loading...

How a Side Project Helped Me Double My Salary

kyle_stratis profile image Kyle Stratis Updated on ・7 min read

Originally published on my personal blog

The dust has settled. The boxes are (mostly) unpacked. The cats have claimed their perches. At the beginning of January, Tallahassee got its first real snow in decades, and my wife and I prepared to take our adventure to our mutual dream city, Boston. While the 1,300 mile trip could consume a post or two on its own, today I'd like to talk about what brought me from Tallahassee to Boston, and how I got there.

Like everything in life, there was an element of luck involved. I was lucky to have a great recruiter, working for me, I was lucky to have interviewed with people who saw the value in my projects in particular, as well as side projects in general, and saw a fit for me in a fast-moving team working on highly experimental data tooling. However, the harder your work, the luckier you seem to get - and there are elements from this experience that I think can aid people in any job search.

The Beginning of the Job Search

What motivated me to look in the first place? I enjoyed the team I worked with (the building we were in? Not so much), and while we never saw Tallahassee as our forever home, my wife and I both made great lifelong friends there and had a great routine. Well, as we were preparing for our first anniversary trip, a recruiter for Amazon reached out to me on LinkedIn. I wasn't planning on taking it, but after the results of my pitching Danqex (formerly NASDANQ - and fodder for another post) and with the encouragement of my career sherpa (who also works for Amazon), I decided to go for it. That got me itching to see what was out there given my interests and experience - and there was a lot. I figured I'd look for remote opportunities, save up some money, then move in the early summer or fall to Boston. The best laid plans, yadda yadda yadda.

Updating My Resume

To prepare for this, I had to update my resume. I added some projects and experience I got while working at Homes.com, but I think the most important thing was adding my work as Danqex cofounder, CEO, and data lead. This was something I worried about - I didn't want to give the impression that I'd up and leave right away for Danqex, but at the same time it was (and continues to be) a source of super-concentrated experience in a number of areas - team management, project management, development, technology selection, even dealing with investors and knowing a bit about how funding works. So I added it to my resume - one thing I've learned in my career is to be competely upfront in the job search, because the hunt is a lot like dating: a good fit is far more important than the quickest almost-fit. Danqex also worked as a great conversation starter - who doesn't like to talk memes?

Mismatches and Encouragement

The Amazon interview came and went. My wife and I had just gotten back from our trip, and I hadn't much time to review data structures and algos. I wasn't aware that I'd have a coding test (something that is always a source of anxiety) at the first phone interview, so that happened and I powered through that anxiety because I had no choice. Getting that out of the way was great, and I actually enjoyed the problem given - unfortunately Amazon decided to pass on me. It was disappointing, but now I didn't have to move to Seattle.

I had quite a few other interviews, which was actually very encouraging because my previous job searches did not often get past the resume submission. These were often great, geeking out with someone else about technologies we loved and work that we'd do. Unfortunately a lot of these were not good matches - often because of a lack of experience with their technologies. The types of companies that don't encourage on-the-job learning (or can't) aren't the ones I necessarily want to work for - picking up a language to do work is pretty quick, even though mastering it takes many hours of work. Picking up supporting technologies (think Kafka, etc.) is much quicker.

One job I applied to I didn't realize was for in Boston and was through an external recruitment firm. I was nervous when this became clear, because I've only heard bad things about these, but I am incredibly grateful for the experience and it worked out perfectly. The business model here is interesting: companies that don't necessarily have the resources to do their own recruitment on a large scale will pay another firm to do it, in this industry this is mostly startups or companies undergoing very rapid growth. The firm that posted the ad I applied to was WinterWyman, and they have teams dedicated to different fields. The recruiter, Jamie, contacted me, and said he didn't think what I applied to would be the ideal fit, but he'd talk to them anyway - in the meantime, though, he wanted to know what my priorities were as far as my career and what things are important for me in a company. I told him I was ready to make an impact on society in some way - one of the jobs I applied for was for a company doing research on various mental issues as detected in social media postings. I wanted to be able to take point on my projects and have ownership, have the opportunity to advance, work with interesting technologies, process lots of data, and a few others, but my most important priority was impactful work. He returned to me a list of companies that I did some research on, and picked a few. One didn't want me because I didn't have a CS degree (their loss - and I'm happy not to work in a culture with those attitudes), a few others dropped off, but one in particular was right up my alley and was really interested in me.

