Interview:Kavya Sukumar(CSE-2006)

Please state your current profile and explain your profile. If applicable, help us understand any previous profiles you’ve worked for.
I am an editorial engineer at It is one of those titles that can mean a lot of different things. It is confusing even within the journalism community.
My job is to bring engineering skills — especially data and web development skills — to stories. Engineers in newsrooms work on finding stories in large data sets and then on presenting them in the best possible manner with data visualizations, maps, etc. With good web development skills, you can elevate a story on the web by improving the user experience with custom design, features, and presentation. It can be something as simple as a bookmark feature that keeps track of your progress in a longform story or extreme design overhaul to drive home the point (and in this case the bizarre nature) of the story.
My job is a great mix of journalism and coding, both of which I love.

What skills should one develop to follow the career path you’ve chosen? Do include courses, software, coding, internships etc.
I started my career as a developer at Microsoft. But I always was drawn to journalism. When I heard about a program at Northwestern University that offers people with technology background scholarships to study journalism, I applied. I got a Master’s in Journalism to top up my B. Tech in Computer Science & Engineering.
Though that is how I ended up in a newsroom, it is not the only path. A degree in journalism is not a requirement.
Newsrooms often deal with large datasets. You need a person with good tech skills as well as solid news judgement to find stories in the data. It is important to know and understand the ethical considerations of being a reporter.
Another difference in working in a newsroom is the pace at which things move. Most of our projects have a turnaround time of a few days to a few weeks. Being able to deliver under the pressure of tight deadlines is a must-have survival trait.

What are the soft skills to be acquired in work culture?
Growing up in India, I was barely ever the only engineer in the room at any workplace or social gathering. It was a culture shock when I started my first newsroom job as a Data & Interactives Editor for The Palm Beach Post’s investigative team. I found myself having to explain things like DNS entries, SQL indices and table joins, etc. in lay terms. It really tested my understanding of concepts I had taken for granted. I really had to work on removing tech jargon from my everyday vocabulary.
Something else that I had to work on was my interviewing skills. I am an introvert who isn’t comfortable walking up to strangers and striking up a conversation. I learnt a lot from listening to some of the more experienced reporters conduct their interviews. It is amazing how much people tell you if you listen. You don’t have to be an extrovert. Just be a good listener who knows how to steer the conversation.

How permanent is any choice of career? Do you think one should stick to a particular field or keep changing and experimenting as they grow in the industry?
I think career is a very personal choice. If you are happy doing what you do, feel sufficiently challenged and fairly compensated, stick to your job. However, if you are like me who gets stir crazy staying put in a place, move around. Find things that interest you, fail at something, and have fun with it.

How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?
I think what one might consider good career changes with time. A good career is one that fits well with your priorities in life. One that doesn’t make you sacrifice things that you care about. And that can be anything from your choice of technology or field of work and location or money you make the time you get to spend outside of work. Avoid burnouts.
This may seem like a cop-out answer. There are many ways to pick your path. It is difficult to be prescriptive about such a personal decision. My north star these days is a simple question of “Would I want to get out of bed on a Monday morning for this job?”

What is the extent one should go to find a balance between work satisfaction and monetary satisfaction?
When I switched to journalism, I took a significant pay cut. But I feel more challenged and satisfied at the end of the day. Striking a balance between financial and work satisfaction is again a personal choice.
Not many of us can afford to take up an unpaid internship. But sometimes we all have to take temporary pay cuts or chose less lucrative career paths. It helps to budget and see what is your absolute non-negotiable bottom line. Have a salary amount in mind and don’t be afraid to discuss that and advocate for yourself in job interviews. Eventually, it all comes down to what your priorities are.

What are some things about your career path you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?
I wish I knew how to negotiate salaries. In college, we treated salary packages as non-negotiable offerings. That is totally understandable when the package is pre-negotiated by T&P. But when you look for your next job, it is an important skill to have.
This one is more of a personal failing. I once regarded moving away from core technology product companies as a betrayal of my engineering background. Though I have reconciled with myself, I still have to often justify my career choice to others. The truth is I code just as much if not more in a newsroom. I get to work on projects from scratch to finish and start all over again next week. The challenges are different but no less technical.

What were the challenges you faced while switching careers?
The biggest challenge was finding a job. Journalism, unlike technology sector, is not brimming with unfilled positions. There are rarely any recruiters breaking down your door to get you a job in a newsroom. Hiring in journalism is broken. It took me 6 months of sending out resumes into career site resume black holes before I landed a job I like.
The other constant challenge is explaining to people what I do. If you switch to journalism, you will spend a large part of your life explaining what you do. And no I do not work on the product code. I write code for news.

Is there an ideal route to shift to a career in journalism from engineering? Any particular courses/fellowships students can take up for this?
I was lucky to be a OpenNews fellow in 2015. After 5 years of fellowships, the program is now on a hiatus. But when they come back, it is an excellent opportunity for an engineer to get hands-on experience in a newsroom.
Develop skills in common newsroom functions like building data visualizations, analyzing data, etc. Find a mentor in the field who is doing work you are interested in. I was pleasantly surprised to see that even the most experienced journalists were kind enough to talk with me and connect me to other people who have helped shape my career in a multitude of ways.
Most importantly, be in the know. Read news and be involved in civic technology projects near you.

Is there something the Training and Placement cell can do which does not even come under its umbrella currently, but is important?
I think T&P could consider inviting companies beyond the usual suspect’s list. Indian companies like Hindustan Time, Scroll. In and now The Indian Express are beefing up their newsroom-engineering divisions.
It would help immensely to hold civic tech hackathons to give students exposure to the kind of work you do in newsrooms.
And lastly, set up an alumni mentorship program that connects students with people in the field doing similar jobs that they want to do in the future.

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