In 2008, when I first began my professional programming career, I was tasked with working on a relatively high traffic website performing various day to day duties and bug fixes on it. Overall, a very tiring, but a very lesson filled experience. After a few years, I decide to move away from this job in pursuit of bigger and funner things in life, and luckily I had plenty of work to show for it from this past job. Plenty of the websites features were built by yours truly, and as they were public facing sites I had no issues in showing my work.
This same sequence repeated itself throughout the many different jobs that I have taken on throughout the years. Your past work experience plays a very big role in determining whether you will get that next job or not, so making sure that your programming portfolio is up to date is definitely important. But what happens when your past work experience doesn't outlive your career? Companies go out of business, websites change ownership and sometimes, websites just break down and end up aging poorly.
This is where having your own side projects pretty much becomes almost mandatory. Not only do you know how they work in its entirety, but their lifespan is determined by you essentially. You get to decide the server that it is hosted on and whether or not it's even worth mentioning during an interview. The following are a few reasons why you should consider some of your spare time working on something that you care about. Not only does it help to improve your overall skill set, but you are increasing your value with each project that you complete.
Working on internal projects
Many times you will find yourself working on internal web applications that can only be accessed by employees of your current company. This makes it pretty difficult to showcase your fabulous work, unless you make it a point to screenshot your internal companies software. Which, yeah, you probably shouldn't. I've been in this scenario in the past myself and during my round of interviews for the next company, I could do little but to just speak about the projects that I worked on. Not that I didn't have a riveting story to tell on the subject matter, but many things were lost in translation without the visual representation of it.
For legal reasons sometimes, we can't just say too much about our old projects. We can hint at what they were and how they kind of did what they did, but for sure we won't be showing anybody any pictures or screenshots of our work. And this comes down to various legal agreements that we many times sign when we leave our jobs. And if you work in the defense industry, this is particularly more challenging.
Websites sometimes die
I used to work on a website with millions of visitors per month. It was a very complex project with many moving parts, many people working on it, and in its prime it is definitely something that helped me to land many future interviews and to get a few job offer letters. Going back recently in order to do my due diligence for this blog post, that website no longer exists. During the past decade it seems, that life happens. Maybe it was no longer relevant, maybe it didn't get the attention that it deserved, but it's safe to say that it won't ever come back.
So what do we do with these projects? Do we still list them on our resumes, and talk about the olden days as the person interviewing us attempts to draw out a picture in their minds eye. Or do we work to stay relevant and leave the past where it belongs, in the past. It's definitely awkward to say "I used to work on this website, but now it's dead, so don't look for it".
Or they become really outdated
Websites for the most part are finicky things and they require a fair amount of attention normally. If not every few months, at least every year they'll be due for an update. And this is due to many factors, such as security updates, design trends and just newer technologies replacing the older ones each year. So if you are keen on telling everyone about that web project that you worked on 20 years ago that sent the first messages through the 'net', then maybe you should reconsider and skip forward to at least CSS2.
I've interviewed developers who's latest projects were sometimes in the early 90's. I could not verify a word of their stories and spent 30 minutes just hearing keywords that are no longer relevant. While I didn't doubt their skill set in any way, I could do little to get any relevant information from our session. For developers who have been out of the game for a while, it definitely makes much more sense to make it a conscious effort to maintain relevant projects.
Staying up to date
As someone who has been writing software professionally for over 10 years, I can safely say that many of the projects that I've worked on in the past will no longer impress anyone during an interview. During these past few years however, I have managed to build my own projects on the side along with co-founding a startup. These are the projects that I put the most attention on these days when needing to showcase my past work experience for whatever reason.
Most jobs for the most part won't let you go crazy with implementing technology on their dime, which is totally understandable from a business standpoint. This can sometimes lead you to stale out on your technical skills. Your own projects help keep you up to date with technology, because you do whatever you wish. You can try out all of the latest libraries, just to see if they are up your alley and you can innovate and experiment to your liking.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.