I always said I wanted a challenge. People told me to go where I could learn. And now that I’ve been thrown into the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, I got my wish. And let me tell you, I’ve had some of the toughest days (intellectually) in the last two weeks. Because this work I do, this complicated data/programming/journalism thing, it’s tough. I don’t say that lightly. Really tough. As in every day, whatever you accomplish, it isn’t 1 percent of what you wish it was. You wish you could go faster, knew more programs, knew smarter ways to code, had already met and understood all of your colleagues not just in your bureau, but all around the world. Wish you knew the institutional history. Wished you always had that next great idea to bring to the table. Wish you knew the dozens (although it seems like hundreds) of systems that are ingrained in the way an organization operates.
I am fortunate that I have supervisors and colleagues who get what I’m trying to do, even when I don’t. Who tell me to come up with an idea, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen. Who I can lean on to talk through logistics of what language to use, the visual challenges I will encounter, point out issues with data completion. And every day, they teach me many things, I try my hardest, and leave with hundreds more questions than I come in with.
Some of these questions I can take back to my colleagues (why didn’t that jQuery function work?), some I can only reconcile with myself (will I ever feel competent enough in all of this?) and some, we’re all working toward the answer to every day (what will be the next big thing? what should we be doing? what is the meaning of life — and journalism — and information dissemination?)
Meanwhile, Jonathan Stray — who you should really know if you are anyone who cares about journalism and programming and how we tell stories in the modern era (google it) — is my official supervisor. I always feel somewhat sorry for anyone in that position (people like Tom Davidson of PBS and Dan Gaines and Ben Welsh of the LA Times will sympathize), but it also places him squarely in the succession of mentors who I know will change my life every day — following people like Derek Willis and the aforementioned Ben. Every conversation with him imparts more wisdom. The first day I was in New York, we were talking about how long it takes someone to truly be a great programmer — Jonathan mentioned an article that said about 10 years. That means I’ve got 8 more to go, but I actually think it’s a lifetime. He and other developers take the time to explain parts of back-end architecture I don’t quite comprehend, and then at the same time, he has great ideas about the front-end style of Web pages. He listens to my rants of what’s not working, and calmly responds, actually understanding what I’m trying to express from both a programmatic and journalistic perspective. Fantastic.
This means I have a supervisor whose expectations are: realistic enough to be productive, tough enough that I’m constantly challenged, open enough that I have the freedom to pursue my interests, and strict enough that it keeps my “I want to do it all!” attitude in check. I know that’s a rarity, and I’d be more nervous about my myriad weaknesses if I didn’t have that caliber of support from Jonathan and across the board.
And we use ArcGIS for cartography, which is what I’ve been using a lot this past week. Some great mentors have been super-helpful, but I’ve had to pick up the gauntlet seriously. Which is fun, if challenging. Derek also said how important, but hard, cartography is, and there’s a reason people go to school just for that. Sometimes, when we rely too much on Google Maps, I don’t think we appreciate that. I still don’t like how my work looks as I struggle forward. And QGIS is similar enough to give you a basic idea, but different enough to be confusing. And I was NOT paying for ArcGIS as a student. But now I know all about projections, and how to import XY data, and how styles convert from Arc –> Illustrator –> Flash (not so well). And I didn’t know that the previous week.
I guess the lesson is that if you work really hard self teaching, expecting that you can reach a point where you won’t have to, it’s unrealistic. The self teaching must always go on, but it’s easier with support. The best way to learn is to build, and on breaking news deadlines, we have plenty of opportunity to build. I go in each day not quite sure what the day will bring, but I know I’ll learn a bunch, have an impact on a major org, and do something I’m proud of. Each day will get slightly easier, but there will be new challenges. Interactive Director Shazna Nessa once told me that I’m the type of person who relishes challenges, and I suppose that’s true.
So, that’s why I keep sitting and coding and talking and trying and pushing and listening and learning…
At around 4:30pm on Friday, Jonathan IMs me saying “I suppose you’re not bored right now…”, and after literally laughing out loud, while balancing so many things, I ask him what he needs. And we push out the second DocCloud presentation in a week. I should point out this week is the first time (I’m pretty sure) the AP has publicly posted documents on DocCloud. I still get out by 6:30. Would I ever be annoyed at a last-minute assignment? No, no — we do breaking news. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lastly, while I’ve never before held to leaving times, the Guild imposes hours and shifts and overtime, and all things I don’t think about idealistically, but need to practically. Because without a definitive endpoint, there’s always more to do. And side projects, self-teaching, brunches with friends, Washington exploration, phone calls to relatives, apartment cleaning, theater attending, and rarely — sleeping, it all awaits me outside the newsroom. So I go. My new home in an office building in DC, that has the giant AP logo, it knows I’ll be back soon. To push forward in this difficult work that I love. And I’ll be all the better at it when I get some distance. That’s a life revelation for this workaholic.
Next week: I only have one day in the newsroom, due to the holiday, attending the Knight-Batten Awards at the Newseum (AP Interactive’s templating system was a finalist, but that has more to deal with others, especially Feilding Cage, as it was before my time), and two days in the hospital for my kidney disease chemo treatment. But the following week — it is ON!