The premise of a liberal arts or science degree is to get a wide range of exposure across several disciplines. The end goal being a “well rounded” education. I’ve always liked to believe that was my intent when I studied Geography two decades ago, because that simple degree was a gateway to an exciting and challenging career in GIS. The reality was more providential than planned on my part – I ended up focused on one particular part of my education to get employed: GIS. I’m thankful I never had to pump gas with my degree, though sometimes mass map printing and plotter babysitting sometimes felt like a dead-end in itself. So it was a high priority for me to build on my initial GIS training to ensure I was more well rounded in my career than I had been in my schooling.
The subsequent years have shown me that a trio of particular skills are absolutely essential for getting ahead in this industry. If you have GIS under your belt, you may already know that your training cannot end there. You must learn at least two other key kinds of tools to be truly grasping at the next rung in your career ladder.
[Disclaimer: I accept the fact that not everyone sees things as I do, worrying about being "left behind" by the technology I depend on for a living. If that's not you, then I'm glad for you, but for the rest of us we can't imagine doing just one thing and never growing. So, while I may disparage certain kinds of tasks, please don't take it personally. For those of you who are like me, for the record, the drive to keep growing, training and applying new skills does not seem to lessen with age.]
At some point you are going to either tool up or be left behind as the local plotter babysitter. Since that would truly be a Cinderella story – with your colleagues out at the party, while you’re at home scrubbing floors – we can’t let that happen. So here is what you need to learn more about.
Diversify Your GIS Skills
If you’ve only ever used one product and one operating system, you are probably already in the minority. Branch out before you wither on the vine! Many workplaces focus only on one product, cornering their employees into only delivering through their own business partner associations. But, believe me, other companies out there do give freedom and inspiration to their employees to find/use/learn/buy better tools for the job, so you better too.
Employers, please take note that if you want inspired employees, then they need room to grow outside of the stifling geobiosphere you may have them chained into at the moment. This encouragement to branch out is just as applicable to you.
Regardless of where your employer has you focused, there is really no excuse for not branching out on your own time. Of course, if you just want to punch in at a 9-5 job downtown (until they replace you with a teenaged intern fueled on Red Bull), this article is not really for you. However, if you are like me and you want to sharpen your own skills, then all the tools you need are readily available online – freely as open source or at least through trial versions or even free versions for developers. (Yes, you should start thinking of yourself more as a developer, but that’s a discussion for another day.) You can see why there is really no excuse to get your hands on some other tools and slowly pick away at learning them.
Have you only used proprietary GIS products that you learned at school? Get some open source products under your belt. Only learned about mapping data by using the latest open source AJAX slippy mappy appy platform? Dig out a desktop tool and get your hands really dirty with “traditional” tools and data you need to hammer into submission. Not only will you learn a new skill, but your (neural) biceps will thank you for the workout.
Why? Because, in this Knowledge Worker’s economy, communication matters and it has to be practised to be improved. How does having a broader skillset enable communication? You can’t expect to walk in someone else’s shoes without actually walking in someone else’s shoes. I’m not saying you need to become a pro at some particular GIS toolset, but you should know enough of the patterns that you could switch to another application without much headache. You can only learn patterns after repeated use across various products – i.e. get outside your comfort zone.
Eventually you’ll have a customer/user/boss who will ask you if you know a certain product and it usually pays to be able to say yes (and you better be able to prove you aren’t lying).
Manage Data In The Enterprise
All good starships use a database product to manage their assets, so should you. My, how the world changes in only a decade. Back a few years it was like pulling teeth to get users to move their data in relational database technology. It was even harder to find good connectivity between applications and database backends. Now we are smothered in options. Now you are smothered in options!
Are you proficient at more than just using Excel, Google Docs and Access databases? If not, then you have work to do. Cast the net around your geospatial data and get it truly harnessed. It is no longer an option to just be throwing files (zipped or not) around your network and through your email. We all know that’s not a nightmare waiting to happen, that’s one well underway!
This is not just about helping your data, but about saving your career. If you cannot tame your data into a well thought out schema, or can’t connect your latest project to a database somewhere, then you limit what your team can do collaboratively. When was the last time you had shapefiles, file geodatabases, or CAD drawing files copied to your local machine, just so you could run a process on your desktop against them efficiently? If the answer is less than 5 years ago, give it a second thought. Why aren’t these handled in a better way? It may just be some corporate policy, but it could be a “user issue”. Don’t let yourself become an issue!
I’m not saying you just need to map a network drive to a cloud service somewhere. You need an honest-to-goodness sabbatical study of database technology, so you can store, manage and even analyse (shocking, I know) your geospatial data with more finesse than you’ve ever done. Get to know databases, your CTO will thank you… or else you may not be around to thank.
Extend Your Products Online
In GIS-land, the result of all your labours is usually a map, a report or other similar data product. When we started exporting maps into 50MB PDF files, the alarm bells should have been going off. If that’s you today, then publish to the web already! Coupling your GIS and (possibly newly honed) database skills makes a powerful combination. But if all you can do is talk to others inside your workgroup, then some important players are missing from the data conversation: external customers, stakeholders, or more bluntly, your future employers.
Being comfortable with web server technology and geospatial web services is becoming more and more presumed in the marketplace. If you need a dictionary to define HTTP, Apache, TCP port, OWS, catalog service, WMS, etc. then take some time to get caught up. Attend a conference (no, a different one than usual), or view the slides and videos afterwards. Buy a book, take a course, read more blogs, etc.
Two spatial analysts walk into a bar. One knows the latest OGC lingo, the other does not. Which one will know how to request the best service?
Okay, so it’s not funny, but you get the idea – some know enough to talk about things and some do not. Which ones will be most comfortable dealing with a broader range of customer needs and which ones will quietly excuse themselves from the conversation? Open standards are called open for a reason. This is, yet another, excuse crushing reality: all the training material is sitting there waiting for you, so be sure you catch up before you have to explain why you have not.
Still just pushing out PDF files or using email to handle on-demand requests for data? For the price of a couple hours of your time per month, it’s possible to have a web presence. You only need a place where you can start to publish the results of your work for others to access, self-serve style, as-needed, 24/7/365.
First you have to get the skills in place and learn some new tools, but it will be well worth it, as any web development also turns into a living, breathing, portfolio of your skills. Your future employer will be able to see clearly what you are able to do with a few peeks at any public projects you worked on. Or, maybe, they’ll have no clue because you never learned anything beyond your desktop GIS! Let’s make sure the latter does not happen.
Transform and Roll Out
This trio of skills is targeted at you, a GIS audience, to encourage you to learn database and web services technologies. This admonition readily applies to others as well. Are you a DBA or a web developer? You need to cross-train too or risk being left to the most mundane tasks imaginable.
The combination of these skills truly puts you at the top of the stack of resumes for geospatial jobs.
Well, if it doesn’t put you on the top for a particular job you applied for, don’t worry, you probably didn’t really want that type of job anyway. Trust me.