An informal poll on what I should learn next

To be perfectly honest, I have a lot to learn, even if my punditry gets me mentioned in Top 10 lists or gets my name breathed in the same sentence as the incredible people I’m learning from just by reading their blogs and following their careers.

And unless I’m going to move to an executive position tomorrow, where my jack-of-all-trades, master-of-few schtick goes the distance, it’s time for me to pick up another skill. (Hint: I’m not going anywhere for awhile.)

Here’s my background: Writing this blog for over two years. Four years of film school. Raised by a photographer and a data analyst (pardon the simplification, Dad) in the wild. Okay, the suburbs. Whatever. The point is, I’ve been around visual communicators, maps, and databases since I could see. I’ve been using computers since the words “Press play on tape” meant something.

Here’s what I know: How to write good clean semantic HTML, CSS, Photoshop, copy editing, WordPress (and other database-based content management systems that involve knowing how to use a search engine to find the code you need), how to use a search engine to find any code I need, how to record and edit stills/audio/video, and how to tell newspapers what they should be doing to innovate instead of stagnating while they watch a 200-year-old business model crumble around them.

Trust me, that last one has little practical value.

Here’s what I don’t know, no matter what it says on my resume: How to work in SQL and PHP from scratch, javascript, Django, Ruby, Flash, Illustrator, how to use maps APIs to code my own mashups, how to present databases online.

SO, dear readers (all three of you), I’m looking for answers here: What should I learn next?

And if your answer is database-driven, so to speak, where should I start? MySQL/PHP, or straight to PostgreSQL, Python and Django? There’s obviously demand for folks with chops like this, and I certainly like the sort of journalism it turns out, but I Am Not A Programmer.

Chime in below…

30 Replies to “An informal poll on what I should learn next”

  1. OK, so I already replied by e-mail, but I’ll put it here for all to see. I vote for Flash. If you learn flash, you’re well on your way to illustrator.

    I think it will also prod some of the other areas as well. Besides, if you’ve already got the photoshop, video, still, and audio down, you’re well on your way to multimediashooter-ness. Flash is the most visual of all of those.

    And you can always dabble in the others while you’re learning that one.

  2. OOh, take me with you. I think, having dabbled in WordPress, the MySQL/PHP might be easier to start out with, so you don’t feel like you’re jumping into something over your head. Flash is pretty easy to get the basics on (I’m taking Mindy McAdam’s class) and even better if you’re already visually inclined.

  3. I’ll quibble with Bryan just a bit. Take it from me, there really isn’t a way to dabble in something like Django, unless you really are a programmer. I’m not, and I’m pretty much full-time trying to learn Django now, and it’s pretty well kicking my ass. So if you’re going the Django route, you’ll have to go whole hog.

    I’d try to reason this out if I were you. What would give you the most bang for your buck? In other words, what could you learn and deploy on your employer’s site immediately? What comes naturally to you? Most people learn better — or are more motivated to learn more — if they can succeed quicker. I’m wired differently, so I’m enjoying Django kicking my ass. Most people I know give up after a few weeks of frustration.

    As for PHP/MySQL versus Django, there’s pros and cons for each. You’ll find hosts supporting PHP/MySQL everywhere, and only a few who are Django friendly. The documentation for Django is fantastic, but piddly compared to the sheer mass of PHP/MySQL books/sites/tutorials. The great thing about Django? It abstracts away a whole ton of stuff you’d have to learn and write out in PHP, saving time and brain space.

    But I’d look at what you think you could learn best first, and work from there.

  4. Matt is right to an extent. However, I have a friend whose background is web design, and he’s working on django right now to design a new web site for a college newspaper. OTOH, I tried to *install* django on my macbook pro and it kicked my ass. 🙂

    When i meant “dabble,” I think I may have used the wrong term. What I meant was do some “pre-learning,” i.e., read about it, maybe try out some simple stuff, but not go whole hog. If you don’t know databases, I’m saying maybe spend a few minutes here or there reading up on databases. As Matt said, there’s tons of material out there. Ditto all the other things you mentioned. Just so that when you’re ready to start full-bore on the next step, you have a base of knowledge to work from.

  5. Interesting question.
    You didn’t say what you want to do with this new knowledge. Are you thinking you would like to be boss someday? Do you think you will have a future in newspapers for the next five years? Or do you think you will be working outside of newspapers?
    Not being snarky, but it might make a difference in your thought process.

  6. To those of you for whom the Django installation has been difficult: Please do chime in on the django-users mailing list to let us know how to improve the process.

