Sandboxes are fun. A simple box full of sand, a bucket, and a shovel somehow opens the imagination like nothing else. You can build anything you want, keep it around for a while if you like it, add to it, subtract from it, or crush it in Godzilla like fashion if you so choose. You can experiment with your creation in any way imaginable, without consequence. Creating things in such a carefree environment can be refreshing, and rewarding.
I think that it is a great idea for developers to have such an environment for themselves where they can try out new technologies, techniques, or processes. Setting up a sandbox now-a-days is pretty easy. Machines are cheap, or free if you’re not picky and keep your eyes and ears open. That 4 year old PC that your cousin is throwing away because he got a brand new Dell for Christmas will fit the bill just fine. Linux is free, runs great on older computers, and has the power and flexibility to host virtually any application. Sign up for a free DNS service such as DynDNS and poof, you’ve got yourself a little server that you can reach over the Internet. My sandbox is a dusty old dual Pentium III with 512 MB of RAM, which is running Ubuntu Linux. It fits the bill quite nicely if you ask me.
But a sandbox is only half the equation. For developers, we need an application that we can play with in the sandbox. Something we can poke and prod. A sandbox application so to speak. There are several reasons why you many want to create a sandbox application.
Platform for playing with new technologies
Perhaps the biggest reason for creating and maintaining your own sandbox application is that it can serve as a platform for trying out new technologies. Doing this at work can be tough. Your boss or client may not be thrilled to hear that you completely re-wrote part of the application to use the bleeding edge release of some hot new framework because you “thought it was cool”. But, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it with your own application. Even if you rely heavily on your application, there’s no reason why you can’t fork your code, and give the new technology a try on a separate branch. If it works out you can merge the code into the main branch, and if not you can always abandon the changes. Now, this approach will only work if you have your application under source control (which you should). If you don’t mind giving the world access to your code, GitHub will host your code for free. Otherwise, it’s very easy to setup your own source control system in your sandbox.
Material to blog about
Trying out new technologies, techniques, or processes can also give you plenty of material to blog about. If the technology/technique/process you are tinkering with is hot, it is very likely that many people will be interested in reading about your experience. If you blog frequently about topics that people are interested in, you’ll steadily increase readership. This could be very good for your career, as well known programmers generally don’t have a hard time finding work. Work usually finds them.
Create something that you will use
What’s the point in going through all of this trouble to create something if you never use it? I’ve created a few applications that I use on a regular basis. Not only did these applications address some need that I was currently facing, but having a sandbox application that you actually use means that you will be more likely to maintain and enhance it.
Looks great on a resume
Employers love to hire people who show an interest in their field outside of work. I’ve found that people passionate about their field are usually better at their jobs than those who show up at 9, work on the same ol’ stuff for 8 hours, and go home. Having a sandbox application shows people that you love what you do so much that you have dedicated time outside of work to create something that you care about. This especially holds true if you’ve put serious thought into your application, and are excited to show it off to anybody who asks to see it.
Release it, and potentially help others
One of my colleagues once said,
Your parents lied to you. You are not special. There’s millions of people out there just like you.
He wasn’t trying to be mean, this time :) He was simply pointing out that you are not alone. If you are facing a problem, odds are there are hundreds or thousands (or more) of people out there who are facing that same problem. Releasing your application could be helping all of these people. Perhaps it would help them so much that they would be willing to pay for it. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Open source your application
Open sourcing your application can be great for several reasons. Perhaps you’ve just finished migrating your application to the latest version some framework. Not only can you blog about your experience, but you can share the code with others so that they can see exactly how you did it. This could potentially help others looking to migrate their applications to the same framework. You could get feedback from the community about something you could be doing better, and learn something new. People looking at your code could spot a bug, giving you the opportunity to fix it before it affects you (especially if you use your application). Some employers ask to see source code samples as part of the interview process. What sort of reaction do you think you would get if you immediately spit out several repositories that you owned on GitHub for the prospective employer to browse at their leisure? I’m not sure about you, but I’d be pretty impressed.
However, there is a potential drawback in releasing your code to the world. Ironically, it’s the same as one of the benefits. The world can see your code. This can be a bad thing if your code is full of bugs, or sloppy. So if you plan on releasing your code, take the extra care necessary to ensure that the code reflects your best effort. Your code, and you as a developer, will benefit from the extra TLC.
The next big thing
You never know which crazy, off the wall idea will turn into the next big thing. Who would of thought that there was a real need for an application that lets you tell the world what you’re doing right now. If your idea for a sandbox application turns into something with real business value, then you never know where it will end up. Large companies will often spend big bucks to buy great ideas. I’d imagine it would be pretty cool to be on the receiving end of one of those deals.
Creating a sandbox, and a sandbox application is something that every serious developer should do. If nothing more, it will give you a place to tinker with new technologies and grow as a developer. There is little to no cost to set it up, and your imagination is the only limit.