24. Side Projects for Fun and (not necessarily) Profit
Hosted by Charlie Gleason, with guest Stephen Barlow.
Heroku’s Charlie Gleason and Stephen Barlow dive into their experiences working on side projects—small, silly, funny, and emotive vignettes on the web—that span interactive music videos, browser-based mini games, collaborative art projects, and everything in between. Learn how to get involved with your own community of makers, why it’s more important to have fun than it is to try and get internet famous, and some things to look out for when working with others.
The web started off weird, and there’s a wonderful and concerted effort to ensure that, at least parts of it, stay that way.
Heroku designer Charlie Gleason and lead strategist Stephen Barlow dive into their experiences working on side projects—small, silly, funny, and emotive vignettes on the web—that span random Arrested Development episode selectors, Kanye West browser-based mini games, collaborative art projects, and everything in between.
Learn how to get involved with your own community of makers, why it’s more important to have fun than it is to try and get internet famous, and some things to look out for when working with others.
So, put away the kanban board, get inspired, and keep the internet weird with a side project of your own.
Links from this episode
Charlie Gleason: Hello, and welcome to Code[ish]. I am Charlie Gleason. You may remember me from previous podcasts. I am once again joined by one of my favorite human beings in the whole world, Stephen Barlow. And we're here to talk to you about side projects. Stephen do you want to introduce yourself?
Stephen Barlow: Hello, Charlie. I would love to introduce myself. I'm Stephen. I am the lead strategist for the Heroku Dev Center, which is not a side project. That's a main project, so that matters less today. But yeah, I've been at Heroku for about two and a half years.
Charlie Gleason: I realized I didn't say what I do, so I look after brand and design stuff at Heroku as well. And I think I've been there about the same amount of time as you have.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah. You just celebrated your two year anniversary, right?
Stephen Barlow: Well, congrats.
Charlie Gleason: Thank you very much. Thank you. So I guess first off, explaining what a side project is probably a good way to to start this.
Stephen Barlow: I guess I'd probably describe it as anything you do on the side.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah, true right? That make's sense. But it's not necessarily technical, right? It could just be anything that you, outside of your job, that is a project that you enjoy.
Stephen Barlow: Totally. If it's anything that isn't the main thing that you're doing to provide for yourself and your family, presumably, it's something you do on the side and it doesn't have to have anything to do with code or code-ish.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah I mean, I think the stuff that we've worked on has always been kind of a web focus.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah.
Charlie Gleason: So that's probably going to be a bit of a theme. But I think the reason I got really into this kind of, I don't know, taking on these projects, taking on these little things, I like them because they're kind of these bite-sized, they're unrestricted, you own them. You can enjoy them for as long as you enjoy them and you can walk away. And also in terms of finding inspiration and learning new skills, I find it really fun in a way that I did not think I would.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah.
Charlie Gleason: And I suppose it's collaborative as well, right? You get to hang out with people and if you find like minded people to create things with, that is such a spark that can really inspire you in ways that you didn't necessarily think it would.
Stephen Barlow: Totally. And and oftentimes when you're working with other people, the sort of role you take with those other people is very different from the role you have at your job. And because your competencies or your background, relative to the people at your job, is very different potentially from your background relative to the other people you're collaborating with on something else. So you might suddenly, if you're an individual contributor for what you're doing at your job, you might suddenly find yourself leading a team for this casual side project you're doing because, oh, it turns out that you're really well suited to leading, especially for the type of project you're working on on the side. And you get to sort of try that out, despite the fact that it may mean that isn't the primary role you have during your eight hour gig.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah absolutely. Yeah. Because I think as well yeah, that there are transferable skills in there. I think I've gotten into making these kinds of... so my minor obsession on the side is creating very bite size throw away web apps.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah. You don't have to plug that for me. I'm all in on that.
