Squadrick AKA Dheeraj R. Reddy

When to stop working on side-projects

I’m a professional coder, and so like all good coders™, I spend a non-trivial number of hours working each week on side-projects. The projects’ range is pretty wide, from low-level RPC stuff to machine learning and rendering engines. Right now, I’m working on several projects that might never see the light-of-day. The most significant among them (and the only one that has been open-sourced) is Shadesmar.

It was also the first project I started hoping that it wouldn’t be another repo collecting dust on my GitHub that only I use, and I put down on my résumé. No, this would be useful to the broader community.

When I first started working on it, close to a year back, I had an clear idea of when I should stop working on Shadesmar, or when I would consider Shadesmar to be a completed project. The v1.0 release. Since then, I’ve maintained a list (spread across GitHub issues and mental lists) of the functionality I should build next:

The point is that there isn’t a real end to this list. Every time I got closer to the v1.0 release, it slipped further away. Sometimes I realized what I previously built won’t be useful to the users, or there’s a “better”1 way to do it. I’ve set-up CI to ensure there are no errors and benchmarks to prevent any performance regressions. I’ve even set-up a pipeline to convert all the code into a single header file2 to make it easier for users to integrate into existing projects.

But the truth is that there are no users. At the time of writing this article, it has 85 stars and 7 forks on GitHub, and a good chunk of those are from my friends who follow me and star every repo I have. There are a few external starrers, but I’m sure no one actually tried using the project because the project had been in a non-functioning state for nearly 3 months. I got a grand total of 0 issues complaining about this. This is what prompted me to set-up CI.

Now I’m not salty or disheartened that people aren’t using my library built for a very small use-case. I started this as an alternate to ROS’s XMLRPC based communication protocol, which was a cause for a lot of headaches. But when ROS2 was released a couple months later and using DDS as the communication layer, the need for Shadesmar was basically dead. But I figured, “Hey, people may still want to do pubsub/RPC across processes, and some of these people want to do it without using the network stack, and an even smaller subset really care about performance, and need it in C++1x, and don’t wanna use tried and tested UNIX pipes, and they appreciate a reference to Brandon Sanderson’s novels.” I realized the set of people needing Shadesmar is relatively minuscule. Hell, I’m part of that set, and even I haven’t used Shadesmar in any other project, I resort to using UNIX pipes instead. But I continued building it anyway.

The reality was that I really enjoyed working on it. It taught me a great deal about low-level systems engineering and operating systems. I faced challenges that required me to come up with non-trivial solutions. I fixed really complicated bugs. It led me to find other fields of CS that I now have an active interest in3. I found other people interested in solving the same problems, and frankly did a better job than me.

A skill that my friends, Ajeet and Sarthak have and that I admire, is to work on side-projects that are both challenging and useful to other people. Definitely a skill I should learn.

The point of this blog is more catharsis than generic advice. The evergrowing features list has stopped. I have made issues for all pending work, and beyond that, I’ll stop working on Shadesmar. That will be its v1.0 release. I think it’ll take a few months of working on the weekends to finish it. Hopefully, by that point, I can figure out someplace I can actually use it.

TL;DR Here’s when I’m going to stop working on any side-project:

  1. I don’t have a use for it
  2. I don’t find it enjoyable

  1. Higher throughput, lower latency, or better APIs, etc. 

  2. I know that single-headers are not the best way to distribute libraries. But Shadesmar is small enough (~1500 LoCs) that compile speeds shouldn’t be an issue. 

  3. I had to build a custom memory allocator. Most of the solutions for custom local memory allocators were predominantly in game engine development.