The Match

This company was PatientsLikeMe which has a track record of not only improving lives of patients through connecting them in support networks, but was also doing some groundbreaking research with the data that users of the platform provide. Impactful? You bet. They wanted a data engineer for a new data engineering team that supports the research team and builds tools to trial before bringing them to full production status. Ownership? Plenty. I had two phone interviews, one with my future boss, and one with a teammate. Both were a lot of fun, talking about Danqex/Nasdanq, my experience, my educational background, and more. Jamie helped me prepare for both, and called me quickly to let me know that the team was really excited about me and would be setting me up for a trip to Cambridge for an in-person interview.

I flew in to Logan (almost missed my flight because my car greeted us in the morning with a flat), spent a few days with my dad, and then got settled in my hotel in Cambridge. My recruiter had been giving me a lot of details on what to expect for the interview, which helped put me at ease, and after a good night of sleep I got dressed and headed over to the PLM offices. While there I went through a few rounds of interviewing, two with my future boss, one with the other team members, one with HR, and one with one of the scientists on the biocomputing team, who we'd be supporting. The topics ranged from the function of outer hair cells (the subject of my research in grad school) to the design of database tables given some features to RaspberryPis to how to trade memes for profit. Instead of an interview, it was more like meeting with a bunch of interesting and smart people that geek out over the same things I do, and getting to chat about our passions. It was fun.

After the interview I met with some family and before leaving, I got to meet Jamie in person for breakfast. He informed me there was another person being interviewed, but that I'd hear something within the next couple of weeks. A little over one long week later, Jamie called me to let me know an offer was coming. The offer came, and it was exactly what I was looking for and the match was officially made.

One mild issue - the job was not remote. We'd be moving to Boston on the heels of record-breaking cold with plenty of winter left for us.

Lessons learned

Wrapped up in all that are a few lessons that can be gleaned from this, I think:

  • Work on your side projects, take them farther than makes sense, and be a cheerleader for them and the work you did on them.
  • Be prepared to answer truthfully any hard questions about those projects. One of the questions asked was how my priorities would shift with this job in relation to Danqex. Of course, the job would come first, Danqex was born as a side project and that's how we're equipped to work on it. You'll likely get those questions and more about your projects, and you should know them inside and out. Pitching to investors, while not feasible for many, was a great preparation for this.
  • Get outside of your comfort zone with technologies you work with. This is especially useful if you, like I was, work with a less in-demand language at your current job.
  • Find the best match, not the the first yes. I've been working at PLM now for just under 3 weeks, and it has been the best match for me. A fun, stimulating culture (we have journal club between 1 and 3 times a week, and also a well-stocked beer fridge!), brilliant people to work with (2 of my teammates have PhDs from MIT, the other studied at WPI), a team that's all about rapid prototyping, proving a tool we make, and then letting it mature to another team to maintain, and a shared drive to truly push the science of chronic illness and improve the lives of our patients in tangible ways. Work that truly matters is one of the greatest motivators of all.
  • To help with the above lesson - don't wait (if you can help it) until you absolutely need a job to start looking for your next step. This keeps you from making any spur of the moment emotional decisions, and keeps the ball in your court as you wade through rejections and negotiations.

Posted on by:

kyle_stratis profile

Kyle Stratis

@kyle_stratis

Senior Data Engineer | Accelerating research and machine learning teams

Discussion

markdown guide
 

I used to have side projects. Now I have a 3 year old that sleeps 8 hours at night (plus naps at daycare) and wakes up at 5am. I'd love to know how to do this without parking him in front of the T.V. while I work on my side project.