  7. @Mark – I’m planning on working in online news for at least the next 10 years. Then maybe a PhD and teaching.

    Would I like to be the boss someday?

    I’d like to be the head of online news at a major metro, yeah. Not necessarily of marketing, but of news.

    But until then, I’m planning to develop my storytelling skills.

    I’m leaning toward Flash and video for now. My role on our online team is really content creation, editing, and management — not developing and designing. So for now, that’s probably the first step. Then I’ll start feeding Flash with maps and databases.

    But it’s hard to resist installing Django on my own server space and toying around.

    Thanks to everyone who has offered their direction so far — keep it coming…

  8. If you want to be an executive (and let’s be honest, that’s where the money is in this industry), then you need to be a business person. Even if you want to be an executive editor, or the top editor of an online division — you gotta know business.

    I learned business because 1) I owned a couple of businesses; 2) I worked in sales; 3) I learned programming and built revenue-generating apps for my newspaper company.

    That last part was key to Scripps giving me a chance to jump from coder to division head. The other stuff helped, and it helped that, like you, I had a broad range of skills and experience … but without a demonstrated ability to understand what it takes to make money (which I demonstrated by building web apps that made money), then I doubt I would have been given the chance to take the next step up.

    Furthermore, I doubt I would have gotten the job I have today — which is really a pretty pure content job — if I didn’t understand the business/revenue side of things.

    Every top editor I know also has strong business chops. It’s just the nature of the industry now.

  9. @Howard – I knew you’d call me out on that one.

    That’s what the Master’s degree is for:
    The thesis I’m writing on the adoption of blogs at newspapers is all about figuring out which factors affected innovation.

    I figure that’ll come in handy someday.

    But I still need to develop my skills to keep advancing now, no matter how much a broad range of knowledge will help when I get a job that involves wearing a tie.

  10. Ryan,

    I’m with howard. Business skills are essential. I remember talking to an author who was signing a contract with us who in his day job was an engineer.
    We both realised that 50-75% of our days were spent dealing with accounts, strategy decisions or other business tasks that we would never have considered to be in our job description before we became engineer and publisher.
    You can learn all the exta skills you like (and I envy the ones you have already) but busines skills will certainly help you get the farthest.
    Eoin

  11. As you might guess, I’m going to recommend Flash. But maybe not for the reason you would assume.

    I’m okay writing JavaScript with an O’Reilly book at my elbow. So when I need to do database stuff, I can just open up Dreamweaver, connect it to a MySQL database at my Web hosting company, and let DW do most of the work. I don’t even own a PHP book; I found I can wing it based on my JavaScript knowledge.

    That said, Django just plain ran me off the ranch. It’s like what Matt said — it would take me a very long time to learn that. And I thought, hey, do I need that badly enough to invest that kind of time? No offense, Adrian, but it’s not going to pay off for me, personally.

    So, given the kind of things that you want to do, Ryan, I think you would be able to do more of them with Flash. Here’s why: Flash is the one application that allows you to do everything. If you can imagine it, you can build it in Flash. You can hook it out to XML documents, so anything that’s in a database can come into your Flash app. You can integrate video, audio, photographs and animations into a single seamless interface (oh, damn, I can hear the Ajax lovers clamoring to argue THEIR case).

    Bottom line, I think you can produce more, with fewer people assisting, if you master Flash. Flash lets you do it all.

  12. So the business-side folks vote for the business side, the databasers vote for databases, and the Flash storytellers vote for Flash…

    Is there a video shooter lurking here somewhere that wants to weigh in?

    Or perhaps a straight-up reporter or print editor?

    Not a big surprise of course — If someone asked me this question, I’d probably tell them to know a little about everything, and build one specialty at a time.

  13. I vote for MySQL and PHP, cause then you can help me. Oh yeah, this is Ryans mom, and I argue with the title of Photographer now. I am an “Artist”. Isn’t it awful having a blog where your mother can post? Oh yeah, my blog needs help. Know any one? I’ll go away quietly now.

  14. In my humble opinion, you have sort of answered your question already. Right now you work on content creation, editing and management. That seems to imply you need to learn flash?

    Also, glad to see your readership has progressed from “all two of you” to “all three of you.”

  15. Of course, you could wait a couple of months for Apollo. That’s supposed to be *really* interesting. 😉

    And we haven’t even gotten into the 3D modeling aspect yet…

  16. Ryan, when I was in university, someone once told me, you don’t need to know everything just know where to find it.

    Riffing on that when it comes to skillset/mindset, I can’t do everything on mine own, but I’m trying to master the art of the possible. What are the elements that make great digital story telling? What are the people and the technical infrastructure that I need to make these things possible? I’m a professional dabbler, and in the first five years of my career, I had worked in print, online, radio and TV. I’m like you in that I’m a professional dabbler.

