« « Data Delver: Paul Monies, The Oklahoman

Spreading the data word…via Poynter » »

Note to self: Real world journo-coding lessons

Notice how your Google reader got a bit emptier than usual?  Didn’t think so.  But it recently occured to me that I haven’t posted in eons.  Why is that?

Part of it has been the chaos of moving, spending time exploring LA.  The other part is that I’m finally walking the walk every day.  I stepped out of the Medill bubble, valiantly tried  to explain to my friends and family what I’m doing out in California. “We’ll look for your articles!”  “Do you write feature stories?”  Me: “I tell stories through data.  No?  I do geeky stuff to create interactive apps for news.  No?  Ever used Excel?  Yeah, it’s computer-y stuff.”

I moved halfway across the country.  I oohed and aahed at the palm trees outside my window every morning, the giant building imprinted with the LA Times logo that looms above me as I emerge from the subway every day.  I got over how impressive the trees and the building are, and saw them as normal landmarks.  And I was reminded of why I do what I do, how there is so much more to be done, and the importance of striking a personal/professional balance (and believe me, I don’t do well with balance usually.)  The LAT is an experience that’s even better than I imagined it would be, and I’m just two weeks in.  But there’s a lot to accomplish, in terms of what I produce, and what I get out of the experience.  Every second brings new knowledge!

Here are some things I want to make sure I remember as the weeks go on.  This is the moment, and Toto, we’re not in Evanston sitting in Fisk Hall anymore.

1. The more you learn, the more you realize just how much you don’t understand.  “I get that models hook up to views, and are displayed through templates.  I conquered Django!”  That was me a few weeks ago.  How naive!  There’s always new problems to solve, and big concepts to wrap your head around.  Not impossible, but your dedication and concentration is required.

1.5. People with these skills are really, really needed. The more you know, the more you can get done. The sooner that happens, the more work you can do.

2. Faster isn’t always better.  I keep finding myself talking about how fast I can do something.  I think it’s the deadline mentality that’s been imprinted into my brain.  Sure, that’s needed.  But what’s more important is that the app tells a useful story, and even more fundamentally, that it actually works, and is able to be used.  Slow it down enough to make quality products we can be proud of.

3. Along the same lines, pushing yourself on the new skills until you drop won’t help.  I’ve been putting in long hours, coming home and reading up on Django at night.  I tell myself, “If I can just figure this out, then I’ll be at the level everyone else is.”  But it never ends.  The learning process is never done.  And giving up too much personal time isn’t going to fix it.  Work hard, play hard.  Step away briefly, come back with renewed energy.

4. Rich Gordon constantly told me to pursue the opportunity where you learn the most.  Or as Matt Mansfield put it, “Find the people doing what you want to do.”  Either way, both pieces of advice land me where I am.  If I knew everything, I’d be bored.  Teaching yourself is valid, and essential, but it goes faster when you’re around others who know more about what they’re doing.  Get 80 percent of the way there yourself, get someone to explain the problem you can’t solve, move on.  Repeat as needed.

5. Rejoice in your successes.  Not getting something can be frustrating beyond all belief, but part of what keeps me going is figuring out some neat little trick to make a feature work.  And there’s nothing quite like the elation when something goes right.

6. Don’t get bogged down in the trees.  One of the areas I’m seeking to improve is that I’ve gotten so caught up in, “Why is my database running so slow? How do I display my CSV in a view?” that I forget about adding new features, just thinking about when I’ll be done.  Then you just become a machine cranking out code.  Journalist-programmers can, and should, do more.  We must utilize our creativity.  I’ve overlooked the importance of using a system to track bugs to fix/features to add.  Getting lost in minutiae hasn’t been good for my mental health, and it’s not good for my apps.

7. There are always new features to add.  If you think an app is done, you’re not looking hard enough.

8. Don’t get intimidated by what you don’t know. No matter your level, you have valuable ideas you can, and must, contribute.

9. If you think it’s hard to actually do something, sometimes it can be even more difficult to articulate it.  I’ve had moments, where I’m certain I look like an idiot, trying to explain a problem to my new colleagues, and I just get tongue-tied.  “If I call it a method, and it’s actually a class, I’ll look dumb.”  I’m lucky to work with colleagues who know much more than I, they tell me it’s okay to take my time as I struggle to explain the issue.  Thankfully, they are kind and patient.  Here’s my challenge: Give yourself permission to screw up.

10. Stay in touch with the community at large.  I’ve fallen out of touch with the data journalism, and general journalism, communities.  I’ve felt out of step.  Personally, I’m working on a side project that should rectify this (more on that in the coming days/weeks).  Staying in touch with, and learning from, others in similar situations, but at other institutions, gives much needed perspective.

11. Always remember why we do what we do.  Think of examples of great work, what got you excited about the potential for the combination of journalism and technology.  Remember the sparkle in your eyes.  Capture that sense of wonder and joy, and draw on it every day.

« « Data Delver: Paul Monies, The Oklahoman

Spreading the data word…via Poynter » »