I don’t understand… but it’s ok

Every day, I encounter at least 18 things that utterly confound me. Officially, I am a web and interactive developer at PublicSource, a news organization that like many is operating with a small staff.

This means that I am also a reporter, fact checker, data miner, social media manager, analytics wrangler, detective, outreach coordinator, designer. The list goes on.

So each day as I configure my to-do list, I’m faced with a multitude of tasks that require innovative solutions.

Whether it's how to lay out our next big story, the best way to facilitate collaboration with our statewide partners, or which programming language to use for that enormous dataset we just got in, I can't afford to think I occupy one discrete role in the newsroom.

And really, none of us should be limiting ourselves to our technical "job descriptions." Because let's face it, mastery is a waste of time. Mastery of a skill set does not breed innovation.

Data journalist Lindsey Cook of U.S.News & World Report recently wrote a report exploring the high demand for and relative scarcity of data journalists coming out of journalism schools.

Her basic question: If data journalists are in such high demand these days, why aren't more journalism students taking coding class?

Through a study at the University of Georgia (sponsored by Google and an Online News Association scholarship), Cook discovered three important roadblocks for journalism students learning to code:

1. They don’t know they should.

2. They think they will fail.

3. They don’t think they’ll enjoy CS [computer science] classes.

 

While her analysis was specifically about journalism students and computer science classes, the same roadblocks exist for the rest of us in regard to our jobs.

1. We don't know we should pursue more.

It's easy to get caught in your day-to-day tasks and forget that there is a world of new, cool stuff out there. The majority of us wrestle with our to-do lists daily, struggling to cross things off as quickly as we add things on. But the only way to make your life easier, to make your work product fresh, is to know what's out there, to see what others are doing and adapt it for your own uses.

If your job dissuades you from stepping outside your job description from time-to-time, you probably want to consider whether it's the right one for you.

2. We think we're going to suck.

The fear of failure is probably one of the strongest roadblocks to innovation. If you're fortunate enough to know that you need to learn more, and if you somehow find the time to learn more, you still have to beat that fear back with a baseball bat everyday.

When I was just starting out in my development career I would frequently take on jobs that were way outside of my comfort zone and, honestly, way outside of my skill range. And yes, I failed sometimes. But I also learned a lot.

I learned how to take photos, how to create maps, how to get people to tell me things they don't want to. I still take on jobs that are way outside of my comfort zone, and the more I do, the less I fail.

3. We think the new won't be as good as the old.

Hopefully, you've chosen your career path for a reason. You like it, right? It's tough to put down something that you like and pick up something that interests you less. But sometimes it's the things that you're not interested in that will teach you the most.

I will never like Salesforce, but I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to work with it, because it taught me a lot about database architecture, which helps me do my job of interactive app development better.

So, go ahead. Put yourself out there. Learn something new. You may be surprised to find you like it, it’s helpful to you and it makes you better at everything else you do, too.

Don’t just say: I don’t understand. Say: I don’t understand, but it’s OK and now I’m going to try to learn.

Alexandra Kanik is the web and interactive developer for PublicSource. You can reach her at akanik@publicsource.org or follow her on twitter @act_rational.