The favourite project

Yesterday I got my friend, Yihui, to come in to give a talk to the current WDI batch at General Assembly. He was gracious with his time and came in to share with us his joining-GA story and the (huge) product that came out of it – his e-commerce website, Hush. It was a great talk. I kept hearing the word “inspiring” from the audience. Great!

Throughout his talk he went back and forth fielding technical and business questions. The class comprised of one-third fresh graduates, so I’m not surprised that people asked so many business questions in a technical course. A startup unfortunately remains the first thing that pops to young people’s minds when they think “get crazy rich and have a glamorous lifestyle being your own boss”.

One thing that stood out for me was his way of thinking about side projects. In response to a student’s question, Yihui explained that he invariably ends up favouring one project over others, and he chooses to eliminate it altogether. In other words, he focuses on only one project at a time.

Since technology folklore suggests that multi-billion dollar companies are usually born out of the activity of tinkerers working on side projects in their mum’s garages, his perspective may be seen as silly and wasteful.

But for me, and for many others I believe that are like him, I think it’s a good way of thinking about how to allocate our time and effort. It’s the difference between a sniper and a gatling gun. (Sorry for another military analogy, I can’t find a better parallel…)

The key is to first get good at something, then branch out to others. The second key is to realise that it takes time to get really good at something. In software, my gut feel is somewhere between 2-4 years for a junior entry-level programmer to become fully autonomous. In other words, it takes a couple of years of practice to be able to know how to implement any project without reference (except documentation).

So instead of jumping from one favourite project to another favourite side project, I believe we are better off focusing our time and effort on one project that is worthwhile and gives us the opportunity to dive deep into. Best case scenario, that project is your day job, as it is with Yihui. I can see opportunities to dive into my work to come at Altitude Labs too, and I’m excited because of it.

And when we’re finally good at something, we’ll know, because then we’ll be bored. When that time comes, we know it’s time to work on that side project…