For a good portion of my IT career I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects outside my regular full time job. It’s been a great privilege and I attribute much of the success in my career to these side projects. I believe everyone working in any kind of tech industry can benefit from them as well.

I know the major objection will be that of time constraints, particularly for those of you with jobs that already make you work long hours. I hear it from developers and designers all the time. Though that may be the case, its important to look beyond the now, and look to your future. Your current employer may not always be there. Work situations in IT can change overnight and its up to you to be prepared. Working on a side project will not only help for your next job, but also better enable you to perform your current one. Here’s four reasons why you should start or get involved with a project on the side.

Creative Outlet
Whether you are a designer or a developer, an employee or a contractor, most of us have to answer to someone when working on a web related project. In most cases, unless you are the one funding the project, those you report to can override your ideas and your vision, limit your creative input and take the project in a very different direction. Often times in the corporate work place particularly, creativity can be stifled in the name of red tape, the bottom line, and ‘because we’ve always done it that way’.Though it’s important to find a way to balance our creative desires with the need to make our bosses, clients, founders and investors happy, it can be a difficult, and unrewarding effort. Working on a side project can provide another outlet for your creativity, even if its working for someone else on a side project, it won’t be under as much stress since its not your main source of income, and you have more freedom to express your opinions without fear of finding yourself in the unemployment line. But do be sure to select your side projects carefully. You don’t want to find yourself in another restrictive situation. Find one where you can be involved in the creative side, and have a voice at least in the part of the project where you are contributing.

Think Outside Your Daily Box
For me, this is the most important reason. Often times our day jobs revolve around a certain unchangeable set of problems we must solve, with a limited set of solutions we can choose from. Even if within the scope of the project we find ourselves wearing many different hats, we are still limited to the time constraints, chosen technologies, and the industry of our day jobs. We are also often limited by those managing us with the ways in which we can solve problems.

I find that time and time again, an issue arises at work that I just recently solved on a side project. It’s ironic, but at least in my experience, my side projects tend to solve more problems for my day job than the other way around. But, I think this is because on side projects we get to tackle new and unusual problems, again due to our ability to stretch ourselves creatively.

Over my 15+ years of IT experience, I have found that those I’ve worked with who work on side projects are generally more helpful than those who don’t, in terms of thinking outside the box and solving problems, from using new technologies, to improved process, helpful tools, etc. This is reason enough to step outside your daily full time job box and experience a new challenge. It will not only prepare you for the day you may lose your job, but will also strengthen you for your current job, in ways you have probably not yet imagined.

Note to employers, encourage your tech employees to pursue projects on the side. Ensure they have the time to do so by not working them 80 hrs a week. In the end, your employees will be happier, more experienced, and bring a deeper perspective to your projects. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Working with Different People
In the previous section I discussed the benefits of working with different technologies, different tools, different problems and thus different solutions. Working with different people brings the same benefits. Even if we find ourselves working with the best, brightest most experienced in our industry, working with various sorts of people from varied backgrounds and with varied skills can help us expand our experiences, our knowledge, and our methods of creative problem solving. It also helps us widen our network, and establish friendships with a deeper array of people in our field.

Eggs in One Basket
As obvious as this one is, its important nonetheless. Even if a side project isn’t bringing in money, its a far better starting point to have should we lose our day jobs and suddenly have no income, than if we were involved in nothing else when the situation occurs. It’s even better if the side project(s) can provide you with another source of income. Multiple streams of income are always better than relying on just one. As well, if you find yourself waiting to find a new job, you can continue to work on a project, expanding your skills, using your creativity, networking, and, using the side project to demonstrate your skills and experience to prospective employers.

I’m sure there are many more reasons why a side project is beneficial, but hopefully just these four have convinced you of the benefits. If you don’t have an idea for something you can do on your own, announce your availability online and in your local meetups, or consider joining work on an existing open source project. If you are in design, you could consider redesigning the site or marketing material for your favorite charity, or look for a local group of developers who might be working on a great project idea but are in need of some design talent. Whatever your situation, there are always opportunities to expand your horizons and practice your skill sets, and doing so can help improve your futures and the futures of those effected by the projects you participate in.