So you think you can dance

You made it. You are a Knight-Mozilla fellow. You are past all the self-inflicted anxiety of applying, interviewing and getting in and you are ready to start this thing. Now what?

Or you are considering and waiting until the 11th hour to put in your application. Or you are telling yourself the many reasons why this sounds like the coolest thing every but how you are not qualified.

I was you once. I did all of the above and I am here to tell you: DO IT.

What you want out of this

There are many reasons to become a fellow and one is unlike the other. To me, the fellowship was the right thing at the right time; as an experienced design manager with over 15 years of UX design practice, I had decided I wanted to have a more hands-on technical experience: programming, shipping code. Having accumulated more and more responsibility over the years, I both missed the satisfaction of shipping code myself and the depth of knowledge I like to have in order to manage developers. I was going to make this happen one way or another, and the fellowship offered the setting to do so (among many other reasons I can tell you all about if you ask).

Pick something; even if it seems only somewhat aligned to the spirit of the fellowship, apply. The OpenNews team is really excellent and will be completely honest with you about matching; don’t presume you are not a fit because you are probably wrong. They know better.

Shaping your fellowship experience

I asked several fellows about their experience and scarcely saw a pattern among them. Each fellow’s experience is distinct because it comes out of a combination of:

  • one’s goals, skills and expectations,
  • the culture, projects and work/team dynamic of the newsroom, and
  • whatever is going on with the community of nerds in journalism at the time (conferences, hot topics, talent pool, etc).

As you probably presume, the newsroom is constantly changing (breaking news! new staff! new business models!), the community if ever-evolving (new amazing things get open sourced every day! people change jobs! cross-disciplinary pollination!) and most of all, YOU change (because, humans) so picking something to start with helps keep you grounded, but not fixed in your path forward.

To me, how the fellow approaches the fellowship can be seen (and planned) from these three perspectives. (I framed these as questions to myself to make it easier to remember and answer):

  • Q1: What/how am I doing towards my main objective/reason for doing this?
  • Q2: What/how am I contributing to my newsroom/team?
  • Q3: What/how have I engaged with my peeps across the community?

You can use this to plan how you’re going to tackle these brief 10 months as well as to assess what you are trying at any given time (taking stock of what you have done and what you have planned next on a weekly basis is a good level of granularity and keeps you honest/sane).

Note: I treat this entire thing as a big experiment. That’s why I say “what you are trying at any given time”. Experiments are great; there is no pressure to get the outcome “right”, just to get to an outcome. In that sense, an experiment cannot fail. You set it up, you run it and you see what data you get at the end and hopefully you can draw conclusions and learn from it.

This helps with the anxiety that comes from starting something new, and the weirdness of doing something so unlike other things you’ve done before. It also helps make concrete what things you might try since OpenNews sets this up completely open-ended, where you can decide every single aspect of how you want to do things (more on that later).

Here’s my hyper-summarized list of answers to those questions:

  • A1: Immerse myself in all things programming; Learn how programmers approach projects and problems; explore any and all languages and approaches to building things for newsroom; contribute to projects primarily through code.
  • A2: Work on newsroom projects only (no independent projects); Bring in my UX practice development expertise to bear on projects and team process improvement opportunities; help optimize process by which apps are made by advising on workflow and governance (my strengths); finish things in a timely manner; collaborate with all involved.
  • A3: Remain constantly involved in the community; offer contrasting perspectives to UX Design on whatever I encounter new; hang out with people I don’t know, who do things I don’t know; Find out where they are and follow journalists, data scientists, developers, writers and researchers across media, government, academia and the arts; Ask why things are done the way they are in this space; Figure out what are barriers for entry to UX people and how to overcome them.

Nobody told me what the above should or should not be, which is why I am offering my example here. Knowing that the three different types of concerns should be related was not obvious to me at first, but once I saw that it became easier to reconcile them.

For example, *because* I am with the NPR Visuals team and they launch a lot of 2-3 week long projects that span graphics, tools (internal web apps) and full-on stories (external web apps), it didn’t make sense to have a separate fellowship-long independent project. It would have been distracting because of the short project timeframes AND all the traveling I have to do for the fellowship, and I didn’t have sufficient skills to really do it efficiently. Also, their variety exposes me to the breadth of approaches, languages and skills I was seeking, so better to focus on that then create something else I would not get support, pairing power or advice on unless I sought it out specifically.

