Geospatial careers: 12 things I’ve learned… so far

This post first appeared last week on my LinkedIn blog where it received an overwhelming response (thank you!). I’m reposting it here on Georeferenced for archival purposes. As for everything posted here you are welcome to re-use it under the Creative Commons license. Feel free to comment below or, preferrably, on LinkedIn.

Greetings from the Libyan desert. (author's private collection)

Greetings from the Libyan desert (author’s private collection)

Last month, when I was interviewed on GeoHipster, people seemed to take note especially of the comments I had made on geospatial careers. So here is an extended version of my thoughts, and I’d be really interested in yours too. What have you learned?? Please add it below!

Note: By ‘Geospatial’ I mean GIS, GIM, Geomatics, Surveying, Cartography, etc. – take your pick.

1. Make up your mind: Geospatial vs X

The geospatial profession cuts across many disciplines, so you first need to decide what your professional identity is. If you are committed to a geospatial career you are basically making a choice not to be a geographer, geoscientist, engineer, computer scientist, urban planner or whatever else you might be mistaken for. If you want to be one of those things, go study their subjects and enter their professions proper – it’s much harder to get there via the geospatial route. Of course you can also be a bit of both, and such a combination is highly valuable. But the career of a geologist who has GIS skills will probably look very different to the career of a GIS professional who also knows about geology. In fact, as a geospatial professional you need to know about many other things too, being both a generalist and a specialist. You’ll work with many disciplines, providing input and joining things up (hence also the comparison with architects in my interview). So you need to be clear: Are you a geospatial professional, or a professional in another field who also has some geospatial knowledge? The difference can be huge.

2. Build a technical foundation early in your career

Geospatial is a technical profession. Whether you want to be a guru analyst, champion account manager or visionary CEO, in the geospatial domain you will have little success and credibility without a solid grounding in its technical aspects. So resist the temptation of going into managerial or commercial positions too soon. Clients can spot bullshitters a mile off, and so can your staff (but they may be cruel enough not to tell you). Get as much work under your belt as possible, looking for a diverse range of technical responsibilities. It may not pay big bucks now but it’s a long-term career investment that will pay dividends later. Besides, once you reach that coveted leadership position you may well find all that glitters is not gold. Doing stuff is often more satisfying than talking about stuff. But, just like teenagers wanting to be adults and adults wanting to be young, you may only learn this the hard way.

3. Build a unique skillset

You can’t be all things to all people. This is especially true in the geospatial domain where many ‘geospatial’ skills overlap with those of other disciplines. If you dilute yourself too much as a geospatial professional you’ll end up becoming the Swiss army knife that people only use when there’s nothing better to hand. Also, it’s not enough to be good at “programming” or “making maps”. These days, any five-year old can do that. Ask yourself, what is unique to you? Where can you make a difference? This could initially be a single skill (say, geoprocessing for environmental workflows), later growing to become a unique combination of skills. The list is potentially endless, hence the need to focus.

4. Focus

The geospatial arena is very broad and cuts across all industries, so it’s very easy to go off in different directions. This brings with it a lot of opportunities – and distractions. Make conscious choices at every step. Ask yourself: What skills am I learning to apply here? What goal will this help me achieve? What development gaps am I plugging? Don’t just fall into things unless serendipity is your chosen life philosophy.

5. Depth vs breadth

As in all technical professions you will, at some point, face an important decision between depth or breadth. Do you want to become a technical guru, or go after a more general role such as project management, sales or leadership? In some scenarios you may be able to hang on to both but that’s tough – just ask any geospatial entrepreneur or freelancer. Again, this requires conscious choices. Remember, after you’ve left the technical track for a while it can be hard to get back on it.

6. Learn ‘the business’

This may sound contradictory to some points above but OK, life is full of contradictions. It’s not enough to have geospatial knowledge, you also need to understand the industry vertical in which you are applying it. Your data analysis skills may be legendary but if you don’t understand what your clients do for a living and the specific issues they face, you’ll only scratch the surface with generic solutions and get nowhere. Google for example has the best map in the world but they have learned to leave market verticals alone – it’s a different kind of expertise, and that is where you come in.

