3 Boston developers share why side projects make a big difference

May 31, 2017

developers

For developers, side projects are a chance to experiment with something new and hone their skills. Even though those experiments don’t always start as a business need, the products (and experiences) tend to make themselves useful at some point. Three Boston developers told us how their side projects make a difference in their day jobs.

 

toast

Toast is a point-of-sale app for restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and other businesses in the hospitality space.

Responses via Edmund Korley, software engineer at Toast

What side projects have you worked on as a developer?

One of the most exciting side projects I worked on was a civic tech project that visualized a dataset created by the Campaign Zero organization. The dataset looked at problematic language in both state-level and city-level police contracts. Through working on that project, I learned a lot of about front-end tooling and idiomatic ways of using React.js and D3.js together. There was also a clear social justice component that aligned with my personal interests.

What are you currently working on?

I'm building a small web app that organizes and lists businesses under various social themes. The models are relatively complex enough that the web app is actually several smaller projects, since I'm writing this web app using only the Golang programming language and its standard library without pulling in any third-party dependencies. This choice has mostly been as a learning exercise. I get to design and build an ORM (a layer between web app and database), a logging service, a routing scheme, etc. — components that from working on web apps I've been more or less a consumer of. The opportunity to think about the design decisions and tradeoffs of these foundational components in a practical way has been really insightful.

What benefits have you gotten personally from building on the side? What about professionally?

The biggest benefit I've gained from working on side projects has been learning how to scope a project from beginning to end. This has been invaluable both personally and professionally. Going from the ideation to the actual implementation is a process you might just get a slice of in a professional setting where there are specialized roles that own specific portions of the pipeline — e.g. a project manager, designer, engineer, sales rep, support, etc. Yet when working on a side project, we usually don't devote as much resources toward them. So the individual working on the project really gets to be aware of all the feedback loops and how upstream decisions made earlier on trickle down the pipeline. The insights gained from dealing along this scope transfer very well into working professional projects.

What are some projects you'd love to start in the future?

I'd love to get my hands on some NBA court location data — specifically ones that come from automated video tracking. This means players who don't have the ball are also being tracked, and not just when a shot is taken. We know that the movements of the players without the ball move (both on offense and defense) influence the player with the ball and thus the outcome of a possession. I'd like to build a classifier for the outcome of a possession (score or turnover) that takes into account these off-ball player movements.

Where would you recommend developers get started if they want to begin a side project?

Being organized and setting reasonably defined goals can be very helpful. Knowing exactly what you want to get done in your off-time, qualifying how much time and resources you have, and when you need to get things done by, helps keep a sense of accountability to yourself. Still, there is a balance you must negotiate — too strict of a deadline and too lofty or vague of a goal, and organization can work against you in making progress on your side projects. As far as actionable steps, I would start with writing down a high-level overview of things you’re interested in, then moving to break those down into smaller and well-defined stories.

 

fuze

Formerly known as ThinkingPhones, Fuze is a cloud-based video conferencing solution that connects people and organizations across devices.

Responses via Joao Figueiredo, back-end engineer at Fuze

What side projects have you worked on as a developer?

The largest side project I developed while working for Fuze is a JavaFX application that helps me run administrative requests on some of our cloud API servers. We named it CitadelGui because the main API it accesses is named Citadel. CitadelGui is a single Windows application that supports multiple environment configurations (production, testing, development), and its layout is based on tabs. It started mostly as a debug tool to help develop Citadel API, and it simplifies the tasks of managing users and their internal data, fixes data errors, manages deployment channels and versions of Fuze applications, and also serves as a simple front end to Fuze's authentication API. Most tasks require just one mouse click to start and can run in bulk mode, which is a time saver when we have to apply the same operation to multiple users or customers/tenants. One of the features left from the early development days is its ability to accept user inputs in a broad variety of formats and convert them to whatever the API calls require. This means we can either use numerical identifiers or text identifiers like usernames in every CitadelGui tab. Information is always displayed as human readable as possible in all available formats, numeric or text. Updates and improvements to CitadelGui are made whenever a new feature is added to Citadel API or a bug is found. Its next feature will be to include a new complex overview of how our customers will run the updates of Fuze Desktop in their networks, without having to know the complexity of every API call involved.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I work on REST-provisioning APIs at Fuze. They provide all the bootstrap configurations required by Fuze's applications and are implemented in Java following either JAX-WS or JAX-RS.

