In the 80's in front of a house in the Kansas City, Missouri area a man built a boat. It was an incredibly tall half-built steel boat in this guy's yard. Every once in a while we'd drive by and see people working on it and a bit of progress here and there.
One day, my dad decided to stop and talk with the guy, with us little kids in tow. My brother and I took the opportunity to see the beast up close. And it was freaking amazing. To us, it might as well have been a Saturn V.
Many (and many of the best) software developers I've known have had little (or large!) projects on the side. Interviewing developers, I've sometimes asked about their side projects. It's a question that can yield great insight. Where does their passion lie? What problems attract them? What someone does with free time is what they really want to do, regardless of what they might let on in an interview.
It's an indicator of passion and of a drive to create. I've recently come to understand that these side projects also fuel the passion for our day-to-day work and inoculate against burnout. As developers, we have the power to create something from nothing. For some small portion of our time, to follow our own muse can be an exhilarating act.
Some companies, notably Google, have institutionalized this idea, giving developers a certain percent of time during office hours to work on their own projects. I'd expect Google to reap a significant innovative advantage with its policy.
What compels about software development is only partially solving puzzles and, for me, is about the joy and power of creation. Unfortunately, this power is, in part, illusion and the illusion is intensified by software's abstract nature. It nearly always seems far easier to write software than it actually turns out to be.
I'll demonstrate this illusion. Which requires more effort in man-hours: building a bridge across a medium-sized river or developing a game such as Spider-Man 3 or Madden 07? How about the Empire State building or Windows XP? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I don't believe that I can fully trust my intuition to provide them. In any event, good software requires enormous, and univerally underestimated, effort.
Maybe one of these days, I'll have another kooky neighbor, this time toiling away in his garage or barn building a Space Shuttle or something like in that goofy movie "The Astronaut Farmer" (which I have not yet seen). I'll know and he'll know and the fire department and the old ladies from the HOA will all know that it will never lift off. And I'll sit in the garage with that guy, and put the LOX and kerosene tanks together. And it will be freaking amazing.
(Rebekka and I watched The Astronaut Farmer last night and now I wish I hadn't referred to it. I'd hoped for something good, like Apollo 13 or October Sky but Astronaut Farmer was godawful. The premise was utterly absurd and the profoundly self-centered protagonist Charlie Farmer reminded me of an Allie Fox (from a great movie The Mosquito Coast) barely disguised under a veneer of sentimentalism. The best part? The rocket launches from their barn. As in a barn made of wood and filled with hay. And speaking of wood, during one of the bloopers, Billy Bob Thornton asks, in jest, if this was a film directed by Ed Wood. I was wondering the same thing.)