During my time at Facebook, I had an amazing role consulting with Fortune 100 Print and Broadcast companies, helping them understand how Facebook advertising could work for them. But no matter how happy my clients were, how successful my sales org was, or how bug-free the implementations were, my core job wasn’t what was getting me noticed. It was my side projects.
The lessons I learned about side projects while at Facebook were some of the most important learnings I had in my time at the New Big Blue. Let’s talk about a few things you should know when choosing and running your side projects, and what Facebook taught me about this understated, under-explored side of everyone’s job.
It wasn’t my core job that was getting me noticed. It was my side projects.
1. Do Side Projects
Seriously, do side projects. In order to accelerate your career you have to reach beyond what is asked of you in your role, and side projects are a fantastic way to do that, benefitting both you and your company.
Side projects can be some of the most important work you do at your job. They gain you recognition, add color and variety to your day, and allow you to learn the things that you need for your next promotion or role change.
You have to reach beyond what is asked of you in your role.
My side projects at Facebook ranged from creating internal training courses to productizing an understaffed API to building a 6-foot tall LED art wall (and many more besides). I was able to learn, grow, and increase my exposure to new and interesting opportunities in each of the projects that I committed to.
2. Aim for Impact (By Making the Business Better)
In your day-to-day, you are going to see many, many things that could be made better. After your first year or so in a role, you are (whether you believe it or not) a better expert in the needs of your role than probably your manager, their manager, or any of the adjacent roles that you interface with.
It’s not that you’re smarter than them, but you are in the weeds with the challenges of your role EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. That kind of exposure simply can’t be matched.
However, those needs that you identify in your role may or may not be the kinds of projects that will make an impact on the business. You have to stop and think about whether that particular thing that you’re doing is going to have an impact on those around you and the business metrics that your managers and their managers care about.
The needs in your role may or may not be the kinds of projects that will make an impact on the business.
There are two great strategies for choosing side projects with impact. The first is one of my favorites, which is to make the daily lives of those around us easier, more elegant, and more efficient. The drawback is that these projects may have a difficult-to-measure impact in hard metrics. Alleviate this by creating and tracking metrics that support business metrics. And if people in your org love and talk about your solution, you’re going to make an impact.
The other strategy is to understand the needs of the business and your org. What are the goals of your manager? The goals of his manager? What are the metrics and KPIs that your org needs to meet this quarter, this half, this year? What are the challenges that are slowing down or keeping you and the people around you from hitting those metrics? Is there a team adjacent to you that is struggling with a KPI for which you think you have a good solution?
You always want to make a significant contribution to meeting the goals of your org.
If you’re not sure about where you can contribute, keep your ears open, or be proactive and book some time with your manager, and then their manager. Tell them you’d love to contribute by taking on a side project, and would love to hear some of the issues that they think could use some attention.
These are the kinds of projects that will allow you and your manager to talk at review time about how you and your team made a significant contribution to meeting the goals of your org. And you always want to make a significant contribution to meeting the goals of your org.
Aim for projects that have an impact on you as well.
At the same time, you want to aim for projects that have an impact on you as well. What is that set of skills that you want to learn? What is that new role that you want? Choosing projects that build upon the skills needed for your next dream role is a great way to get noticed by people that will hire you into that role.
In fact, I once ended up in an informal interview for a fantastic position because the manager of a team, (we’ll call him) Elijah, had seen the project I was running with his team, and he wanted me working with them more often, that is to say permanently. A meeting with Elijah that I thought was to discuss some of the finishing touches on a project turned into an conversation about starting an interview loop to join his team.
3. You Don’t Have to Know Everything (But You do Have to Build the Team)
Taking on a side project doesn’t mean that you have to do everything. Ideally you should be building and leading a team of cross-functional participants.
In my first side project, productizing Facebook’s LiveRail API, I saw the project as a thing that I had to deliver on, just me, in whatever spare time I could create to work on it. You might be able to pull off the entire project by yourself, but this is not how you want to approach your projects! You’ll miss so many opportunities to make connections and advance your skills!
You should be building and leading a team of cross-functional participants.
As it turned out, even though I wrote all of the code samples, created and led the trainings, built the internal wiki, etc, I still had to interface with other teams: engineering needed to check the code samples, team leads had to give time for trainings, etc. Rather than approaching your project as something that you alone are doing, plan to work with others from the outset!
You will probably need to start out by scoping the project and creating a pitch that will entice others to join you. Then you need to expose that scope and pitch to your manager and the others that you may need to loop in from time to time. I only needed engineering to review my code samples once or twice, but pitching them at the outset of my project would have been a much better way of approaching my request for their valuable time.
