12

06/11

First week on the job: Being the rookie

12:49 am by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News,Information Design,Programming

I just started my summer internship at the Washington Post. (I love DC, and you can follow along with more of that here on my poorly designed personal blog.) My supervisor has asked me to write a recap of what I did at the end of every week. Since I was busy moving into a new apartment this past weekend, my first is a bit late. Normally, I’ll post these on Fridays. I’m not sure if these thoughts will be useful to anyone else, but I hope they’ll at least be amusing.

After a day of orientation and awe, all of the interns were released to wreak havoc upon our respective departments. When Hannah Fairfield, my supervisor, told me in our morning graphics meeting that she had my first project, I was expecting something simple and innocuous. Something that would safely test the waters and get me accustomed to the workflow before pushing my limits.

Ha!

She showed me a print graphic that depicted the latest NBA playoff games as line graphs. In each, you could see how much of a lead the frontrunning team had at any given time. They chased each other and wove in and out like sparrows fighting. It was a fabulous way to see the way the games had progressed.

“I’d like you to make this interactive,” she said.

My dirty secret: Despite many, many efforts by a multitude of people, I don’t understand sports. Baseball makes the most sense, but my grasp is tenuous. I never know what’s going on in football or basketball, though I’ve tried to understand both. I didn’t even know NBA playoffs were going on, much less anything about how the game worked. I knew I’d have to get my brain around the game if I were going to chart it.

So when I got the assignment, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had flashbacks to my first TA stint at ASU, where I was assigned to help with a sports journalism class. You know those moments in which it seems like the entire world is riding on your ability to say or do the right thing? And if you screw it up, you’re never going to be able to recover? They’re going to wonder why they brought me on board. I’ll never work in journalism again. This is my only chance and I’m going to blow it. You know, melodrama like that.

I wasn’t sure how to attack the problem, what sort of guidelines I was expected to work within, or whom I should ask for help from. Looking back, I wouldn’t have had it another way. But at the time, it was like having a mini panic-attack.

I felt that way on and off throughout the week as I worked on the project. I’d never worked this extensively with Javascript, and it was hard to transition from my jQuery knowledge to full-on JS. In addition, it was a lot of math to work with — something that’s never been my strong suit. It didn’t help that I was used to working in Python and kept screwing up the JS syntax as a result.

First I had to figure out how to get an Excel column into a text array, then change the format minutes:seconds to convert to all seconds. I was fortunate that I’d played with hacking together a Twitter scraper a few months ago, because I knew I’d need to strip the colon from the time format. parseInt() and Mr. Data Converter saved me. Then I had to figure out how to get the x-axis to plot the time of the entire game, even though the minutes and seconds in the spreadsheet zereoed out every quarter. My “professional partner,” Wilson Andrews, the guy who gets the utter joy of mentoring me all summer, helped me with a lot of this, but then left on vacation. Poor Kat Downs had to do most of the heavy lifting with me.

So I took a shot at writing the JS behind it, and then Kat rewrote it the next day. I learned so much from watching her work. (For one, usage of functions — something I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around since my C++ class a year ago — finally made sense.) But it was also nerve-wracking. This had been assigned to me, and it felt like a horrible failure that I wasn’t able to do the meat of it alone. I didn’t want to be a disappointment. Kat spent several hours working with the JS before it behaved itself, and that doesn’t even count the IE debugging (though I learned a bit about that, too).

But by the second and third day (of my two-day deadline), I was getting more confident. I was able to hunt down some bugs and fix them with the aforementioned function knowledge that I’d picked up. And a few things that I missed were obvious things that I chalk up to nerves.

The end result is clean and functional.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it — in a good way. The sink-or-swim lack of hand-holding surprised all of the interns, I think. (It was a recurring theme at our evening outings this week, at least.)

And I learned a lot about the way I work. I tend to underestimate the time it takes me to do things. Or, perhaps more accurately, underestimate the number of things that can go wrong and how long fixing them will take. I have to stare at a problem for a bit, turn it around in my head, before it makes any sense to me. But once it makes sense, all sensors are go.

Now that it’s Monday, “go” is now.

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