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So I'm currently employed in the general direction of my "ideal" job, but too far from it to the extent that I don't enjoy my current job.

I've spent quite a bit of time looking for my ideal job, but I usually don't even get as far as an interview as I lack the domain-specific experience.

I'm thinking of resigning from my current job to gain this experience by doing personal side-projects. These won't be for money, just to enhance my resume (will likely include joining open-source projects).

So, would resigning to do personal side-projects negatively (or positively) affect future job opportunities (for my ideal job)?

Money would obviously feature, but this is logical enough, so I don't want answers to factor this in.

Could making my part-time studies full-time / starting full-time studies be (part of?) the justification as to why I decided to take time off?

This question is related, but in this specific scenario, after how much time would this start to greatly negatively affect future opportunities?

EDIT: Tried to make the question more generic by cutting all the situation-specific details, but I do really appreciate the answers related to these.

Because I sense this coming, please don't suggest other options already covered in my answer, but feel free to comment on it.

Domain-specific details:

The general direction is programming, the domain I'm looking to get into is either Artificial Intelligence or Game Programming.

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    I did not read through your question - too long. I noticed the domain - AI or game programming. Either one require a lot math and theory. Going to graduate school is the best way to become an expert in them. – scaaahu Mar 18 '13 at 6:33
  • @scaaahu I was hoping the headings would indicate what's essential to answering the question and what's secondary. I am already reasonably educated in these fields and currently also furthering my education, but thanks for the note though. I believe I need the practical experience now. – anon Mar 18 '13 at 17:30
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    This question borders on the line of "How do I learn to be a..." / "How do I perform the job of a ...", It currently in on the ok side but the question it self needs help. It is almost too specific to be of help to anyone else in the future. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Mar 18 '13 at 18:31
  • I also changed the title to self employment since that is what you are looking at. Unemployment indicates that you would not be doing any work at all which would seen as more of a negative. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Mar 18 '13 at 18:33
  • @Chad I think of "self employment" as income-generating, e.g. contract work, which this isn't about. Isn't "to gain domain experience" sufficient? – anon Mar 18 '13 at 18:34
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I can't comment on AI, but I can give you some observations from the few years I spent in the games industry.

As I'm sure you know, game development is a field that a lot of programmers want to get into. Many of us got interested in programming in the first place as a result of playing games, and then wondering how they were made. So, working in that field, a lot of resumes came by from programmers who had no commercial experience in games.

And when they did, the #1 significant factor that led to people getting hired - by a mile - was having made a game as a personal project. Nothing got your foot in the door more strongly than being able to demo and talk about a game that you had written. If you had a good game to show off, nobody would care that you had a span of unemployment in your resume from working on it. Frankly, that might even be seen as a positive, that you were committed enough to your goal to focus on it like that rather than treating it as a hobby on the side.

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Give it to me straight doc, will this hurt?

Generally speaking, companies hire people who have the skills they are looking for. They don't much care where you got the skills that they are looking for. Did the New York Times look down on Nate Silver because he learned his skills through baseball analysis rather than working for an established political polling firm? Of course not!

So why do employers look down on unemployment in a candidate?

When you have a billion CVs in front of you, and need to present the best ones to your boss, often you will look for shortcuts. If you can't explain a significant gap in a potential hire's CV when there are equally qualified ones without it, then your boss will ask questions.

"If he/she was so qualified, why couldn't he/she find a job?"

"After such a long period away from work, can they still remember how to do the job?"

"What does it say about his/her decision-making if he/she quit before finding another position?"

So if you're in charge of filtering the candidates, and you can't answer those questions, there's a good chance that you'd decide to throw some of those CVs with blanks in the bin. As with the linked question you provided, the length of the gap and the reaction will depend on the company/person.

Telling a story

The best way around this is to preempt those questions by giving them a good reason to see whatever time off you took as a bonus. If going to school full time is the reason, you can stick that in your work history with a note see Education, or if a side project, explain the side project right in there. This will show whoever reads the resume that you were accomplishing something even if not connected with a steady paycheck.

Caveats

This is all dependent on you actually doing something of value with your time. I'm worried that your question sounds more like, "What happens if I fail" when you should be focusing on the value if you succeed. And you should plan to succeed. If that means you do it for now on the evenings and weekends to get your feet wet before jumping in, then do it. If that means setting yourself a goal of accomplishing task X by date Y on budget Z, then do it. If that means you need to work part time, sort that out first. If you plan on going to school full time, factor that in. The point is that you should look at what you want to achieve first, and focus on achieving that.

If you succeed, and develop the skills you need, then the employer should definitely not care.

If you met someone who could say, "Yes, I am one of the main contributors to project X" and you look on the net and see that they are, is that going to be less cool than someone who says, "I write code for mid-size company Y"? You just want to make sure you don't say, "Yes, I learned X at school, did Y on the side, and got a lot of great experience!" without actually having anything to show for it.

So worry less about the gap in unemployment, and more about using the gap to successfully develop the skills, and all will be well in the world.

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  • But OP can get into writing games without leaving his job. Join open-source game project in your free time. Working on your job and on your personal project will get you used to crazy hours and pressure - you will need in in game industry. Seriously, do your research. I know people who programmed games for few years and went out. Companies know there is steady flow of new candidates ready to work for peanuts - until they burn out. Good luck! – Peter M. - stands for Monica Apr 22 '14 at 23:56
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They want people who can build games, so start building a game. I can't emphasis this enough.

Create a well-built game and don't get caught up in whether it will be popular/fun to play. They're not hiring you because they think you can come up with the next big idea. Show your skills. Don't hold back. Get as much feedback as you can and improve on it. Either put the game on some app site or make it open source or both.

They want smart people who can figure things out and get them done. If you can't hold down a job and build a side project you may not have the horse-power to work in that industry. It's admirable that you're willing to sacrifice income to improve yourself. A willingness to do the work and put in the time shows a lot.

If you find jobs in your area require certain credentials, then by all means, get the degree.

Find game devs in your area if possible. Hang out with them and learn something.

Play some games!.

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Other options worth considering:

  • Doing these projects while employed full-time
  • Taking significant time off from work (but remaining employed)
  • Renegotiating employment so you only work x hours a day or y days a week
  • Finding a job more in line with what you want to do (but not exactly)
  • Unpaid (full-time or part-time) internship at the right company
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