Lonely Coders, Here’s How to Get Things Done

Connect with new people, invest in your skills, and reclaim your to-do list

(William Warby)

Deep dives on project management, process, workflow, newsroom culture & more

Many of us newsroom coders work as one-person bands, whether we’re with big employers or smaller ones. Even with growing interest and investment in digitally native news and the slow fade of the ink-stained wretch archetype, our industry’s reporter-to-coder ratio isn’t in the coder’s favor yet, and informal chat with office colleagues probably doesn’t get too technical outside of New York, D.C., and the Bay Area.

This means we news nerds face challenges different from those of our old-school journalist colleagues and the coder-obsessed startup world. We can’t be content with simply writing code—we have to be simultaneously comfortable with mostly working alone and interfacing with co-workers outside our tribe, and we have to be in charge of our own professional development, without a traditional map.

At the 2015 SRCCON event in Minneapolis, Rachel Schallom and I facilitated a conversation among “lonely coders” on strategies for self-direction and management. Collected here are some of the tips the group discussed.

You Need Project Management, With or Without a Project Manager

Editors and coders alike will find it helpful to invest in learning the basic tenets of project management to improve communication, planning, and time use. Try the work breakdown structure model to sketch out the requirements of a project—breaking it down into constituent parts will help you come up with a more accurate time estimate and establish progress benchmarks.

Even if those benchmarks are only of importance to you, lean on your team members/stakeholders to keep you accountable by informing them of your projected checkpoints and asking for timely check-ins.

Time estimates aren’t easy, especially when you’re tackling something you haven’t tried before. When possible, past performance should inform your future plans, so track your hours as religiously as a freelancer would—that way, the next time a collaborator asks how long a choropleth map with time slider component will take, you’ll have a well-researched answer. Online software like Harvest or Toggl help you track time spent on each part of a project, but you could use even a simple spreadsheet. ​

Template, Template, Template

​ When you’re flying solo and have limited time, it’s important to consider whether a project is completely bespoke or able to set up future spinoffs using fewer resources.

When you’re done with a project, ask yourself what you can do to make it reusable. Is it a map that can easily be combined with a different dataset? Or is it like one of those whimsical headline generators, becoming entirely different when stocked with new outputs? Even if the entire project can’t easily be reused, consider how you can strip it for parts. Grab code snippets and stash them in your own personal code library for use next time (so that you’ll finally stop Googling how to generate a random number between X and Y in JavaScript).

Similarly, investing in a style guide can lead to big payoffs. Besides the obvious importance of a consistent aesthetic treatment across your site, not worrying about your heading styles will save time and ward off decision fatigue. ​

Document, Document, Document

​ Programmer wisdom suggests that commenting your code is most important to help others read your code. That’s true, but just because you’re the only one reading your code doesn’t absolve you from commenting. Besides the good karma you’ll accrue should you leave your job and bequeath your products to a new person, your code comments and documentation become the institutional knowledge of your interactive desk.

When you’re done with a project, consider writing a brief reflection on what went well, what didn’t, and why you made the decisions you did. Essays like this can be helpful in giving a debrief or report to your supervisor, especially if they’re non-technical, but also in analyzing and refining your own working habits.

Streamline Administrative Work

Busywork is a necessary part of modern office life, and also incredibly not fun compared with the glorious bliss of coding. This is another area where some upfront time investment will free you in the long run. Find yourself answering the same tech questions from reporters and editors? Assemble an FAQ document for all to peruse. Rapidly approaching a deadline with lots of work left? Let your team know that you’ll be checking email only at certain times, and you’ll otherwise be off-grid. ​

Be Your Own Teacher

Without a technical mentor, it can be tough to level up your skills, or even know w hat you should be learning. Side hustles are a great way to forge ahead with learning new things and exploring new disciplines. Try negotiating with your employer to give yourself “20% time,” à la Google, where you can spend time at work on personal projects—that, in theory, will develop skills and components you’ll use for the day job too. Think of ways in which programming can help your day-to-day life and build that! You can create a web scraper that gathers real-time stats from a sports league, or finds your next apartment for you, for example.

Taking a class can be a great way to both improve your professional skills and meet new people in your field, but if a traditional college course is outside your employer’s budget, find other educational resources for cheaper (Lynda.com videos, or local, short-term bootcamps aimed at professionals). Of course, the internet is full of free coding tutorials as well, so check out sites like Codecademy, NodeSchool, and even YouTube. ​

Be Less Alone

This seems flip, but the most important strategy for a lonely coder is to find a professional support network outside the office. Ideally, your employer can send you to conferences like SRCCON and NICAR, which function like summer camp for professional news developers used to feeling alone. Of course many smaller employers may not give you a travel budget, so you’ll have to stay local. Reach out to developers at other media organizations in your community and ask if they’d like to get lunch sometime. Find tech meetups in your area to attend and talk to people, even—especially!—if the content isn’t targeted at news, or if the talk descriptions seem above your perceived skill level. (Immersion applies to learning programming languages too.) These days, small and large metros alike have user groups for any number of coding niches, and sites like Meetup.com make these groups easy to find.

But building your network isn’t strictly about face time. To find others familiar with your own particular struggles, reach out to folks whose titles and job duties seem similar to yours, in your organization’s trade group, consortium, or corporate network. (And if one doesn’t already exist, consider setting up a Slack group or email listserv to regularly keep in touch with them.) That’s where you’ll find brains to pick and shoulders to cry on.

Across the board, we lonely coders aren’t really all that lonely; we’re just a little more geographically distributed. Pop into Slack groups like the Lonely Coders’ Club and News Nerdery to find the technically minded water cooler you’ve been longing for. ​

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