On the disproportional benefits of developing a Side Project

Photo by Nathan Shipps on Unsplash

I have long been fascinated with the power that the internet has to connect like minded people from every far flung region of the globe. While human movement is still fairly constrained between self imposed borders, information is not so, thanks to the proliferation of the internet. Even more exciting is that with the multitude of tools available today, anybody can develop a voice and tell their story.

This is the story of how and why I have spent the last year or so developing AeroToolbox.net, an aerospace engineering website built to serve an existing audience of engineers and hopefully to inspire the next generation of aerospace and aviation geeks to pursue a career in this exciting field.

However, this post actually has very little to do with the website itself, or the aerospace industry; rather the time I spent developing the website has had far broader implications for me and opened up a world of opportunity thanks to the skills and insights I have learnt from running this side project. I’d love to share my story with you and maybe just inspire you to start something new today.

The Start

It all started in July 2016 while sitting in a coffee shop with my laptop. As an engineer I’m predisposed to want to build things and improve the world around me. I also had the words of the legendary Marc Andreessen ringing in my ears after listening to an interview he gave:

Smart people should build things — that’s what I believe.” Marc Andreessen

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Now I’m under no illusion that I’m any smarter, more entitled or somehow more gifted than the next guy, but I’m also not opposed to some hard graft, and have the drive and desire to make my mark in the World.

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” Steve Jobs

With these thoughts running through my head I rolled up my sleeves (opened my laptop), pulled up a new Google Doc and started laying out the groundwork for what would become my first side project.

Clear Objectives

First things first, I needed to establish some clear objectives as to what I wanted to get out of my side project. Some things were clear:

  • I wanted to develop some new skills that were well suited to the digital economy.
  • I wanted to create something that could be of value to others.
  • I wanted to create a platform that could connect like-minded individuals from all around the world.

Some secondary objectives that I identified:

  • I hope to derive a small passive income from my project.
  • Whatever I build should be a true reflection of me.
  • Ultimately it should benefit my career on a longer term time frame.

The internet is full of so called “experts” as well as far too many articles with titles like: “10 ways to…” or “5 morning rituals that made billionaire…”. There is no silver bullet to success and I was determined that whatever I developed would not be filled with click-bait type titles, or consist of sleazy ways to generate income.

memegenerator.net

Which leads me to an important point…

Credibility

The low barrier to entry and ability for anybody to have a voice on the internet is both the network’s biggest strength and greatest weakness. One thing that was very important for me was that whatever I built would have to be credible.

The natural place to start therefore is with a subject matter that I know well. As a working aeronautical engineer, an online aeronautical resource seemed like a natural fit. I also happen to be passionate about all things aerospace and aviation related so I guess there was never really any doubt as to the subject matter of my first after-hours endeavor.

I also wanted to be able to devote my time learning new skills in the fields of web design and development, and so starting with a familiar subject matter would allow me to focus my learning on acquiring these new skills.

Under-served Niche

The next step was to determine whether there was actually a group of people who may benefit from such a resource. Being in the industry myself I am well aware of the online resources currently available and came to the conclusion that a technical aeronautical resource with the aim of being practical and useful, both to students embarking on an aeronautical degree and practising engineers, represented an under-served niche that my website could slot into. There is plenty of very technical aeronautical literature on the web, but not much that has been written for somebody who may not have extensive prior knowledge. I started off by writing a ten part series which I titled Fundamentals of Aircraft Design aimed at giving an introduction to many of the more interesting aspects of aeronautical engineering.

The other aspect of the project that I was keen to explore was the use of Javascript to build a number of aeronautical calculators and tools to assist an engineer. Having looked all over the internet for a few particular tools and being disappointed with the quality of some of the calculators available I realised that an opportunity existed to build a few tools that could be really useful to my niche. Ultimately I built a set of tools that I would find useful in my day job.

Photo by Kristopher Allison on Unsplash

A few examples of such tools are:

The goal was simple: build a set of tools that was better or more complete than anything I had come across previously.

Of course I also needed a good clear URL for my website and settled on AeroToolbox.net which I thought fitted the bill rather nicely.

