How to make side projectsWritten on June 14th, 2017 by Jonathan Tsang
note: I made these back in 2017. I am going back in 2020 to update info. These are just guidelines, be sure to ask your academic advisors for concrete advice.
I think side projects are one of the most misunderstood and overrated aspects of job searching. I asked people what they thought was the key to being successful and tons of people said side projects. There is an obvious correlation from side projects to job offers, but it’s widely believed to be a causative relationship.
I initially was a huge believer of doing side projects and success will pave way, but I’ve recently changed my stance for multiple reasons.
- Quality of side projects
- Bots filtering through resumes
- Side projects are usually small compared to work experience
I hate it when people use school assignments as side projects. I also dislike it when people put hackathon projects that they did little to no work on but it won/was an impressive project. The basis for this is that the motivation is not behind the side project. It is literally there because nothing else is there to fill that space.
The school assignments as a side project have little to no motivation. You literally had to make that for a school assessment and if you didn’t you would fail. That means in CS135, the whole class has a sudoku solver (I never took cs135, but I’ve heard of it) and in CS246, everyone has a chess game or some simple game in C++. The school assignments not only are contiguous to the other students, but in my opinion is just lazy placement for side projects. Of course if you have absolutely nothing, you have to put something, but I think you should at least try things to MAKE a side project, rather than port over what you already made “because you had to”.
Generally about the quality of side projects, usually quality > quantity.
I have yet to know of a recruitment bot that can assess quality of side projects. Most employers so swamped they can’t do it. As a result, the side projects will go under-appreciated.
This is not as much of a factor for humans who read the resumes, but even then people need to READ the resumes, not exactly skim through it.
Side projects vs work experience
There is no doubt that work experience is valuable. What Waterloo’s co-op program prides itself on is giving work experience to students to help be more employable in the future.
When comparing side projects and work experiences, there it gets murky. The question arises, hire someone who has stellar work experience, or stellar side projects. Not a lot of people have mind boggling side projects. If you do, then you’ll probably get scooped up quickly. For most people they have to rely on side projects.
This is my opinion, so I may be wrong but I think work experience is more important than side projects. Having an internship at Google pops. Working at Twitter pops, in the same way Facebook, or Amazon pops. If someone worked there, there is an assumption of some work that was done to achieve that. Having an insanely good side project is not as easy to judge from face value. You could’ve created something as amazing as Homebrew. Source Max Howell, creator of Homebrew, was rejected from Google after not being able to invert a binary tree. That sort of side project was trumped. (technically it was from lack of interview prep, but it still shows the mortality of side projects no matter the size or notoriety.)
Side projects are almost like a fallacy in job searching. There are successful people with and without side projects. There are also not successful people with and without side projects.
I’m not saying there is no causation between job search and side projects, but I don’t think side projects are the main contributor for side projects. What I do think at this moment are the purest indicators of finding internships are:
- work experience (past co-op experiences)
- What term you are in (3A, 2B, etc.)
- interview prep
- side projects (x-factor)
2020 edit: I reordered this heavily from how it was before. Originally it was work experience, marks, term, side projects, interview prep. I heavily downgraded marks and bumped up term and interview prep because those are actually the importance. Marks and side projects are tools to get the interviews (from a low-level standpoint) and work experience and term I would describe as better tools to get interviews in later stages.
Now keep in mind interview prep is #5, but it is incredibly essential in the job hunt, just not necessarily in gaining the interview. That part helps get the internship.
The 1-5 are ordered in terms of ability to gauge quality. Work experience with Google, Facebook, Palantir. Those pop to employers. Then marks are a simple 0-100 scale. You see a 95%, you think the person is smart. Regardless of actual knowledge, you feel comfortable hiring the 95% guy if he is identical to a 60% guy. It’s a quantitative metric that is clear. You have little reasoning to choose the person with 60%, unless they makes it up in #3.
#2 “what term you’re in”, is underrated. A lot of employers only want students about to graduate and can hire for full time. That means if you are 2B and below you may be filtered out solely on age. Once again that is not truly representative of the skill of the person. NOTE: Some employers may choose a younger person because they can get away with paying them less for lower-tier places. Other than that, there is not too much incentive for them to hire younger people.