Programming Beyond 9 to 5

In my previous post, I elaborated on the importance of reading for software developers. Keeping up with new advances in technology demands that its users have a healthy appetite for the written word. However, reading is just part of the equation for engineers. Knowledge gleaned through books offers no benefit unless it can be applied efficiently in their daily work. And quality programming, like every other art form, requires continuous practice.

A person who is uninterested in programming beyond its ability to help bring in a monthly paycheck, would typically not want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary in performing this activity. I don’t always hold side projects very high up in the evaluation matrix, but it is a pretty good indicator about the candidate’s interest in programming beyond the mundane stuff. After all, most programmers only get paid to write business software. If they want to write their own stack implementation that already ships as part of their framework, their employers will not be pleased to have them attempting to roll their own. Not only will it be a very inefficient use of time, but hand-rolled implementations are going to be nowhere as performant and bug-free as the libraries that ship with mass-consumed frameworks.

However, side projects do not come under strong timeline or performance pressures, nor are there constraints about the runtime environment or language choices. Who is to object if an individual feels inspired enough to write a stack in Brainfuck?

Educators have long since accepted the importance of learning by doing, especially for scientific topics. There is only so much one can absorb about the stack data structure by reading about it. At some point, one must put down the book and let the rubber meet the road, so to speak. Side projects in languages or frameworks other than what is used at work is a great way to learn new stuff. And it is a natural progression to reading about something new. Writing one’s own implementation of the Towers of Hanoi game cements whatever knowledge the book provides about the data structure. And depending upon the type of project we are talking about, individuals can easily play their best card. Those who are visually-gifted or otherwise have access to a collection of high quality graphics, a finely polished interactive utility or game can make a great impression. Those with a less-than-perfect eye for graphic design, a programming API with accompanying documentation can make an equally compelling case for their skills.

Again, there are many avenues for programmers who want ideas on programming projects. All that is required is the will and tenacity (not to mention the skill itself to begin with) to come up with a project idea and take it through to completion.