Side projects: The gift that keeps on giving

About 4 years ago, I created Conference Roundup, a site that curates “conferences and events for web practitioners.” The motivation behind putting it together was that there was nowhere I could go to to quickly find a listing of events that were going on that year. Mind you this was before the likes of Lanyrd came about. Putting the site together was easy, but finding events to list took months, though the initial listing was based off a Smashing Magazine article appropriately titled “conference roundup.”

Over the next couple years, I did amass a good amount of conferences thanks to people who found the site useful and submitted events, which made researching at the beginning of each year a lot easier. And I pushed on every year because people actually found the site useful:

https://twitter.com/lindsayballant/status/322456896466464768
https://twitter.com/wearejh/status/365062551555411969

Then came Lanyrd. For those not familiar with Lanyrd, it is a social conference directory. Essentially, it is Conference Roundup but on a bigger scale. You can find all sorts of conferences and events on Lanyrd, and the site allows you to a number of things, including tracking an event, seeing how many attendees are registered for a particular event, and so on and so forth. As Lanyrd became more popular, I actually considered sunsetting my site but reconsidered when I took a look at the stats and saw that even with zero promotion there were still some people out there finding the site:

Stats from Jan 1, 2013 through Dec 31, 2013

For a small site, this was an encouraging sign. And then I would get emails asking about if I was still supporting the site like this one:

A note from Michal in Slovakia

Or tips on how I could make things better:

UX tip from Jay Selway

Any correspondence that makes it into my inbox with regards to the Conference Roundup site always make me smile because I know that there’s at least one person out there who appreciates the work you are doing, and for a lot of us who do side projects for the benefit of everyone in the industry, this is usually enough.

The competition from Lanyrd however presented another opportunity. I had always wanted to learn how iOS development so why not put the event data I had to use and actually build something? I love this answer on Quora from Ashley with regards to how you can get better at programming (Ruby on Rails in this case):

The best piece of advice I can give is to have a real product to work on. You can flit aimlessly between tutorials and books for the rest of your life, or you can have something tangible you can apply the techniques you are learning to.

Hence the idea for a Conference Roundup iOS app was born. I bought myself Big Nerd Ranch’s iOS book which I trudged through for a while and then eventually signed up for an account at Team Treehouse which I used for video tutorials and I would highly highly recommend! While I was getting up to speed on the fundamentals of Objective-C, I was also working on quick and dirty sketches which I then passed on to my buddy David Angerer to turn into full fledged designs.

These are the sketches I put together:

Omnigraffle sketches

And this is where we landed with the design:

Conference Roundup
App design

The entire experience of putting the app together was both challenging, considering my lack of experience in Objective-C and my background as a web developer, and exciting as I picked things up and watched my little app slowly come to life. I utilized a number of resources to get up to speed including Appcoda, Ray Wenderlich, and Team Treehouse. I also spent a helluva lot of time on Google, Apple’s developer documentation, and Stack Overflow researching how things worked and how best to approach the problems I was facing. Whenever I was stumped, I turned to people like Larry Legend who was super helpful whenever I peppered him with questions on Twitter. Along the way, I also encountered David Yeiser who was also learning iOS development by building a weather app. I used his progress as inspiration and motivation to keep learning.

The most important thing I learnt throughout the entire experience was that side projects can go beyond what you initially envisioned for them. You can re-purpose them or use them as a starting point to learn something else. This is simply the start-up mindset of making the necessary pivots to succeed being applied to side projects and self-education. The benefits of this are pretty obvious: you get to add to your skillset and use the experience you’ve gained to get the work you want as Dan Mall recently wrote, and you also meet people making the same journey you are and learn something from them or even teach them something they might not know.

So where am I at today? Well, I’m happy to say my little app got a thumbs up from and is officially available in the App Store for download. I’m also currently working on another app, this one destined for iPads, an opportunity which came about thanks to that nagging desire (and interest) to finally make the jump into iOS programming. My advice to you? Challenge yourself to go out and learn/build something this year. Start now and ignore any reservations you may have or whatever the naysayers might be saying. Trust me, it’ll be fulfilling.