Sisi Wei on Code with Me

A cofounder reports back on a workshop for journalist coders

Sisi Wei, Code with me co-founder and graphics editor at the Washington Post, at the first Code with me event. (Danny DeBelius)

This summer Code with me held its first introductory, two-day programming workshop for journalists. Code with me co-founder Sisi Wei chatted with me about the project at the 2012 Online News Association conference in San Francisco. The project is modeled on what Wei said made the most difference for her when she was learning programming: having a mentor. This is an edited transcript of that discussion.

Source: Tell me about Code with me.

SWCode with me is a project that Tom Giratikanon and I started this year. Tom and I have been throwing around ideas for basically how do we get more people interested in interactive journalism? And we were thinking about it on multiple levels—current journalists who want to  do it and need more guidance. That’s how it got created.

We were maybe going to do something with high school students. It’s very apparent right now that we need more people who are interested in journalism and interested in development. There are not enough people coming out of universities to fill the job openings. That’s a problem. That was the goal in mind when we were trying to come up with a program. We have been writing grant proposals since last year and they didn’t pan out. We didn’t want to have to commit people to a certain organizations.

We started to get frustrated, and decided, let’s do something on our own. Something that’s self-sustainable, but it’s still a low enough cost so people could afford to come even if their company couldn’t pay for it. We thought back to what made the biggest difference to us: early on we had some kind of mentor who was willing and able to guide us when we had a problem that we couldn’t solve, but was ultimately a very easy problem.

We wanted to help professional journalists and give them a mentorship opportunity to lean how to teach themselves how to code, with a 2:1 mentorship ratio. They can tailor the program to what the student needs. That way we could keep up the momentum. We also taught them if they didn’t have their mentor, how would they solve the problem. For the first class, 24 students learned the basics of HTML, CSS, a little bit of jQuery, and for when they get stuck we taught them how to look up help, how to ask for help, how to find solutions.

Source: How did the first workshop go?

SW: Our first workshop was in Washington, DC, August 17-18. It’s gone really well. We sent participants aggressive feedback forms. We got feedback from our mentors. They are all donating their time. Mentors committed two days and committed to responding post-workshop if their students have them as well as on a group listserv so that people can build and utilize the community that they endured this experience with.

One of our students, David Ferris, published what he made in the workshop. He blogged about it and was very excited about it. We got incredible feedback from our mentors. It was grueling, but they found it extremely rewarding. We’re very happy they found it so rewarding. The comments we wanted to hear and really liked hearing “when you guys told this anecdote, all of a sudden CSS padding made sense. when it hadn’t made sense for ever.”

A lot of students said they know after the workshop their not a pro but they know where to go. It went really well. We’re very happy with it.

Source: What are the plans for expansion?

SW: Our current plan is to go to Boston. Tom wants to go in December; I want to go in January. We want to go in the next quarter year, and go to New York in the following quarter year. We’ve heard from people who went to our first workshop, “are you coming to this city?” LA, Chicago? A lot of people offered to help us find a venue and funding. Chicago might be next. It sounds very viable because the people who want to bring it to Chicago are very adamant. Also Tom and I both graduated for Northwestern.

The model is hooking up students with skilled mentors. We can’t host a Code with me where there are no mentors. If a city doesn’t have a newspaper with a dev team, we’re trying to think of ways to make Code with me more sustainable. Maybe we’ll tour the big cities and see what we can do from there. But I’m very optimistic. I’m not too worried about it.

Source: Is there a franchise model?

SW: We haven’t thought that far ahead. I think if someone approached us “hey, you’re booked, but we want to host a Code with me.” We’re all for that. The point is to benefit journalists in the whole journalism community, to enable to tell stories in a new way. The hardest part is we need to know there is someone who can teach, and teach well. Now, Tom and I teach and the mentors walk students through lessons. We’d need some quality assurance. I think that’s something for the future. We’d need to work it out.

Source: Who makes a good mentor?

SW: We need the dev to be able to guide the student in developing a graphic during the workshop. They need to be able to say, “this is difficult to get and it’s worth getting” or it’s not. Generally, looking for front-end people. If people are interested, I’m cool with talking with them.

Source: What does the class start with? Are Code with me materials available online?

SW: When we teach HTML, we teach them in the context of an article, headline, body. When we do CSS they’re doing it on the Washington Post.

A lot of the materials are online on the resources tab. Workshop schedule online, handouts we created we put online. We made cheat sheets. We have some extensive cheat sheets.

Source: How does Code with me fit with the current learning needs of the journalism development community?

SW: I would say that right now there are a lot of attempts to do something about the void of the news devs situation and I think that Code With Me would need to transform a bit to be sustainable and last forever.

Ultimately, teaching small batches of students will change those lives but won’t revolutionize the industry because we can’t handle volume. Tom and I see it as an experiment. It helps us explore the student/mentor relationship. We’d love to have the students return as mentors.

Code with me happened because we wanted to help journalists tell interactive stories and we’re going to keep doing it at our workshops. As an experiment, and in terms of the 24 students that we had at our first session, we made an impact on their lives. So for them, Code with me is a success. It’s certainly something that I think someone should work on full time on.




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