William & Mary

The significant digits of Walter Hickey

  • Walter Hickey '12
    Walter Hickey '12  is the the lead lifestyle writer for FiveThirtyEight, a website that uses statistical analysis to tell compelling stories about elections, politics, sports, science, economics and entertainment.  Photo by Chris Taggert
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The following story first appeared in the winter 2016 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. The original article, which may be found here, contains several footnotes - Ed.

Let’s start with a number.

A dollar amount. $4.99. That’s what a Walter’s Grilled Cheese at Williamsburg’s College Delly will cost you. As Walter himself points out, it is the cheaper of the two grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu. But who is Walter and why are we eating his cheese?

Walter is Walter Hickey ’12, not only of grilled cheese fame, but the lead lifestyle writer for FiveThirtyEight, a website that uses statistical analysis to tell compelling stories about elections, politics, sports, science, economics and entertainment.

Since grilled white, rye or wheat bread with American, Swiss or provolone isn’t going to tell you much about anything, we must go a little deeper into Hickey’s own significant digits to meet the man behind the sandwich.

4 years (at W&M)

“The big underlying story of my life is that athletics and me do not get along super well.”

Lucky for Hickey. It was his lack of athletic ability that would eventually set him up for literary glory and grilled cheese greatness.

But let’s back up. Hickey was born in New York, attended an elite-football high school in New Jersey where he ran the debate team, had a perpetually messy bedroom and was surrounded by a family of Villanovians. Having gone to an all-boys Catholic high school, the opportunity to go to a public college was appealing to him. “I wanted to try something new,” Hickey says. “William & Mary was really a definitive change of scenery. I liked the distance. It was close enough where I was still on the eastern seaboard, but far enough away where I felt like this was something different.”

While going through the college admissions process, Hickey was considering becoming a doctor, although that wasn’t always his dream. “Clearly, everyone starts out with an opening bid of dinosaur scientist,” says Hickey. “But then moving on from the third grade, I decided to broaden my horizons slightly.”

And then Nate Silver came along. Hickey began his freshman year during the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Silver, a statistician and writer known for analyzing baseball stats, started using a model driven by demographics and past vote data to project the outcome of the election. Silver began posting on his newly created blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, which takes its name from the number of electors in the United States Electoral College. Even back then, it was something that Hickey was following. “If you look at the polls, if you ignore the noise, you can find an interesting story about what’s really going on,” Hickey says. “Nate has really made that case. That sort of thing was attractive to me, so I started considering doing some math as a result.”

Hickey also tested the athletic waters at William & Mary, joining the crew team his freshman year. “Mostly, it was a thing to do. I enjoyed the water,” Hickey says. “It is essentially a sport derived from a form of torture, so it was very physically demanding. I got into what at the time was the best shape of my life and met a solid group of really cool people, who I am still friends with to this day. But crew didn’t last long.”

After retiring from athletics, Hickey found himself with some time on his hands. He joined the staff of the Flat Hat as an online editor in 2010, around the time that newsrooms were becoming increasingly digital. “It was kind of a cool time to be in a place where you have relatively nimble leadership and you can make you your own way,” says Hickey. He worked on everything pertaining to video, social media (“before people actually cared about social media stuff”) and the paper’s website redesign.

“If you are a math major and only do a math major, then you go kind of insane,” Hickey says. “So it was nice having an outlet where you can use a totally different set of skills and be with a totally different set of folks that come together to work on a fun project.”

Photo by Chris TaggertOne of those projects was a prelude to what Hickey would go on to do at FiveThirtyEight, a blend of data and journalism. The Flat Hat made a Freedom of Information Act request to William & Mary Parking Services. From that, Hickey determined where they were giving tickets and told people the best lots to park illegally based on the rate that lot got tickets. The article is still one of Hickey’s favorites.

Hickey also worked at Paul’s Deli as a cook. One night, he was working the pizza station while one of the owners, George, was in the kitchen. George asked Hickey to make a grilled cheese sandwich. What Hickey wanted to say was, “I’m not making sandwiches tonight. I’m on the pizza station.” But what actually came out of his mouth was, “I don’t know how to make a grilled cheese.”

“And as a result, I looked like a 21-year-old man-child who had never left his home, for some reason bluffed his way into the kitchen and was probably ruining this guy’s restaurant,” says Hickey. From that time on, every time George came into the kitchen, he asked Hickey to make him a grilled cheese.

A few years later, the owners of Paul’s bought the College Delly. Hickey was installing fans on the porch when George came up to him and told him they were naming a grilled cheese sandwich after him. “So if you go there and if you buy the cheapest grilled cheese, it is Walter’s Grilled Cheese because of the time I told George, the owner, that I did not know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich.”

538

“The plan was to try and work in the financial industry because that’s who hires math majors,” says Hickey. “Or the NSA, but I didn’t have the record for that.”

Hickey graduated in 2012 as an applied math major with a focus on probability and statistics. He was intrigued by the new trend he saw of journalists using data and statistics to tell stories, and he landed a gig as an intern at Business Insider before serving as a full-time reporter for the site from October 2012 until November 2013, when he became the lead lifestyle writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Since the 2008 election, FiveThirtyEight has published articles — typically creating or analyzing statistical information — on everything from sports to science to politics. It became a licensed feature of The New York Times online in 2010 before being published under ESPN in 2014. The site and Silver are best known for election forecasts, including the 2012 presidential election in which FiveThirtyEight correctly predicted the vote winner of all 50 states. During its first five years, FiveThirtyEight won numerous awards, including “Bloggie” Awards for Best Political Coverage in 2008 and Best Weblog About Politics in 2009, as well as “Webbies” for Best Political Blog in 2012 and 2013.