 

Having not been in that situation, there isn't any good advice I can give. But there are certainly ways around spending your free time on work, since family always comes first. Maybe working with your employer on some sort of 20% project arrangement, or strictly regimenting your time to only spend an hour or so on a project a night, or some other way around. I bet a post looking for advice from parents who have been there would be pretty popular!

 

I also have a 3 year old. Strangely for me though, side projects, which went on hold immediately after she was born, have started being revived since she turned 3. She is somewhat self entertaining and doesn't watch too much tv, but I think importantly we have a strict bedtime for her at 7pm. Usually (though not always) I have enough energy at that time of the day to play with tech, do some reading/research, or even some soldering and hacking. My biggest sacrifice is probably giving up as much tv watching as I can, as that's an easy but terrible time waster (if done in excess).

 

That is a very interesting comment.
How to deal with toddlers that are so much time consuming. But it is such hapiness to watch them growing up. <3

I am in that exact situation (baby is turning 3 and a new one is coming. ouch). But I can feel that I have time, to do side projects, exercise (I love running and climbing and do this frequently). But you must have a supportive partner (so lucky to have my wife) that can take care of the babies from time to time and you do the same so that she can have som time off.
If you have a very demanding job, it can be difficult indeed. But I am so lucky now to be 5 minutes from my job. This frees 2 hours (from the commute) if you consider my previous job schedule.
And I can say that I have some side project that I am working on with pleasure.
On the dev side (I got other side projects not related to dev ;-)), it is a tool that automate some parts of a static security audit on Android app. Tell me what you think of it.

GitHub logo Shosta / androSecTest

Automate the setup of your Android Pentest and perform automatically static tests

Ask me anything Maintained GitHub stars GitHub forks GitHub license Pentest

Android-Static-Security-Audit

Here is a quick Cheat Sheet to test the security of an Android app that AndroSecTest is doing.

You can have a quick look at how the application is pentesting an Android app on Youtube : youtu.be/zzyTFjnwolo

The first part of the Security testing is to :

  1. Get the application from the Store,
  2. Pull it from the device,
  3. Unpackaged it,
  4. Look for some unsecure behavior,
  5. Make it debuggable,
  6. Repackage it and reinstall it on the device.

1. Get the application from your device, using the adb command

1.1. List the applications' package names on your device :

adb shell pm list packages | grep “hint from the app you are looking for”

1.2. Get the path of the desired application on the device :

adb shell pm path app.package.name.apk

1.3. Pull it from your device to your computer :

adb pull app.path

1.4. Change the file name from ".apk"

But I must say that I am very eager to start doing some side project with my children (dev related). That is going to be awesome to work with them on some school project or anything else. :-D

 

Thanks for sharing your story, Kyle!

I'm currently looking to change careers from QA to Android developement and this post will come in handy, for sure!

 

Awesome, good luck and keep us posted!

 

It was good to read your job search story. It mirrors my current one in a lot of ways.

I have also been turned down by "cool" companies because of Trivial Pursuit phone interviews, ill-conceived and job irrelevant snap coding tests and the "you must have a degree in computer science" requirement. I also have my age working against me although they have to cloak this objection in HR legal friendly terms like "not fitting with team dynamics".

I also like how you had a great, friendly, interview at the company you went to work for eventually. Too many companies still take the aggressive "We will break you" type interview.

As for the side project getting you jobs, that has worked for me in the past but it seems more, if not most, companies today are less interested in that now. I've even had a few take it as a negative. Maybe it's different in a more tech oriented company than it is with your average corporate developer position that I've been primarily interviewing with.

 

A very interesting read. Great info. Do you remember what the coding test was like? I say this because Im a casual beginner programmer myself and never took CS. Though, at least at the bigwig companies they always seem to be some hieroglyphic CS type questions (make this bubblesort algo faster etc)

 

It was more of a design thing - we have so-and-so feature, what data would you pull from it and how would you store it sort of stuff. It wasn't a technical test like many companies do, and was a much better formulation. This was a senior position, though, so YMMV.

 

i've been doing side projects for almost 4 years now and yes, they help you a lot to learn how to manage somethings that you might not face daily at the office.