The Importance of Montages and Side Projects

Everyone loves a good montage in an action film. You know, that point of the film where the action hero gears up for the big climatic fight against the seemingly invincible antagonist (I can already hear “Eye of the Tiger” playing in your read as you read. If it’s not, then you’ve probably not seen Rocky and shame on you if that’s the case). Montages have created some of the most iconic scenes in modern cinema. Ralph Macchio (Karate Kid), Kevin Bacon (Footloose), even Gizmo have been found guilty of being subject to a good old fashion cheesy montage.

I never was a huge fan of montages. They made me believe that if you were the “good guy” and you faced against an arch rival (because that happens everyday), when came to crunch time where you faced off one on one with them, you would come out on top, no matter what. This never happened. I can’t begin to describe the amount of sporting matches or games I’ve lost to some practically annoying, but ultimately more talented, adversary. I’ve even lost a few to cheats. Hollywood really knows how to lie to kids these days…

Moving my hidden and deep resentment to one side for now, there is something important to take away from movie montages; the importance of training. The classic film montage does not simply involve the films leading hero just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, moments before the big face off. No. We watch them as they repeatedly practice, train and perfect the action they need to master in order to win (although the shopping montage in Pretty Woman makes me question this statement, but let’s chalk that one up to an “anomaly”).

Training is an important part of anyone’s professional career, wither you have Van Damme style rippling muscle, or glasses thicker than Woody Allen. Just as actors practice lines so they nail the first take when the cameras roll, we all need to practice what we do in our professions so when we are called upon, we perform at our upmost best. In the words of my good friend Steve Milne (creator of the Constraints Cards):

Musicians practice, sports people practice, even surgeons practice. A lot of people practice, they likely practice more than they do.

In his Constraint Cards promotional video, Steve continues on to say they he feels that people who work in web, don’t practice their work enough, compared to the amount of work they commercially. I agree with him on this point. I personally have defiantly not practiced my work anywhere near as much as compared to the amount of commercial work I’ve done over the years. 99% of the time I learn on the job during a live project and in all honestly, it’s quite a risky thing to do. There is an argument to be made that the web industry moves so fast that we don’t have time to practice but I think this is just an excuse. If you look at some of the most famous people in our industry, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Erik Spiekermann, Jeffery Zeldman, Lea Verou, Adam Mosseri, these thought leaders will likely practice their ideas before they deliver them into a commercial product.

So how do we practice? To paraphrase a the famous phrase from the 1967 film “The Graduate”:

I just want to say one word to you, just one word: side projects

Side projects offer those in the web and design industry a creative sandbox to unleash their experiments and under take dry runs without the fear or stress of failure which can come with commercial projects. There are no deadlines but those set by the individual and no project management team looking over your shoulder every couple of minutes asking “So are we still looking like we are set to launch on time?” or “Where is the project currently?”. Complete unadulterated creative freedom, unless you want your side project to be otherwise.

I’ve recently started under taking my own side project. I’ve made it to be more like a challenge than a practice project though (Warning: incoming self promotion). I’ve called the challenge the “168 Hour Challenge” in which I attempt to plan, build, design and launch an entire bootstrapped Software as a Service (or SaaS for short) within 168 billable hours of work on the project. My reasoning behind this was after launching a product at work, I realised that I had an underlying fear of pushing code live due to worry of the coding breaking, the application failing and/or general feedback on my ability to code. I also had issues with finding myself lost in the labyrinth of writing code and losing track of my overall progress very easily. Therefore reporting my progress back to a project manager was never consistently precise.

Therefore my 168 challenge is based around the notion of learning a new coding language whilst attempting to keep on top of time management within the project. On top of all that, I have decided to track my progress and give frequent updates all on video and publish it live for the world to see how I am fairing with the project. In all honestly, I have found the project hard going in terms of committing to working on code on a regular basis after a long day at work. However, it is in doing these “documentation” videos that have allowed me to really take note of the project’s and indeed my own progress. In addition, I have been able to practice and improve upon my fairly poor skills at screen casting, video recording and public speaking (recording yourself talking does indeed count as public speaking, honest). You can find the full video playlist here.

