ultraviolet catastrophe

Hi, I'm Kevin. I'm a runner and physics student superposed between Colorado and California. If anyone asks, I don't know who broke the blackbody curve, and it wasn't me.

Code, the newsroom, and self-doubt

Spot-on comments about coding, applicable, I think, to nearly any profession:

veltman:

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the awesome craziness of my OpenNews fellowship sank in. I was on my way home after my first day at BBC headquarters, looking around the subway car, and I realized that fully half of the passengers were reading BBC News on their phones. Whoa. Since then, I’ve been in the newsroom when Pope Benedict resigned, when Margaret Thatcher died, and when the bombs went off in Boston. I learn so much every day that my head is spinning by lunchtime. My seven co-fellows routinely blow my mind with their work. I’ve met so many brilliant people around the world who are not just redefining how we do the news, but doing it as a team, one big journalism Justice League. I love this job.

The crazy thing is, I almost didn’t apply. I didn’t even think I was a candidate. I had never studied computer science, I just tinkered with code in my spare time because I had fun projects I wanted to try. I Googled for examples and wrote lots of really ugly code.  But I never considered myself a developer. This fiction became increasingly ridiculous, as it went from “Well, sure, I know some HTML but I’m not a developer or anything” to “Well, sure, I know some JavaScript and I can use a webserver but I’m not a developer or anything” to “Well, sure, I know Python and PHP and some C and Java and I spend all day on the command line, but I’m not a developer or anything.”

I had a serious case of imposter syndrome, and I know I’m not alone. Yesterday, Larry Buchanan, who is using D3 to develop awesome interactive graphics for The New Yorker like the NCAA Money Bracket, asked the Twitter hivemind for help working with some messy data. I lent a hand, and this was his response:

We’ve got to stop this madness.

There is no line where you suddenly cross over from non-coder to coder, or from fake developer to real developer.  There’s no high priesthood. You start learning, and then you just keep going. This is how I put it when speaking at the BBC’s recent Data Day:

image

The notion that code is this hyperspecialized thing, scary punctuation soup on a dark screen, something that someone else does, is wrong, and it’s toxic.

There are people all over the world who don’t consider how code might help them do their job, because they think it’s a big leap. It’s not. It’s thousands of tiny steps, and everyone takes them in a different direction. A little bit of code goes a long way.

People who do flirt with the idea of learning to code often get discouraged quickly. They get stuck, they get frustrated, and they look at the cool things that “real developers” are doing and decide that will never be them, so why bother? Well guess what? We were all that person. We are all STILL that person. We all get stuck. We’re all figuring it out as we go along. Welcome to the club.

People who are already doing great things with code are reluctant to teach others and share their work because they think it’s too basic or too sloppy to be useful to anyone else. It’s not true. Take your Code of Dorian Gray out of the attic.  You have much more to teach us than you realize.  

What I love most about coding in the newsroom is that the artificial divide between coders and everyone else is weak and getting weaker. Every day brilliant, passionate reporters and designers are waking up to the ways that code can help them find and tell stories, and developers are getting better at thinking as journalists. Philosophy majors are writing Rails apps and Java developers are doing investigative reporting. That blending is what makes events like NICAR and MozFest so wonderful. People with different experiences and skills come together to learn from each other and nobody gives a shit what it says on your business card. It’s not separate tribes, it’s one big family.

The newsroom is a great place to blow up this wall because we rarely get too wrapped up in code for its own sake. There are plenty of true computer scientists in the world who get their satisfaction cracking tough coding puzzles, and they don’t care whether it’s for a bank or a government or a hydroelectric dam. God bless those people—the world needs thembut I’m usually not one of them, and most of my newsroom colleagues aren’t either. We’re here because we we want to make things that teach people about the world they live in. We care about the best way to tell a story, and about what it means to our audience; we care less about whether we had the perfect algorithm under the hood. Developing on deadline will do that to you. Like Lorne Michaels said about Saturday Night Live, “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”

It’s an exciting time to be coding in a newsroom.  There’s a righteous community of journocoders who are changing the game every single day. And we’re recruiting. The OpenNews program is looking for five new fellows next year. Like telling stories? Like making an impact?  Like using code to do it? You’re crazy if you don’t apply. Come join the Justice League. Show us what you can do.