Furloughed Federal Programmer? Five Ways to Keep Busy During the Downtime.

Remember, an idle keyboard is the devil's playground

For the first time in eighteen years, 700,000 Federal employees are sitting idle. Among them are software engineers working throughout the government, who may now find themselves with nothing to do and lots of time to do it. With that in mind, here are five worthwhile activities to while away the days and avoid watching CSPAN.

1) Learn a new language or platform. When you’re working on big government projects for years at a time, your skills can go stale. If you’ve been grinding out Enterprise Java code, learn to code Android apps. If you’ve been mired in C++, try your hand at functional programming in Erlang or Scala. C# gurus can give Objective-C a try.

Whatever you learn, you can bring it back as a new tool in your belt when you get back to work. Not only can it give you a fresh perspective on your current work, it can lead to a lateral or forward shift in your career.

2) Contribute some time to an open source project. If you’ve always wanted to get into a community, this is the perfect time to start. There’s always a ton of bugs waiting for coders to investigate them in every project, and nothing will ingratiate you faster with the committers than knocking a few longstanding bugs off the list. It’s also a great way to get to know the innards of a project, so that you can start to make more serious contributions.

3) If you don’t feel up to patching bugs, try writing some documentation for a project that needs it. Documentation is another thankless and often under-staffed job on a FL/OSS project, and well-written documentation can get you visibility in the group without the danger of introducing a regression into the code base. If there’s already documentation in place, it’s probably out of date. Give it a good spit and polish and bring it up to the current revision.

4) For people with web design, CSS, or AJAX chops, try creating a new theme in the CMS of your choice. Make a Firefly theme in Drupal, make Django into a My Little Pony tribute, or turn Sharepoint into your own personal Game of Thrones haven. Or, on a more practical level, mash up your favorite existing web services with one of them to create something new and useful that you can give back to others.

5) Finally, if all else fails, teach someone else something new. Most techies have a million little tricks that could be a lifesaver to someone else. Maybe it’s as involved as mentoring a colleague on MySQL performance tuning, or as simple as teaching your brother how to setup and use Dropbox. Normally, most geeks are too busy to share their knowledge, and see pleas for help as distractions. Take advantage of the downtime to teach people how to fish, and you’ll have less requests for seafood once you get busy again.

Editors Note: The government may be shut down, but you don’t have to be. Take this time to envision the government you really want: open, transparent, and responsive. Get two free ebooks to spark your thinking: Hacking Healthcare and Open Government. It’s a value we can all agree on.

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