How to Hire a Hacker

Written by: Lucy Chambers

One of the things that I am regularly asked by journalists is how do I get a coder to help me with my project?. Don’t be deceived into thinking this is a one-way process; civic-minded hackers and data-wranglers are often just as keen to get in touch with journalists.

Journalists are power-users of data driven tools and services. From the perspective of developers: journalists think outside the box to use data tools in contexts developers haven’t always considered before (feedback is invaluable!) they also help to build context and buzz around projects and help to make them relevant. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Fortunately, this means that whether you are looking to hire a hacker or looking for possible collaborations on a shoestring budget, there will more than likely be someone out there who is interested in helping you.

So how do you find them? Says Aron Pilhofer from the New York Times:

You may find that your organzation already has people with all the skills you need, but they are not necessarily already in your newsroom. Wander around, visit the technology and IT departments and you are likely to strike gold. It is also important to appreciate coder culture, come across someone who has a computer that looks like the one here…

Here are a few more ideas:

Post on job websites

Identify and post to websites aimed at developers who work in different programming languages. For example, the Python Job Board.

Contact relevant mailing lists

For example, the NICAR-L and Data Driven Journalism mailing lists.

Contact relevant organizations

For example, if you want to clean up or scrape data from the web, you could contact an organzation such as Scraperwiki, who have a great address book of trusted and willing coders.

Join relevant groups/networks

Look out for initiatives such as Hacks/Hackers which bring journalists and techies together. Hacks/Hackers groups are now springing up all around the world. You could also try posting something to their jobs newsletter.

Local interest communities

You could try doing a quick search for an area of expertise in your area (e.g. ‘javascript’ + ‘london’). Sites such as can also be a great place to start.

Hackathons and competitions

Whether or not there is prize money available: app and visualization competitions and development days are often fruitful ground for collaboration and making connections.

Ask a geek

Geeks hang around with other geeks. Word of mouth is always a good way to find good people to work with.

Once you’ve found a hacker, how do you know if they are any good? We asked Alastair Dant, the Guardian’s Lead Interactive Technologist, for his views on how to spot a good one:

They code the full stack

When dealing with deadlines, it’s better to be a jack of all trades than a master of one. News apps require data wrangling, dynamic graphics and derring-do.

They see the whole picture

Holistic thinking favours narrative value over technical detail. I’d rather hear one note played with feeling than unceasing virtuosity in obscure scales. Find out how happy someone is to work alongside a designer.

They tell a good story

Narrative presentation requires arranging things in space and time. Find out what project they’re most proud of and ask them to walk you through how it was built — this will reveal as much about their ability to communicate as their technical understanding.

They talk things through

Building things fast requires mixed teams working towards common goals. Each participant should respect their fellows and be willing to negotiate. Unforeseen obstacles often require rapid re-planning and collective compromise.

They teach themselves

Technology moves fast. It’s a struggle to keep up with. Having met good developers from all sorts of backgrounds, the most common trait is a willingness to learn new stuff on demand.

How To Find Your Dream Developer

The productivity difference between a good and a great developer is not linear, it’s exponential. Hiring well is extremely important. Unfortunately, hiring well is also very difficult. It’s hard enough to vet candidates if you are not an experienced technical manager. Add to that the salaries that news organzations can afford to pay, and you’ve got quite a challenge.

At Tribune, we recruit with two angles: an emotional appeal and a technical appeal. The emotional appeal is this: Journalism is essential to a functioning democracy. Work here and you can change the world. Technically, we promote how much you’ll learn. Our projects are small, fast and iterative. Every project is a new set of tools, a new language, a new topic (fire safety, the pension system) that you must learn. The newsroom is a crucible. I’ve never managed a team that has learned so much, so fast, as our team.

As for where to look, we’ve had great luck finding great hackers in the open government community. The Sunlight Labs mailing list is where do-gooder nerds with shitty day jobs hang out at night. Another potential resource is Code for America. Every year, a group of fellows emerges from CfA, looking for their next big project. And as a bonus, CfA has a rigorous interview process — they’ve already done the vetting for you. Nowadays, programming-interested journalists are also emerging from journalism schools. They’re green, but they’ve got tons of potential.

Lastly, it’s not enough to just hire developers. You need technical management. A lone-gun developer (especially fresh from journalism school, with no industry experience) is going to make many bad decisions. Even the best programmer, when left to her own devices, will choose technically interesting work over doing what’s most important to your audience. Call this hire a news applications editor, a project manager, whatever. Just like writers, programmers need editors, mentorship and somebody to wrangle them towards making software on deadline.

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