Charlie Gleason: Well yeah, I went and co-founded a startup in Melbourne fairly unsuccessfully. And as a part of that, when we got stressed out, because startups can be very stressful, we would collaborate on these super bite sized pieces of work. One was an Arrested Development episode chooser because we were all watching so much Arrested Development at the time that deciding which episode to rewatch became quite the chore. So that was a big pusher. And I was trying at the time, similarly unsuccessfully, to be a a to be a full time musician. That was the dream, and I was like, well, I'll do a startup while I do that, which is a lot of competing energy. It wasn't my best plan. But neither necessarily panned out, as much as I'm not a rock star yet, but maybe one day.
Charlie Gleason: But a big part of that was making music videos and one of the challenges of a startup and being a musician is you have no money. And I liked the pressure in a way, maybe pressure is the wrong word for it, but the motivation to go out and use these skills that I had from work to try and make things that were greater than the sum of their parts. Right?
Stephen Barlow: Yeah, for sure. I mean honestly, one of the best fonts of creativity is a constraint like that where you don't have access to unlimited... you can't just go hire a bunch of actors to be in a music video. You can't just get the best recording equipment but you know you do have this skill and you know that you can employ it in ways that maybe people hadn't considered before. And suddenly, what was originally feels constraining is actually just driving you toward a direction that people might not have otherwise considered.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it kind of came out of, I scraped together all of my spare coins to pay for this thousand dollar music video when I was I was living in Australia. And my husband was like, "Are you sure about this?" I was like, "I think it's going to be incredible." And we got it back and it was, through no fault of of the people that made it, it just didn't quite work out. And I had this terrifying moment where I was like, "I just spent all of my money to try and make this thing and it's not quite it's not quite right and I don't really know what to do." So when I was chatting with the two people that I had the startup with, and they were like, "Well why don't you just make something?" And then that just went on to become... that was a music video called Tweet Flight, which is basically, I think it's still out there now.
Charlie Gleason: There'll be a link in the show notes, but it basically takes lyrics from the song and then finds tweets in real time that match up to it. So it's kind of like Twitter doing karaoke.
Stephen Barlow: Oh, yeah. That's sweet.
Charlie Gleason: It was really fun but I'd never experienced something that got for a tiny second a bit internet famous, and it was a really weird feeling. I like internet fame as well because you can feel really good about yourself, but then you can just go outside. I think it was Ryan North who does Dinosaur Comics who originally said that. You can just walk away.
Stephen Barlow: Right. And then nobody... right. It's a level of fame that barely blips. It doesn't enter the real world at all except in these really specific contexts. And otherwise, you are just, you're Charlie still.
Charlie Gleason: Still can't get reservations at restaurants, a regular human.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah. I just realized I had a very similar sort of experience with a tiny little web app that my friends that I made back in 2012. Kanye West and Jay Z had just released a collaborative album called Watch the Throne.
Charlie Gleason: An incredible record.
Stephen Barlow: Oh, tremendous. And in one of the tracks on that on that album Kanye West repeatedly says, "Don't let me into my zone," at the very end of that track. And I heard this and realized that it sounded like the instructions for a video game where he was some sort of antagonistic force that you had to stop from getting into a zone. And that led to an HTML5 browser game called Kanye Zone that my friends and I crunched on as if it were... the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco was coming up, and so we realized this and we had an early prototype. And then one night we just stayed up till four in the morning as if we were readying a product for huge release. And we had it running on App Engine and it was super high availability, which is ridiculous because the whole thing is just a silly little browser game. Right?
Charlie Gleason: For sure.
Stephen Barlow: And then of course, it made no splash whatsoever at GDC. So well, time wasted, right? But then no, three days later it's on the front page of Reddit and then 200,000 people played it in two days. And I think it's been banned in computer labs across the country because-
Charlie Gleason: There are high school teachers out there who just despise you for that.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah, Kanye Zone. I mean, now it's just Fortnite because you can play that on your phone. But at the time, this was a big deal, people. I mean...
Charlie Gleason: I love that as well though because there's something very... I think a lot of the time when we talk about burnout in tech, which is a topic I think is really important when we talk about over committing or not making time for you. These are always projects where it's just so much fun, or my experience is with them was that they were just so much fun and if they weren't, you could walk away. So I totally get that suddenly it's 4:00 AM and we're treating this thing like it's the most...
