Why side projects aren’t a good idea

It’s common knowledge that your side projects and open source contributions can be the key to landing your next job. But when hiring for diversity, this can be a problem.

I was watching Brenna O’Brien’s video The myth of the “Real JavaScript Developer” when she said something that piqued my interest: the fact that we shouldn’t expect developers to code all day.

Amongst other points, Brenna mentions the example of Nicolle Sullivan, who, after having a child, reconsidered the normal practice of looking at a candidate’s open source contributions when hiring—not everyone has the ability or will to work on code outside work.

I agree: working day and night shouldn’t be a requirement when looking for the best candidate for a job. And, like Nicole, this is not something I’ve considered before having a child (despite my long-lasting RSI).

As an introvert, staying home to code and write has always come easy to me. Many times I advised people to build their portfolios with side projects, to write, to learn, speak at conferences, go to meetups. But I’ve changed my mind: I don’t think we should be judging people’s ability to perform their job by how long they can (or want to) sit in front of their computers.

Take attending a meetup after work. For you, it might mean that for 2 hours in the evening you’re learning new things and meeting cool new people. For me, it means I won’t see my son for more than 20 minutes that day (if that much), and that I will lose precious downtime with my husband once the house is quiet. And those 20 minutes will likely be stressful, trying to get everyone out the door in the morning.

These days, the mere suggestion of weekend and evening events raises my heartbeat and makes me stress and worry. It puts me in a position where I have to either a) say no to my career, be anti-social, and prove once again that working mothers can’t be flexible, or b) miss precious time with my family, who I already feel I don’t see enough of.

Here are others things I will be sacrificing every time I do the things so many recruiting managers would like me to do:

  • Time with my friends
  • Time to rest
  • Time to think
  • Time to experience different moments that allow me to enjoy life
  • Time to deal with everything else that is not work, and that needs to be done
  • Time to do nothing

The ability to work on side projects carries a certain bias against those who can’t do it, or simply don’t want to. Doing so surely falls onto some kind of discriminatory hiring behaviour (if not, it should).

I know how easy it is to hire young white man after young white man, and to try to get away with the excuse that “there just weren’t any good women candidates”. It’s so easy to almost accidentally take the mental leap between “these two candidates seem equally qualified” to “but the woman might have children, she won’t go the extra mile for us”.

But working at the same screen 24/7 without the ability or desire to take in the world around you should also tell you things, and should also be considered when hiring that awesome candidate.

I have the feeling that our lack of ability to understand that more hours spent working doesn’t equal better work will be the kind of thing future humans will be perplexed by. Just like we are by child labour now.

I’d like to live in a world where I don’t feel guilty about enjoying my free time. And where we don’t judge anyone’s potential by how many hours they spend in front of their screens.