Cover image for I'm a developer for The Washington Post, ask me anything!

I'm a developer for The Washington Post, ask me anything!

sirjessthebrave profile image Jessica Bell ・1 min read

Hi! I am a developer at The Washington Post. My team builds tools for the newsroom so that journalists can make articles with rich, engaging content. I work primarily on the front end on JavaScript projects. Originally not a techie, I hold a degree in International Relations and taught myself to code after not finding good work in that field. The journey from relative low technical literacy to full time working developer has been... well, hard and interesting. I have some opinions about it all.

I am an active community organizer including sitting as the current Chair for the DC chapter of ACM, helping organize for DC Tech Meetup, DCFemTech, and producing a podcast called DC Tech Stories - check it out!

Currently I am struggling with burn out, how to level up my coding skills without giving my whole life over to side projects, why as a society, we have such a low level of technical literacy, and how to feel like a competent developer while working in imperfect legacy code. I am excited about the future of news media and technology, my upcoming vacation, and fun web storytelling in general.

Ask me anything!

Posted on Oct 26 '17 by:

sirjessthebrave profile

Jessica Bell


I am a developer at The Washington Post and I help build newsroom facing tools. I also am the Chair of the DC chapter of ACM and produce a podcast called DC Tech Stories.


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Hi Jessica! Thanks for doing this AMA!

Starting out in tech can be hard, especially if you don't fit into the stereotypical definition of a developer (young man with a degree in computing). Being a women in computing with a non-engineering degree, have you ever felt imposter syndrome? What was the most significant moment you felt out of place?

Any advice on how to get past the feeling that you don't belong?


Good lord imposter syndrome ALL THE TIME. Usually of my own doing however - I have been SUPER fortunate to not have too much shade for being a woman in tech - I have seen it, but not had much directed at me, small things but nothing I cant nip in the bud.

The harder thing is convincing myself that I am not a terrible dev haha - I put A LOT of pressure to know everything, and progress quickly but that is just not the realities of tech. I try to reflect on all the things I HAVE learned to contextualize my own PERSONAL tech journey. That and I have an amazing group of technical women in the DC Tech scene lifting me up which makes a big difference!


Also, I wanted to congratulate you. I saw you were awarded one of DCA's "New Power Women of DC Tech" this year! I swear I'm not stalking you but I recognized you from the event they held earlier in October.

Oh thank you! I have been SO honored this year to be recognized by a few orgs - it makes me feel like I really do belong in tech and people appreciate my work :)

Speaking of the DC tech scene, what's it like? Is it mostly journalism and politics? How's the meetup and/or conference culture from what you know?

Not Jessica but I work as a dev in DC as well. I'm in the political space. There's a ton of consulting jobs in DC for government agencies or third party government service providers. Security is another hot tech industry in the DC area. There are a ton of tech groups here in DC and like Jessica mentioned, there's great opportunities to get into tech from other industries. Organizations like General Assembly, DC Tech, DC Inno are great communities to meet fellow developers and network.

Yeah that makes perfect sense, thanks for the input!

The Tech scene here is actually really varied. Stand outs are journalism, security, government work, but there are lots of startups that are consumer facing, agencies, and design focused places too! Quite a bit bigger tech scene than people give it credit for IMO!

Journalism and Politics are some of the smaller industries for tech in DC in my experience. Government contracting / consulting is a huge industry, but there are also a number of large companies and startups in the commercial space. At this point it's achieved critical mass and the sector continues to expand and get more active.

AWS is in Herndon. AOL is out there too near Dulles. Capital One and a number of others in McLean, VA. Large professional services firms and systems integrators all over the area. Large number of startups, both gov contracting but also security, SaaS, etc. A vibrant meetup scene with something for everyone.

Pick your mission - lots of opportunities.


Thanks for doing this AMA! I also feel your struggles, especially "leveling up coding skills w//o giving your whole life to side projects."

Something I recently realized thanks to @sehurlburt is that it's okay to just learn from the job and not spend all of my time in side projects. That said, I still have some ideas I want to implement and some random "oh, wouldn't it be cool to learn or do xyz?" and want to follow through on those thoughts.

Anyway as a former bootcamper, I'm really grateful for having the chance to go through one. I'm personally not the biggest fan of bootcamps, and I certainly did get what I needed out of it to get a job. I strongly believe that the "getting the job" part was more what I did + lots of luck than the bootcamp itself. What was your path to being a full time developer, and are there any reflections and general thoughts you want to share for anyone else looking to "be a developer?"


