I also plan on taking on larger problems that require more complex solutions. Finally, I would love to make something that I can monetize and earn some extra side income from.

I guess I already have some goals for 2019.

Cedric Amaya

Written by Cedric Amaya, a software engineer who enjoys occasionally taking a break from coding to write about what is on his mind. You should follow him on Twitter.