Plan to work with others from the outset!
Along the way you’ll find that the core participants in your project don’t have all the skills that you need to fully execute your project. That’s fine too. Foster your relationships across the business, so that when you need a beautiful one-pager to support the work you have done, you can chat with someone you know in design or marketing and get their help to get that final asset that will push your project over the finish line.
In some cases, you might be able to pull in external resources as well. When our ad server updated to a new version and our public video assets were out of date, I happily took on the challenge of getting them updated, even though I had zero experience in video editing or production at the time.
Scope the project and create a pitch that will entice others to join you.
As it turned out, there was a budget for updating those videos, and I was able to hire an external video production crew and voice-over actor. I didn’t know video editing, but I knew the product, and I was willing to listen and learn how to create great video assets.
Great projects never come from a single person. They come from multiple backgrounds, intelligences, and points of view working together in a common direction. Plan ahead to get others on board!
4. Run Your Side Projects Like an Executive has Specifically Chosen You
The framing and approach to a “side project” can easily lead us to think that we don’t need to be as formal or business-like in the way we approach and run our side projects. This is a huge mistake. You should treat these projects with all the preparation and care that you would if an executive on your team had asked you to run the project.
The framing of a “side project” can easily lead us to think that we don’t need to be as business-oriented in the way we approach our side projects. This is a huge mistake.
This means planning out your schedule. Building a team of willing, excited participants. Creating a meeting cadence to help everyone stay on track. Creating metrics that you track to determine the success of the project. Imagine what you would feel comfortable presenting to an executive in a status update. Create that.
To run your side project like a real project, here’s a short list of suggestions. You can find an entire shelf of books on each of these points, so I won’t delve into each of them, but the crux of it is to be a good project manager, use design thinking, and have a lean approach.
Understand the problem. Do secondary research, competitive analyses, interviews. Gather internal data from databases and analytics. Create metrics and evaluation criteria. Have meetings on a set cadence. Use a sprint methodology to assign and track work. Build lo-fi prototypes and user test them to get feedback early. Use an MVP to assess results. Track your metrics. Kill the project if it’s not going to make an impact that justifies everyone’s time.
Imagine what you would feel comfortable presenting to an executive in a status update. Create that.
AND TRACK EVERYTHING.
Seriously, write things down along the way. Notes, metrics, design decisions. It’s one of the hardest things to do when you’re running at a hundred miles an hour and this isn’t your primary responsibility, but you’re going to need all of that writing and tracking when you start to package your work for consumption by the rest of the org/business.
That leads us into the final point…
5. Doing the Work is Only Half the Work (The Other Half is Packaging and Socializing)
As a former programmer and then an employee at smaller start-ups, I was unfamiliar with the idea that I needed to package my work in order for it to be seen. I quickly learned at Facebook that it was no one else’s responsibility to promote my work, and that I needed to package it and make it consumable.
Don’t leave the onus of understanding your work on others. You need to take the work you did, research you compiled, metrics that you tracked, test results you found, and package it so that your manager, their manager, and the teams around you can easily see the result (hopefully the benefit) that came from the project that you executed. This is your responsibility. This is part of the project.
Don’t leave the onus of understanding your work on others.
This could mean a lot of different things. When I built a new global tracking process for the my team, I had to travel to the different offices around the world and teach each of the teams how to use the tracking system, talk about why it was beneficial to them, and sell them on actually using the system.
This was because I hadn’t made the benefit to them easily consumable. Never mind that I had already interviewed them, sourced their needs, and built a solution on a product they already knew. I still had to sell it to them, my own teammates.
It is no one else’s responsibility to promote your work.
Once I finally realized what the gap was, I created wiki pages with all of the details. I built reference one-pagers for them to have on their desks. I printed out the one-pagers and handed them to my teammates directly so they didn’t have to even go through the extra step of printing them.
And I built a dashboard for the dashboard, training my manager on not only how to interpret the work patterns of the team, but how to read the meta-dashboard and ensure that the solution was being used.
Making your work understandable and consumable is your responsibility. This is part of the project.
Then I was on a roll. I did follow up surveys, took screen caps, and put the information together into a presentation that was appropriate for upper management. I took the time to get on their calendars, and helped them understand the new solution that we were using to justify our work.
Not only did the project succeed and persist, but all of the additional work of socializing the benefit allowed my manager to use my solution to justify additional headcount at a time when the our org did not have room to expand. By taking the time to make the value of the project clear across the org, the impact was felt directly by our team.