“When we use data available to us in things like politics and sports, you can definitely make very compelling arguments,” says Hickey. “Here’s why I think this player is better than that player because here’s the statistics. All that we’re really doing at FiveThirtyEight is taking that mindset and applying it to other things. My job now is to do that with lifestyle and entertainment. What we do, and when we do it best, is when we’re able to take something that’s interesting, compelling or funny and bring in an angle on the stats of it, where we can talk about the subject from a data perspective.”

Have you ever wondered what percentage of Bob Ross paintings contain at least one happy tree? Hickey knows — he figured it out when he did a statistical analysis of Ross’s work. The broad beat of lifestyle gives Hickey the opportunity to try new things, the type where he can inject some personality into his writing. Hickey produces a column, Significant Digits, which describes itself as a daily digest of telling numbers tucked inside the news, as well as other posts based on stats and data relating to … well, lots of things. He has analyzed everything from what makes the perfect James Bond movie to the three types of Sandra Bullock movies to the Generalized Theory of Matt Damon’s Brainy Dreaminess.

Hickey claims the biggest difference between what he does and other types of journalism is the amount of homework that goes on behind the scenes to compute the data. “I spend a lot more time than most journalists monkeying around in Excel and getting stressed out,” Hickey says. “My job has all the benefits of journalism and all the downsides of actual work.”

But the environment at FiveThirtyEight makes up for it. “Everyone here is very collaborative,” says Hickey. “We have people from all sorts of backgrounds, from longtime journalists to people who have a lot of experience with data. We have everyone on the spectrum. If I come in to work one day and I decide I want to be better at a type of stats or writing, I can talk to someone. There’s so much to learn from everyone there.

“Writing and math are not opposites,” Hickey continues. “At the core of each of them, you’re basically doing something step by step, making an argument. People are terrified of math and it’s something that people shouldn’t be terrified of. It’s a lot less intimidating than it appears.”

12

Hickey points it out again: “Athletics is not the dominant theme in my life in any regard.”

And yet, in 2014, he found himself on a football field in Florida.

Photo by Marius BuggeArmed with old gym clothes and a cheap pair of sneakers he had purchased just three days prior, Hickey was in Orlando with the crew that produces Madden, EA Sports’ premier football simulation, trying to figure out, as Hickey puts it, “What would happen if a schlub like me played in a league as unforgiving as the NFL?”

“I’m not exactly out of shape, but I’m not exactly in shape either,” Hickey writes in the article he penned for FiveThirtyEight. “I’m generally just a shape.”

Madden rates players on a scale from 0-99, basing overall scores on 43 categories, including deep passing, strength and agility. Hickey’s results? A rating of 12. He doesn’t have NFL speed. He threw the ball too low and was told he would probably end up hitting offensive linemen in back of the head … often. And Hickey couldn’t boot a ball more than 20 yards.

EA also mapped Hickey’s face for an avatar by putting him in front of 12 high-definition cameras. Hickey returned to Orlando and challenged Madden’s creative director to a game. “My avatar played just as strangely as it looked,” Hickey wrote in his article. “We’re used to playing Madden with athletes who have remarkable skill sets; they move quickly, consistently and responsively. I did not. It was like driving in the snow: You know how the car is supposed to move, but it just doesn’t behave as expected.”

Or maybe you do expect it when you have a 12 out of 100 rating.

3 drinks, 1 phone, 18 percent battery

“At some point in this job the fear of talking to people goes away. At some point, you’re like, screw it, I will just ask this person about their deepest, darkest secret. When all of your friends are like that, you have a very odd set of friendships.”

Hickey says most of those friendships began at William & Mary. When he graduated, he made a list of 20 people that he wanted to remain in touch with. The list has fluctuated over the years — some people haven’t reciprocated over the years and there have been others left off the list who he has kept in contact with. As work gets busier, as people move and as the years pass, it’s something that Hickey is proud of.

“If you had told me years ago that I would still be this close with so many folks from college, I would’ve been really surprised. It has taken work, it’s taken time. But sometimes all it takes is that I’ve had three drinks, a phone and 18 percent battery, and I’m going to call this person. I’m shocked that these people still want to hang out with me.”

5-year plan

“Hawkeye is, by far, the most underrated Avenger. Let’s just talk about Hawkeye for 45 minutes.”

We actually only spent a minute discussing Hawkeye. But later on, the more I began to contemplate the true meaning of Walter Hickey, the more I began to realize Hickey is kind of an Excel sheet-wielding version of the Avenger. So I spent another few minutes contemplating the similarities: Hickey lives in Jersey City, N.J. Hawkeye lives in Brooklyn. Just as when you hear the name Walt Hickey, the name Clint Barton (Hawkeye’s real name) conjures images of just your average guy down the street. According to Hickey, “Hawkeye is this guy who’s kind of good at something and is just going to get out there and try his very hardest at it, which I think is one of the most noble things you can do. He’s the average dude with a bow and arrow and he’s doing his best to hang in the game.”

Deep down though, neither Hickey nor Hawkeye is that average — both have their special talents. Hickey is well-versed in statistics. Hawkeye is well-versed in shooting things. While Hawkeye needed Captain America to focus his talents, Hickey found Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight. Although he still can’t kick a football.

But Hickey is doing his best to hang in the game, as he continues to tell life’s stories through numbers. “I had a five-year plan for a while, but FiveThirtyEight hired me two years into it, so there goes that.”

With the website’s most exciting time right around the corner, Hickey’s not going anywhere. “I’m so excited for the coming year with the election. Being at FiveThirtyEight is probably the second-coolest room to be in (after the room that wins the campaign). I cannot tell you how excited I am for that. The roller coaster is pulling out of the station and I am just looking to stay in it for awhile.”