Of course! I am happy to share my experiences :)

I am also a bootcamper - but a part time one, not an immersive one. I was working at a foundation doing a bunch of communications stuff, including managing a wordpress site. I learned REALLY quickly that I didn't know how to communicate with developers AND stuff was pretty simple to do my self once I learned - so that started me on learning more about the web and websites. After about 6 months of learning I took a part time General Assembly front end web dev course. After that I loved it so much I decided to try my hand at front end web dev and got a job. It's been ups and downs in web dev ever sense :)

I have mixed feelings about bootcamps. For me, it took my learning over the plateau I was experiencing - I do WAY better with in person learning so it was invaluable to have a teacher and ta's to directly ask questions and work on problems with. GA also has a strong community in DC so the network has helped me get jobs. I DO feel that they over promise - no one is going to be a developer in 10 weeks... BUT you will learn the language and context to take your learning to a new level. I learned how to learn web dev basically. Now I am 3 years in and looking to level up - and unfortunately there does not seem to be a ton of classes for that mid level dev - things like best practices in architecture, building a WHOLE program vs. filling in functions/features - that is a HARD plateau to get over... I do consider myself a developer, since I work in code every day, and you don't need a CS degree to be a programmer, however I do with there was some better resources to get the things you miss out on in a fast paced, focused bootcamp.


Totally agree! I think you articulated some rock solid points like "learning to learn web dev" and how it's hard for mid level devs to learn more (I am definitely not mid level -- ...yet -- but can totally relate to the difficulty of leveling up).

I guess the tried and true way of learning is just to code, build, code side projects, but ugh burnout is too real sometimes.

Do you find that having senior developers around you often helps a lot? Any thoughts on mentorship in general?

I have been SO lucky to have multiple people who have served as mentors - right now I have two amazing senior devs, Andrew Frye and Thomas Lincoln. They are always happy to hep me with ANY issue. One thing I ask of them it to always contextualize the problem they are solving so I can learn to to it myself next time. When I first started out I had an specific mentor - Mitchell Shelton, he was so important to teaching me HOW to be a good mentee - ask direct questions, never lie when you're lost, and never let them 'do it for you'. On top of that my partner is a techie with a CS degree so I get an on demand resource whenever I want (#loveYouBabe). Asking for help, coming with an open mind, and leaving your ego at the door - these things make me a good mentee which I believe helps people want to help me (Plus I'm funny hah)

Hah humor helps πŸ™ƒ

Great points about being a mentee. Oooooh do I have a lot to learn...

Also, having an on demand resource is so damn helpful! That's great that your partner is available and willing.

We're life partners for that and many other reasons :P shout out to my boo!!


What were the 'signals' that made you feel ready to start applying for jobs?


What's it like working for The Washington Post?! I'm curious about how the culture has evolved over the last few years.


So I have only been at the post since Jan, so can't answer how it's changed over the years but right now it really varies team to team. I have a SUPER awesome team with really nice senior devs and an amazing technical manager so I am pretty happy :) It can be challenging to keep up with all the things here and deal with technical debt but the people make it fun/easy.

Signals for feeling ready? Honestly I was TERRIFIED... I didn't think I was ready but my GA TA, my partner who is a dev, and other people in my life in tech told me just to do it and see what came back. So I build a little portfolio site, made a resume, and started... I had a few REALLY bad interviews, but then a few REALLY good ones too :P


What was the interview process at Washington Post like?

I had an initial chat with people working in the post - I was talking to them already for some of the community organizing stuff that I do when they asked me to sit with a few people re. job. I was not looking at the time but was curious so sat down! After the first convo I talked for about an hour with my current manager and senior dev regarding their projects and culture. I spend about 3 hrs at the offices meeting with various people and chatting code - it was very laid back, more a conversation than a test/interview.

I know SOME teams do code tests/take home exercises but I did not have a specific one other than chatting back and forth about experience and tech


OOH! I'm a GA WDI Grad too! I'm assuming you did your program in DC?

YUP! FEWD 7! ie: mega-fewd hahaha


At WaPo it REALLY depends on the team. In my team we actually support quite a few apps, mostly in angular, some using TypeScript, some not... other teams have the ability to choose their own stacks that fit their specific projects. My personal job is 90% JavaScript tho!


How does The Washington Post think about web vs native, AMP, Instant Articles, etc? What direction is the organization going with these platforms?


So I am in the odd position of being an internal facing developer so I don't know much about the front facing part of WaPo. My team builds tools for the newsroom. Each team usually has ownership over their own particular section - we have a whole big native team, a team that works on WaPo.com, a team focused on analytics, a paywall team, and if something like Instant Articles becomes popular, either a new team will form, or existing teams will lend out devs (short or long term, it varies). There is a hierarchy structure of upwards reporting from these teams into upper engineering management that drives strategy. Does that kind of answer your question?