I doubt that my project will become anything more than 168 hours of time spent practicing. Never the less, some side projects have gone on to become industry leading applications, tools and frameworks which are used by thousand across the world. Twitter’s Bootstrap, Bower, even Node JS started out as small side projects and have turned into industry leading tools. These examples of success and the thousands of others like them, which have sprung up all over the internet (more often in recent years), highlight exactly how side projects are the linch pin of progression in the web and design industry. Not only do they allow us to expand, hone and master our current and new skills, but they offer the possibility of becoming commercially successfully and even benefiting others in the long run. Of course, it should be recommended that you do not start a project with this intention necessarily, but each to their down.

Profitable side projects are big business, just ask Rachel Andrew. Not only has Rachel and her business partner Drew McLellan transformed a successfully side project into a flagship product, but the success of that side project has helped fund their already successful, full time business. That side project is Perch, a lightweight CMS designed to integrate powerful website management capabilities into websites, with ease. Now Rachel and Drew commit their full professional time to supporting and improving Perch. In addition, Rachel has released her own Ebook around the topic of taking a project and making it profitable. Ironically, it’s entitled “The Profitable Side Project”.

Jessica Hische is another beneficiary from the commercial possibilities of side projects. Jessica actually has a whole section of her website dedicated to the every increasing number of small side projects she’s busied herself with over the years. One of her most infamous side projects is the “Should I Work for Free” flow chart. I’ve have the pleasure of meeting Jessica at a conference in the UK a few years back and she’s is incredible passionate about the side projects she creates. Jessica has admitted that these side projects have intact directly helped to further her design skills and her professional career:

Daily Drop Cap, the first, was pure eye candy and helped jump start my lettering career.

The list of professionals in the web and design industry who regular create and work on side projects is endless. Back in 2014 in my local city of Aberdeen, a conference called “The Meat Conference” took place which was focussed on the topic of the importance of side projects in the web and design industry. The event was a huge success with talks from the likes of Gavin Strange (create of the Droplets projects which made its way onto the set of the cult hit comedy IT Crowd), Naomi Atkinson (award winning entrepreneur who just open the first “Whosit & Whatsit” shop in Newcastle) and Aaron Draplin (Creator of Fields Notes and Owner of Draplin Design Co) to name a few. Not only was it inspiration to hear the speakers share their success and failure side projects stories, but their encouragement for everyone to get involved with their own side project(s) was infectious. It was impossible to attend the conference and not be inspired; and that’s exactly what happened. In the few weeks and months after the conference, side projects started to pop up from attendees of the Meat Conference all across Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire. Side projects became the latest trend; if you weren’t taking part in a side project, you were missing out.

Creating a side project is mixture of creating a piece of art whilst playing at a casino; you have no idea if the thing your are creating will stand the test of time, or just blow up in your face. While your having fun working on the project it’s highly addictive. However, it’s hard to keep going through the tough times, and even in some scenarios, it’s hard to know when to pull the plugin and admit that “the house always wins”. No likes to admit that their creation hasn’t turned out as their intended to in the beginning (Just ask Dr Frankenstein). Never the less, they are a key element of any self respecting developer and designers process to continually better themselves. Side projects offer use the opportunity to fully express our creative sides, an almost Minecraft style world where we control the rules we abide by. We can control who is allowed to enter the project and what parts of our creative and technical skills we want to flex and build upon.

The ability to take a single thought and turn it into product of any shape or form is a wonderful ability to have. We owe it to ourselves to ensure this ability is honed to allow us to use it to it’s full potential. In the timeless (and often paraphrased) words of William Lamb:

the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility

Side projects aren’t just a great way to experiment with out skills and traits, they allow us to train and improve and allow us to become better professionals. Cue the montage…

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