A career in product without the label

The enduring story of this pandemic will be that it had really been a life-changing event for so many of us. For my family, the difficulties we faced triggered a move to the Chicago area—where I grew up.

Being back ‘home’ has been great for reflection—understanding where I started and adding context to the path I’ve walked. In the career context, I’m looking at all the hats I’ve worn and how those would be framed in 2020 context. It occurs to me that I’ve always been in product roles.

That’s always been the catch working at smaller organizations. My own supervisors often didn’t have the industry vocabulary to label the work that I did. I’ve had to seek mentorship, learning and growth from outside the organization. As such, it’s always been hard to label what I do. “Digital” was a great catch-all that described nothing; while “web developer” was the most basic and easily understood path.

In truth, I’m a product leader and I always have been.

Product Highlights in My Career

  • Morris Daily Herald (2006-2010) — We were such a small newsroom and I was hired as a photographer. But they ended up promoting me because I contributed much more:
    • Led a website redesign
    • Led a print redesign
    • On team that launched a magazine
    • Launched a blogging program and a video platform
  • Northwest Herald (2010-2012) — As the lead digital person for a group of newspapers I was often adding new features to the sites.
    • Implementing a mobile-friendly video player
    • Adding photo galleries
    • Creating new home page layouts for breaking news
    • Myriad special projects
    • We won an Editor and Publisher award for best website in the U.S. in our size group. Read about our 2011 blizzard coverage.
  • Election Central (Innovation of the Year, Illinois AP, 2012)
    • A platform for our newsrooms for cover local elections and for our readers to easily explore the candidates.
    • Blog post coming later this year
  • PlanIt! Northwest (Innovation of the Year, Illinois AP, 2013)
    • This was right after the Boston Globe relaunched their website using responsive design, so when I was tasked with designing a new entertainment website I utilized these techniques that are now an industry standard.
  • SimpleElection (2012)
    • Inspired by my newsroom work, I created a website with free embeddable election widgets. Small newsroom could use maps and counters to enhance their coverage. Read more.
    • Enhanced blog post coming later this year
  • Electable (2015)
    • Exploring the next evolution of SimpleElection, I built out an entire product hoping to turn it into my full-time pursuit. But I ultimately just didn’t have the courage to make the jump.
    • Blog post coming in the future.
  • Pew Research Center (2012-2015)
    • I was hired to lead the implementation of a new responsive design front-end development.
    • While there I also built a reusable quiz infrastructure that had a team score-comparison component.
    • We also developed a WordPress plugin that utilized Highcharts.js for easy interactive chart creation.
    • More highlights from my Pew interactive development.
  • FiscalNote state regulation MVP (2015)
    • The sales team wanted to test a market for state regulation watchlists while the engineering team had a long backlog. So I volunteered to build their MVP on WordPress so our product managers could test theories.
  • FiscalNote Whipboard (2016)
  • ONA Build Your Own Ethics Code (2015)
    • I built this, among other work, as a freelancer. It’s continued to be useful to our educator community for years. See the project.
    • Blog post coming later this year
  • Online Journalism Awards (2017)
    • We created a useful tool and archive out of a handful of long text pages. The scope of this program continues to grow from the innovation of this website. See the project. Read more.
    • Additional blog post coming later this year
  • ONA Virtual Event Platform (2020)
    • We’ve now two large and three small virtual conferences on this platform that continues to grow. Read more.

All of these ideas, this research, this user testing and product launching was done under the titles of “web developer” or “digital manager.” It can be expected to wear a lot of hats when you’re on a small team — but it’s important to fight for a title that respected the breadth of those hats.