Volume 32 Number 1
You're Hired: 11 Things to Consider with Side Projects
By Krishnan Rangachari | January 2017
Developers make crucial mistakes when listing technical “side projects” on their resumes. I see it all the time. Here are 11 questions to ask yourself before touting your side projects:
- Why mention it? Most side projects are tiny hobby projects that simply aren’t worth being listed on a resume. They’ll get ignored. To stand out, position a side project so that it startles the interviewer into thinking, “Wow, this person really enjoys software engineering and is good at it.”
- Does it fulfill relevant experience? If you have little experience relevant to a job, a side project can be a powerful conversational pivot during interviews. Just be sure to list it under your work history if you can, rather than in a special Projects section. When you list something in Projects, you unintentionally discount its value by 75 percent to interviewers. You’re telling them, “Don’t pay attention to this section; it’s just something little I did on the side.”
- Is it strong? An ideal project is as strong as your strongest “work” project, with similar characteristics: worked in a team, dealt with clients or customers, hit massive success metrics via downloads or financial gain, achieved press recognition, or overcame obstacles.
- What’s the story? No matter what side project I put on the resume, I’d craft four to five stories to handle almost any question about it. With every story, I’d make the side project the glorious, heroic solution that solved a crisis problem. I’d repurpose the stories when interviewers asked for my greatest strength, greatest weakness or obstacles overcome.
- What was superlative about it? Figure out ways to describe your projects in terms of “bests.” In what tiny way was your project the biggest, the most popular, the most downloaded, the most viewed, the fastest, or the most praised?
Almost any side project can be described superlatively yet truthfully in at least one way. Mastering this delicate, hyper-creative dance adds weight to your projects’ value.
- Is the right aspect emphasized? If I have to choose among many side projects, I pick one that shows me in the most outrageously positive light, be it in technical complexity, success achieved, scale, reach, results or relevance to the company for which I’m applying.
- Did it help anyone? I recommend listing side projects under Work Experience when you solve at least one other person’s problem with your project. This approach worked for my client Felicia, who used to list her side projects in a Projects section. After she moved them to her Work Experience section, and described them as “Client Engagements” (because she’d created all her side projects for at least one other person’s benefit), she got an offer within a few weeks.
- Is a Web site even necessary? Most recruiters barely take time to read your resume before an interview, much less find time to visit your Web sites. And if they do visit your Web site, they are unlikely to dig into your side projects; they’ll just look for glaring red flags (like inappropriate content).
Candidates tend to over-share on their sites, in ways that can sabotage their candidacies. For most candidates, the risks of a personal Web site outweigh the rewards. If you have a personal site on your resume, make it 100 percent professional.
- Where do you host side projects? It’s not necessary to host projects online, but if you do, choose a site that gives you the most “street cred” for the role. For a UI developer, a gorgeous, professional portfolio site built on your own domain is the way to go. For other developers, GitHub is the best choice.
- How does this project help the company? Sometimes, it’s best to create a side project specific to the employer to which you’re applying. For example, I may look into issues a company’s customers are reporting, and create a project or mock-up that addresses some top concerns. I’d then share this with my interviewers, via my recruiter. This lets me set the agenda for the interview before I even have the interview. I can come off as an “internal” candidate even while coming from the outside.
- Is this a cover-up? Side projects can even become an excuse for avoiding the discomfort of a job search. Many candidates busy themselves with side projects that do zero to advance their candidacy.
It’s OK to list no side projects on a resume, especially if you’ve been working as a software engineer already. Some developers mistakenly think that one more side project (or the “right” side project) will produce more job offers. That’s not the case, usually. That time is often better spent reaching out to the right hiring managers, preparing for interviews or sharpening the resume.