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!


The value of questions

(I’m currently experimenting with writing about general topics going beyond geospatial. This piece, like the last one, is reposted here from my LinkedIn blog.)


“Good question,” said the geologist, “nobody has ever asked me that before. Hmm… I’d say about 30%.”

His response identified the crux of the issue – and it was much bigger than what I had been hired to investigate. I’d asked the geologist how much of his time he spend doing… geology.

Voltaire, the French philosopher, is known to have said that people should be judged by their questions not their answers. In many situations a pertinent question can indeed be more effective than the ‘right’ answer. And sometimes the most obvious questions can be the most incisive.

This is not easily done. I’ve noticed this especially since becoming a consultant. There is often an expectation that, as a so-called expert, you should show off your skills and experience by providing authoritative advice. After all, how else can you justify your salary or day rate?

But providing answers can be a problem.

If you use your expertise to simply prescribe solutions, it narrows down the options for the recipient and reduces their ownership. They will have no choice but to depend on your advice – or reject it.

This is as true for client-consultant relations as for any other relationship at work or at home. Just try prescribing ‘expert’ advice to your husband/wife or teenage kids… Now, how effective was that? Did you live to tell the tale?

Whether you’re an individual or an organisation, you should never outsource the core of your very existence: decision-making. It’s throwing your problem over the fence. It’s avoiding the tough questions that enable you to progress. It’s keeping you vulnerable, and you’ll get stuck.

Unless you’re dealing with an emergency, no problem can ever truly be solved from the outside. If you’ve got a bad back because of lack of exercise, you simply need to exercise more. Outsourcing your gym membership to someone else won’t fix it.

Business is no different. The job of a good consultant (or colleague, or boss) is to find useful questions that help people find their own answers, and then let them get on with it. It’s basically like therapy without the couch, and it can work miracles. As a client or project sponsor this is the kind of service you should be asking for – not a bulky report which nobody reads.

Projects succeed when people within an organisation are empowered to take full ownership. This works because people are intelligent enough to come up with their own solutions, given the right information. The expertise comes in helping people discover this information without judging or prescribing. For a solution to succeed it needs to be their idea, not yours.

Your expertise is to take them there – by asking the right questions.

Too busy being busy?

I love my new job: great people, interesting projects, exotic locations. When, 18 months ago, I joined a boutique consultancy I had a flying start – and I’ve had a total blast ever since. But in truth, after 15 years in the corporate world, it wasn’t an easy adjustment to make.

The challenge with the transition manifested itself particularly when working from home between office and client trips. Sat at my computer, I often felt strangely unproductive (and even guilty), despite working hard and making a difference. I first blamed it on domestic distractions – a beeping washing machine, a ringing doorbell – but that didn’t really explain the feeling. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

And then it hit me.

I missed being ‘busy’. I missed my diary filling itself up with meetings, guiding me through the day like handrails. I missed an overflowing inbox to keep me occupied. I missed having random issues of varying urgency and importance thrown at me from all directions, so I could prioritise, delegate or delay actions.

As consultant working directly for fee-paying clients I now had the relative luxury of being able to focus on just a couple of projects at a time, which was something I hadn’t experienced since I was an analyst in my early career. There was much less overhead activity to deal with, meaning my time was now free to get stuff done, rather than talk about getting stuff done.

So now, devoid of the many forms of distraction I had grown accustomed to, I actually felt anxious. I was now in control of my own diary, but afraid of wasting my time through nobody’s fault but my own. The kind of busyness I was used to had acted as a guide and protective cocoon, but it had also numbed my senses and prevented me from being truly productive. This realisation came a bit as shock as I had always prided myself on empowering my teams with a flexible and holistic work ethic. It was time to eat my own dog food.

I’ve since realised that many corporate working habits are just various forms of procrastination in disguise. Sure, in large organisations there are many lines of communication to deal with, but a busy schedule can be no more effective at making progress than wildly thrashing about in the water to cross an ocean. The effectiveness of multitasking is a myth. You either need to step up, or step back.

So now, I’ve rediscovered that a walk in the woods can be more productive than curating my inbox, or that a chat in a coffee shop can have more impact than all office meetings combined. The best ideas can arise whilst emptying the washing machine. Truly productive work comes in many shapes and forms. And as knowledge workers, there is no need for us to clock in and out of offices as if it was still the Victorian times.

What are you busy doing today?


This post is reprinted here from my Linkedin blog (posted yesterday).

When best practice fails to replicate

On a recent visit to my native Luxembourg I was presented with an old problem. Why, in many public swimming pools, is it impossible to actually swim? Luxembourg, a tiny but hugely wealthy country, has built many new pools in recent years (such as Mersch, Redange or Les Thermes). They are all lovely and shiny, amazingly clean, and offer fantastic facilities. You just can’t swim there.

Now compare this with Britain. Many pools over here are frankly dilapidated, the changing rooms are often a disgrace, and the prices exorbitant. Sure, there are exceptions to this (my favourites are in Plymouth and London Soho) but, on the whole, British pools are a pretty grim affair. And yet, I vastly prefer them to the aquatic temples of Luxurybourg.


Because the Brits, world champions in civilised queuing, have devised a simple system that enables everyone to swim properly. It just involves a piece a rope and some common sense: you simply divide the pool (or part of it) into lanes. It’s a cheap and effective way of keeping everybody happy, and it increases pool capacity many times over (each lane can fit almost as many people as a whole, unroped pool).