Yeah that makes sense. What are some of the problems you're typically working to solve as an internal-facing dev?

Reporters want to make their articles more content more engaging so they use our tools to do things like add user polls or context notes - here is an example: washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2017/09/1...

My team was part of the collaboration to make a tools for journalists to make context notes attached into their articles - we had to make it look good and work on wapo.com AND make the internal editor easy for journalists to use ;)


How intertwined are the technical and editorial teams?


SO! Engineering had some teams that are very close to the newsroom and many who are not. We also have developers on the editorial side in our graphics dept which work VERY closely on specific projects and stories. Most of the engineers will have some contact with the news room but not editorial or story/content. My team supports tools for the news room so I will occasionally go and help journalists who need help with our tools and our PMs are always working with the newsroom to define and decide features to add into our suite.


That's great to hear. I have some friends in journalism and sometimes the dev team is a silo'd group who don't really care about the editorial side and vice versa.

I think SOME teams for sure are and some aren't - ranges a lot


Hello Jessica! Are you building tools that are only available to WaPo's journalist? What's it like building internal tools compare to other forms of software? What is the release cycle like?


MOST of our tools are internal only. We are working to get some integrated with Arc, the WaPo client platform that is licensed out to other publications. That is kinda a new thing (us having integrated tools) so we are still figuring out how releases will go! Internally, we do springs on one specific goal (ie: redesign of the styles of one specific tool) and will do a release after that and move on to the next... all while supporting bugs for all tools #tiring


Can you expand a little bit on the tools that you and your team create for the newsroom and journalists? Who comes up with the ideas? How long does it typically take to go from idea to execution?

Finally β€” are there any live examples that you're particularly proud of?

Thanks for doing this AMA!


This is our latest too and I think it is AWESOME: washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2017/09/1...

I have been here since Jan so I am not a big part of the priority setting for our team. Some of our work are hot fixes and are deployed ALL the time, some take months of prep, planning, and dedicated sprints, I would say a 50/50 mix of those two things.


What's the process for getting a hot fix into production?

Depends on the team and tool (can I copy and past that to every answer hahah). Most of the time it's branch off master, fix bug, deploy to QA/testing site, test again, get your PR approved by whatever teams are involved, deploy to master, deal with the cache :)


Hi Jessica! Thanks so much for doing this. As a relatively fresh developer who just moved to the area, I'm excited to check out the resources/meetup group you listed as being an organizer for. Beyond those, do you have any other recommendations for meetups or groups in the area? Thanks!


DC Tech Slack is awesome, DC Tech Meetup if you're into startup life.. meetup.com in general has a PLETHORA of language/tech specific groups and depending on your background/identity there are lots of women/PoC focussed groups (women who code, black code collective, DCFemTech, Color Coded ect).


Hi Jess! Thanks for sharing DC Tech stuff on Twitter and the DC Tech slack. It's definitely been helpful in joining the community!

What would you say was the toughest aspect of finding your first developer job?


My own fear hahah - I was SO afraid of the code interview and afraid people would just SLAM me for not knowing everything. That happened maybe twice in my 20 ish first interviews.. most people if you go in with honesty and a positive attitude will give that back to you... also if you are all smiles and willingness to learn, they look like big jerks for shaming you for not knowing something.

Now, I think the junior market is a TAD flooded so that can be hard in getting your first job... grit through it!!


I think that's been a big challenge of mine. I look at the code and think "that's not even possible!" only to step back and realize it totally is. I just completed a code challenge for WaPo, so maybe we'll cross paths soon!

Do you have any tips on "beating the blackhole" when it comes to job portals?

Oh awesome! Good luck!

there is no 'beating the blackhole' unless you have an internal contact. Maybe find their twitter accounts and tweet that you applied? mine linked in for contacts? the blackhole job form is the WORST!!!


Being that you're a major organizer in the DC Tech space, how does The Washington Post help you in your efforts to better the community??


That has been one of the BEST parts of working here - WaPo JUMPED on my community involvement, providing space to many of my groups such as DC Tech Meetup, DCFemTech, InnoMAYtion, Tech Lady Hackathon, ACM, DCJS, ect - they have been so supportive of building a community and making sure there is equal representation in the tech scene - shout out to Lisa Dubler and Austin Graff as well as the amazing team at WaPo who volunteer to make these events come to life


If there was one thing you wish everyone had some tech literacy about, what would it be?


Understanding that tech wont solve your problem. Tech is a tool to make your solution automated, but if you dont have your solution solved - tech is not gonna solve it for you!


