Here’s a guest post from Jason Goldstein who had hoped to chat with class… but a work meeting got in the way…
Design, development, the works. Today, I’m working for a company that makes websites for hospitals, building apps to help patients view their medical records etc. Tomorrow? who knows.
I was always a technical person. I taught myself HTML and CSS when I was a teenager. But I was a writer first and foremost, showed up to Magazine Journalism, and honestly, was a pretty terrible reporter. I wrote because I liked making something, spending all day on the phone drove me up the wall.
But in the meantime, people were starting to build online portfolios, and the convergence program (at least back then) had a habit of throwing people onto projects that involved custom JQuery work they just didn’t have the skillset for (on deadline, obviously). I helped a few friends out, and quickly gained a reputation as “the web guy.”
I took a few design classes to build up a grasp on typography, color, and visual language (one of the best decisions I made) and by the time graduation was coming up, I was having way more fun creating digital products than I ever did doing news writing – it just made sense to go that route.
The catch is, at the time, I didn’t really know anything. I had HTML and CSS down, I knew a little JQuery, but I had no idea what I was doing from a programming perspective.
I realized I needed to go a lot deeper, I needed to be able to write code that did things in addition to make it look good, so I picked up a book on Python (a human-readable language that let’s you do a lot with less code). And here’s the fun part: because it’s open source, there’s a LOT of good, free books that are written for humans. (Programming Motherfucker has an awesome directory of all the above, I still go back there when I want to learn something new.)
Lot’s of language-oriented people are afraid of programming because they think it’s hard, or involved math. This isn’t true. It involves logic, but one of the best devs I know was an English major, and more than a few “dev-signers” come into programming from the visual design side of the world.
Actually, in the early days of making portfolios, I taught Paige Hansen HTML. In her words, “It’s creative, but it’s technical.” This is the best description web development I’ve ever heard, and probably why I keep doing it.
A few months after graduation I found myself at the KC Star. These guys were awesome enough to take a chance on me, when honestly, I had a lot to learn, and there could not have been a better place to do just that. I worked with one other guy to design, develop, and maintain a vast array of products – a political site that tracked every single election in KC complete with surveys of the candidates, an alt-weekly site, a site where users ranked all the best stuff in KC, special sections for major events… and along the way, I found a few places to help journalists by automating tedious tasks.
The Instagrams of the world get all the attention, but really, programming gives you a lot of power beyond posting pictures of your food. You start seeing – all around you – stupid, mindless tasks, that waste people’s time that you could make a computer do. In all the stuff we built at the Star, these were our biggest wins. We had people manually downloading a re-uploading photogalleries (they got big traffic), which took hours on end, or sitting front of a computer each day at 3:00 to record and type up a boilerplate blogpost with the same 15 stock’s. A few days later, we could make this stuff happen automatically, giving our staff back that 15 minutes of their day – every day, it adds up – so they could concentrate on the things that only people can do.
On the journalistic side, the ability to work with large datasets also has a lot of potential. I dabbled a little in this with the political stuff tying candidate surveys to campaign finance. We also had a really cool feature for the anniversary of the Hyatt Skywalk Collapse and 9/11 where readers could share their memories of the event. For stories like that where everyone has very personal memories of the event, all those little raw, authentic vignettes were far more compelling than the usual “20 years later” news stories.
My interest has always been more helping journalists serve their readers better, however there are a lot of really cool people who do straight up “code for the public good” journalistic programmers. While I haven’t read it, theData Journalism Handbook is supposed to be awesome.
The news business is a fantastic place to learn. No, really, there’s nowhere better. You make a TON of stuff, you learn from your mistakes, you have no choice to adopt better practices as you go because everything will come back to bite you in 6 months.
It’s also an extraordinary hard place to keep working. Insane deadlines, 100-year-old politics, extremely limited resources (and constant layoffs and furloughs), and – if we’re being honest – a print legacy that doesn’t understand how to reinvent it’s business for a digital world. This isn’t a criticism of anyone I worked with – it’s just the nature of the beast in 2012.
The flip side of this, is that newspapers need competent developers who “get them” to save their asses. Your top tier compsci grads don’t really want to do that – they want to go work for sexy startups with foosball tables and toy helicopters. They hear “newspaper” and think “they’re old, and probably going under.” As a result, there’s a tremendous opportunity for people who “get” news and want to play ball. This is how – two years out of college – I was being offered a job by the New York Times. (Long story.)
If you’re interested in that, this is the best writeup on the state of the journalism world from a technologist’s perspective.
Eventually, I realized I’d done all the damage I could do at the Star, I’d learned as much as I could, and it was time to go.
I took a job at Mediaphormedia, the newspaper-owned software company in Lawrence (don’t judge, it’s a fun town, and yes, I wore my Mizzou T-shirt the day after KU lost) that invented the web framework I use every day. They sold a CMS and Marketplace to clients (more newspapers).
News is an old-school business. Tech isn’t, it’s run by people who like to reinvent things. MPM flew toy helicopters around the office, Mozilla allows you to bring your dog to work, my brother is heading towards Dropbox which is full of scooters and palm trees. These are really fun places to work because, well, that’s the sort of environment the people who run them want to live in.
Sadly, about 3 months into my run with MPM, the news company that ran them decided to shut it down. This came out of nowhere, and… sucked.
But within 10 minutes of the layoffs, devs around the country with ties to MPM heard the news and began assembling a list of all the places they knew who were hiring, complete contacts and background. This. Was. Awesome.
The point I want to make is this: The Python/Django community is full of really nice people who will help each other out, are open to new people who want to learn (Python KC is hosting a free newbie training session next week, I have a friend going). They’re all about making their craft more accessible, sharing knowledge… etc.
The other fun thing is you meet a lot of people who have really cool hobbies. People I’ve worked with include: a standup comedian, a guy who flies airplanes, and lot’s of musicians.
Because this is a business, I’d be remiss not to mention that the need for good devs way outstrips the number of qualified applicants. That’s not true of traditional journalism work. Salary and ease of getting good offers reflects this. There is no recession in technology. You have to get good, but once you get a year or do of experience you really do get to decide where you want to go next.
This also means there’s a whole world of stuff you can tinker with if and when you get tired of news. The place I work for can’t hire good devs fast enough. Could I wind up back in media again down the road? Who knows. But the thing is – especially thinking about the way media-related industries are today – you never feel stuck.
I don’t believe everyone should learn to program, but if you think making cool shit sounds like fun, you should try it. I have a friend who dropped out of CompSci years ago, recently picked up Learn Python The Hard Way and within a few hours declared if CS had been taught more like the open source stuff, he would’ve stuck with it.
Feel free to email me at Jason@BeTheShoe.com for… anything, especially if you try learning Python, Django, HTML/CSS/JS/JQuery and get stuck or have any questions.
I’m also on Twitter (Jen’s doings) as @JasonTheVillain