A best practice (left), waiting to be replicated (right). Cartoon by the author (click on image for full res on Flickr).

A best practice (left), waiting to be replicated (right).Cartoon by the author (click on image for full resolution on Flickr).

When I suggested this solution to the lifeguard in Luxembourg, he looked at me as if I’d just proposed to jump in naked. And so the locals will silently continue with their old ways, oblivious to the fact that their expensive pools could be made infinitely more usable with a few metres of rope. As in most of continental Europe, swimmer-dodging slalom continues to prevail (although to be fair, I’ve experienced exceptions in some countries).

I don’t mean to claim the moral high ground here – we are all creatures of habit, and usually fail to see it ourselves until someone else points it out. The moral of this story is that no money or resources in the world will guarantee the implementation of best practices or innovative solutions. On the contrary, comfort and wealth can easily breed complacency.

To innovate or replicate best practice, all that is required is simply a willingness to listen to others and look outside the box.




Distances on a world map: the classic geodetic blunder

This week a classic map projection problem reappeared in my Twitter timeline (thanks to @petzlux). In 2003, the Economist featured an article about North Korea’s missiles, including a map showing their purported range:

The original map by The Economist, 2003.

The original map by The Economist, 2003.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the more map-savvy readers of the publication to realise that circles on a map aren’t circles in real life, especially on a Mercator projection. Two weeks later (which seems like a long time by today’s standards) the Economist posted a correction, updating the map. And sure enough, with an alleged range of up to 15,000 km, now practically the whole world was within reach of the missiles:

The corrected map. In real life, those blue and red lines are actual circles spanning the earth's surface.

The corrected map. In real life, those blue and red lines are actual circles spanning the earth’s surface. (credit: The Economist, 2003)

This is a well-known example of how map projections can play tricks on your perception of reality, accidentally or purposefully. If you’re interested, the phenomenon of geodesic buffering is explained quite well in this Esri blog.

It is also, for example, why airliners don’t fly in straight lines across the Atlantic – they do, of course, but the map makes straight lines look curved and vice-versa. But it keeps confusing people.



Stuff that lasts a lifetime: What today’s tech world could learn from its ancestors

Last weekend an advert by mobile operator, O2, caught my attention. It proclaimed that “2 years is too long” to wait for a new phone. Customers should be “more dog” and sign up for an unlimited supply of phone upgrades.

I guess one day an archeologist will dig up this advert and understand what caused our civilisation to end. A new breed of dog will have wasted rare earth elements like a flash in the pan, all in the name of a futile and doomed quest for endless gadgets.

Technology will always progress, of course. But why do even minor, incremental improvements have to make things obsolete that aren’t broken?

The design life of so-called ‘smart’ phones and other personal gadgets is typically 18 months. This is less than a good pair of socks. The tech world is literally expecting us to replace expensive electronics more often than our sets of underwear. Are they losing the plot?

In my mind, smart technology is stuff that doesn’t need replacing until it’s literally bitten the dust. It should be built to last, and able to cope with future upgrades and foreseeable use cases until it naturally reaches the end of its physical life. At which point its components should be entirely reused or recycled.

I recently took a look around the house to see what items have survived years or even decades of (ab)use, and lived to tell the tale. What might we learn from these?

A small collection of stuff made to last.

Take my old Nikon camera. It’s the kind that takes a roll of film, lets you adjust speed and aperture with tactile knobs and dials, and delivers a satisfying “click-clonk” when you press the shutter. It’s the sound of built quality. After 10 years of taking digital snaps with conveniently lightweight but flimsy devices, I had forgotten how good the Nikon feels. But why should it now be obsolete? Digital or not, the physical principle behind photography is still the same. So why not develop a kind of digital film that fits exactly where the analog one used to go? The camera body and lens are so well-made, they’ll last forever.

Then there’s a few Swiss-made items: my self-winding wristwatch which never runs out of battery (because it hasn’t got one), a compass which will always point north (thankfully), and a pocket knife that’s been with me on every trip for the last 15 years. These devices all keep going and going because they’ve been single-mindedly designed for a specific use case, and never run out of power.

Interestingly, however, my longest-serving gadget is digital. The Hewlett-Packard 42S, a programmable calculator, has served me for over 21 years. It still does the job as well as when it first computed a least squares resection on a land survey field course in the Australian bush, all the way back in 1993. With its reassuringly solid keys and timeless design it proves that digital does not have to mean disposable.

I’m hoping my iMac, bought in 2008 and made of a bomb-proof aluminium construction, might go the same way. But I doubt it. Apple will want me to buy a new one soon and so, despite its solid build, this computer will one day choke on a reckless, one-size-fits-all OS upgrade. But what will I do with a perfectly working £1,000 machine whose only crime is not to have enough RAM? This could be fixed with a tiny piece of silicon if the design had catered for unlimited memory upgrades.

Instead we’re being offered unlimited greed, laziness and stupidity, solving problems we never knew we had, and leaving behind growing mountains of e-waste that are spiralling out of control.

Why do we inflict this upon ourselves, when quality stuff is much more fun to use, and a better investment long-term? And there is real joy in using well-crafted items: they have soul.

To achieve this with computing gadgets, hardware will have to be designed such that it is a more permanent container for disposable software, not the other way round. That kind of technology would truly deserve the ‘smart’ label. The alternative is, we won’t become more dog — we’ll simply go to the dogs.

Postscript 15/04/14: Atanas’ calculator is still going strong after 35 years!