What benefits have you gotten personally from building on the side? What about professionally?

Personally, it was the perfect excuse to learn JavaFX and create Windows-based applications, something I hadn’t done since I developed in C++ several years ago. Professionally, even though I'm not a front-end developer, CitadelGui exposed me to other teams in the company that found it to be a useful tool for their interactions with Citadel API, instead of using custommade scripts.

What are some projects you'd love to start in the future?

Something similar to CitadelGui for Android, probably a limited version, not as complex as the original. This is because several times I have been in the situation where I needed to access Citadel to check something and didn't have my computer with me. And also to refresh my knowledge of Android.

Where would you recommend developers get started if they want to begin a side project?

The quickest way is for you to look at what your team does. There's probably something that you can implement that will be useful to you and your team and that doesn't take too much of your time. Or you can come up with an idea that can be revolutionary for your company (not the easiest one, I know) and make a quick prototype that you can demonstrate to your superiors. And finally, always be aware of the security implications of using sensitive information like usernames and passwords in your application when accessing public APIs. Keep it secure.

 

smashfly

SmashFly Technologies is a startup that manages inbound interest from potential recruits and keeps them engaged with a company that hopes to one day convert them to an employee.

Responses via Rick Eichhorn, product manager at SmashFly Technologies

What side projects have you worked on as a developer?

For the last 12 years, I’ve been a volunteer and more recently on the Board of Directors for Music and Youth, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that creates and supports sustainable and free after-school music education programs. Music is the magnet that attracts youth to a safe place to learn and grow, away from the culture of drugs, gangs and violence that is all too prevalent on the streets of the low-income urban areas we target. Music and Youth does not have full-time technical support on staff, so in addition to my board role, I’m the technical liaison. Any time there’s an opportunity to use technology to help drive the organization forward and provide more value to the young people we serve, I’m at the forefront. I have seven years of experience in technology product management so it’s a natural good fit for me. I recently led an effort to completely rebuild our website using responsive first design on a modern CMS platform. If something needs to be updated or if we run into any issues, I handle it.

What are you currently working on?

Music and Youth has 14 locations in Boston, two in Ft. Worth, Texas, and a new location in Atlanta. It is important that we have visibility into the day-to-day operations of local clubhouses, so we recently put together an attendance tracking system that allows the students at the clubhouses to check in and provide us valuable insight into their activities. I am helping the organization pick the right tools for this project, including introducing them to Tableau for data analysis. This has also added a ton of value for the organizations with which we partner (where our music clubhouses are located), such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club. Their attendance and activity systems were varied and sometimes pen and paper based. Since we have started tracking attendance and activity online, our organization has added reports on a range of topics. This may seem basic to your readers, but for a nonprofit like this, it’s revolutionary. We’re able to see more quickly and easily how each clubhouse is doing, what the students are interested in learning, and how Music and Youth can help our partners grow their music programs.

What benefits have you gotten personally from building on the side? What about professionally?

It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to take professional skills I’ve learned and help apply them to benefit my local community. Watching the organization grow and seeing the amazing impact that we’ve been able to have has been tremendously rewarding. This year, there are over 1,000 underserved youth who have access to music thanks to this program. Music is such a wonderful vehicle to impact the lives of young people. Professionally, my work with Music and Youth helps keep things in perspective for what is really important.

What are some projects you'd love to start in the future?

We want to more fully operationalize the whole attendance and activity process I detailed for you earlier by creating an app-based version. We have the requirements outlined, so at this point we just need a team of developers to help build the app.

Where would you recommend developers get started if they want to begin a side project?

I would recommend that they reach out to local organizations for which they have a shared passion. There may be opportunities to help these organizations with projects that have never gotten off the ground, which could have a significant impact.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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