by Tanner Christensen
How to Talk About Your Side Projects
Talk about your side projects whenever you get a chance. When you do, remember to start with the problem, talk about how you approached it, share the challenges you faced, express the outcome of your efforts, and end by defining what you’d do differently if you had to do it all over again.
I remember sitting down for my first interview at Facebook.
Back then, the feeling I had deep in my stomach was mostly excitement but also a bubbling fear. Fear I was somehow being pranked. Fear they had the wrong guy. Fear I would walk in, embarrass myself, and return home defeated.
My career at that time had consisted almost entirely of online marketing work. I was applying for the role of a Product Designer but everything in my portfolio was about email marketing, copywriting, and technical search engine optimization. Surely I would be found out to be a fraud and turned away, how could I not feel some sense of looming dread?
Of course I wasn’t turned away. The interview went off without a hitch and I got the job. I did so without talking about any of my regular day-job, full-time career work.
Instead, I talked about the strong undercurrent of relevant product design work I had done over the last ten years through late hours and long weekends: designing, building, and marketing my own side projects.
At the time I didn’t see how my side projects perfectly aligned with the work I would be doing at Facebook, because to me these things were just “side projects.” But now I see that it was my side projects that taught me almost everything I needed to know in order to not only land the job, but excel at it.
It’s unfortunate that side projects are often overlooked by the people who aren’t actively working on them. Side projects can be immensely rewarding to talk about. They demonstrate a lot about how you work.
About processes for identifying and overcoming challenges, about making trade-offs, and what goes on behind the scenes of the work someone might otherwise not be exposed to. Side projects can be incredibly fun too, of course.
But if all you have on your resume is a few internships and a collection of side projects, how should you talk about each and—possibly more importantly—how do you weigh the experiences of real, job-based work over that of a side project? How do you convince anyone that a side project is a valuable thing to talk about? What about during a job interview, should you mention your side projects then?
If it wasn’t for my side projects, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Here are a few things I learned over the years when it comes to talking about side projects.
Start with the problem
In any side project there’s a problem being solved; either a problem you experienced or someone you know has faced.
The problem is what caused the project to become real in the first place. Maybe the problem was you were bored over the summer and needed a way to improve your design skills. Or perhaps the problem was that your friends kept running into scheduling issues when trying to make weekend plans.
Consider everything that happened before your project as the setup for talking about it, then start with the problem that emerged as a result.
Every story begins this way. Before the story can get underway, the laws of the land have to be laid out. In talking about your work, the same format should apply. Think of the slow, colossal scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars and how that set the stage for the rest of the movie.
When talking about your project, first address questions around what the world was like before it existed. How did you first encounter the problem? How did you validate it was a real problem? What got you excited about attempting to work on it, and how did you make the trade-off between the work and other things you could have been doing with your time?
Explore my story for Snaplight to see how the app went from being a weekend project to being featured by Starbucks.
Define your approach
Once you’ve set the stage on how you encountered the problem, it’s important to talk about how you approached it.
In storytelling, what happens after an opportunity makes itself known is what’s commonly called: “the situation.” What was the situation like before you got too far away from the initial opportunity of the project? Maybe you found yourself unable to sleep because the problem gave you an itch you just had to scratch. Or perhaps you started daydreaming about the problem and what solutions might look like.
Did you do any research or dive right into the work? In either case: what was that like? Was that typical behavior for you? Did you talk to other people about the problem? Where did you look for inspiration? How did you motivate yourself? What types of trade-offs did you have to make for getting to work on the project?
How you manage the work can reveal a lot about not only your abilities, but also your character and drive. If you dove straight into the work without feeling out the market or seeing how competing solutions worked, what drove that decision?
Share the challenges you faced
Things rarely ever go as planned. We get sick and miss a few days of work, the scope of work ends up being greatly underestimated, we overestimate our abilities or misjudge the impact of our solution for the problem. No matter the type of work or whether it’s conducted over a weekend or in an office job, you’re going to encounter a lot of challenges.
Knowing how you deal with challenges can be great signal for someone looking to hire you.
Expressing some of the challenges you faced in your side project can tell a lot about how you work under pressure or in less-than-ideal circumstances.
What challenges did you face when you worked on the project? Did you ever find yourself doubting your abilities, or the project at large? Did you ever feel like giving up? What got you through those feelings? Did you ever find yourself stumped? How did you get around any roadblocks? Was anyone there to help you, if so: how did you rely on them to keep the work going?
Explore my story for Brainbean to see how seven months of work turned into #3 top app for the iPad.
End with the results
You’ve talked about life before the problem, how you got inspired, how you approached solving it, and some of the complications you faced along the way. Now it’s time to talk about what happened as a result of your work.
(Here it’s worth noting that an incomplete project is worth talking about just as much as a completed one. Completed projects demonstrate an ability to see things through, but incomplete projects can say a lot about you as well.)
After all was said and done, what were you left with? Was the world—even if it was just your small part of the world—altered as a result of your work? How did your solution end-up and was it different than what you expected it to be? What proof do you have that things are any different?
When summarizing your project, talk about the world as it is now: after you harnessed your abilities and pushed forward in search of a solution to the problem. What’s changed? Has your solution shown results? Why do you think it has or hasn’t?
Follow-up with what you would do differently
The last thing to talk about is probably one of the most important: if you could go back and do it all again, what would you differently?
Self-awareness is a key trait in critical thinking and personal growth. Knowing where you failed or flubbed, where you succeeded, and what you would do again if you had the chance, can demonstrate your awareness and lessons learned.
Did you learn any shortcuts through the project? Did you learn any new skills, or any traits about yourself you didn’t realize you had? What might you have done to speed up the work, or to polish it a bit more? How do you think you might translate what you learned from the side project to your next project or something more substantial?
Talking about your side projects can be powerful. It got me where I am today, and I’m constantly looking for ways to incorporate what I learn on the job into my side projects and vice versa.
Tanner Christensen is a self-taught product designer at Facebook, author of The Creativity Challenge, founder of Creative Something, developer of some of the top creativity apps, blogger on Medium, former writer for Adobe’s 99u and contributing author for Inc.