Stephen Barlow: We have like a Jira for it, but it had one issue which was it's not up yet. Right? It's not like we were tracking individual components or anything.
Charlie Gleason: Oh. I love it. It's so good. I think that's also, another example I had from when I was much younger, and actually a big impetus for me to go into computer science or at least start computer science, was that I wanted to make a website called Post Office Box 16. And basically what you would do is you would you would take a postcard, and we were giving them out at events, and you could print them at home, and you would decorate it in some way, create a like postcard sized piece of art and you would send it in. And then it would get randomly swapped with someone else's and you would get sent a free piece of art. And I really loved it because it just felt... I didn't think that anyone would do it. And the first time I got one in the mail I was like, "Oh, my gosh."
Charlie Gleason: People are actually engaging with this tiny thing. And I think there were maybe 200 postcards in the end, which doesn't sound like a lot, but to me it was just absolutely mind boggling. And it was really in the very early Web 2.0, kind of people starting to realize that you could engage online in a way that wasn't dangerous or scary or some of that stuff that had come out of like the pre-Web 2.0 period.
Charlie Gleason: And I just... I don't know. Yeah, but then I realized so there was a developer that I used to work with and I would hassle him constantly, "Can you help me make a contact form for my Post Office Box 16 site?" And rather, he was like, "I'm quite busy with my actual job right now and I don't really want to work on your thing." So then I realized well, I guess I should just learn how and then it's this slippery slope to computer science.
Stephen Barlow: But it's useful, so maybe that's okay.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah absolutely. I can draw a path in my life from that experience to where I am now which is super surreal when you think about it. I mean, and hugely impactful parts of my life, people that I've met and the relationships I've formed through things like this. How did you kind of get involved with the groups that you've worked with?
Stephen Barlow: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, for the example of Kanye Zone, it was obviously just my friends and I all happened to think it was a funny idea at the same time, which was unbelievably convenient. But a lot of times, one small project you work on like that can actually lead to meeting a lot of like minded people, as was the case with Kanye Zone. Where we made that silly little thing and that led to my friends and me meeting a whole bunch of folks at GDC because we were trying to plug Kanye Zone as if it were a real game to journalists.
Stephen Barlow: And then we actually met some journalists and became good friends with them. And then one of them was also a consultant on video games, like indie studios, and he put me in touch with an Argentinian game studio called Blyts, B-L-Y-T-S because they needed someone to help write because they are a wonderful set of developers and they wanted to make sure that their games were in English, and they wanted to make sure it was in like perfect American English. And also it was a comedic game, and so they wanted somebody with comedic sensibilities to write the dialogue. And suddenly I was working on an actual video game on the side because I had made a silly game where Kanye West tries to get into a circle.
Charlie Gleason: It's so true though because you don't... I mean, you never know where that stuff's going to go.
Stephen Barlow: You don't.
Charlie Gleason: I think as well, from a music point of view, Tweet Flow originally got retweeted by Gotye who had an incredible song, Somebody That I Used to Know. And then he sent us tickets to come to his show. We were backstage like hanging out being like, "What happened? How is this... ?" I felt as somebody who wanted to be a musician it was like, "Wow, this is such an incredible series of events that have introduced me to some amazing people." Tim Shiel is another incredible musician from Melbourne that I ended up collaborating with a lot. He has a label called Spirit Level and we've made a bunch of little experimental music videos. I think the last one was a couple of years back for Coya which is a really incredible record that that label put out. But yeah, it's amazing how that stuff kind of... you now know where it's coming from.
Stephen Barlow: It snowballs a lot of the time, and it's not a guarantee, right? You could work on something and nobody sees it and that's totally okay. And because at the end of the day the things that these side projects should be are for personal satisfaction, but if you are inspired to work on them just by doing them enough, eventually somebody might notice something and then suddenly you're working on the side on something so much bigger than you thought you even had business doing.
