I love doing side projects. There are many reasons:
- No better way to learn some technology than to put it into practice.
- Can actually turn into a real thing, even a day job (a good example is Instapaper, which is the "killer app" for ebook readers like the Kindle as far as I am concerned).
- Good for showing off to current and future employers, particularly if it is semi-related to your current domain.
I had read quite a bit of gushing on Ruby on Rails from Dave Bouwman, and I had a stupid idea for a web app that probably already existed, so I thought "why not"? I searched around and couldn't find what I had a picture in my head of.
This is what I wanted:
Simple two/three line webform where a user enters in where they are, what home improvement project they were looking at. They get back a list of what their local utility company would pay for and what contractors were available for it.
The utility information was basically public and there are actually quite a few conservation programs - every kilowatt hour saved is less that needs to be generated by building new, usually dirty power plants.
Contractors could add themselves and maybe pay to show up first. I wired up a prototype last weekend and showed a coworker who deals with conservation credits like these.
Her: "I like it."
Me: "Yeah I was going for something simple and direct like Hipmunk"
Her: *looks at Hipmunk* "Yeah, you just need an adorable mascot like they do"
Me: "Exactly! How about a big cartoony green brontosaurus with a bulbous nose?"
The next day, of course, I see a link via Twitter of a website that not only does more or less exactly what I was planning, but even had the mascot I was thinking of; only orange instead of green. The mascot bit might have been subconcious, because I remember reading a blog post from the same site (via hackernews) without ever looking at their homepage.
I'm not an expert in web design (mostly backend stuff), but I think I would prefer the simple form rather than their current landing page. I think it would be more focused on responding to what a homeowner is looking for. The energy savings calculator though, is probably the best I've seen in terms of visual style.
I might keep going with this project. The fact I couldn't easily find it on my initial search (my conservation coworkers hadn't heard of it either), the landing page, and the low barrier to entry (what do I have to lose, exactly?) means I could build something pretty quick I think.
Maybe not. I have a lot of other ideas for side projects - an open source outage management system has been rattling in my head since I've had to deal with a wonky one at work. That would be a great opportunity to do some high scalability/performance stuff outside of work.