This is how I work, give or take
I read this from Matt and no one has nominated me but I thought it might be interesting to do one myself, so here goes…
Current Gig: Senior Data Journalist at Office for National Statistics
Current mobile device: Samsung S7
Current computer: MacBook Pro (personal), a Dell(?) at work
One word that best describes how you work: Chaotically.
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I don’t want to bang on for too long, because I have been on this planet for three decades now and a heck of a lot of stuff has happened. I grew up in north London. School sucked. For a long time I wanted to be a children’s author. Somewhere along the line, in my teens, I realised that what I was reaching for was to do writing to entertain/inform/educate people. So journalism felt like a natural fit for me.
I got a scholarship to study a BA in Journalism at Westminster University, absolutely hated everything about the university experience, spent months crying myself to sleep, had no support whatsoever with my deafness and struggled with lectures, and left with crippling depression. I spent the rest of the year working in a local theatre. Terrified of going to proper uni again, I went to do a Foundation Degree in Film at the London College of Communication, part of the University of London. I ended up doing my proper first degree in Multimedia Journalism at Bournemouth University. I did work experience for all the summers I was there, and while at uni I worked one day a week at a local magazine, interviewing the Maccabees and Boy George which was pretty brilliant.
After leaving uni in 2011 I was really stuck for how to get into the industry, I had however made a bunch of contacts through Twitter (which I wrote my dissertation on). I had a plan to move to Dubai which involved some random guy I knew on Twitter, but that didn’t work out. Through someone else on Twitter I got work experience at The Independent, got introduced to the web editor and got taken on as a freelancer.
Two years later I was incredibly bored of not writing much and feeling generally unappreciated so decided to pack in the job and go back to uni despite saying years before that I never would go back. I did an MA at City University in Interactive Journalism (data and social media), specifically because I have always thought that I was shit at maths but that specialising in something would probably be valuable later on.
Part way through the year I got wind of this weird “project Y” thing that Martin Belam was running, got in touch and asked if I could do work experience. He said yes, I turned up for two days and did stuff, and he said I was great so asked me to come in once a week. That project ended up being Ampp3d at the Mirror. I had the most fun ever. I made cat maps, wrote and made charts about mankinis, worked with the investigations editor on a brilliant few stories, and did some actual journalism too. I became a full-time member of staff, and was there from start to end, about two and a half years. I was absolutely gutted that the entire project was shuttered and the whole team made redundant.
After redundancy I floated about a bit, ended up at a PR firm which ended badly, worked for the Guardian, did a few freelance bits, then started working at ITV News, where I worked on breaking news for about a year before I was told about the job I am in now. For various reasons, leaving London felt like a good move, so I did.
Take us through a recent workday.
On a good day, I get up at about 5.45–6am, because I take ages to get ready in the morning, and the most blessed working day is 7am to 3pm. I leave home at 6.30am, get in at 7ish.
Since it’s very quiet in the morning, it’s an opportunity to get ahead of my calendar, do some writing, send some emails. Sometimes there are things waiting for me from the day before so I look at those. Often, when I get into work, there’s a new blog on our intranet that I’ll sit and read because despite my early cynicism sometimes they are genuinely very interesting.
There is no real pattern or rhyme or reason to my day, tbh. My days tend to be either full of meetings about projects and about processes, or have one or two small meetings and then the rest of the day I can dedicate to admin or project work. We are a highly collaborative team so the meetings are about sharing ideas, working with other areas of the business, and discussing visualisations or editorial lines. Sometimes meetings happen spontaneously and they are more like a ‘huddle’ than a formal meeting, and although they can be disruptive, I personally find them useful. When I need to sit down and focus on something, I take myself ‘out of the equation’ by putting my headphones on and that way I can fully immerse myself in the work I’m doing.
I tend to grab something from the canteen for lunch and eat at my desk but lately I’ve realised that having a time out is useful, so sometimes I go and sit in a quiet corner by myself, or other times I’ll end up eating with a colleague.
At around 3pm I dramatically leave the office, and get back home 3.30–4pm. I am getting busier in the weekday evenings now so I tend to have a 20 minute nap and then get ready to go out.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Apps: Spotify, WhatsApp, Starling. (Music, communicating, bank — I feel like this makes sense!)
In terms of my work, I need Excel all the time, and I’m trying to shift things over into RStudio out of habit, because it is amazing.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
I think learning to ask the right questions of the right people is something that will save you an immense amount of time, like, my god.
Also, as much as I hate mornings, getting up early is really useful.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
I don’t really know what I could put in here so am going to pass.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Post-it notes that I then lose or throw away. Notes on my phone. Notes on my computer. Asana. Trello. Oh god. See, I told you I was chaotic.
What’s your favourite side project?
By far my favourite side project is Fair Warning, a weekly(ish) newsletter that I write about data-driven journalism, data stories, and data visualisation. I find it quite time consuming to write because I want it to be authentically me and I have at times felt a bit lost with it.
I don’t want to randomly link to things I haven’t read or don’t believe in, but I also skim-read a lot out of habit. Forcing myself to take the time to fully comprehend things and find something interesting to say about them is challenging but useful, and I feel like it keeps me ‘in the game’ in a field which is constantly changing and innovating.
What I like about it is that it is very much me and my personality, and while at first being ‘too me’ was a bit worrying, I think 800 subscribers later I can say that people like me or find me interesting enough to still tune in. And that’s really, really cool.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
To my absolute shame, nothing. I have started about five books in the last year, but I am terrible at setting aside time to read them, since I don’t take the bus to work anymore.
I can’t even sensibly recommend a book to you because I am very into weirdly intense books, which probably explains why I can’t bring myself to read them anymore.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
I can’t really think of any people who haven’t done it, but maybe someone outside the public sector whom I admire. Yeah.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s ok to write an email and then not send it. Advice which I only just heard, and wish I had heard sooner.