About three years ago, Greg Avola, a New York-based software developer, needed a designer for a Twitter application, so he took to Twitter to ask for one. Luckily, Tim Mather, a graphic designer based in Los Angeles, was following the hashtag #CSS that day and responded to Avola.
A few freelance projects later, including Frederickwildman.com (a site for a New York-based wine distributor), the two knew they were an unstoppable team, which led them to work together on Untappd. Untappd is a social drinking application that allows users to check in from bars and pubs, and it integrates with Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter so users can check in and share activity, all in one application.
Avola works by day as a risk assessor. By night, this moonlighter spends a few hours a week coding, which is how he and Mather maintain Untappd. Working as part of a bicoastal team has had some challenges, but overall this social coding experience has been a great one, according to Avola. Mather does graphic design for the application, and both work on getting feedback to users via social media channels.
Social coding is a relatively new term, according to Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst at Forrester. “It is entrepreneurial. Developers create their own ideas and do it on their own time,” he said, noting that he not only sees early-career developers who are interested in making a name for themselves doing this, but also enterprise developers who want to perhaps transition out of their full-time roles or make extra money on the side. He referred to those who do this part-time as “moonlighters.”
The rise of moonlighters can be attributed to the combination of consumer application stores, devices, and the evolution of development and hosting practices to where the cost to innovate is a fraction of what it used to be, Hammond said.
There is power, he said, for those who can navigate the development cycle, and developers are starting to take advantage of this opportunity.
Some of the developers, like Avola, don’t even develop in their full-time jobs. He said he has always loved to code, and this was just something he continued doing after getting his computer science degree in college. He also prides himself on being able to give great feedback, something that is quite evident from the Untappd Twitter feed.
Innovation comes from freedom to work on what you think is important, something Todd Olson, vice president of products at Rally Software, noted when discussing Rally’s RallyON Hackathon that took place earlier this week. Rally employees were able to pick any project or portion of a project and work on it, without worrying about a backlog or business objectives, something Olson said has proven very beneficial in the past.
The Hackathon marked 10 years of Rally Software, and also offered customers an opportunity to send developers to code with Rally developers to create applications for the Rally ALM platform. Selected applications will be published on GitHub, as part of Rally’s collaboration.
These moonlighters have the freedom to choose what projects to work on, but Avola warned that this can come at a price.
“You have to separate yourself from working. You need to decide what days you’ll have off and create a schedule for working on your part-time project after work,” he said, adding that if he did not do this, he would end up coding into the wee hours of the morning—every single night.
Avola and Mather, 27 and 26 respectively, find themselves taking on more responsibilities—at home and at work—so neither can just create things without worrying about paying their bills. Avola said they would like to do this type of development—and hopefully extend Untappd—full-time some day, but for now they are just focused on making the application the best it can be, which is sometimes challenging given their setup.
“I never thought the three-hour time difference would be an issue,” said Avola. “But he’s [Tim] just getting out of work when I’m going to bed. We have to really focus on communication.”
Untappd is created using text editors (Avola and Mather have their own preference), Rackspace Cloud, Beanstalk, Subversion and, Avola added, “a bit of Git.” Avola said Basecamp and Google docs also help with communication. The pair have also taken some agile techniques, which Avola said he picked up at his full-time job by reading articles on the Web, to suit their needs. “If we are talking about something for longer than 15 minutes, we move on,” he said of their Scrum-like project management technique.
This is another tip he offers moonlighter hopefuls: Make sure you establish how you will communicate with your team, if there is a team in place. Use different techniques that you can adapt to fit to the time constraints you’ll be working with when working part-time.
Hammond said it is important to understand that there “has never been a better time to be a developer.” You might have to invest in learning new skills, he said, but the payoff will be worth it.
Managers, he said, need to recognize that developers are more like “artists than factory workers,” and that if they don’t put an emphasis on rewarding creativity, they as managers, should not be surprised when their creative talent finds outlets outside of their full-time jobs.