7. Embrace the full geospatial lifecycle

The geospatial data lifecycle is long and varied, and people often get sucked into a particular area such as data management, IT development, or surveying – and end up staying there. Whatever you do, though, make sure you gain exposure to the full lifecycle, not just your immediate area of expertise. Understanding how data flows from data capture to manipulation, analysis and visualisation is critical. So from GPS to geostats, from GIS to JavaScript, stay up-to-date and try to gain knowledge across the board, even if all you can do is learn the basics. Also acquaint yourself with the softer aspects of data including legal, commercial and policy considerations. Whatever your role, you cannot afford to ignore these things.

8. Go out into the field

Field experience will immensely boost your geospatial understanding and professional credibility. Let’s face it, you can’t solve the world’s problems from behind a computer. Get out there and see for yourself what the real issues are. I started off my career as a surveyor and geodesist, but soon ended up in the office doing ‘GIS’ for a big oil company. When, years later, I finally got the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks with seismic survey crews in the Libyan desert, it blew my mind. The sights, the smells, the sounds – it all made sense. And it made me have slight regrets of not having done it sooner, and for a longer period of time. If you ever get the slightest chance to take on a field-based role overseas or closer to home, grab it with both hands while you can. The office can wait.

9. Travel and keep moving

In my opinion travel is still the best way of finding inspiration and learning. If you can somehow combine this with your career, even better. As a young student in Luxembourg and Germany I suddenly saw my whole life flash in front of me, and embarked on a drastic change. I took out a big bank loan and enrolled at a renowned university in Sydney, Australia to continue my geospatial studies there. It was the best investment I ever made, and a turning point in my life that completely changed everything that followed. If you can’t travel or relocate physically, at least consider ‘travelling’ between different industries or working for different-sized organisations – you’ll be come a more rounded professional as a result. Just make sure your CV does not end up looking like you’re suffering from chronically itchy feet. Don’t move on until your learning curve goes flat, and remember that many organisations can offer new roles and challenges internally.

10. Never stop learning, and look beyond geospatial

In my book, status quo equals decline. You can never afford to rest on your laurels, especially not with the rate of technological change we’re seeing. Having said that, don’t waste your time following hysterical technology blogs that proclaim “the next big thing” every 5 minutes. Unless you’re the next Steve Jobs you’re much better off investing your time in learning how to exploit the latest trends for your own needs. Also, find out what can you learn from other, unrelated fields. To me learning is not about collecting badges, diplomas or even CPD points. Learning happens everywhere – you just need to know what to look for. You may learn something in an art museum that you can apply to your cartography. You may learn something from your kids’ Lego set that you can use in your geoprocessing workflow. You may learn something from a philosophy book that you can incorporate into your leadership style or negotiation strategy. And most importantly, you can learn a lot from other people.

11. Learning from people

With all their strengths and imperfections, every boss I ever had taught me something valuable. When I was on placement as a grad student, the chief surveyor showed me the value of delegation by taking a risk and trusting me to do a full building site survey on my own. Another one taught me how to run a team and develop people. And so on. But don’t just look to bosses as role models. You can learn something from literally anybody: colleagues, friends, family, children, random encounters. Mentors are obviously useful too, but don’t overlook the opportunities that day-to-day interactions bring. Nobody knows everything, but you can piece together a lot by talking to different people and collecting different viewpoints (and in return share with them what you think). Learning from mistakes can also be powerful, but again don’t just blindly follow the mantras from fashionable business or technology blogs (“fail fast” etc.). A product flop may well hold useful lessons but some things, like building bridges or positioning oil rigs, are best not done by trial and error. Be open minded, but don’t switch off your critical functions.

12. It’s not about the career, stupid

Finally, let’s take a step back and consider this for a moment. We live on a small planet orbiting a star, going round and round in circles. Sooner or later this star will explode in a massive supernova. Whatever you believe in, you were probably not put on this planet to file papers, collect badges, or clock endless miles on a hamster wheel (besides, the Earth’s orbit is doing that for you already). So whatever you do, you should do it because you love doing it – not because it has better career prospects in some distant, uncertain future. Career development can take on many shapes and forms (upwards, sideways, deeper, broader) – and then one day the Sun will blow up and destroy everything you ever worked for. You’ll never regain the time wasted doing something you didn’t enjoy. A career is basically a journey where, one day, you can look back and say, that was fun! Nothing more.

So actually, forget everything I said. Go your own way. Good luck!

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Geospatial careers: 12 things I’ve learned… so far

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s