Side Project Summer: part of your pandemic toolkit?

Side Project Summer hashtag

Well. I didn’t think Side Project Summer II was going to be like this. 

I thought we’d be building on the strong foundations of last year, which saw people from all round the book trade bravely take their first steps on their technical literacy journey. I thought we’d be urging people from the rooftops to hurry up, quick, quick, learn to code, there’s so much to do, there’s so many ideas that languish and wither because we don’t have the skills to make them real, did you know five year olds are learning programming, think of all the things you could make, think of all the control and power and agency you’ll amass if you can make the leap from being those-who-brief to those-who-create. I thought we’d be urging publishing companies to allow their staff to use summer hours on a Friday afternoon to carve out time to code. I thought we’d be persuading people to consider sacrificing some of their precious social hours to learn to code. 

But here we are. Summer hours are no longer a thing. Socialising in person is no longer a thing. The headspace and mental resilience required to tackle new skills is no longer a thing. The luxury of a degree of financial security (we thought it was bad before: little did we know) that liberates you to be creative and enquiring has been replaced for many with a white-noise wall of constant screaming anxiety: how the hell are we going to get through this?

But some things remain. Are, in fact, strengthened. Our appreciation of community. A heightened awareness of the joy of things: the blue sky, a fairy cake, a little hand in yours on the sofa. Chocolate. A sense of which people and organisations are good and kind and thoughtful and are proving themselves to be the best of all things in this awful time – and those which aren’t. A greater self-knowledge, now so much is stripped away, of what makes us happy, what drives us to distraction, what motivates us, what we need, what we hate, what we crave in times of immense stress. 

And if, in the domestic weirdness, as your own personal coping needs reveal themselves, you discover that what you crave is distraction, a time-slip, something _different_ to obsess over, then maybe Side Project Summer II is, in fact, for you. 

And if – and only if – you think the practice of coding would help, then the Side Project Summer community would be glad to walk alongside you on your adventures. 

Maybe you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, so let me explain. Coding can be incredibly calming. It can be a kata, an immersive practice. It offers up tricksy, difficult, engaging, hugely rewarding problems. It gies you something to work on, something to envisage, design, and bring into being. It makes you lose track of time. It gives your brain something hard to think about that isn’t to do with the news, frightening supermarket visits, or money.

It can also, like anything that’s hard, be incredibly annoying. Combine programming with other tools for getting through lockdown, selecting for a match with your mood. 

And it can also provide community. Shared experiences, common ground, the secret language of those on the inside. Like religion, but without the obligations. We’re here and we welcome you unreservedly. We’ll get through this together. 

There’s a website,, if you want to take a closer look and think about what you might want to do, and it’s full of ideas. The aim with Side Project Summer is for you to choose whatever interests you, personally. Rather than a fixed course, we all work on our own thing. The joy is in sharing our progress with others, and leaning on each other for help, support and kindness. 

If you want to join in, there’s no sign up, or registration. But starting on May 15th until the end of August, we meet on Twitter each Friday afternoon under the hashtag #SideProjectSummer. See you there? 

Looking for inspiration? Here are some ideas from

The Rails Tutorial

Build Twitter with your own human hands. (The course is how I got started in programming.)

Develop your knowledge of tools

Discover the tools that already exist, and become that invaluable member of the team who knows about tech! Try out HexFiend to manipulate large data sets without your machine freezing. Try this deep learning colourizer. Use Open Refine to disambiguate data sets. Use XSLT to manipulate ONIX. Or install Chrome DevTools to take a deep-dive into the code behind websites.

Write your own static website

Use a static site generator such as MiddlemanGatsby or Hugo. Or if you prefer to avoid using a framework, you could copy the code of this Side Project Summer website, or the code of our one-page website called about technical writing, which are pure HTML and CSS, and use it as the basis for your own. Try hosting your website on Netlify for free.

Write your own book website using ONIX data

The General Products team ran a Day of Code at the last FutureBook conference, which saw 40 publishers create their own book marketing website from raw ONIX metadata. All the materials are available online for you to follow at your own pace, which are in-depth and step-by-step. The website is worth a look for inspiration, anyway, as there is a great showcase of the delegates’ creations.

Scrape Amazon for data

You can write code that visits an Amazon web page, finds the tags you want, and saves the data. Google for “ruby web scraper”.

Emma Barnes is the MD of independent publisher Snowbooks and CEO of publishing software company General Products Ltd, makers of Consonance

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