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Estevão Lucas
Estevão Lucas

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Enhancing Your Career Through Internal Side Projects

I’m a software engineer with over 15 years of experience. I’ve got two kids and I don’t have the stamina to work on personal side projects anymore.

When I was a bit younger I’d work over hours, play with shiny toys and dedicate a good time of my weekend to learning the next cool stuff.

Side projects are a good way to learn and explore new skills, but I feel that having a good work-life balance is essential to me. I’ve already had burnout, so having time for myself and my family means saying no to personal side projects.

Change in technology is constant. We are always going to have something to improve, learn, and read. We can’t escape from this reality and I needed to embrace it as part of my day-to-day work; however, I've found a solution that allows me to stay motivated and learn new things in a low-stress environment.

First things first

My career has gone through a significant shift in the last three years, transitioning from small to medium (traditional and product) agencies to hypergrowth startups and big tech companies.

The dynamic is completely different from the agencies that I used to work for. If before I’d work from kick-off to handoff, now I’d be “siloed” in a team or org developing and maintaining a small part of some big project inside my large company.

With parts of the application being distributed to different (product and infrastructure) teams, the variety of challenges I face is completely different as well.

In this new environment, it is common to face development pain points or bugs that are not part of the codebase my team owns.
In this case, the norm is usually to reach out to the teams that own such scope (tool, library, feature, etc) and raise the problem or propose a solution to the team, and hopefully, they will prioritize it and have the bandwidth to work on it. But this is normally not the case.

Those different teams have their roadmap and they might spread too thin. So unless what your need is critical for the company, they won’t prioritize your request.

I view situations like that as opportunities for my internal “side project”.

Internal side projects

I’ll take notes of those opportunities, which can later be translated into internal contributions, or my “side projects”.

As a frontend engineer, my notes usually have opportunities for contributions to cross-cutting teams, such as Design System (help to fix some accessibility issues or introducing some components), Core tech (improve local or CI build times), and Developer Experience (introduce an ESLint rule to improve consistency, or even build some proof-of-concept).

This list goes from low-hanging fruit tasks to more complex solutions. Then I prioritize it in a way I can somehow:

  • 🔓 Unblock my team
  • 😁 Have some fun!
  • 🧠 Learn something new
  • 💪 Cause some good impact
  • 💥 Get out of my comfort zone
  • 👥 Interact with other people

Modus operandi

For me, the most fun part of my internal side projects is that I’m the one who decides how and when to work, and usually I go in a low-stress mode.

I’m constantly updating my list of opportunities. When I find some spare time (within my work time), I crack it, and I try to hand it off in a way that is maintainable and shows some value to the company.

Usually, I’m not bound to a sprint schedule or scope, but communication is key for me. My team needs to know that I’m not slacking off when I’m not moving my ticket on our Jira board. I’ll say how I’m making some contribution and why it’s good for the team.

Career growth

This approach has not only kept me motivated but also pushed me beyond my comfort zone despite being introverted and averse to being in the spotlight. It has propelled the product's progress and significantly impacted my career growth prospects.

I had teammates that complained about not having enough opportunities to perform at the next desired level, and I see those internal “side projects” as a great mechanism to create those career opportunities.

With internal side projects, you can show off some skills you usually can’t demonstrate in your team. You can fill the gaps for the target level in the career ladder, and set yourself up for promotion.

(remember to always document your accomplishment)


In summary, internal “side projects” are a really good way to balance workload, keep up with the ever-changing technology, and provide a valuable learning opportunity.

Additionally, I think this model promotes collaboration and a positive culture by demonstrating that individuals can transcend team boundaries and make a significant contribution to a larger cause.

It's a perfect blend of work and play.

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