The Connection Between Nobel Prize Winners and Building Side Projects

November 24, 2019

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A few months back, I read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. Range deals with several topics including generalization/specialization, problem solving across domains and how diverse experiences combine to form fulfilling careers. I found it to be a fascinating and encouraging book, not least because I have a nontraditional engineering background.

However, there was one section that I’ve been thinking back on lately as I consider how to innovate in my career, and it involves two Nobel Prize winners.

The first is Oliver Smithies (2007 laureate in Medicine) who had a running tradition of performing “Saturday morning experiments,” in which he gave himself free reign in his lab, able to do whatever experiment piqued his curiosity at the moment. Smithies filled 150 notebooks with the results of these experiments, many of which led to significant scholarly contributions.

To quote Epstein, recounting his conversation with Smithies, “‘That was also Saturday,’ he repeated, as he walked me through important pages. When I pointed it out, he replied, ‘Well, I’ve had people say, “Why did you come to work any other day!”‘” Not every “Saturday morning experiment” led to a breakthrough, but these low-pressure, creative exercises gave Smithies a sandbox in which he could innovate and experiment, free from the pressures and structure of day-to-day lab work.

Similarly, Andre Geim (2010 laureate in Physics) does “Friday night experiments.” The work behind Geim’s Nobel Prize and Ig Nobel Prize both started on Friday nights. In the Geim lab, “Friday night experiments” meant “investigations that were considered slightly crazy.” Crazily enough, these unstructured, free-flowing sessions also led to significant innovations.

What’s the point, though? How does this relate to software engineering and career development?

This is the point. Some of the most common advice given for how to advance in a software engineering career (and prove that you should be hired) is build side projects. Until recently, I always found this a difficult pill to swallow because building side projects always felt like more work. The thing that unlocked side projects as a source of joy for me was focusing on bringing things into the world that I wanted to exist.

Previously, when I sat down to do a side project, I’d be thinking only of checking a box and perhaps coming away with something I could add to my portfolio. Now, I keep a running list of things I want to try or apps that I think would be fun to build. The desire to see something exist in the world is wonderful motivation for pushing through the barriers of not knowing how to implement a feature, or not knowing how some piece of tech works. In short, they’re wonderful for learning when fueled by the appropriate motivation.

Smithies and Geim could’ve considered staying late on Friday or coming in to the lab on Saturday to be extra work, too. Instead, they took the opportunity to let the creative juices flow, and it made all the difference.

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