Simon Willison - Data Journalism, The Importance of Side Projects


Simon Willison is a JSK Journalism Fellow. When selected as a fellow he was an engineering director at Eventbrite. He originally joined Eventbrite through its acquisition of Lanyrd, a Y Combinator-funded company he co-founded in 2010. Simon has made huge leaps in data journalism.

Simon is a co-creator of the Django Web Framework. He has also been blogging about web development, programming and data journalism since 2002 at

Simon is the creator of Datasette, a new tool for publishing structured data as a web API. Datasette is based on Simon’s experiences working as a data journalist at the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom. One of Simon’s projects included the Guardian’s crowdsourcing application for analyzing expense claims by members of Parliament.

If you are enjoying our content, click here to support us!

A word from Grant

One of the things we’re trying to highlight on Develomentor is people who have carved out their own path in tech. This isn’t done by zigging when everyone is zagging, but by fitting a bunch of job pieces together into a career puzzle.

Today’s guest has done just that by first getting a degree in computer science, then by working as a web developer and data journalist for a number of years, before starting his own company, Lanyrd, which he sold to Eventbrite. Simon also worked for Yahoo!, The Guardian News, and been an independent consultant.

If that’s not enough, he’s one of the co-creators of Django, which stands as one of the most popular Python-based web development frameworks available.

These days, Simon is getting back to his data journalism and columnist roots as a JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. Here, Simon is creating a new data visualization and storytelling framework called Datasette. Stay tuned as we check in with Simon Willison!

-—Grant Ingersoll


These days python is used for data science. None of that tooling existed back then. The website of python was very nascent. People were still figuring out ‘whats the best way to build things with python’?

You can use software engineering skills to help tell stories and to help break the news.

“My wife and I got married in 2010 and we decided that we’d quit our jobs and go off traveling as long as we could. We’d take laptops and see if there were freelancing clients we could work with.”

The idea we had was to help our friends figure out which conferences to go to. We’d realized that we’ve been missing great events because even word of mouth wasn’t strong enough.

We applied for Y Combinator from Egypt. We have a 1 minute video where we pitch our startup where we’ve got Temples in the background.

My plan for the rest of my career is to try to find that oscillation. To spend some time doing strategic engineering, research and development, and spend some time managing teams.

—Simon Willison

Key Milestones

  1. What inspired Simon to get into tech and pursue it both at University and as a career?
  2. Internships and gap years are more common in the UK then they are in the US. The university experience is a little bit different.
  3. Simon’s year-long internship was in Lawrence, Kansas. That was his first taste of America.
  4. What is data journalism?
  5. Django was built as a content management system for a newspaper during his internship. Later on it was added to the open source library.
  6. Why was Simon attracted to writing and data journalism?
  7. Simon also co-founded Lanyrd, a social network focused on conferences and attendees. This idea started off as a side project between Simon and his wife!
  8. What it was like to go from being a Y-combinator backed startup to selling to EventBrite?
  9. What’s a JSK Journalism Fellow, and what is the day-to-day?
  10. Explanation of Simon’s newest tool, Datasette.

Additional Resources

What is a content management system (CMS)? -

One of Simon’s side projects Owls Near Me -

Learn more about the Django Project -

The Pendulum Approach - by Charity Majors -

Charity Majors on Develomentor -

Check out Simon’s newest side project Datasette -

The Manager’s path -

Ask a manager blog -