How an Amazon software engineer became a data journalist at FiveThirtyEight

“Who am I to be explaining these concepts that people have been ... studying forever? And then I realized journalism was more about channeling experts than it was about being the experts. I think you can take that philosophy ... and apply that to learning code.”

Dhrumil Mehta has had steep learning curves in every workplace of his career. In college as a philosophy student, he began to attend computer science classes and found that the two disciplines overlapped more than he expected. After graduating with a master’s degree in computer science, he took the first job offer — as a software engineer working on internal tools at Amazon. Just over a year later, he left to become a database journalist covering politics at FiveThirtyEight. Poynter spoke to Mehta about learning how to code and report, working in the newsroom without formal journalism training, and trying to find meaning in your work.

If you’re a technologist learning how to become a journalist, seek out a community with similar skills to help ease the transition.

The first time Mehta pitched an editor was early on in his current job as a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight. He recounts the memory as “waltzing” into his editor’s office to discuss an idea and an interesting data set he was thinking about. “I could see that editor getting irritated, but I thought that’s what an editor is — you suggest an idea, you hash it out and you write a story,” Mehta said. “It was definitely a trial by fire to learn how to work in a newsroom ... all of that was new to me coming from the software world.”

Having gone to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) conference for several years, he’s relied on that community of visual journalists, data reporters, news app developers and technical storytellers to ease into the transition of working in a fast-paced newsroom instead of with an engineering team. He notes that meeting people with different skills in the same industry and talking with them about their experiences can help you feel less like the only one in your newsroom, which may not have many roles like yours.

“If you talk to journalists with editorial backgrounds who are now also database journalists, they don’t understand all the barriers you’re coming in contact with [by] coming from engineering ... that [NICAR] community was incredibly helpful.”

If you’re a journalist who’s trying to learn new technical skills, pick a project to help guide you toward the most useful things to study.

Coming from an academic background, where he was used to diving into a topic for a few months to analyze it and better understand it, Mehta found himself having to drastically change that style of learning once he got to the newsroom.

“We tend to operate on quick turnarounds, short deadlines ... and I think journalism forced me into the project-based learning style, which works really well. In journalism, you build expertise by breaking things down into manageable chunks ... and when you’re learning how to code, that style of learning works really well.”

He recommends picking a project that you’re interested in and involves a skill you don’t know yet, reaching out to people who have those skills and learning what you need for your project along the way in order to make a goal like “learning how to code” more achievable.

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