Does the Washington Post use CSS grid or bootstrap? How is the layout handled?


Depends on the team. So much of the WaPo.com pages are served from different teams so sometimes the page will use a specific css grid or bootstrap, sometimes they wont. We use an internal 'CMS' that builds these pages so they handle much of the general layout - they do have their own css guide that they follow. Much of my work is internal so we use boostrap. I personally am a huge bootstrap hater but thats my opinion :P


Thanks Jessica! It'd be cool to dump bootstrap, but it's so convenient :)

I knoooooooowwwwww.... for seniors and back end devs I'm like go for it... if you're a junior or front end, you need to be able to do that kinda stuff on your own - no grid will substitute learning the tricks of vanilla CSS layout


Any CSS frameworks or methodologies you'd like to recommend for dev.to as we attempt to overhaul the whole thing?

I am not a fan of CSS frameworks - I think they get in the way. HOWEVER if you do want one for getting things done quickly that bootstrap is as good as any of them ! I recommend a starting point (normalizer, bootstrap ect) then using sass to keep whatever styles are specific to your site clean and plop them right on top (kinda like Dev.to boostrap!)


Hi Jess,
Making stuff with javascript is cool right? But Learning programming with javascript is a little bit tricky, because you can start doing "crazy stuff" with only spaghetti code right? How can a javascript developer can be a really good programmer?Not just throwing some spaghetti code in there?


For me, it has been about trying to FORCE myself to standards, using linters, and generally making my code as readable as possible with simple small functions and excessive use of comments and whitespace formatting. I struggle with architecture being on the newer side of things but I KNOW I can leave my code clean, formatted and commented. That and working really closely with my team to agree on a format and architecture and sticking to it.


I am not American, but it's difficult to not be aware of the political context in the country right now :)

Does it affect you, your team or your work in any way? I am curious if the social context has an influence on your day-to-day work, especially in this field.


As a developer - not really, our work is not tied to the news cycle the way teams like the pay wall (when major disasters happen the lift the paywall) or editorial is. I personally am a highly political person so that does come into play with my personal feelings but through the work no..


do you have programmatic textual access to all washington posts articles ever published? are they stored digitally indefinitely?


oh, that is a good question - I actually don't know. I do not have programmatic access to all article though.. not 100% sure how/were they are stored (we use an internally build CMS to manage the creation and publishing of articles on WaPo.com)


Do you have a sense of how being a Jeff Bezos-owned entity affects the organization in terms of technical approach?


Bezos is not a part of general WaPo operations. His name and purchase has helped to dive the post into the tech world, but generally I don't see/feel his influence much. Internally our engineering team has a pretty scrappy try anything spirit, but that seemed to have already been here, perhaps bolstered by Bezos :)


How does the WaPo dev team inject political discussions into decision? Are there ethical lines the technical team tries to keep in mind with their technology?


Not that I have experienced - much of our work is about providing tools to journalists regardless of the stories they are working on. The ONE time we did have little discussions is how to roll out a specific tool - maybe don't roll out a new tool on a hot button topic before it has been THROUGHLY tested in a low stakes section - we as the tech team would not want journalists to get slammed b/c our tool accidentally served pages wrong, or injected something that should not be in a certain article...


Does the Washington Post use bots to write articles? If so, are there guidelines for how bots can and can't be used?


There is a tool that does headline generation but that is usually for things like local sports games where you have a general template used every time defeated in : to . I don't know if that is used in other places and since I don't deal with editorial side I am not aware of rules/regulations regarding this.


Does anything set WaPo apart from other publications wrt charging for content, paywalls, etc? Have you found that the needs of running a business (namely, making money) affect (interfere, even) with the work you do?


Actually I don't touch ANY of that. 100% of my time is for coding on my specific teams suite of apps - I'm not involved in strategy, business, or any of that :) . We have an Engineering team of 250-300 devs - I am assuming SOME of them are involved with that but not me!


Your answers have been super interesting to read! I'm a fan of the WaPo and I guess it never occurred to me that they'd be a great employer too. Sounds like they are though! Any chance you're hiring remotely? ;)

I just have to ask since you put it out there and no one has asked yet - where are you going on your upcoming vacation and what are you most excited about seeing/doing/eating while you're there?


Aw I am glad you are enjoying them! Yah WaPo is great! Check out careers.washpost.com for opening and tweet @washpostlife :)

I am going to Japan!!!!! I am going to eat so much ramen it's not even funny. Looking forward to our stay at the traditional royken in the mountains!!


I will definitely check out the careers page, but OMG your trip sounds amazing! If you haven't watched Mind of a Chef (season 1 with David Chang), do so before you leave. I have never wanted to eat ramen so badly in my life until I watched that show!