Charlie Gleason: So I guess the other side of it what's some some pitfalls or things to watch out for if you if you do want to get involved in this side project. Is there any stuff that you've come up against that you're like, oh, I wish I knew that?
Stephen Barlow: Oh sure. I mean, both in terms of what we talked about already and also for example, I do some voiceover work. I'm represented by a talent agency in the Bay Area. And so sometimes I'll be sent audition to to do for example an instructional video or a radio or Pandora commercial for example, for one of my primary employer's competitors.
Charlie Gleason: Oh, boy. Oh, boy.
Stephen Barlow: And so, for example, in those cases I just don't audition because even if I could, maybe that's technically fine because voiceover is so distinct from what I actually do day-to-day. Although, I guess I am talking into a microphone right now. But that's just a gray area where maybe I should just leave this one be because it could only create headaches. So if there's a side project that might be construed as encroaching on the agreement of your primary employer you should maybe stick to a different side project or at least a different context for that project. So for example, I'll stick to auditioning for stuffed toy voices or things that I'm pretty sure salesforce.com is not going to be entering into anytime soon. Although an Astro toy might-
Charlie Gleason: I do think you can buy some toys.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah, that's a good point.
Charlie Gleason: But I also think, yeah that's a big think as well that sometimes you don't know so definitely ask. Yeah, it's just something to be aware of. One thing I think as well, and I definitely struggle with this in music because I love helping people and I enjoy making these things but, I think you've got to be really careful that you're not kind of getting taken advantage of. Your time is is really valuable. It's genuinely the only nonrenewable thing you have. So you want to make sure that you're doing something that you're enjoying and that it aligns to your your aesthetic and your moral compass or anything like that. You want to make sure that you're doing something that you feel passionate about personally and that it's not a chore, because yeah, even through no ill will people can sometimes-
Stephen Barlow: Oh yeah, totally. I'm a very... I just come off as very friendly. I am friendly. I'm not trying to sound like I'm duplicitous but it's very easy to think, well this guy's really nice so maybe he'd just do this thing for me for free. And I might because I am pretty nice. But it's good to remember that a lot of the times, if it's not something that everyone's invested in just for the pure passion of the project, and if somebody is potentially going to be making money off of it that you as a contributor to that need to make sure that you are a part of that as well.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah. Like you said before, I think it bares repeating, there's a lot of pressure in the tech industry I think to have this kind of GitHub visibility. I think open source definitely has had this as a criticism, and I think a lot of the time there's a lot of open source projects where the person who started it, the maintenance of it becomes really hard work. So I think if you want to spend your weekends having a weekend just have a weekend. I mean, sit back, relax. Read a great sci-fi novel.
Stephen Barlow: Yeah, yeah.
Charlie Gleason: Do you.
Stephen Barlow: All these stories that we just told about side projects snowballing into bigger things, that shouldn't be the impetus. That shouldn't be why these are inspiring to you. It's sort of the other direction where you should do whatever you want to do with your free time and sometimes that will lead to a creative output that draws attention, and that's awesome.
Charlie Gleason: Yeah, I definitely took a huge break from doing these kinds of things, partially because I just had other things go on. I don't know. I became really interested in, I don't know, fitness or I became really interested in... I watch Great British Bake Off once and then tried to become a chef, which it didn't work out. But yeah, I think it's meant to be fun.
Stephen Barlow: For sure.
Charlie Gleason: Awesome. Well, I think that's about all we've got time for. Hopefully, that gives you some things to think about, dear listener. And as always Stephen, thank you so much for taking time out to hang out with me all the way across a giant ocean. I really appreciate it.
Stephen Barlow: Charlie it was an absolute delight as always. I'm so glad that we were able to make this happen.
Charlie Gleason: And if you'd like to learn more about any of the things that we talked about today you should check out the show notes. And if you want to have a chat to us about our experiences or learn more about side projects in general and our recommendations on things to get started you can get in touch with us via the Code[ish] website as well.
A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.
Lead Marketing Designer and Front End Developer, Heroku
Charlie is a designer, developer, musician, and creative coding enthusiast. He can usually be found somewhere in London, probably on a bike.
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