Career Interview with Jenna Dolecek

What is it like to work in the human rights field? What skills would you need to be successful? And, how would you land a job? Find out in this career interview. Jenna gives great tips and provides valuable insights about her career journey.

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Where do you work now and what exactly is it that you do?

I am an Open Source Information Analyst for a human rights organization.

Can you tell me more about the industry that you are working in?

I work in the human rights and humanitarian law field where we collect, investigate, and analyze open source content for possible human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. 

What skills, knowledge, and background are required to work in your industry?

The great thing about the OSINT community is that it is highly collaborative so, no single person needs to know everything about the field. For my specific field, it is a hybrid of having advanced knowledge of humanitarian and human rights law as well as experience in carrying out conflict research, geospatial analysis, and digital investigation.

However, I have colleagues who come from security, intelligence, law enforcement, legal, and data science backgrounds so all of our skills and knowledge complement each other which is why collaboration is very important in our work. Besides background knowledge and technical skills, writing skills are also important. The ability to write a technical report or guide as well as narratives can be crucial depending on your role.

In your view, what are the top skills/attributes to have for becoming successful in your area?

For technical skills, satellite imagery analysis, social media investigation, technical and narrative writing, as well as knowledge of human rights, serious international crimes, conflict, and humanitarian crises. For interpersonal skills, being supportive, patient, open minded, receptive to constructive criticism, collaborative, and having a willingness to learn are vital.

Where and how did you land your first job?

My first open source research position was with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). I saw the job post and reached out to my network to see if anyone worked there and then asked for advice on the application and interview process.

A colleague of mine tagged a friend who was an employee and she gave me valuable insight into the process. Don’t be afraid to use your network or even message people on LinkedIn. You would be surprised how helpful and supportive strangers in your network/field are.

I also did volunteer work on a few projects, one of which I found in a post on r/OSINT, the Tibet Research Project. The coordinator of that project, Tom Jarvis, helped me land another volunteer position the Ocelli Project, which in turn helped me get my first paid human rights OSINT position which was with the Centre for Information Resilience. That position helped me land my current position, which has been a goal of mine for 10 years. This goes to show how using your network and knowing the right people can help. Although unpaid work is not ideal, it can also be incredibly valuable in the long run. I met amazing people, learned new skills, and it catapulted my career. 

Looking back at how you started and where you are today, what advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a similar career or even transition to the field you are working in?

First, be patient. After I graduated with my Master of Laws (LLM), it took me 5 years to get a paid position in my field. For years I asked myself what I was doing wrong or what I lacked compared to others and I realized that this field was so new there just weren’t many paid positions yet. I also optimistically and naively thought I would have work right out of school, which I know many can relate to. It can take time to find the right field or area, the right organization, the right position, and so on. Being in the right place at the right time by having the right position come available when you are looking makes a difference.

Second, I began working with career coach Claire Mahon, who is incredibly knowledgeable about the human rights field and hiring practices. I absolutely credit her help with advancing my career.

Third, if you’re not already, get on LinkedIn. This is where you can connect with the right people. Recruiters want to see that you know the right people in your field and that you are also active in it. You don’t need to post things daily, but post things of interest to your field, interact with what others’ content, write articles, share content, etc. Using the right hashtags will also help your content be seen by more people as well as joining groups.

After I posted something useful or interesting with multiple hashtags, I would see a huge spike in my post and profile views. Don’t be afraid to message people that have worked or are working in a position you want. Ask questions about their day to day, their favorite and least favorite parts of the job, how they work with their supervisor, their supervisor’s management style, etc. Approach job hunting like an investigation, do research on your target - the organization, their projects, the person who currently has the job you want, or the person that will become your supervisor, and so on.

One rookie mistake I made while job hunting was not keeping up on job posts enough. I would go back and find a position that I wanted had closed when I never saw the post go up. Make a habit of regularly checking job postings (at least once per week, if not almost daily) and set up email alerts for LinkedIn, Indeed, organization websites, or job boards.

Finally, if you don’t know it, go learn it. Use your time to brush up on certain skills or learn new ones. If you’re transitioning, then start researching and learning about your new field, try to get a leg up and impress your interviewers. Go follow their social media and interact with it.

Is there a kind of project you want to work on, but no one is doing it? Then start it yourself! You will also gain experience on what it is like to run your own investigation and collaborate with others. This is how I got my first volunteer gig, someone posted about a project they created on their own and needed help. That post changed my career. 

If you were to hire people in your team, what would you look for?

Someone who is supportive of others, willing to learn, can take constructive criticism, who can be part of a team, who is driven, who can put their biases aside as best as possible, who wants to see their colleagues succeed, and who just wants to try and do good by those we aim to help. Sometimes, someone can be amazing at one technical skill but lacks the rest, I would probably not continue with that person.

I would rather someone have less technical knowledge but possess all the other interpersonal skills because technical things can be taught, it is hard to teach humility, cooperation, respect, neutrality, and so on.

Looking at your career, is there anything you would do differently today if you had the chance to travel back in time?

I try to look at everything as something to learn from, whether good or bad. If I hadn’t taken some of my non-OSINT related jobs, there would be things I wouldn’t have learned or experienced such as certain interpersonal skills, non-technical skills, how to enforce work-life boundaries, what a bad manager is like, what type of environment you want to work in, what your strengths are, and what you want out of a job.

I appreciate the roundabout path I took to get where I am, a lot of my experience that seems completely irrelevant to the job I have now has come in very handy in interesting ways.

Where and how do you develop yourself professionally?

Any websites or organizations that offer free courses, and not just OSINT-related ones, but non-technical like interpersonal skills or writing. I follow the social media of organizations like Digital Forensic Research Lab, Bellingcat, Myanmar Witness, Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab, UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Investigations Lab, and University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, all of which offer OSINT learning content, courses, and boot camps in addition to sending out volunteer crowdsourcing requests. A few years ago, I joined Amnesty Decoders to assist them with various human rights related open source projects. For those interested in open source and international criminal law, there’s IICI courses.

Don’t hesitate to ask your colleagues or network for help in learning something new.

Are there any websites, books, podcasts, or anything else that you would recommend for professional development (does not have to be OSINT related)?

Join all the OSINT groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, r/OSINT, or elsewhere. Watch Bellingcat and Ben Strick’s OSINT tutorials on Bellingcat’s site, Ben’s LinkedIn, Youtube, or Twitter. Participate in Trace Labs’ Search party, Europol’s Trace an Object, or take a course through Advocacy Assembly or First Draft. Also, read Digital Witness by Daragh Murray, Sam Dubberely, and Alexa Koenig, We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins, as well as this collection of articles in the Journal of International Criminal Justice. If you love human rights OSINT or #OSINTforgood, don’t be afraid to dive in!


[note: this interview has not been edited]