The Dangers of Side Work

The Dangers of Side Work
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani / Unsplash

Side work sounds great. You build experience and confidence. You learn to work through challenges and work as part of a team. However, there are downsides to side work - at least for me.

Early on, when I didn't know much about programming and my job was in customer service, I was desperate to work on anything tech-related. I would build websites for friends and non-profit organizations and loved doing it. It seemed great, and I did gain some experience.

Fast forward some years, and side jobs are being offered to me almost weekly. I picked up a few here and there when I felt a certain amount of obligation. People would hear about me through word-of-mouth, and I would feel the need to take on the project not to disappoint anyone. Some of these side projects have gone on for years, and they really seem to appreciate my help. They also pay me for my time. But they do take up time, which is something I find myself short of when I want to build a fun project of my own.

Okay, so side work - building experience, gaining money, and a reputation. What is the downside?

Their projects suffered when I had less time available, less experience, or when it would be better to hire someone with different skills. These are things I'm seeing now, I didn't necessarily realize it at the time I picked up each project.

I felt terrible when I recently flaked out on an excellent project because I couldn't balance the stress of school and the hours required for the project. It was supposed to be a quick two-month project before I started a master's degree (which I'm still slowly work towards), but the project's scope turned out to be much larger than I anticipated. I spent the first couple of months trying to develop a professional design that reflected their company (design is my weak point). The company was very patient with me and even paid me some money, but I never could find the energy to finish the project while attending school. Spending 8 hours at work, 4 to 6 hours on homework, and then working on that project was too much for me. I even do school work 12 or more hours a day on most weekends. I did take a semester off of school when I was overly stressed. My goal was to finish the project, but burnout is real - even when taking a semester off.

In retrospect, I wished I had spent more time gaining experience on my own projects, at my own pace, and without feeling like I was letting people down - or spending that time in school. Sure, the extra little side income is nice and the people I've worked with are great, but should I have focused that time on more training or school and increasing my skills for work?

Here is my recommendations:

  1. If you have not yet broken into the industry, take on projects carefully. Make sure they have reasonable expectations and a clear end date (the prerequisite for being a project is an end date). It is okay to expand on your skills as a challenge, but let them know upfront that it is new territory for you.
  2. If you have the opportunity to take on projects at work, do that instead. The side projects I've taken on at work, during work hours, have turned out to be the ones with the most gains.
  3. If you really do want to take on other people's or company's projects, make it your job. Do it when you're planning on going out on your own. At that point, long-term projects and word-of-mouth marketing are gold. And you'll have the enthusiasm to work endless hours.

I don't regret taking on side projects, I regret not giving them my full attention. At work I can take on projects and work on them for hours a day, every day, and go home at the end of the day. It is less stress, my employers already know what I am capable of and where I'm expanding new skills, and the rewards payoff big time. It could be volunteering for a presentation, or making a website, or expanding a web application or internal employee tools. Don't over obligate yourself, but do volunteer to take on challenges when they are available.

I've tried to write this to be positive advice from my own insights. Hopefully I don't come across as whiny about the time I spend on the other side projects. I just wished someone had spelled out the pros and cons of side work before I took on jobs that last years at a time. And before I took on jobs that I could not complete.

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