Lessons From ONA ’10: What It Takes, Part 1

At least three national news organizations approached me at last weekend’s Online News Association conference to see whether I could recommend any students with great news judgment and programming skills. That’s what news organizations are desperate to hire today. Why? Well, as former president George W. Bush will tell you some things — like learning how to program — are just hard work.

Lunch with a friend last week helped me put some numbers on just how hard it is. I was meeting with him so that he could show me the server he set up and the computational journalism he had been doing since we last had a chance to catch up. At heart, he is a writer and a reporter, yearning during our conversation for the chance to do more long-form narrative text stories. But in his newsroom, he is the resident programmer/journalist and has asked by his editors to hire more people like him.

Here’s what it took for him to become “tech savvy.”
* In high school, he took one computer programming class. He didn’t study or use computer programming at all in college. He wrote and edited stories at the campus paper. After graduation, he was hired in jobs as a researcher or blogger.
* During the last two years, he taught himself how to code. He set up his own Ubuntu server, with PHP and MySQL. He learned some ActionScript, JavaScript and XML. He uses Excel, Visual Basic and screen-scraper.com to report stories and build interactive editorial Web applications.
* He works 60 to 75 hours per week.
* He spends 90 percent of his time working with and learning about computer coding.
* It took him two years to get to this point of technical proficiency.
* That is a total of 5,500 hours.

He was not born with the IT chromosome. He did not wish himself to state of savvy. He has clearly been blessed with an incredible brain that was nurtured in an environment that valued education and intellectual curiosity. But that didn’t get him his job. He got his job because. He. Worked. Hard.

Let’s point out how difficult it is to get 5,500 hours of computer time under your belt.
* College students spend about 15 hours a week in class. Good ones will spend another 25 hours reading and working outside of class. That’s 480 hours a semester, 560 hours a year. At that rate, taking ONLY coding classes, you’ll get to 5,500 hours in just under 10 years. Which makes you this guy. Nobody wants to be that guy, so it’s time to accept that editorial programmers are committed to life-long learning.

* Let’s say you knock out a few coding classes in school — 500 hours worth — enough to get hired by a big news organization as a developer. That leaves you with just 5,000 hours to go. Working a standard 40-hour week, you’ll burn through those in 125 weeks. That’s about 2.5 years, after various and sundry holidays, illnesses and vacations.

* Or, maybe you were a good liberal arts student and didn’t blow any of your tuition on coding classes. But your smarts and broad-based knowledge land you a job at one of a very few news organizations that commit seriously to career development. Google spurs innovation with its famous “20 percent time,” which allows its developers to spend a day a week working on projects that are not part of their job descriptions. So, your boss lets you play with computers for one day a week. You’ve got 5,500 hours to make up. And by the time you’re celebrating your 35 birthday you’ll probably be at the point where you can start developing your own editorial applications.

What the conversation with my friend made me realize is why it irks me so much when people come to me saying that they can’t perform some computing taks because they are “technically illiterate” or “not a computer person.” My friend isn’t a computer person. I’m not a computer person either. But we try. We hack our ways through incredibly frustrating failures by simply doing this. And so can you. If you want.

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1 thought on “Lessons From ONA ’10: What It Takes, Part 1”

  1. Great post Ryan!

    There is a lot of truth to the hard work part. Learning on the job is key.

    I went from a Art degree to teaching myself to be a techie and now I’m teaching myself to be a businessman/CEO.

    My favorite answer, that explains this, was from a substitute teacher I had in high school.

    My Question: Why do I have to learn this stupid stuff?
    Sensi’s Answer: Because you need to learn how to learn.

    Learning how to learn and LOVING IT is key to gaining new skills throughout life. Once you get a degree it ain’t over. It has just begun!

    I think there is too much focus at University on learning how to earn.

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