    I think there is a role that will only increase for a new digital maestro, so to speak, who brings all of these elements together. Flash, Django, databases are just the latest elements to add to the story telling mix, and more tools are added constantly. There are people who are much more proficient with these tools than I am, but I have to know what is possible with these tools. That’s my plan for today.

  17. Thanks to everyone for their well thought out answers.

    Flash wins.

    Because I can feed it databases, or multimedia, or maps.

    Because I already have Mindy’s book.

    Because I don’t need to learn a programming language to produce content with it.

    Because producing content is the most entertaining part of my job.

    To anyone I might have thrown off with broad statements about tie-wearing and jacks-of-all-trades:

    Fear not, I’ll continue being completely unbearable in my mission to know everything about online news — I just needed to pick what to become good at next.

  18. Good choice, Ryan. I’m testing the flash waters right now myself, and will follow it up with PHP and AJAX. Most of the exciting interaction that is occurring online right now between sites and the public is happening with those three (ah la Ze Frank, Digg, YouTube, and many others). Of course, if you ever do want to get more into the content flow, I hear Pearl is an amazing language to learn too. Good luck on flash.

  19. I’m going to jump into the tail end of the fray here Ryan (been at a wedding all weekend). You and I are very much in the same boat since we’re relatively new in the pro game and are relatively cross-disciplinary. Despite whatever technical skill you choose to learn, be it Flash/Illustrator or a different way to code, my advice to you is to pick up some of those business skills like Howard suggested. I would learn how to read a balance sheet and profit-loss statement and understand how budgeting works. There may be an organization in your area, such as the Chamber of Commerce, that offers free or low-cost workshops you can take in some of your spare time. That doesn’t mean you need to become Joe Fatcat business tycoon, but my belief is that understanding those essentials will ensure you stay knowledgeable as you move it on up, whatever path you choose.

  20. I think Mindy makes a good case for Flash.

    For me, the break-through thing to learn was Cold Fusion (by this time, I had all the business background I mentioned above).

    But if I were to do it over, I’d learn Python, at least right now.

    Of course, I didn’t work in a Python shop back in the day … it was either CF or ASP, and I already knew a little CF.

  21. I would vote for flash as well. The reasons have been stated above. For the most part it’s not too hard to learn and you can do a lot of visual storytelling, data visualization with it.

  22. No fair — I’ve been corresponding with Mindy McAdams and Howard Owens for years on a mailing list, and they never gave me career advice!!

    Howard’s probably right about business if you want to be an exec. But if you’re just talking straight journalism skillz, I think the industry is still way behind in tapping databases.

    You’ve decided on Flash first, which is fine. Then learn more about databases. Then figure out how to integrate them.

    (Oops — I just gave away MY career plan.)

  23. Beau, you never asked. 🙂

    Database and Flash make a good marriage for some things but not for others. All the mashups you can do with the Google API, for example — no Flash required. Don’t use Flash when it’s not the best presentation vehicle. And oftentimes, it’s not.

  24. Good question! The responses are helpful to those of us who aren’t as far along as you too.

    Guess that means I should put Flash on my hit list. Been thinking about it. Maybe over the summer…since I’m this semester I’m focusing on getting a clue about audio, video and multimedia.

    By the way, I also agree with the advice about getting some background in business…not that I’ve followed that advice myself, but my husband did, and it’s worked for him. A few years ago he put together a PPt presentation called “How to Talk to a CFO.” It offers a good, simple overview of financial terms/concepts…so you can use their language to sell your ideas. Let me know if you’d like to see it.

  25. Ryan, How refreshing it is to hear someone even ask the question “What should I learn next?”
    I’ve spent much of the past few weeks surrounded by journalism students. And most of them seemed positively shocked when I suggested they needed to learn more than basic reporting and writing to get a job.
    I’m thrilled with the areas you’re considering. And I’m quite pleased by the responses your question has generated. So I hesitate to put in my vote for any single subject area. But I’ll put my reservations aside and suggest that you learn about business.
    Here’s why: the journalism industry needs young managers and leaders who understand the rewards and challenges of this new era. My gut tells me you’d be great at that.
    So study up. You’re gonna go far. And when you get there, we’re going to need you to know what you’re doing.

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