I’ve officially thrown a deployment of PlateyPlatey (PP) up onto plateyplatey.com (galley) along with its server and frontend source code. I previously explained PP in a blog post.

PP is missing many features I would of liked to have. However, a few weeks ago I took a long look in the mirror and decided to just tidy it then throw it up on the net. This let me start sharing it on sites such as reddit to gauge if anyone’s interested. After about a week of PP being up, I concluded that no, no one is interested and yes, I spent way too much time coming to that conclusion.

This is my attempt to articulate general some general rules of thumb I have picked up over the last few side-projects. It was written just after PP, one of my bigger projects, didn’t live up to my expectations. It is not a definitive guide nor something you should take seriously without reading other developers’ thoughts.

I used to approach software side projects as an opportunity to write full-blown applications that I might someday commercialize or turn into a big hit. This, I’ve learnt, is a silly approach. Side projects should be approached as side projects, not as full-blown projects.

If a side project requires a light scripting engine, command controller, custom UI elements, a fair amount of interactivity, servers, etc. then it’s doomed to failure. This isn’t because these features can’t be implemented—I believe any developer can implement any feature if given enough time—but because big projects don’t suit only getting “and hour here” and “an evening there”.

The problem with PP is that I specced my minimum viable product way too ambitiously. The spec included several headline features:

In isolation, each of these features are easy to implement. However, implementing all of them into one system requires more care and, crucially, architecture.

If you write software full-time as a job then you can afford to spend a month or two making prototypes, designing hierarchies, and, ultimately, implementing a system that’s quite large. However, side-projects won’t get more than, say, ~20 % of the time an at-work project will get. Because of that, those few weeks of prototyping and planning will stretch out across months.

In principle, many months isn’t a problem for a side-project with no time limits. However, spending many months without making anything requires a lot of discipline: no one finds planning and prototyping as fun as diving into the heart of an idea. The same goes for boring old architecture documents, automated testing, and design specs.

Those things mostly exist to make working on bigger projects more predictable and to make the maintenance of a working system easier for other developers. A small side project is only going to be worked on by one, maybe two, developers over a relatively short period of time; therefore, it isn’t worth worrying about the theoretical overhead of maintaining and sharing it. If a small side project becomes an overnight sensation then—because it’s small—there is scope for dropping the initial codebase and starting again with all the knowledge and expertise the first runthrough gave you.

Dropping those things for a bigger side project, though, is dangerous. Not having plans, specs, architecture, or tests in place for a bigger project will result in development grinding to a halt under its own technical debt. When that happens, you’ll need to do a big refactor. This happened roughly twice with PP. First, to move all the javascript code into separate hierarchies with a makefile build system. Second, to translate all the javascript into typescript and use webpack to build everything. The time taken by those reorganization steps really sucked some of the momentum out of PP’s development. Especially because the actual functionality of PP didn’t change after each step - they just made working on the codebase easier.

The main take home is that side projects get developed much more slowly than real on-the-job projects because of time constraints. That makes working on bigger side projects especially painful because the boring planning, speccing, and testing steps—which tend to come in handy for bigger projects—last too long to keep the momentum of a side project going. By contrast, smaller projects work well with a “code and fix” development model which gives immediate feedback and a semi-working system very quickly. This helps maintain momentum and interest; however, “code and fix” gets treacherous once projects start growing, so don’t let them grow.

Keep small. Keep agile. Try things out. Get the audience’s opinion. Then grow.