Entrepreneur & Co-founder of Imagine Easy and drop.io. I like cooking, board, & card games.
I’ve been a tech co-founder multiple times and have ran or participated directly in the hiring of over two dozen developers across three companies. I’ve recruited across experience levels, from startups to public companies. In that time, I’ve reviewed hundreds of resumes.
Often I’ve seen developers list personal projects, or side projects, on their resume. As a hiring manager, I’ve often been asked if this is a good thing to do, as it might signal you have priorities more important than your job.
Personally, I’ve found my own side projects to be great outlets to explore ideas, learn new technologies, and ship products the way I want to, without the need to get team buy-in or corporate approval. However, some articles suggest side projects are counterproductive - sending the wrong signal to potential employers and recruiters.
Having been at an employer and currently hiring people at my new word finding and vocabulary building site, I think the picture is more nuanced. Side projects are not only important to a developer’s personal growth, they can be useful tools to stand out in a crowded job marketplace.
The key, however, is not the project, but how you describe it on your resume. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
The type of company
Describe your side project in terms that align with the company you’re applying to. For example, a small startup may value independence, creative thinking, and problem solving - all of which you can demonstrate in your side project. Knowing that you can work autonomously could be important to a resource-strapped business.
Larger companies may care about how the technologies you’ve learned helped you succeed at previous firms. The importance of getting something done, interacting with the community, and having a product-oriented mindset may be valuable, and you should discuss your side project from this lens.
In the event you can glean some information about your hiring panel (for example, through their LinkedIn or social media posts), you may find ways to discuss your project in ways that connect with them personally. For example, you may find that the engineering manager is a big runner, and decide to emphasize your biking-course side project a bit more with them vs. other side projects.
The depth of your understanding
Sometimes, a side project is simply there to pursue a passion; in which case, it can appear on the resume but should be relegated further down in the Interests section.
Additionally, your ability to communicate about a side project is critical. I’ve seen some resumes that have 5 or 6 side projects, each highlighting multiple cutting edge technologies. But after asking the candidates for more details in an interview, it often becomes clear the knowledge of the tech stack is superficial.
Ensuring you can communicate why you made certain decisions helps the employer understand your thinking process. Even if, for example, the company can’t use the PaaS provider you use due to internal complexity and legacy lock-in, knowing that you can weigh the pros and cons of different decisions will build confidence that you can work in many different environments.
Focusing on the work
One of the biggest dangers of a side project is an employer could find it, at worst, a competitive threat, and at best a distraction. However, you control the narrative and can frame the conversation positively.
To be clear, there’s a long and wonderful history of people’s side projects becoming huge, but there’s no need to broadcast that to your potential future employer.
When discussing a side project, be clear on emphasizing how it’s scratching a personal itch, how it’s something you periodically play with on the weekends, or how you haven’t touched it in a while due to prioritizing work at a previous employer assuming that’s true). You want to leave an employer with the feeling that you’re a creative, productive employee that is learning-oriented.
And on the small chance your side project is the next big thing, be sure to read those employer IP clauses and tread carefully.
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