Standing out: The power of personal projects in a depersonalized job market

In today’s ever-shifting job market, the recruitment process continues to transform, becoming more digitized and, some argue, less personal than ever before. That shift poses a challenge for professionals: The task of standing out in a digital crowd where showcasing not only skills and qualifications but also a distinctive professional brand can make all the difference.

Given fierce competition in the contemporary job market, employers and hiring teams now seek more than just the traditional resume. They want to see tangible evidence of an individual’s abilities and potential cultural fit within their organization. 

Fortunately, there’s encouraging news. In this limiting landscape, personal projects serve as a powerful tool, offering a dynamic view into one’s capabilities, professional and personal interests, and personality. Whether manifested as coding exercises, creative portfolios, or innovative systems, projects offer a three-dimensional view of a candidate’s skills, work ethic, and passion.

Enter Jaspreet Khela, a professional whose identity is synonymous with learning and skill development. As the 2023 Alumni Next Level Contest (ANLC) winner, Khela stands out as the ideal candidate to discuss the value that personal projects can bring to one’s career through personal and professional development. And discuss, we did.

Jaspreet Khela is a dedicated freelance software developer from Toronto, Ontario, driven by a passion for learning and continuous professional development. 

With a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Physics, Khela has expanded his academic horizons into economics and finance at the undergraduate level. Complementing his more traditional education, he has honed his technical prowess through immersive boot camp programs in coding and data analytics.

In case it wasn’t already apparent, Khela’s professional journey is an unwavering testament to the value of learning. He consistently broadens his technical expertise by engaging in a diverse array of professional development courses, spanning software development, data analysis, machine learning, and enterprise architecture.

As a freelancer, Khela adeptly balances academic pursuits with hands-on experience, capitalizing on the flexibility of his schedule to delve into a variety of projects. Currently, freelancing serves as a testing ground, enabling him to explore different industries, collaborate with diverse clients, and seamlessly apply his evolving skill set to real-world scenarios. This strategic approach positions him well for future opportunities in the continually evolving tech landscape.

Looking forward, Khela aspires to leverage his diverse technical skills and problem-solving expertise in dynamic and challenging startup spaces. 

Jaspreet Khela on the value of personal projects

Throughout our conversation, we delved into Khela’s experiences with personal projects, explored the details of his winning project, gained insights on maximizing the impact of personal projects, and more. Read (or listen to) that conversation below to see how his story could positively influence your professional journey: 

A: I do a lot of personal projects. I think on my GitHub repo, there are probably sixty to seventy personal projects and many of my personal projects I haven’t actually published.

For me, personal projects are the go-to method to learn any new technical skill sets or abilities.

It’s an easy way for me to sandbox certain learnings or courses when I take them. I want to actually apply what I learn and personal projects are the perfect avenue for me to do so.

Personal projects are interesting because of their ability to not only allow me to test my knowledge in a particular area, they also allow me to collaborate with other software developers, data scientists, or data analysts in a low stakes kind of situation.

In particular, they allow me to focus on what I actually want to work on. So when you’re doing freelancing or when you’re in a corporate environment, you don’t really have that flexibility.

A: I heard about the Alumni Next Level Contest actually through a newsletter, and I noticed it was due in less than twenty-four hours. I decided, ‘’why not apply?’’ 

Interesting things happen in life when you just accept invitations or apply to something at the last minute. I figured the worst thing that can happen is I would be rejected and I would just move on.

When I applied, I didn’t think I would be selected as a finalist, let alone win the competition. 

Being a solo presenter was quite intimidating for me. But, once I [started] presenting, I got into my flow state. I was grateful that the audience and the judges resonated with my project. And, then, when I learned that I won the competition, that was an absolute watershed moment for me, given that I hadn’t actually presented any of my projects before in such a public way.

It went above and beyond my expectations.

The competition was an excellent networking opportunity — if you would like to call it that — for me because a few of the contestants and one of the judges actually reached out to me. And they wanted to talk about the project and their projects, and get to know me a little better and understand my background, and perhaps collaborate on future projects as well. It also allowed me to reconnect with my teammates, after I won, and we kind of ideated and thought about perhaps continuing this project, or perhaps working on a different project, which we’re still in the process of talking about and discussing.

A: The project was initially conceived as part of the final module for my data analytics boot camp. So, I worked with a group of people on the project initially, and the idea behind the project was to apply a machine learning model to a public data set. 

The team was comprised of people from various backgrounds — most of us had technical backgrounds. My background, as I mentioned, was software development, so I was kind of the de facto tech leader or team lead as well as software developer.

We had a month to complete the project initially and a month isn’t really that long in the software development space.

The first week was ideating and figuring out what direction we wanted to take the project. The second week is typically starting to write user stories, scope out the project, and create a product roadmap. And, then, the next week is actual development. The final week was final touches and tying up loose ends on the project. 