Grit (or the execution step)

I had a vision of what I wanted to build, I had a set of objectives, and so next came the hard part; I actually had to get on and build the thing. I have some programming knowledge (VBA, Matlab, Python) so I wasn’t too worried about the more technical aspects of programming the various calculators, but had never attempted to build a website or brand before.

I settled on a self-hosted WordPress site as that gave me the most control (with a reasonable learning curve) over how I implemented the various aspects of the site. I actually really enjoyed designing the look and feel of the site (creating a child-theme of the default Twenty Sixteen theme) and it gave me a great opportunity to get to grips with CSS and jQuery. In my day job there isn’t necessarily much opportunity to express myself creatively and the process of designing a user interface was one I enjoyed.

I am by no means a talented designer and while I am happy with the look and feel of the site, I am certain that a professional designer would have some good suggestions as to what I could do to improve it.

Writing the ten part introductory series was more time consuming than I had originally thought but I found it rewarding to be able to share some of my knowledge in a (hopefully) easy to read format.

All-in-all I spent many nights and weekends working on my project and finally got it to a point in late September 2017 where I was just about ready to launch.

Time to Reflect

Before talking about the launch and subsequent plans for the site I want to discuss why starting and following through on a side project is such a great use of one’s time. I stopped and considered all that I had learned in the year or so of working on the project and was absolutely astounded:

  • Scripting in HTML
  • Getting to grips with PHP
  • Working with CSS and building a custom child theme for WordPress
  • Developing a color pallette for the site
  • Considering color and font combinations and ensuring readability
  • Attempting to design a logo and create an identity for the site
  • Designing both for desktop and mobile
  • Using Javascript to build my calculators
  • I had never even heard of jQuery before starting
  • Discovering plotly.js which is a wonderful graphing tool
  • MathJax for LaTex like mathematical formulae
  • Search engine optimization (just scratching the surface)
  • Operating cPanel and learning what goes into hosting a website

This is just in the process of designing and setting up the website. I haven’t even started trying to promote and market the site (something most engineers find inherently difficult).

The point that I’m trying to make is even if the website is a total flop, and very few people discover or use it, the lessons that I have learnt building it are invaluable and represent a great investment of my time!

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin

Of course the skills that I have gained can be applied to any number of online ventures in the future. The major cost associated with creating the site was my time, but as I framed the project as a learning exercise there was essentially no downside.

Looking Forward

So, now that the website is up and running is it gaining any traction?

It’s really early days and I haven’t spent any time or money trying to promote it yet. The good news is that users appear to be finding the site through Google searches and I am hoping that given some time (and work on my part) it will be discovered by more people. I have set up a twitter handle @aerotoolbox which would be my preferred way attracting users. I suspect that I’ll find the promotion of the site more difficult than it’s creation as like most engineers I struggle with some aspects of sales and self-promotion. One of my favorite quotes on this comes from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One:

“Nerds are skeptical of advertising, marketing, and sales, because they seem superficial, They know their own jobs are hard, so when they look at salespeople laughing on the phone with a customer or going to two-hour lunches, they suspect that no real work is being done. If anything, people overestimate the relative difficulty of science and engineering, because the challenges of those fields are obvious. What nerds don’t realize is that it also takes hard work to make sales look easy … If you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business — no matter how good the product.” — Peter Thiel

Hopefully AeroToolbox.net will provide me with an opportunity to develop some marketing and sales experience which is just another reason why this side project is such a valuable learning tool.

On a final note, two of my objectives: to create an opportunity for like-minded people to meet, and to assist young engineers in their studies, has already started to play itself out. Barely a week after quietly launching the site I received an email from an engineering student on the other side of the World. He thanked me for the resource and asked for some advice on a project he was busy with, which I was able to give him over email! This is exactly what I had hoped this site would achieve. Hopefully many similar interactions will play themselves out as the site gains traction.

So if you have been thinking about developing a new skill, or have a great idea for a side project, all I can say is GO FOR IT! I’ve gained many new skills from the time I have put in, and have built something that I am proud to call my own. So if you have been thinking of starting a passion project my advice is to stop thinking and start acting. Who knows where your side project could take you?

One thing is for certain though; if you don’t start, you’ll never find out.

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