I had the privilege to participate in a panel of career paths in data visualization alongside heavyweights Will Chase (UPenn), Shirley Wu (freelance), Martín González (The Economist), and Blake Irvine (Netflix). Many people seemed to find my answers useful, so I’ve documented them here with a bit of hindsight editing.
What is your current plan for professional development?
Confession: I had a better answer than the one I shared in person. I had it in my head but when I got the mic it was swept out of my mind. I’m adding that answer too.
I want to invest in systems. At the Weekly, our analyses and visualizations are one-offs. We don’t have a standard toolkit, onboarding for graphics, or style guide. I have ideas for some of these, but the overarching question is how to create an efficient technical system that allows space for people to learn and grow. I would love if we used our own version of the dailygraphics rig, but if someone joins the paper with only experience in R it can be too much to grasp. So in short, I am thinking about how to create a powerful, standardized visualization system in which onboarding people with a variety of technical backgrounds is easy.
What can you share about job titles? (Which to go for, what they mean…)
I’m currently a developer at DataMade, where we have three roles: developer, lead developer, and partner. Having a generic job title has allowed me fluidity in how I represent my work. In regard to job titles, I worry about three things: that it accurately conveys the work I do, that I’m not being pidgeon-holed into front-end development because I use D3, and that the title sufficiently indicates my technical authority. The example of Netflix using Senior Data Visualization Engineer is perfect.
In journalism, this is a much more controversial topic. In data visualization in general, jobs titles are scattered and there isn’t a solid job definition that would provide terminological guidance on the role. If you work in journalism, whether or not you are called a journalist can weigh whether or not you are given credit for a piece. Many data journalists contribute to articles and don’t receive a byline, or graphics aren’t attributed to a specific individual. In this case, arguing for “journalist” in the job title can be crucial. If you aren’t contributing to written stories, there is an array of names including News Apps Developer, and Graphics Editor (which still implies a level of journalistic skill).
If you are switching industries between news and something else, title can play a role. (Get it? I’m hilarious.) I’ve never worked in hiring, but as an applicant I emphasize different parts of my past work depending on the job I’m doing. If I have flexibility in job title I can use, all the better e.g. Graphics Reporter versus Visualization Specialist versus Data Journalist versus Developer, assuming all are accurate. Ideally whoever is looking at your resume cares more about your work and skills than titles or degrees. Usually if I see a company insisting on a computer science degree, it’s a personal red flag for culture fit
How do you motivate yourself to keep learning?
Work toward some higher purpose. South Side Weekly seeks to cover stories that are overlooked or misrepresented by other media outlets. It’s community-driven mission resonates with my values, and that drives me to do my best. Sometimes it adds unproductive pressure, but for the most part it motivates me to know that my work is giving back to the community I care about.
What advice would you give to someone just graduating and moving into their career?
Find a job you like? Find someone with the same job at the company and email/LinkedIn/Tweet asking to learn more about the company and role. I try to reach out to people whose lived experience is similar to mine, which usually means queer or people of color. Don’t be smarmy. I genuinely want to learn about different people and their backgrounds, and how they got to where they are. I want to know about what the culture is like for people like me at this company. Be thoughtful and respectful of someone’s time. Include a few direct questions to answer in a twenty minute call.
See someplace you’d like to work someday? Message someone and ask for advice. All the same advice from above applies. I go back and cringe at the emails I sent to partners at design firms I was interested in talking to. But you know what? They replied and I met them in their offices. If you write an honest and respectful email (no dreaded “can I pick your brain…”), there is no reason to stall on sending it. If it’s ignored, that’s okay. It’s not a rejection. Email is hard. Don’t give up—there’s always someone else you can learn from.
Think about how you want to structure your life. What kind of work do you want to do? Would you be happy working in D3 everyday if you would only be making dashboards? Could you join a place as a developer, and evangelize the team to data visualization after working there six months? Or could you be happy working a job unrelated to visualization, but allowed you the creative space to work on side projects on nights and weekends?
Okay, this is really an extension of #1. But reaching out 1:1 can be difficult, and sometimes going to an organized networking event can be easier to navigate. I’ve found ones with some structure most helpful when I’m in a new city. For example, Code for DC has a mandatory onboarding session for all new folx before they can jump in and work on a project.
This is an outline of what I tell people (or wish I had the time to tell people!) when they ask me for career advice. It was a novelty to be on a career paths panel because of how junior I felt compared to the other participants. However, I’ve certainly done many different types of work in many types of environments.
My final piece of advice is something I’m still working on, which is not to sell yourself short. I fret about my age and experience and about being a minority, all things that seem to discredit me as I try to build up my expertise. But hell I’ve done a lot in a short period of time, and I’ve had to crash through hurdles others haven’t even thought of.
Data visualization is a new field, and most of the career advice can be summed up as hone in on what work you want to do, what concessions you can make in order to do that work, and then blaze forward. Visualization encompasses so many industries and technologies—reach out to the community (you can Tweet me at any time) if you need guidance. Ignore naysayers. You’re going to do something great. ✨