So we just kind of hacked something together, which was our initial prototype of an application that predicts flight delays, so that travelers could figure out whether or not their flight is going to be delayed a few days in advance. And the problem this was solving was primarily to save people time, money, resources, etcetera. 

We created this amazing project, and it actually was pretty, impactful. And then that project eventually was the one that we polished, and I ended up presenting at the Alumni Next Level Contest.

Screenshot of the ANLC project

A: Personal projects, especially for me, allow me to focus on what I actually want to do and apply skills that I actually wanna apply. I’m not just working on projects that I am not personally connected to. So that personal connection and my ability to test out my technical chops, if you will, are huge components to my pursuit of personal projects. 

I’m just a student of life and a student of the software development space. So, for me, that’s kind of the core motivator that drives me towards working on software development projects in general.

Given my technical background, I’m constantly fascinated with things like data engineering, machine learning, etcetera, and how I can actually apply them to solve real world problems. And given the hype around machine learning and all these new AI-powered tools that are coming out, it further motivated me to get into the space and work on these projects.

It’s [the projects are] a natural extension of my background in math and physics, which was technical to begin with. It’s nice to see some of the theory that I learned throughout my mathematics and physics education being applied in a software development context.

In my side projects, when I can see a direct link between what I learned in a class, or course, or online and see it applied to make a real world impact on people, to me, it’s gratifying and one of the main motivators for side projects.

A: As I mentioned before, I’ve done a ton of side projects, and these have ranged from simple weather dashboards to complex social networking applications.

These projects taught me a ton about software development that you really can’t learn from a textbook or from online courses. You have to actually roll up your sleeves and, actually get in the mud and and figure out how to put things together.

Figuring out the scope of a project: This was a very hard lesson for me to learn many times, especially with the predicting flight delays application.

The scope of a project is absolutely critical given resource constraints, time constraints, etcetera, especially in software development where we tend to underestimate the complexity of software. We end up throwing all the bells and whistles into an application and only to realize that it’s not really feasible within a month or two.

And then, over time, the complexity of the project grows and you become overwhelmed and so on and so forth. The scope of a project was one of the big insights for me, learning how to contain the scope and really flesh out the details of a project before actually executing on it.

Developing collaboration skills: The other cool learning or insight that I had from side projects and in particular, the predicting flight phase application project, was that collaboration is usually more fun than working solo on a project. 

Working solo isn’t really always that feasible given the amount of work that has to be done [in software development], and also it’s very difficult for any individual to have all the sets of skills, competencies, perspectives, and experiences required to actually work on a project and bring it to fruition.

In particular, I still have been in touch with a lot of my colleagues with whom I worked on projects in my coding and data analytics boot camps, which is a pleasant surprise because, typically when I take courses and there’s a lot of project work, I do the project and move on. But I noticed when the projects are long or difficult and you go through the struggle together, those projects forge relationships that frankly probably last a lifetime.

So something that was also insightful for me was that collaboration is absolutely critical for software development.

A: I guess to preface, it would depend on where the individual is and visit her career pathway.

For software development professionals: In general, I would say software development is heavily reliant on personal projects. And software development typically requires an individual to have a portfolio of personal projects, prior to entering the industry. Given that, typically employers will ask for a portfolio of personal projects so that the candidate or individual can showcase some of their technical competencies.

Pro tip:
“Personal projects are great, especially in the context of software development because you can actually work on projects independently and then combine them into a bigger application down the line.

So, it’s kind of different than say, if you’re a professional writer or an artist, where the one piece of work that you create is a standalone piece of work. You’re not gonna combine that with a different artwork or whatever.

But, the benefit of software development or any kind of technical project is that you can kind of work on a system in isolation. And if you have, say, half a dozen of these systems, you can combine them in a unique way to create even more sophisticated applications, which would be like a meta side project, if you will. So, for example, if you’re creating a social networking application, maybe a side project would be creating an instant messaging app, and another side project would be creating a landing page, or another side project would be creating a user profile. So these would be standalone applications that are quite sophisticated in their own right. But then when you combine them, you can prepare that even larger application.

So that’s kind of the unique thing about a lot of technical projects, especially in software development. The ability to kind of modularize your projects and then combine them down the line can be another incentive for individuals to create a couple of projects.”

For individuals who are further along in their career: If you have a ton of industry experience already, maybe in a software development or technical adjacent role, it might be a better idea to maybe look for internal opportunities within your organization — which could kind of substitute as a personal project but with an actual real world application. That would be more in line with what would be the best kind of growth opportunity given that it is a real world project and you’re working with real stakeholders and real colleagues and so on and so forth. 

In general: Personal projects are excellent for anybody who’s just looking to kind of work on a new skill set outside of their employment situation. And I would recommend it to anybody who is just looking to learn new things and maybe break into the industry given how critical it is to demonstrate one’s technical competencies, and personal projects are usually the best way to do so.

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