Also, one item influences the other. I call out collaborate with all involved specifically because I knew the NPR Visuals team is an incredible group of highly capable people and I wanted to make sure I got to work with all of them in their various areas of expertise. Where some other fellows may not have such explicit goals around becoming a competent developer because they already are, that is pretty central for me, that’s why it’s so front and center. Consequently, when I participate in the broader community, my interest in/concern for helping the new learner is pretty obvious and I am constantly raising that angle when discussing things, whatever the topic.

I am very interested in how teams and organizations frame their objectives and how they ultimately assess what they do, which is why all this stuff above emerged naturally without me thinking about whether or not I needed to do it.

What the day-to-day is like

  • I work 9-5, Monday-Friday. And so should you. I’ve found the broader community of journalists, specially the coding kind, is really bad with their personal time management. Barring breaking-news that you have committed to working on (if that’s the kind of thing you’re focused on doing), do your work and GTFO.
  • I travel at least once a month. That’s a lot of travel, specially if you have people in your life you like to be with, like friends, a spouse, or children. There are events happening constantly (seems like every other day), so you end up speaking, presenting, facilitating and/or attending at least one in any given month.
  • Consequently, I spend a lot of time dealing with logistics. In my case it’s mostly due to having a 2-year-old I need to tend to and a spouse who does shift-work so schedule planning is very time consuming (as is booking flights, hotels, researching transit options, timing of things, etc). Making the time for this as work as well as filling out expense reports and such should not be downplayed.
  • I talk to people about what I am doing practically every hour I am awake. Twitter is very convenient for this and I am already comfortable there so it was an easy decision to use that primarily. It’s also a good match as 100% of the journalism nerds community is present on Twitter (Disagree? Fight me). This includes meeting new people, having lengthy debates and letting serendipity drive discussions that lead to projects, collaborations and more.
  • I write code most days. This is relevant because it’s my explicit goal for the fellowship. I know exactly how hokey it is to do this, but: Github contributions
    (I was working on an audience research project in May)

What you do, specifically

The NPR Visuals team works on many things, including daily graphics, storytelling web apps, tools and photo editorial for all of NPR. I work on whatever project the team is working on that week.

The capacity in which I work varies, but mostly it’s been playing a supporting developer role, pairing with the ever-patient Tyler Fisher and David Eads.

As a new developer, I have a lot of basic concepts I need to grasp, so I am not learning any one thing at a time; it’s more opportunistic: I need to do X, X requires Y so learn Y and keep trying to make X happen. Oh now it needs W, go learn W and come back. Oh now…

I spend a lot of time asking questions of my peeps and Googling how things work. I’ve learned that programming is many parts trying things out that sound sensible and then reading how to actually make it work on Stack Exchange (I’m only sort of joking).

I also have just enormous amounts of fun being silly with the process of learning. This is where being in an environment that’s welcoming to it (and therefore allows me to pursue my primary goal) as well as having ubiquitous access to the community of people doing similar work (via Twitter), creates a really rich and self-reinforcing cycle of learning, sharing and getting the positive feedback (building confidence) one really needs to keep going.

What’s really important is at the end of the day I’m contributing to work that a) actually gets shipped and b) is open-sourced. I know I lucked out with the NPR Visuals team because open-source and working in public is in their DNA, so that was a smooth transition.

But I was also unprepared for the neck-breaking speed they publish things, so getting in that mode has also been great. This is a list of things I’ve worked on in my 5 months of fellowship so far so you can get a sense of the kinds of projects I touch and what I actually do on them:

  • Look At This/Photo I Love: A Brother and Sister In Love
    Web app showcasing the story of John Fugelsang’s parents as narrated by the comedian, in the Photo I Love series for the NPR Visuals Look At This blog.
    My role: Paired with Tyler to build story using the NPR app template, implemented first multivariate testing for NPR Visuals. I touched CSS, HTML, app template, Google Analytics events.
  • Multivariate Testing
    Live experiments using a research method that allows users to interact with slightly different versions of the same page and assess which version people respond to more positively.
    My role: Paired with Tyler to plan and evaluate outcomes of multivariate testing across three projects. Created reports for test variables in Carebot and co-wrote lessons learned in comprehensive blog post. I touched CSS, HTML, app template, Google Analytics, data analysis.
  • California Civic Data Coalition Campaign Browser
    A Django app to refine, review and investigate campaign finance data drawn from the California Secretary of State’s CAL-ACCESS database.
    My role: I closed small issues during Fellowship orientation and at NICAR. It’s the first project that gave me exposure to the workflow and opportunities in open source projects for journalism, as well as meeting some of the smartest and funniest people in that space. Covered: Django, HTML, CSS.
  • Can’t Go Home
    Story about four Syrian families struggling to stay together during wartime.
    My role: Paired with Tyler/Aly to build story; Touched CSS, HTML, Bootstrap, navigation design, NPR app template.
  • Look At This/Photo I Love: Space Pix
    Web app showcasing a favorite photo of astronaut Reid Wiseman in the Photo I Love series for the NPR Visuals Look At This blog.
    My role: Paired with Tyler to build story. Touched CSS, HTML; NPR app template, Google Analytics events.
  • IA Summit Bingo (I was presenting at the IA Summit so decided to do this as a side project to learn how to work with Twitter bots and deploying a game)
    A bingo game played via Twitter using photos and hashtags. It generates a card from a spreadsheet of terms (hashtags and descriptions). Users interact with a twitter bot to request a card and submit their filled boxes by tweeting photos with the relevant hashtag
    My role: UI design and development, deployment, promotion at IAS. Touched Python, SQL, HTML, CSS, Twitter API, Twitter bots, AWS deployment.

  • Audience Research (not public)
    Assessment of performance of 6-months worth of NPR Goats & Soda stories for a specific target audience. Found correlation between type of photography and story subject among other interesting patterns that became guidelines for stories in an upcoming series the Science Desk is developing.
    My role: Google Analytics, data gathering, analysis, reporting and presenting.
  • Reverse2nsScreen
    Reverse Second Screen helps set the mood and context of a story through ambient sound and images presented on a secondary screen, while the user is going through the core story content on their mobile phone. Better suited for longer form features as it helps to set an enduring mood by creating a sensory experience that stays with the user throughout. Project done during SNDMakes.
    My role: UX design, documentation, presented the final concept at SNDMakes. Covered: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JSON; video editing, device management/broadcasting.
  • NPR Concept Modeling
    Concept model to illustrate how NPR works done as part of NPR Serendipity Days (2-days of open time to hack at things). We accomplished a lot in the short time but the value of completing a complex model like this is dubious. The blog post expands on lessons learned and the whole process.
    My role: Ran the 2-day project, facilitating concept modeling exercise with two others. Covered: Concept modeling, content modeling, facilitation. Fun fact: all the whiteboarding for this became background for the NPR One ad (0:26)
  • Graeae
    Graeae is a tool to aggregate data about published web content. It includes a growing set of scrapers to collect data from Facebook, Google Analytics, and others, store, analyze and report on usage and performance across several criteria. Includes a UI for photo editors to evaluate quality of images used across stories so we can correlate photo quality and story performance.
    My role: Paired with David to build scrapers, perform data analysis, create reporting UI. Covered Python, SQL, CSS, HTML, JavaScript; data analysis, DB modeling, scrapping, RWD.
  • Lunchbox
    Lunchbox is a desktop-based suite of tools for newsrooms to create images intended for social media sharing. It collects 3 tools that provide photography watermarking with attribution, conversion of textual quotes into images and bulleted list of facts into images.
    My role: Paired with Tyler to combine three previously existing tools and wrote documentation to open-source the project during a 2-day code convening put together by OpenNews.

Other things I’ve done:

Why did I list ALL this stuff? Because my fellowship is not about a really big project, but a lot of small and medium sized contributions with different emphasis and I wanted you to see what they are like. Also because the things I work on vary in how they leverage all the expertise I bring in versus all the enthusiastic ignorance with which I tackle things (and how I learn from those experiences).

Your fellowship experience I am sure will be completely different!

I hope this is relevant to anyone, but I specially hope that user experience designers of all stripes—those with content strategy inclinations, UI design proclivities, service design aficionados, consider taking on this opportunity. (I did not come in to it with a programming background, just an explicit commitment to get into it. And look how far I’ve come in 5 months. You can too.)

The newsroom is a fantastic place to be (and I spend very little time talking about that in this post) and journalism is a domain that’s transforming rapidly, influenced by cultural and technological shifts. It’s a particularly great industry that’s ripe for design practice to make a contribution. It’s up to you now.