The fall season of CampSND responsive design workshops is quickly approaching. Directed by expert trainers Chris Courtney of Bloc; consultant Kurt Cunningham; Yuri Victor of Vox Media; and Joey Marburger of the Washington Post, the courses are suitable for all levels of digital designers. Learn more and register for a course here.
Kai Teoh attended CampSND in 2013 and shares how the experience helped him jumpstart his career in digital design.
Tell me about your current role as Digital Developer at the Journal News.
I’m the newsroom’s one-stop shop for most things dev-related. From porting NPR’s lunchbox over, to creating a newsletter tool that pulls from Presto’s APIs, to quickly turning an excel sheet to a map, to creating a traffic camera tool – I do anything from providing suggestions on how things can be done to developing them.
Up until recently we had a data reporter and she dealt with cleaning up data, but I’m slowly tasked with that as well. I also maintain our WordPress blog installations, and communicate with Presto devs.
I’m also helping the watchdog team get up to speed with PGP/GPG encryption and general netsec practices.
What inspired you to make the transition into code and development?
I was always a little geeky, but when I was at my previous job (the St. Cloud Times, also a Gannett paper) I realized that the charts and graphs were always static. There’s a time and place for static images, they work great in many scenarios, but the Times had no alternatives because that was all they could do (or flash, which was bad).
I started off with making Google charts, then using Highcharts, I learned how to build a simple almanac tool, and then went to an SND bootcamp where things got kickstarted.
It hit me pretty quick that we, as an industry, create amazing journalism and content. And our news designers as a whole is fantastic too. I sit in meetings where every aspect of the next day’s paper is planned out and user tested. Does this new redesign with the callout box work? Does this teaser work? Should we use this font? Should we move this to the back?
But we don’t give the same amount of thought to our digital products. Even now we’re still just shoving things online. It’s a pity when a multi-day series gets an amazing print presentation and it looks like a typical long form or series of articles online.
And hiring software engineers don’t work as well either. The news industry functions on a wildly different timeline than software industry, our needs are different, and we need to bridge the gap between news and nerds – we needed news nerds (or pirates, as Chris Courtney called them). I love news, I’m nerdy, why not both? I still see myself as serving the public. It just made sense to me.
How did the SND digital bootcamp help you jumpstart your digital career?
There’s a lot of things to learn out there. Angular, Node, Rails, Python, Drupal, WordPress, PHP, JQuery – they all sound techy and they all have a great deal of resources available. Being interested in code and improving newsrooms is great, but then you (or in this case, I) get overwhelmed.
I was mixing my Jquery calls with my PHP and trying to write a framework from scratch when I know nothing about frameworks and Rails tutorial is great but it’s still so much to comprehend (MVC? What?). The bootcamp helped narrow things down – here’s what you need to get going, to be dangerous enough to break stuff and learn stuff.
More importantly though, the SND trainers are amazing people. Yuri Victor and Chris Courtney kept in touch with me (mostly through Twitter), helped me out when I reached out to them and asked for advice, and were fantastic role models.
Through them I learned who’s who in the dev world even more, and started to have more people to talk to and bounce ideas off of when I was thinking of a project or needed some troubleshooting help.
Can you share some recent projects you’ve worked on?
This one’s a little tricky, stuff I make aren’t all that visual. I made a simple templating “tool” that was dead easy to make but people like it. Also made a simple card embed tool. I ported over NPR’s lunchbox, another simple thing but makes the newsroom happy. I built a newsletter that pulls from two of Gannett’s APIs to populate. And a reader submitted map tool.
Lohud Taco Tour, a google sheets to map with geolocation.
You’ve quickly moved from a small paper to a big city. What advice do you have for young designers and developers?
WE NEED YOU. Not even remotely kidding, my newsroom was (still is, if I’m not mistaken) looking for a designer with some dev/web skills. It was really hard to find because web design with a news sense is different from straight up web design or traditional design and people get intimidated about making the switch.
The news nerd community is very welcoming and they take care of each other. See a cool project? Reach out to the dev, I’m sure they’re happy to talk about it or share their code. Intimidated by Github? Ignore it, come back later. Your project looks like crap? So do mine, we just keep working on it.
There’s going to be a hump where we feel overwhelmed and under-skilled, I feel that all the time, impostor syndrome is a real thing.
But if you see a job, apply for it anyway.
And it’s totally okay if your projects are frankensteins of code. We just keep iterating.