- How I learned to stop worrying and ship my side projects

I love to mess about with side projects, although I have a very bad habit which I think may be common amongst us in that I have so little free time to spend on the projects that it takes me so long to design and develop them, that I usually end up abandoning them at various stages while promising myself that I’ll come back to it later and finish it off, or I have (imho) great ideas that I never even start working on because I think I don’t have the time but after reading the Steve Jobs biography I had his mantra running around my head for a while.

Real artists ship.
Steve Jobs

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve spent working on something, or how clever you’ve been with the design or development if it’s sitting on a folder on your computer rather than in the hands of real people. I swore to myself that the next idea I had for a side project, I’d actually get off my ass and do it, however long it took with the little spare time I have, and I’d get it shipped as quickly as possible. (Shipping an imperfect, unfinished product isn’t quite what Steve meant, but hey…)

The idea

Every now and again on my Twitter stream, one of the people I follow gets a games console and their friends reply back with their gamer handles so that they can connect on these systems and perhaps play online. I also send out my XBox Live gamertag every now and then to see if any of the people I follow also play the same kind of games as me so that if we’re ever online at the same time, I can jump into a game with them and play with some familiar faces. It gets wearing to constantly ask your twitter followers for their handles, so I figured I could build something to do this for us.

Idea for a side project, Twitter app where you add your Xbox/PS3/PC gamer ID’s and see the ID’s of the people you follow.

— Stanton (@stanton) January 6, 2012

After sending this tweet I had quite a few replies from interested parties, so as Richard Branson would say, I thought ‘Screw it, Let’s do it” and got to work. Knowing that my time was limited I decided to develop this rapidly, to a minimum feature set, and with little to no design work more than a basic wireframe. The idea was to get it in people’s hands as quickly as possible; If it takes off I’ll devote more time to it, if not then I’ve not wasted months of work.

Minimum Viable Product

  • User Add/Edit/Sign in
  • Twitter oAuth
  • XBL & PSN handles
  • Add/Remove handles
  • List handles of Twitter friends
  • Ask user to post link to their friends screenshot
After scribbling down the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ feature set, I grabbed the latest version of CakePHP and 320 and up and got to work integrating with Twitter, I had to modify the OAuth Consumer component for the latest version of Cake, but with the magic of GitHub I was able to push these changes back to the original author to be integrated into future versions. Within a few days I had a working prototype which I took to the New Adventures conference to get some feedback on while chatting with people at at the pre-party.

One of the hardest things was making the conscious effort not to spend too much time on the design, It’s ingrained in our industry and culture to put the design of a new product under the microscope and make snap judgements on the quality of a service based on it’s pixels but with the constraints I’d placed upon the project, design would have to come later so I threw some very simple colour and layout over the top to at least make it palatable for the users. and after a few evenings of steady coding I checked out the code onto the production server and threw the link onto Twitter.

So went live, and now we play the waiting game and to see how it goes, I’m quite happy for it to grow slowly and organically especially since I don’t have the means to conduct any kind of social media/marketing campaign for it, I think it’s one of those kinds of products that works truly by word of mouth. If you add yourself, you’re likely to tell others to sign up so that you can find them also. If it grows in popularity then I’ll devote more time to it both from a feature and design point of view, if not, then at least I shipped!

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