Sounds good! I have been watching Midnight Cafe which is AWESOME... so pumped for it!!


Hi. I've been applying for jobs recently on the search for my 1st web development job. I have a B.S. in electrical engineering and 3.5 years programming Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) in a factory automation setting. QUESTION: Do you have any good advice for interviewing? So far I've heard "by yourself and if you don't know the answer to a question, be open and honest. Also, show that you're passionate and interested in the job." -- Besides that advice, do you have any other advice? I really want to work in this industry badly and I've been lucky enough to have a couple of interviews so far.


NETWORK. All my tech jobs I got through contacts. Second - present your information in a simple clear way - contextualize your side projects or code samples, list clearly your set of skills and state what you are learning/trying to get experience in. Simplicity and easy of scanning is important :) . Good luck!! Grit through that terrible job hunting time - it SUX but there is no good answer other than grit through!


Awesome. Great answer! Really appreciate the timely and thorough response. Congrats on working for The Washington Post, by the way!

Thanks! It's quite fun here :) Good luck with your hunt!


Hi Jessica!

You mentioned that you're excited about the future of news media and technology, I am too! What do you imagine as the next big tech innovation in relation to media (or what would you like to see)?

On another note, how do you feel about the growing popularity of crowd sourced news via things like Twitter or Instagram?


next big innovation hmm... since I am focused on newsroom tools I actually thing there are a lot of opportunities there to use tech to help journalists create SUPER engaging pieces - things like our context project(washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2017/09/1...) allow journalists to provide context to people who are new to a particular topic to understand more fully the news and those who already know this topic to ignore it - that can help a lot with big complex issues with LOTS of players and inputs.

I like the fact that news is crowdsourced in that it gives journalists access to MANY more sources and inputs but I worry about people forgetting the importance of WELL RESEARCHED articles by journalists who take bias, and ethics very seriously. Its a good input but not a replacement by ANY means for well done jouranlism


The Washington Post article today on the "Afghanistan Papers"...how the box of text rolls over the pictures when the first opened...I have never seen that(I am a relative newbie to JS)..but is that javascript, and if so what technology....thanks.




Thanks for doing this AMA.

At my office, we are currently going through a period of growth, and are looking at our organizational structure & culture, and trying to make sure we are set up for success. There is a debate as to whether our developers should rotate through different projects, and get a wide range of experience on the different things our office works on, or should the developers stay on one project. I'm curious how it's handled at WaPo: do developers rotate through different teams, or do people generally stay on one team for long periods (i.e. multiple years)? Does it seem to be working for you, or do you think there's a better way?


People do change teams here but TBH we are too large I am not sure that would work. I like that idea in theory, keeps your documentation up to date, and your code clean and readable OR if standards aren't followed you could have angry devs and messy ass code... kinda depends on if you leave your devs time to ramp up, clean code, and enforce standards, or if you are highly deadline driving and are going to force devs to work as a faster pace to get up and running, learn the environment, and standards ignored b/c of a deadline - i suggest being honest with yourself about the business culture :)


Hi Jessica.
Playing videos automatically when a user just enters your site is a pain in the ass. I know it's a business decision,but can you tell whoever made it that it sucks and people get out of the page when they see it?


hahaha yah I bet - I am not a part of the external facing decision team but I'm sure they had a reason... (I am an auto video playing hater too !)


How do you think people will monetize their free web apps, sites and blogs once Adblock becomes ubiquitous (its on its way there)?


Probably depends on where their actual revenue stream is coming from - ads? selling data? ect... hard to tell!


Greetings Jess!

You talked about different teams handling different tasks like a team for native, a team for the website, an analytics team etc. How many members does one team particularly have? Do they all use the same JS framework or different tools? And I am curious to know more about the internal CMS Washington Post uses.

Thank You.


Varies from team to team - I am on a small team (4 devs, 2-3 pms, 1 design, 1 manager) but some teams are much bigger. Each team can set their technology stack so there is some variance between teams. The internal CMS platform is actually much more than that - there are MANY tools that go into making WaPo.com from an editorial workflow tool, paywall, analytics, various embeds and plug ins ect. That is kinda our secret sauce that sets us a part as both a journalistic leader AND a tech forward company!


ha ha - I am actually surprised I didn't get any fake news comments! I got two on twitter but seems people here are a little nicer lol


In speaking, do you refer to Washington Post as WaPo or "The Washington Post"? What about the rest of the staff?


we usually say WaPo... gets tiring saying/writing the whole thing out haha but officially we are The Washington Post :P