by Paul Heltzel

6 IT projects to boost your tech career

Oct 21, 20209 mins

Looking to get ahead? Investing time in an independent side project can pay off at your day job. Here are your best bets for learning skills expected to grow in demand in 2021 and beyond.

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Most tech professionals don’t need prodding to upskill — adopting new technology is just part of the appeal for working in the field. But the COVID pandemic has heightened focus and revealed needs in a few areas in particular: remote work, cloud computing, and self-learning. For proactive tech workers, self-directed projects in emerging areas can provide new career opportunities and a sense of security in uncertain times.

Tech leaders offered ideas on how to explore projects on your own or join a pilot project, with an eye toward future career advancement. They also offered tips on which domains seem the most promising to dive into for such a project, considering technologies primed to grow and stay in demand beyond 2021. 

And there’s a common theme running through their advice: Focus not just on the technology in question but develop a clear plan to employ it in a way that drives business value for the organization, by fulfilling a need, streamlining a process, or otherwise solving a notable business problem.

Read on for a handful of self-driven tech projects that are most likely to boost your tech career.

Go end-to-end in the cloud

Neal Riley, CIO of Adaptavist, suggests creating a cloud-based project from start to finish using common tools such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud Platform.

“Working end-to-end will give you an understanding of the flow and patterns for how to build things, which will provide a whole host of transferrable benefits,” Riley says. “A colleague of mine built a shopping cart experience for his wife’s online business — focusing on building microservices to help automate processes that were previously done manually, like interfacing with sales channels such as Amazon. This helped shift the business in the middle of significant changes, which included furloughs in the U.K. and a growth in online sales coming from COVID-related purchases. The result was a modernized backend infrastructure for her small business allowing her to move more product faster.”

The project benefited Riley’s colleague as well as his coworkers. “He was able to take his newly enhanced skills and experience and apply them to the high-volume commerce systems we’re building, helping modernize how his team approaches the interconnectedness of what they’re building,” Riley says. “This put him in the role of coach, as well as contributor, resulting in a great deal of knowledge sharing throughout the company.”

Focus on fundamentals

Riley says that while trending technology tends to garner the most attention from tech professionals, there are tangible benefits to stepping back and looking at the big picture of your existing systems, to consider how elements of the business are working together.

“It can be easy to lose the wider vision of all the interconnected parts,” Riley says. “As you develop in your career, it’s natural to focus and optimize on individual pieces of the value-delivery chain. But going back to the basics and looking at the whole structure, of a business or a project, can be immensely useful. If you’re a manager of a support team, spend a day taking tickets. Can you write code? You’d be surprised how many nonprofits, NGOs, or other organizations could use your skills to put together the simplest of projects: a website, an ecommerce site, automating manual processes. At the end of the day, there are no new problems, only variants on the same challenges. Sometimes going back to basics gives you a fresh perspective.”  

SaaS side hustle

Dmytro Okunyev, founder of chat software Chanty, suggests finding a software as a service project that addresses a need you’ve identified.

“I think that a small SaaS side project is always a good boost for your career,” Okunyev says. “I know many founders and CEOs who launched their own side hustles without much desire for wild success, they just pursued something they were passionate about. My own business was started as a side project a few years back when I needed a tool of my own to communicate with my team.”

Okunyev says if you’re not a skilled software engineer, one of the no-coding platforms may be your best bet. 

“I think that launching a SaaS application is now easier than ever,” he says, “and affordable offshore development teams can be hired for very reasonable amounts. A small tech project like a SaaS app has never been easier to launch than nowadays.”

Go remote

Adaptavist’s Riley thinks setting up for 2021 means looking at remote work technology and how to improve it. 

“The one constant for 2021 will be that change is the new normal and it’s your ability to adapt quickly and efficiently that is going to make the difference between thriving versus folding,” Riley says. “Businesses have to balance the need for change control — safety and security — with the equally urgent need for faster iteration loops, to meet market demand. Competition will also increase. Zoom is a great example of a company that is on top now, but they’re going to have to defend against innovation in the coming year. It will be Zoom’s ability to stay ahead of the game, to iterate quickly as they did during the password controls issues, that will be key.”


The sudden shift to remote work presents an opportunity for tech workers who are interested in taking on new challenges, he says.  

“Everyone will focus on remote work,” he says, “especially remote at the drop of a hat, so anyone trying to make that experience better will be very valuable. They should also understand some of the core components that operate as infrastructure as a service, like AWS Amplify which allows you to build fully functioning web stacks. And it’s important to think of the whole equation — understand how everything integrates/fits together — so you can build something of true value.”


Focus on data

Data science tech — machine learning, natural language processing, plus data and metadata management — should be on your radar, in terms of marketable skills you can pick up on your own time and dime, says Todd Wilkes, vice president and chief technology officer at Premier.

“Being able to point to meaningful work — and outcomes you contributed to — in these areas are going to be key for career development in the years to come,” Wilkes says. He points to an example that he helped develop, a crisis forecasting and planning technology that predicts the daily caseload of COVID patients for hospitals.

“This kind of intelligence combines various data points to provide insights in near real-time to help healthcare providers make preparations for surges in demand for hospital beds and supplies,” he says.  

David Moise, CEO of Decide Consulting, a IT recruiting firm, says even non-tech savvy business analysts and managers can make themselves more valuable by taking on projects built around data. 

“Work your way into business intelligence or AI or machine learning projects,” Moise says. “For many companies, these projects are still in the ‘hello world’ phase. Individuals who are a bit more senior have a couple of advantages. They know where the data is. And they know what data has been important.”

Moise says he frequently sees companies with data spread across dozens of locations, and if you have knowledge of where the data is stored, you’re ahead of the game. 

“Half the data could be in their enterprise [environmental, health, and safety] software,” Moise says. “Thirty percent could be in other EHS database systems from previous company owners. The last chunk is in PC-databases and spreadsheets. We see this all the time. How do you do proper business intelligence or machine learning with half the data? You do not. BI and AI/ML are some of the hottest skills going on right now. Getting hands-on with Python or R is not the best option for everyone. Use what skills and knowledge to get involved in the right projects. Knowing what data is important and where it is can be your ticket.”

Machine learning

Technologists should sharpen their focus to ensure the project has a clear objective that helps your career, says Sanjay Vyas, CTO at Planful.

“The project type isn’t as important as your ability to demonstrate impact and company benefit,” Vyas says. “This can be as simple as asking a business leader what you can do now that will have an immediate impact.”

Vyas says getting a check on impactful projects in this way can raise your profile and boost your opportunities.

“If you’re working on a project to apply sophisticated machine learning to augment human judgment and eliminate mundane tasks, focus on measuring the impact in terms of hours saved or cost savings delivered,” he says. “You should also be sure the project has future potential in terms of applying this technology to other problems.”

Vyas points to cloud technologies and machine learning, including neural networks, as places where you won’t waste your time. 

“These technologies have been around for a while, but many companies have barely scratched the surface in terms of their true potential,” he says. “If you can be the one to extract increased value from cloud and machine learning technologies, you can clearly show your benefit to the organization.”

Vyas is also bullish on augmented reality in the next year, spurred in part by the global pandemic. Beyond 2021, he’s focused on 5G based on its mix of higher bandwidth and lower latency to help businesses and government.

“We’ll witness a revolution in edge computing with 5G,” he says. “This will spur innovations in IoT and result in complex applications we cannot conceive today. Any technologist looking to advance their career will benefit from learning about these technologies and delving into projects when able to.”